Charles R. Acland (ed.) (2007) Residual Media.

Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press. ISBN 0-8166-4472-1.

Adam Bryx

Written in 1958 by Samuel Beckett, Krapp’s Last Tape was inspired by a radio broadcast Beckett had heard on the BBC that involved a reading of a selection of his prose work by Patrick Magee. Later that year, Magee would star in the premiere of the one act play at the Royal Court Theatre in London. We encounter Krapp sitting at a small table with a tape-recorder, microphone, and some cardboard boxes containing recorded tapes. Krapp, at the age of sixty-nine, indulges in what is most probably a yearly ritual, listening to his collection of recorded birthday reflections. Box three, spool five, as is noted on Krapp’s ledger, is a recorded memory of his thirty-ninth birthday, which at the time seemingly gave him pause to reflect further back on a memory that occurred either ten or twelve years earlier. The fragility and unreliability of memory as a stable epistemological category doubtless provides one through-line in Beckett’s oeuvre, but what is especially interesting about Krapp’s Last Tape is the way in which a modern technological medium complicates this process. In an age where social and individual identity is already inextricably linked to technologies, it is all the more important to look at ‘obsolete’ technologies as markers or memories of social history. And far from being dead or inactive memories, residual media, like the disembodied voices recorded in Krapp’s collection of tapes, are complexly layered phenomena, more often than not still actively working to shape cultural and subjective identity.

As Charles R. Acland observes in the introduction to Residual Media, the collection offers an assemblage of research on the interrelation of media and cultural history which serves as ‘a corrective to contemporary scholarship’s fetishization of the “new”‘ (2007: xix). The methodological underpinnings of this corrective, of the way in which the assemblage of essays approach the ‘living dead’ of culture, responds appropriately, for Acland, to Raymond Williams’ demand that the structure of living culture ought to be interpreted through (dis)continuity so as to fall neither into the trappings of a simplistic and static cultural image nor that of the dominant and new (xxi). The authors presented in Residual Media thus strive in various ways to deploy dynamic models of interpretation that put into question the causality and linearity of a technologically inflected social history; a social history which all too often over-emphasises the role of media revolutions, for example, while implicitly legitimating technologically deterministic perspectives on social formation (xxi).

The work of Marshall McLuhan, Walter Benjamin, Pierre Bourdieu, Arjun Appadurai, Carolyn Marvin, among numerous others, are prominent touchstones for many of the essays included in this collection, which derives its research, according to Acland, from ‘four overlapping interdisciplinary domains: media studies, film studies, cultural studies, and American studies’ (xxiii). Although not intended to represent a comprehensive account of residual culture, Residual Media, like Benjamin’s Arcades Project, brings into communication a multiplicity of disparate media forms: ‘vinyl records, radio, desktop computers, television sets, telephones, sound cinema, antiquarian photography, discarded letters, video “nasties,” newspapers, player pianos, typewriters’ (xxiii). Residual Media is organized into five sections. These have some thematic coherency, but ultimately read more like a convention of publication than an interrogation into specifically outlined issues. As such, the value of Residual Media rests almost entirely on the extent to which the research and theorization of the individual essays attract readers.

Part I: Mechanics of Obsolescence

Part I of the book examines the role of videocassettes, computers, and cameras. It analyzes the various ways in which such ‘old’ mediums are irreducible to static categories, such as dead or obsolete media. Instead, these types of media continually inform societal formation as place holders of historical information and markers by which innovation, in the form of new commodities, is both assessed and defined. For instance, in his article ‘Embedded Memories’, Will Straw describes how mediums such as the internet and videocassettes function as tools of orientation or instruments ‘for cultural way-finding’ (6). Videocassettes offer expressive residues of cultural identity, what Straw terms an ‘institution of cultural memory,’ preserving the performative failures of actors such as Charlie Sheen, Harvey Keitel and Mickey Rourke, who retained their (in)visibility in this way and ‘ensured that that they were glanced over by customers at each visit to the video store’ (8). The value of new media, Straw contends, is to be found in the way it renews the life of older artifacts by complicating history: since technologies often rely upon each other, new innovations necessarily make the relation of old to new and new to old ‘more richly variegated and dense’, which reduces ‘the sense of relentless change’ that often accompanies new media technologies (12).

Relating to Straw’s diagnosis of the pace of innovation and subsequent perceived obsolescence of technologies, Jonathan Sterne, in ‘Out with the Trash: On the Future of New Media’, also puts into question the way new media technologies are defined by their predisposition, as it were, for future decomposition. In the case of computers especially, it is our perception of their disposability that marks ‘one of the truly distinctive features of new media in our age’ (18). Sterne is quick to point out that the newness of a technology is, more often than not, defined in relation to other media, rather than within a given medium – which explains why each computer innovation is trumpeted as a revolution. This distinction serves as a framework by which Sterne is able to put into question the rhetoric of ‘halfwayness’ of most new media (planned obsolescence) as attempts to only ever solve half understood problems, while omitting considerations of ‘green computing’, an ‘area that is simply written out of computer design at the moment’ (28).

Lisa Parks, like Straw, similarly equates the differentiation between new and old media as reinforcing the economic and political status-quo, especially a capitalist logic whereby structured obsolescence becomes an imperative for technology manufacturers and marketers (33). Her essay, ‘Falling Apart: Electronics Salvaging and the Global Media Economy’, examines the notion of ‘salvaging and repurposing as creative acts’, acts which make possible a set of relations concerning technology and knowledge that can be viewed as counter-strategies to the logic of innovation and consumption of exclusively new technologies (43). An example of such a counter-strategy is provided through a close reading of the Junkyard Wars television series. Admittedly, this programme is somewhat problematic given its militaristic undertones. Nevertheless, it points to a type of consciousness-raising effort which is crucial, for Parks, given ‘the growing problem of e-waste accumulation and the troubling flow of hazardous materials from postindustrial to developing societies’ (39).

As a conclusion to Part I of the book, Michelle Henning’s ‘New Lamps for Old: Photography, Obsolescence, and Social Change’, frames the relationship between new and old media and the process by which technology undergoes obsolescence, specifically photography, in the context of ‘remediation’: ‘the transformation of one medium into another, and the hybridization of media’ (49). Henning emphasises the point that when considering mediums such as tape recorders, video still cameras, and digital cameras, innovation does not simply equate to replacement. Rather, innovations are brought about through social needs and desires. As such technologies are made obsolete by presenting that obsolescence as inevitable, which shows that remediation ‘is therefore necessary to the production of obsolescence’ (53). Henning also theorizes a number of ways in which obsolete media can be re-appropriated so as to demonstrate how newness is equated to social distinction and dominance (57).

Part II: Residual Uses’

The second part of the book orients itself methodologically around genealogical analyses of particular old mediums. These include video screens, the 12-inch vinyl record, the telephone, and the Vaudeville entertainment form. Each of these chapters shows either a tactical redeployment of older media in new contexts, or how the value of the implementation of new media is still significantly dependent on dead media. In ‘”Automatic Cinema” and Illustrated Radio: Multimedia in the Museum’, Alison Griffiths traces the genealogy of audiovisual technologies in museums, from the use of video screens to computer interactives. Her essay shows how new technologies in the museum can be considered to enable recuperative discourses, such as in the case of ‘African Voices’, where the use of a large quantity of multimedia technology works to overcompensate ‘for the primitivist presuppositions it expects visitors will bring to the exhibit’ (86). The tension brought about through the juxtaposition of old and new media in the context of the museum can be seen to underscore how dependent perception is on the way in which technology inflects social formation.

Similarly, Hillegonda C. Rietveld’s article, ‘The Residual Soul Sonic Force of the 12-inch Dance Single’, conducts a genealogical analysis of the economic and social conditions under which the semiosis of the 12-inch vinyl record is transformed from its initial ‘sign of poverty, a taste of necessity’, into a ‘sign of distinction, a limited issue artefact’, requiring connoisseurship (100). In part due its affordability and its being embraced by the DiY disco scene (100), the popularity and cultural value of the 12-inch also has much to do with the replacement of traditional musicians by ‘entertaining record collectors’, as well as the resourcefulness of vinyl junkies who developed an appreciation of the tactile, hands-on quality of the record. In ‘Reporting by Phone’, Collette Snowden explains how, since its inception, the telephone has been inextricably linked to the practice of journalism. What’s more, this continues to be the case, despite perceptions to the contrary that the telephone is a dead medium. For Snowden, the paradox of the telephone concerns how ubiquitously pervasive it remains in contemporary society, and how it is nevertheless perceived as commonplace and residual (116), when in fact the telephone is still very much an enabling medium for long-distance communication, a form of communication that remains dyadic and oral (117). Indeed, the telephone remains an irreplaceable technology for media professionals as it operates as an economically cheap connector of the global network, making possible live updates for both radio and television, for example (117).

JoAnne Stober concludes part II with a historical analysis of the development of the Vaudeville entertainment form, particularly its cultural importance in Montreal and New York. ‘Vaudeville: The Incarnation, Transformation, and Resilience of an Entertainment Form’ examines Vaudeville in the late 1920s in the context of film exhibition, ‘the period when silent cinema and sound are settling their differences’ (135). Not only was Vaudeville not eclipsed by the new film technology of synchronized sound, Stober shows that it actually became the dominant cultural medium at, for instance, The Capitol in Montreal. As such, Vaudeville provides a productive example of the intersection of Williams’ conceptualization of dynamic cultural practices and the formation of hybrid forms of media as theorized by Harold Adams Innis (134-35).

Part III: Collecting and Circulating Material

Part three of the collection focuses on how ‘obsolete’ objects, museum/household art, hand-written letters, VHS tapes, and vinyl records, enter into new cultural and material relations by virtue of becoming either a part of collections, a sacred object surrounded by rituals, or a sign of cultural value in the household. This set of articles offer a variety of perspectives on different media. In so doing they place into question the category of ‘dead media’, since all the various forms of media mentioned in this section, although perhaps on the way to becoming technologically dead, nevertheless continue to have ‘live’ cultural meanings and significations for collectors and historians. Haidee Wasson in ‘Every Home an Art Museum: Mediating and Merchandising the Metropolitan’, for instance, examines art as data storage –as it is handled, classified and mounted –in the household, and as such connects to Pierre Bourdieu’s concept of ‘distinction’ through the way such art objects display cultural capital (162). Wasson shows the intersections between art becoming cultural capital in the household and the way in which museums, specifically the Met, increasingly placed importance on their gift shop during the 1920s and 1930s. The rise of advertising ushered in a ‘populist ethos of the 1930s’ (180) that saw museum art become ‘a constitutive component of home entertainment, home education, and home decoration’ (174).

Jennifer Adams’ ‘Recovering a Trashed Communication Genre: Letters as Memory, Art, and Collectible’, examines the function of the letter in an age where the personal and hand-written letter has all but been eclipsed by faster and more efficient technologies of communication. Still, far from being merely a communicative technology, the historical letter is important in that it holds fragments of life experiences –of the representational self that writes ‘I’ (187) –that are extractable as ‘the phenomenological experience of presence with another through the negotiation of temporal and spatial absence’ (189). Adams will contend that the letter contains traces of what Benjamin termed aura, since the function of the letter historically can be traced to the way it is implicated in art, collectibles, and memory (197). Kate Egan’s article, ‘The Celebration of a “Proper Product”: Exploring the Residual Collectible through the “Video Nasty”‘, provides a corrective approach to recent scholarship that downplays the value of VHS in analyses of video collections. Egan specifically shows how the value of the laser disc and DVD format videos are privileged, almost exclusively, in the work of Barbara Klinger and Charles Tashiro, at the expense of VHS videotape, and how this negates any possibility for the latter to acquire its own format-specific value (202). In theorizing the collection of video-nasties (that is, rare editions of tapes in the horror genre) with the help of critics such as Benjamin, Egan explains the importance of discursive knowledge to the ‘insider’, who becomes intimately aware of technological details, such as ‘video labels, different video versions, and original or rare videos’ (206). Unlike the contemporary practices of collecting DVD and laser discs, where most of the behind-the scenes extras and special editions are advertised and marketed by distributors, the insider who collected VHS nasties had to have a more active and interrogative role in relation to distributors and other collectors in identifying and locating the value of particular titles (208). The material practice of collecting VHS nasties thus has as much to do with identifying and locating the ‘the most complete or uncut version’, as it does with a ‘conception of the collection as a historical information source’ (208).

Working along the same lines as Egan’s study of VHS format videos, John Davis outlines how the practice of collecting vinyl records requires further analysis in the study of residual media. In ‘Going Analog: Vinylphiles and the Consumption of the “Obsolete” Vinyl Record”‘, Davis shows that vinylphiles, like collectors of VHS nasties, ought to be considered part of a medium-specific culture with its own practices and rituals. Of course, in most cases the vinyl record is considered to be technologically obsolete in the context of digital music mediums. However, there are groups, such as analog audiophiles, who still consider analog to be ‘a superior medium for recording sound’ (227). The cultural value of vinyl records is therefore very much alive in the way vinylphiles both actively salvage, recover, and collect records, and perform auditioning rituals as a method by which to verify the quality of records (231). At stake in this article is the manner in which vinyl records become sacred objects surrounded by various rituals, collecting and hunting practices, and the specialized knowledge that imbues each record collection with a type of uniqueness (233).

Part IV: Media, Mediation, and Historiography

The fourth part of the book includes three historically oriented articles. These trace out the development of print media, community informatics, and broadcasting media as they relate to the development of specific communities. Maria DiCenzo and Leila Ryan’s co-authored article, ‘Neglected News: Women and Print Media, 1890-1928’, examines some of the key concerns regarding why particular types of politically-oriented newspapers and periodicals have been omitted from historical accounts of print media. Feminist and suffrage media are especially significant for DiCenzo and Ryan, since they are crucial to ‘shaping opinion and establishing and mobilizing large- and small-scale activist networks and reform campaigns’, while methodologically they can be seen as challenging the ‘dominant narratives of press and media history’ (240). For instance, British press history privileges class politics over gender politics, and in so doing excludes a historical account of suffrage and feminist print media that relates importantly to the way in which the print media at the turn of the century was undergoing economic and political changes (243). DiCenzo and Ryan also point to a tendency to equate suffrage newspapers with a purely propagandistic function, when in fact such media often had a ‘broader agenda of social and political change’ in mind (246). DiCenzo and Ryan’s corrective to the history of print media re-introduces the importance of women’s voices and the manner in which feminist and suffrage media were implicated in political and economic struggles and changes (253).

James Hay’s chapter, ‘The New Techno-Communitarianism and the Residual Logic of Mediation’, adopts a political perspective on the function of media, using the example of post-occupation Iraq in order to examine how technological networks of communication and media mediate the community (258). This set of relations – community informatics – interacts with the construction of a virtual geography as it relates to notions of citizenship, institutions, and local governments (271). Hay’s conception of community informatics takes into account the function of community within the ‘changing relation between government and economy’ (277), while those community relations at the same time constitute a ‘power-geography’, a model of governmental technology (280). Indeed, Hay’s observations regarding how technological media intersect with the community can be seen as a counterpoint to contemporary deployments of Foucault’s conceptualizations of government, communication networks, and discursive knowledge in general. Meanwhile, James Hamilton’s article, ‘Unearthing Broadcasting in the Anglophone World’, traces the genealogy of the development and implementation of broadcasting: from its linguistic roots in the 1700s, its subsequent implementation as an abolitionist campaign by Christian fundamentalists in America during the 1800s, through its militaristic employment during WWI, to its more modern-day function as an entertainment medium. Hamilton’s genealogical through-line constitutes an assessment of the relationship of ‘the articulation of agriculture and media practice through “broadcasting”‘, one which is more than merely linguistic or metaphorical (283). Broadcasting in this sense is a spreading of both seeds and messages, both of which hold importance to the historical genesis of the technological medium and the way it is implicated in capitalism and consumerism (283).

Part V: Training, Technology and Modern Subjectivity

The last section of the book looks at technological media and how they mediate modern and contemporary forms of subjectivity and constructions of knowledge. The piano, typescript, and the tachistoscope are all traced through their historical geneses and the way they affect various types of performances analysed, from authorship to reading abilities to creative expression. Jody Berland’s ‘The Musicking Machine’ examines the piano as a form of human-machine interaction that, unlike the washing machine, typewriter or computer, lends itself more evocatively to analyses of ‘time, embodied memory, and the “technologies” of creative expression’ (304). In tracking the technological development of the piano, from the first appearance of the upright piano in England in the late 18th century, to the early 20th century when the radio caused a significant decline in piano production, Berland interrogates the issues of pre-recorded musical content, the transformation of the music medium through digital innovation, and the contemporary phenomenon of simulated performance. Berland’s article draws on McLuhan’s conceptions of media and technological change by probing into the blurring distinction between human and mechanical expression, and the interrelated issue of artistic agency. Lisa Gitelman’s ‘Mississippi MSS: Twain, Typing, and the Moving Panorama of Literary Production’ provides a close reading of Twain’s typescript technology in order to describe a ‘visual culture of textual production’, a type of visual economy that draws from the residual as well as the new forms of media that constitute the processes of authorship and publication (330). According to Gitelman, the importance of the transition from handwriting to typescript (and the difference between the authorial and publication processes) makes up ‘a varied phenomenology of text’ in the late 19th century, something which reflects a ‘a new sense of letters and of texts as differently pictured in different states and conditions’ (341).

Sue Currell’s ‘Streamlining the Eye: Speed Reading and the Revolution of the Words, 1870-1940’, also deploys a phenomenological analysis. Currell investigates how mass media affects the performance of the reader, and how those affects become residual imprints on the human or within an ideological conception of the human (344). The specific issue at stake in Curell’s article is how reading performance became mechanized so as to improve reading speed and comprehension, something upon which the success of the book depended. The standardization of rapid and streamlined reading techniques would become a crucial concern in training the mind to avoid the ‘possible mental fragmentations’ of modern subjectivity and, for the postmodern subject, teaching it to cope with ‘loss of control over language’ (357).

In addition to writing the introduction to the collection, Acland also concludes it with his article ‘The Swift View: Tachistoscopes and the Residual Modern’. As a point of departure, Acland relates how popular films such as A Clockwork Orange, The Parallax View, and Disturbing Behaviour reiterate situations of ‘force-feeding screen images’ which relate to a ‘mode of mind control’ or ‘machine instruction’ (361). Originally an apparatus intended to measure ‘the speed with which visual stimulus is recognized’ (362), Acland reflects on the diverse ways the tachistoscope reconfigured modern knowledge and life through its deployments in teaching, militaristic, and marketing contexts (379).

As Acland points out in the final paragraph of his introduction, Residual Media is not intended to constitute an encyclopaedic project; rather it marks out some of the crucial issues in cultural and media studies. It offers a panoramic view of ‘obsolete’ technologies and continually insists on the way in which these technologies continue to bear material significance, especially for cultural and media history. As he suggests, such media carry along with them a life cycle, but a life cycle that is not simply reducible to a viewpoint of technological determinism. Indeed, as Jean Baudrillard might say about Krapp’s Last Tape, a question of simulation arises due to the manner in which a tape and recorder eclipse the function of the note-taking secretary: is it an occlusion of the potential for a symbolic space, of the antagonistic employer-employee relationship? Or is there a resistant model to be employed, such as the one Paul Hegarty suggests in his essay for Culture Machine (2007), ‘The Hallucinatory Life of Tape’, when analysing Krapp’s tape not only as a recording process, but also as a ‘living-on as recording’, a form of transcription, perhaps even transduction, of identity into the mechanical, where identity has become the recording as well as, paradoxically, a type of contained decay. Salvaging junk thus has an important political function. In this sense residual media offers a mode of resistance to the ideological frameworks that privilege innovation and the always already ‘new’, providing statements about how lived experience and memory (identity politics and the space of sub- or counter-cultures) interact in the interstices with the life cycles of types of media which are, as Residual Media makes clear, never simply dead or alive. Indeed, Residual Media challenges such dualisms and shows how the residual is always already iterative, like Krapp, who is continually seduced by his/its mechanic identity and memories.

Adam Bryx is a doctoral student at the University of California, Irvine, US. He has co-written, with Gary Genosko, articles on Gilles Deleuze, as well as co-translating, with Genosko, interviews and articles by Jean Baudrillard and Paul Virilio. He is currently working on a dissertation that will examine early modern England through various perspectives on transversality, from the work of Felix Guattari to Bryan Reynolds.