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Residual Media

by Charles R. Acland, Editor
University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 2007
401 pp., 38 illus. Trade, US$ 25.00
ISBN: 0-8166-4472-1.

Reviewed by John F. Barber
Digital Technology and Culture
Washington State University Vancouver


The current rhetoric associated with new media focuses on the "new": that which is a higher "state of the art" or an upgrade of the previous state resulting from technological or practical/artistic application of new abilities. But, what happens to that technology, media, and artifacts orphaned, or worse, made obsolete, by technological advancement, newer state of the art, or evolving artistic practices, the old, discarded, or residual media?

Residual Media, an eclectic collection of essays edited by Charles R. Acland, grapples with these questions. The contributors, representing the overlapping disciplines of media studies, film studies, cultural studies, and American studies, examine how residual media are transported world-wide where they (re)appear as "new" in different contexts, are neglected or abandoned thus creating environmental and landfill problems, are repurposed, reconfigured, renewed, or recycled as collectibles, memories, even art, or are occupying home and commercial storage space because they are seen as still too valuable to warrant disposal.

A central focus in this collection is the reigning myth of media, that "technological change necessarily involves the 'new' and consists solely of rupture from the past" (xix). The contributors argue that this myth ignores the crucial role of continuity, as well as accumulation and accommodation involved in the historical process of change from one technological state to another. New cultural phenomena, they argue, rely on encounters with ideas, technology, and uses that have been left behind by an aging culture. The result is that cultural change progresses unevenly, often introducing the familiar into novel contexts.

Essays examine an eclectic range of media: vinyl records, radio, desktop computers, television sets, telephones, sound cinema, antiquarian photography, discarded letters, newspapers, player pianos, typewriters, and mechanical reading devices inserted into a variety of practices: Internet shopping, computer disposal, planned obsolescence, recycling, vaudeville and musical performance, journalism, DJ mixing, collecting, writing, and speed reading.

Part 1, "Mechanics of Obsolescence," deals with commercial, recycling, and artistic practices for managing media material as it obsolesces. The essays in this part focus on the culture of hardware obsolescence, the persistence of cultural value in obsolete media artifacts, the role that "old" technologies/techniques can play for "new" media artists, and the potentially disruptive reassembly of the "old" and "new."

Part 2, "Residual Uses," examines strategic (re)deployments of old cultural media forms. Essays here focus on the confounding relationship between multimedia and museums, the inventiveness of new media DJs as they build musical styles and conventions based on out of date 12-inch single recording vinyl records, the entwinement of telephony and journalism, and how resistance to synch-sound film recording gave live vaudeville one last spark of popularity before it was overtaken by television.

Part 3, "Collecting and Circulating Material," focuses on the everyday domestic assembly and archiving of media objects. Essay subjects include efforts to make museums mobile through the sale of reproductions of the museum's collection, the life of saved written love letters in the context of email's disposability and its cheapening of intimate paper-bound written discourse, and the collecting of obsolete media forms like horror videotapes and vinyl records.

Part 4, "Media, Mediation, and Historiography," investigates the role of history in providing access to neglected cultural forces or unrecognized influences like the feminist press of the suffragette movement, taken for granted discourses on ideas of communities and politics that disguise their ideological import, and the genealogy of broadcasting's association with a particular set of ideas about individuals and publics, and make clear that such historical connections have a residual presence in contemporary political life.

Part 5, "Training, Technology, and Modern Subjectivity," the final section, examines the shaping of bodies and skills in relation to technology. Essays address the technological interface as one link between old and new media and its ability to establish a bodily and institutional memory as the source technology fades away. For example, the introduction of player pianos raised debates concerning performance and authenticity. Digital music prompts these same debates today.

The various essays in these five parts mark out the key issues facing cultural and media studies. They also offer insight and understanding of the life cycles of technologies, ideas, and practices associated with both old and new media.

As a collection of overlapping essays, Residual Media is an innovative approach to the aging of culture, revealing that any existent culture (and its media) ultimately dreams its successor into existence and, that, furthermore, any new cultural phenomena and its associated media relies on encounters with the old in order to become its successor.

In the end, Residual Media provides an important corrective for current discussions/debate regarding new media and its disassociation with the past.



Updated 1st October 2007

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