Reviewer biography

Current Reviews

Review Articles

Book Reviews Archive




Wireless Writing in the Age of Marconi

by Timothy C. Campbell
The University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, MN, 2006
67 pp., illus. 12 b/w. Trade, $70.50; paper, $23.50
ISBN: 0-8166-4441-1; ISBN: 0-8166-4422-1.

Reviewed by Jan Baetens
KU Leuven
Faculty of Arts, Blijde Inkomststraat 21, B-3000 Leuven, Belgium


For several reasons, this is an important book in the field of literature and technology studies. First of all, it opens a completely new object of study, which had been confused until now with the much narrower field of "radio studies" or "radio theory". Despite the rapidly increasing number of publications on the cultural analysis of technology, the interest in radio, nowadays an extremely fashionable object, had never let to the reappraisal of wireless technology. Yet, the specific features of wireless transmission and wireless culture in general, cannot be denied. In comparison with radio technology, the wireless prevents from overemphasizing orality on the one hand, while stressing the role of inscription and storage devices on the other hand (it should therefore not come as a surprise that Timothy C. Campbell’s work relies strongly on a Derridean thread). Second, the book makes also a strong stance in the field of media theory in general. Rather than making the impossible choice between medium-specificity (in the narrow, almost essentialist and dehistoricized sense of the word), and media-hybridization (as postmodern or deconstructive buzzword), Campbell puts forward the necessary entanglement and cooperation between various specific media (here the main reference is not Derrida but Kittler, although not the Kittler of the great triadic periodizations, but the Kittler of the mutual reshaping of technology driven media).

Besides giving an excellent survey of our actual knowledge on the history of the telegraph, in which it foregrounds the cultural background and the stories surrounding, Wireless Writing in the Age of Marconi contains in the very first place a series of well-conceived and very illuminating close readings of some major figures and events of the Marconi-age, starting from the experiments of the years 1895-1905 and finishing with Ezra Pound’s Radio Roma broadcasts made from January 1941 to July 1943. In chronological order, the following landmarks are analyzed: the invention of radiotelegraphy by Marconi, the use of wirelessly transmitted speeches by D’Annunzio during the post-World War I occupation of Fiume, the notion of "wireless imagination" in the futurist writings of Marinetti, and the long-time companionship between Pound and the wireless that had started at the period of the early Cantos.

In each chapter, Campbell is not just interested in the historical and cultural context of the authors and the works he is studying (but even at this level, the material that he has gathered in his book is fascinating and constantly surprising). What he wants to do is tackling a number of theoretical questions, both in the field of media theory as in that of literary studies. Campbell demonstrates very convincingly the intermedial character of all media, be it the "immaterial" wireless transmission technology or the very "old-fashioned" forms of literary writing. The combination of the words "wireless" and "writing" in the title is not just an easy combination of keywords, but the very essence of how Campbell sees technology as well as literature. Wireless transmission is not dematerialized communication, but a new way of knitting new and old technologies together in environments that multiply their interactions, and literature is no exception to this rule. The most speaking (sic) example of this view is of course Campbell’s global reinterpretation of Pound’s Cantos, which he reads in the light of what was really new in the wireless: the necessity for the transmitter to create meaning by manipulating the frequencies of the otherwise meaningless and conflicting sound waves that came through the air. Digging up many unknown or completely forgotten documents, Campbell’s readings offer many new insights in the authors he is studying, and his work encourages the reader to go back the texts themselves in order to read them afresh, which is always the best compliment one can make to literary or cultural criticism.

At a more historical level, Campbell confronts also the complex question of the relationships between technology and fascism. This question is not new, yet the author manages to define quite a new approach of it, by relying exactly on what is the major point of his work, namely the mutual implication of writing and technology (of technology as writing and writing as technology). Rereading Derrida’s texts on the "apocalyptic tone" (and on apocalypse in general) as well as Rudolf Arnheim’s book on radio (one of the many rediscoveries that Wireless Writing in the Age of Marconi helps us to do), Campbell emphasizes the position of the transmitter as besieged messenger of an incomprehensible and irrational message, which cannot be but a message of death and destruction addressed to an audience targeted as mastered by an omnipresent but invisible meaning that is not to be understood but to be obeyed and to be acted out.

In short, Wireless Writing in the Age of Marconi is a challenging but very rewarding book, which fills in an enormous lacuna in our knowledge of the first half of 20th century culture and whose ideas should become dramatically useful for new research in the field of literature and technology studies.




Updated 1st July 2006

Contact LDR: ldr@leonardo.org

Contact Leonardo: isast@sfsu.edu

copyright © 2006 ISAST