Historians have always had a tough time writing about media. The danger of technological determinism tends to loom over any discussion of technologies such as television or the Internet—the risk of arguing that a particular medium or device causes people to behave or think a certain way. That fear has been present since the earliest days of media studies, when the War of the Worlds and the pioneering audience research of Paul Lazarsfeld and the Bureau of Applied Social Research in the 1930s raised questions about the “effects” that mass media had on people, both as individuals and groups. Meanwhile, the power of Hitler’s megaphone implied that people as a mass were pliant, susceptible to a sort of top-down manipulation that sits uneasily with most historians, with their concern for contingency, complexity, and agency in the past.
Media have often been something that happened behind or adjacent to the serious stuff in history. Such technologies only occasionally impinge on the course of human events—think of the Kennedy-Nixon debate, or the yellow journalism of the Spanish-American war. However, this hardly means that historians have entirely neglected media. Following the pioneering work of Raymond Williams and Elizabeth Eisenstein in the 1970s, several waves of fascinating historiography have grappled with the complex meaning of print, radio, and other technologies. Alain Corbin even offered his provocative entry into the little-known canon of campanarian history, considering how bells resonated across the “auditory landscape” of rural France. (Anyone who remembers The Semaphore Version of Wuthering Heights can take relish in his work.)
Today, a new generation of historians are considering the rich and complicated place of media within cultural, political, and economic history. Works such as Elena Razlogova’s The Listener’s Voice (on radio), Fred Turner’s The Democratic Surround (on avant-garde multimedia), and Nicole Hemmer’s forthcoming Messengers of the Right (on conservative media) promise to tell us much about the manifold ways that technologies of communication intersect with the politics of art, class, gender, race, and other dimensions of the human experience.
Raymond Williams, Television: Technology and Cultural Form (1974)
Elizabeth Eisenstein, The Printing Press as an Agent of Change: Communications and Cultural Transformations in Early Modern Europe (1979)
Paul Edwards, The Closed World: Computers and the Politics of Discourse in Cold War America (1988)
Lynn Spigel, Make Room for TV: Television and the Family Ideal in Postwar America (1992)
Alain Corbin, Village Bells: Sound and Meaning in the Nineteenth Century French Countryside (1998)
Susan J. Douglas, Listening In: Radio and the American Imagination (1999)
Paul Starr, The Creation of the Media: Political Origins of Modern Communication (2004)
Brian Larkin, Signal and Noise: Media, Infrastructure, and Urban Culture in Nigeria (2008)
Elena Razlogova, The Listener’s Voice: Early Radio and the American Public (2011)
Editor’s note: This post first appeared at Daily History on August 8th, 2014. Many thanks to Clinton Sandvick and the crew at DH for soliciting the piece and allowing us to re-post here.