Media Studies and the History of the Book


‘ve often kvetched privately over the lack of media studies in the English curriculum, but the complaint could easily be reversed. While scholars of literature and history have begun to study the printed codex as a mediated form inscribed with specific protocols for its production and use, media studies programs rarely offer classes in the history of the book or printing. In fact, a wiki on media studies resources housed at UCSB hosts a healthy list of links on television, film, radio, journalism, comics, pop music and even advertising, but not one link on the book or its related technologies.

This oversight is understandable. Most media studies programs grew out of or alongside communications or film studies, fields which have fought hard for their own legitimacy. Dropping the word “media” in the department’s title only made it easier to dump every form not deemed worthy as Literature or Art into its broad reaches. On the one hand, the cross-disciplinary nature of these departments has been fertile ground for the kind of global, comparative studies done here at CMS; on the other hand, the general lack of integration into English or Comparative Literature departments has only widened the gulf between history of the book, which focuses on the printed codex, and the media studies, which often encompasses everything but.

These disciplinary divides have become particularly clear in my own research, which attempts to marry a poetics of digital literature with a close analysis of text-generating volvelles in seventeenth-century books. While I find myself using the work of media scholars for a theoretical framework and methodology, I inevitably turn to book historians for a more detailed sociology of the bound and printed word. The two disciplines operate along parallel axes, studying similar phenomena but rarely intersecting. What can we gain by merging the vocabulary, theories and methodologies of media studies and book history?

Art, Fact, and Artifact

Earlier this month I attended “Art, Fact, and Artifact: The Book in Time and Place,” the first biennial conference of the newly-formed College Book Arts Association, hosted by the University of Iowa Center for the Book. In addition to the usual scholarly panels, the conference featured demos on printmaking, papermaking, platemaking and other book arts, as well as portfolio reviews and (my favorite) several different exhibits of some of the most gorgeous artists’ books I’ve seen. Although (to my knowledge) I was the only attendee from a media studies department, the conversation both within and outside the sessions kept returning to themes media scholars know well: namely, how can a detailed analysis of form shed new light on the content’s message? What is the relationship between text and image in a multimedia delivery technology? And what happens to a medium like the book when it’s translated into another, like the digital archive?
Media historians have much to contribute to these debates. Encouraged by the work of Lisa Gitelman, Erkki Huhtamo and our own William Uricchio, among others, we’re increasingly developing a sophisticated vocabulary for theorizing periods of change – a form of media archaeology that unearths what Siegfried Zielinski terms the “deep time of the media.” Of course, book historians do this, too. In the keynote address, Randall McLeod analyzed the systematic dog-earing of Richard Bentley’s 1732 edition of John Milton’s Paradise Lost to reconstruct the binding process and, in doing so, read the literal strata of the book as a deep history of its own production. He went on to identify pages used as blotters that then (in a complete negation of its blotting purpose) offset the blotted text onto other pages throughout the book, linking text on the blotted page “in a long conversation with Milton.” Although he was drawing from the lexicon of bibliography, McLeod was performing media archaeology, reading the book form not simply as a container for content but as integrally enmeshed with the poem and even, in some sense, the poem itself.

The relationship between form, text and image was a common theme throughout the conference. In a panel on the “Visual Culture of Books,” David Berona identified several woodcut novels from the 1930s and ’40s, a form of visual narrative that Scott McCloud has called the “missing link” in the history of comic books. Later, Julie Melby surveyed 400 years of books that combine word and image, from Giambattista Palatino’s 1540 study of writing through late-nineteenth-century illustrated works. Often panelists linked earlier or alternative book formats to new media, as in Gregory Prickman’s talk on the social networking aspects of sci fi fan zines from the 1930s or my own talk on the relationship between text-generating volvelles and digital poetry. Yet few of these books or their potential connections to new media have undergone sustained study. With its developing vocabulary for understanding visual culture and interactivity, media studies can help excavate and understand aspects of the book otherwise lost to a field still centered on the study of author(iz)ed texts.

Digital humanists could also contribute to (and, as Matthew Kirschenbaum points out in his latest book Mechanisms, learn from) the ongoing discussion on the changing role of books, bibliography and editorial practices on the web. Nearly every panel I attended featured some discussion of the digital archive, with several talks devoted to it exclusively. For instance, Manuel Portela talked at length about the limitations of an archive such as Artists’ Books Online, which, among other problems, presents only one page of a book at a time. Certainly the digital archive elides much from the physical book – for instance, moving parts in books are completely lost on the screen – but I’m beginning to sense the danger of over-emphasizing the importance of the “original” book or media form. Instead of expecting the archive to fully reconstruct the experience of the original, a media studies approach might frame the archive as a remediation of the book form, which is itself a remediation of previous iterations of the text. As Jessica Despain pointed out in a panel on various digital humanities projects, editors and librarians need to approach the online archive with bibliographic principles in mind, being upfront about their editorial decisions – and, I would add, scholars must integrate an analysis of online paratexts into their interpretive work. Media scholars acknowledge that technologies don’t exist in a vacuum, and book historians know the rare book room is not a neutral space. Readers always exist in socialized, institutionalized environments. The web is simply another space we need to learn how to read, and how to discuss.

Symbiotic disciplines

As we continue our ascent into the Digital Age, the book will and already is being radically recontextualized, even as it continues to exert an influence over how information is presented and transmitted in online spaces. While historians of the book have developed models for the production, circulation and consumption of the printed word, media scholars can contribute a global, comparative analysis of media change and transition across multiple expressive forms. It is crucial that we continue to chip away at the disciplinary boundaries through conferences such as the CBAA meeting, or by continuing to support the study of the book in interdisciplinary programs like CMS. In this way, we can begin building upon the deep similarities between the two fields, while establishing a shared vocabulary for discussing media art and artifacts.

Whitney Trettien

About Whitney Trettien

Whitney Trettien is a scholar, creator, and teacher whose work weaves together archival research and creative use of technologies. She has a PhD from Duke University, an MS from MIT, and is an Assistant Professor of English at University of Pennsylvania. Before moving to Penn, she taught in the Department of English and Comparative Literature at UNC Chapel Hill. Thesis: Computers, Cut-ups and Combinatory Volvelles: An Archaeology of Text-Generating Mechanisms


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