Helmut Schanze ed., Handbuch der Mediengeschichte
Stuttgart: Alfred Kröner Verlag 2001, xvi, 575p
It is often assumed that the history of media would be most accurately represented in and by those same media. Yet this assumption, which supports the practice of many academics in the various fields concerned with media studies, runs one risk above all: that history as self-representation will necessarily leave out any or all of those errors, detours, breakdowns, and limitations of a given medium that shape its historicity. After all, many of the decisive shifts, combinations, and overlays in the genealogy of media technology as well as in the understanding of what media can do are owed to such interruptions and disturbances. This may only show itself by implication, or it may be indicated, at the most, by way of limitation.
The book, of course, is itself a venerable medium; many systematic and accidental shortcomings of books have been represented in books, but arguably, the book that knew everything about books - and about all that is not a book - would no longer be a book. This goes even for encyclopedic projects, such as Helmut Schanze's splendid edited volume. The age of the book synthesized multiplicity in the alphabetic, serial mode of the dictionary. It was the declared aim of Diderot's 'Encyclopedie' to work through the past as fast as possible, in order to set free a new future. But the very idea of a handbook presupposes that there is a reliable knowledge of a well-defined field - but media may not always provide such a clear-cut case; their high differentiation and the fast pace of technical innovation, as well as the rapid development of academic disciplines relating to individual media or to discourses on media, necessarily problematizes the project of any media handbook. Schanze's strategy is therefore to organize the collection historically, and to focus each contribution as a historical one. Media history as an academic paradigm has all but eclipsed (or rather swallowed) the concepts of information and communication; in Germany, the study of media from the vantage point of their material history goes back to Brecht and Benjamin, and to the first wave of mass media.
The problem is, by harnessing repetition and the flow of time, media can easily produce anachronisms. As a consequence of the way media transform the experience and conceptualization of time and place, media history itself cannot remain unaffected. This is not to cede to relativism or media historicism; the accelerations and decelerations of what this compendium understands as media history may mean that the validity of a handbook will be suspect from its publishing date. However, the collective effort in this volume to grasp the specificity of each medium, as well as the historical epochs and continuums of media history, succeeds in making broad research perspectives accessible, and providing directions for further efforts. Certainly critics arguing that the recent developments in media and media studies are too many and too rapid for systematic, encyclopedic historiography would risk handing them over to less discerning trends.
The handbook opens with a guided tour of media theory from its foundations in ontology and ideology to Critical Theory, and from McLuhan to Eco, from Deleuze and Flusser to Luhmann and Virilio. An overview of the empirical and sociological analysis of print journalism as well as film and television is accompanied by a short abstract of aesthetics from Baumgarten in the 18th century to video games in the 21st century. A short chapter on perception and cognition gives hints about illusion, perspective, camera obscura, panorama, photography, film, video-clips, and computer games. The limitations of a handbook approach are more painfully evident in a chapter that compresses the psychology of media into a fast-forward trailer that jumps from Mesmerism to Charcot, from Freud to Benjamin, and from Lacan to Sherry Turkle. Two sociological perspectives represented in detail are Norbert Elias on civilization and symbolization, and Critical Theory up to and including Habermas' Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere. Anglo-American cultural studies of mass media, and systems theory, which enjoys greater popularity in Germany than elsewhere, are offered as current alternatives in media sociology. An overlook of media pedagogy focuses on the protection of minors, on censorship and self-censorship, and on studies regarding media effects; the chapter manages to distinguish ideological critique in social policy from the assumptions of constructivism, especially when it comes to audience participation.
Media history here does not mean chronology. Those who expect to look up the dates and contexts for the deforest vacuum tube (1906), the RCA superheterodyne Radiola (1922), or the first consumer video tape recorder (1966) will be disappointed. The plurality of media histories corresponds with the plurality of media in the volume, and of multimedia study as it is practiced in academia today. Systematic approaches make clear how a chronology of media technology is not already media history - the specific and arguable historicity of each medium is not simply a product of material chronology. Thus the alphanumeric structure of a handbook may attempt a systematic overlook without being able to bear it out in each section. This handbook retains the utopia of an overview - a systematic spirit which may counter the unfettered multiplicity of media and their industrial proliferation of coverage - of perspectives, takes, views, threads, and files. Schanze aims for an integrated media history, which begins with the invention of writing and proceeds to the history of illusion in theater and forum, to various messengers between individuals as well as repositories such as the scriptorium and the library. The history of typography and reading is sketched out here, as are the developments leading to the telegraph, phonograph, cinema and television. The development of secular, then literary, and eventually professional and technical theater is told parallel to the study of musical notation, recording, and audiovisual capture. The history of visual arts begins with the magic lantern and the lithograph to discuss resolution, panorama, and cinematography, before turning to video art. The history of print comes into focus in the book trade and publishing empires, and in stories about censorship. The inventions adding up to television and cinema are not reduced, for once, to mere fallout of military technology; and the treatment of radio history is told twice - once analog, and once in the course of the history of computing (digital sound and image, storage solutions, networking) here we find mention also of the audio CD, the digital phone, the video recorder, and the advent of software, the web, and multimedia applications.
Bias towards German texts and contexts is notable only where it is indeed inevitable, namely in the sections on media law and media economics, owing to the specific situation in German media. At the same time, they are perhaps the most important contributions to a book of this kind, since media studies and the humanities in general are often woefully uninformed about the frames, codes, and practices that shape the object of their study. Freedom of the press is traced from Gutenberg to Bismarck; radio regulation comes into focus in the transition from the Empire to the Weimar Republic; and the chapter concludes with an account of the subsequent commandeering of radio and television by National Socialism, and the democratic reconstruction by the Allies after WWII. The convergence of old and new media in the computer is seen from the perspective of media law, as a product of allied occupation. The chapter does not offer comment on core issues of intellectual property, the commons, and globalization in the legal field. The fascinating chapter on media economics dates public radio in Germany to 1923, public TV to 1953, radio advertising to 1948, TV advertising to 1956, and sponsoring to the introduction of the "dual system" in the 1990s, which pits new private channels against state-run public ones.
Helmut Schanze, who put his erudition in the history of rhetoric to use in media studies, is one of the pioneers in the relatively young academic field in Germany. Since the late 1960s, he has made the University of Siegen a center for the study of screen media, and in this volume, he has assembled a competent group of contributors. They confront the task of producing a handbook of media history mostly in modest gestures inherited from 19th century historiography, hesitating to write of the recent past. Where this volume succeeds, it embeds the historicity of media technology in the sociology, psychology, law and economics of each media practice. Where limitations are evident, they are mostly owed to the inherent challenge of the project: the result is a great reference for advanced students and researchers in media studies, and a very useful book for all those who approach this subject.
University of Minnesota, Twin Cities