We would like to thank Alex Sayf Cummings for this fantastic Top Ten booklist on Media History. Alex Sayf Cummings is an assistant professor of History at Georgia State University and author of the book Democracy of Sound: Music Piracy and the Remaking of American Copyright in the Twentieth Century (Oxford, 2013). His work has appeared in the Journal of American History, Southern Cultures, and Salon, among other publications, and he is the co-editor of the blog Tropics of Meta.
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, technologies that only occasionally impinge on the course of history itself (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 (Routledge Classics, 1974)
Elizabeth Eisenstein, The Printing Press as an Agent of Change: Communications and Cultural Transformations in Early Modern Europe (Cambridge University Press, 1979)
Paul Edwards, The Closed World: Computers and the Politics of Discourse in Cold War America (The MIT Press, 1996)
Lynn Spigel, Make Room for TV: Television and the Family Ideal in Postwar America (University of Chicago Press, 1992)
Alain Corbin, Village Bells: Sound and Meaning in the Nineteenth Century French Countryside (Columbia University Press, 1998)
Susan J. Douglas, Listening In: Radio and the American Imagination (University of Minnesota Press, 1999)
Paul Starr, The Creation of the Media: Political Origins of Modern Communication (Basic Books, 2004)
Brian Larkin, Signal and Noise: Media, Infrastructure, and Urban Culture in Nigeria (Duke University Press, 2008)
Elena Razlogova, The Listener’s Voice: Early Radio and the American Public (University of Penn Press, 2011)
Fred Turner, The Democratic Surround: Multimedia and American Liberalism from World War II to the Psychedelic Sixties (University of Chicago Press, 2013)
Check out our Bookshelf at Powell’s Books.