More Media History

This last weekend's conference had me thinking about the rhetorical gambits that papers and questioners alike use, in part because the type of gambits common to this conference seemed to me to differ from those I see in textual study and theory conferences. Of course gambits aren’t wrong necessarily. Knowledge production, at least and especially in the humanities, proceeds by rhetorical means. But a little self-reflexivity about are argumentation never hurts.

First, there's the evidence gambit: Inductive reasoning is (or maybe should be) the bread and butter of what media historians do, so it makes sense that Q&As should proceed with examples, counterexamples, and those stubborn bits of evidence that beg explanation. At the conference, a surprisingly high number of questions were of this nature (what about Cinerama? What about Shirley Temple's star image?)… surprising at least to someone from a theoretical background, where the questions are often based on differences in axiomatic assumptions or on logical procession of argument. I kept wondering, though, if larger disagreements weren’t being disguised as evidentiary issues, i.e. if the inductive reasoning was in fact sheep’s clothing for deductive debate.

The antecedent gambit: History of course not only narrates facts as events in a sequential order, but ultimately does so with an eye to explanation, usually of a causal nature. But it was remarkable how many papers and how many questions assumed that revelation of a historical antecedent itself provided that explanation. It can, but a few factors mitigate:
  • there could be formal or surface similarities between media texts from our perspective today that were not understood as continuous at the time (this is my argument about 30s vs. 40s problem films);
  • there might be a willing and distorting homology of surface tendencies for otherwise unrelated texts;
  • there could be a “lost history,” ie. an intervening time of discontinuous relation between texts where the second instance reinvents the wheel (Scopitones and music video, say);
  • there all sorts of antecedents, so that a proper explanation should focus not only on the text’s appearance/prior appearance but also ask why the alternative antecedents do not appear. The further the historical gap (one paper mentioned antiquity as an antecedent, another the early modern period), the more weight is on the historian’s shoulders to spell out the relation between antecedent and text.
A variation of this approach is the genealogy gambit: the tendency to pick two or more isolated moments in history and argue for some secret or hitherto understood connection to suggest these are actually the same moment. There may be well-thought out and theoretically articulated reason. Jim Lastra’s paper on sound design, while in some respects one of my favorite presentations, did just this, charting 1917, 1952, and 1979 (I think) as three iterations of a long duree of the sensorium. Which to my ear just raised the modernity thesis problems even more forcefully: if 1979 (Apocalypse Now) is ultimately expressing the same version of the senses that industrial films in 1950s did, what difference does it make that sound design changed then? Did the sensorium not change in 1970s? Did modernity inflect to some new version during that period? Was its inflection cause or result?

Alongside these methodological questions, there are a few conceptual strands worth highlighting from the conference, if only for my own reference:

“Futurism”: Ron Becker’s paper proposed that a “futurism” has aligned administrative goals of universities with scholarship in contemporary mass media, to the detriment of a longer view of television history. (Film history has been remarkably resilient.) His comment got much seconding in the Q&A, so he is clearly not alone in the frustration at the place of television history in the academy.

Transnational: I really valued Kathleen’s Newman keynote talk, particular for the clarity with which she conceptually distinguished the transnational from the international or the global. One of the questions

Culture of complaint: The label is in jest of course, but what struck me is how the conference format predisposes folks to be dissatisfied with the field. And maybe people are. But I happen to like (in some respects, at least) the methodological mushiness of film and media studies. The lumping together in one "discipline" textual/formal-oriented theory with traditional historiography provides productive challenges in addition to conceptual problems. Or for that matter television, cinema, and newer computer information-based media. Part of the fun of this conference was an ability to sit on scholarship being done in the history of radio or videotape formats or international sitcomes and reflect on how their findings might inflect my own research.

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