Communications History, Part 2

This Monday, over Twitter, I received an unexpected bit of feedback to last week’s post on Communications History from the Henry Ford Museum‘s Suzanne Fischer:

@retius Just read your comm history call to arms--I'm a little confused why you don't situate your work/interests/methods w/i hist of tech.

In writing the post, doing some pre-writing for a field statement I’m working on for school. I wanted to try to express in words why I choose to privilege communications, and to define what I meant when I said I was doing so. While I had hoped the post would be read and that feedback would be offered, it was a pleasant surprise to have it come days later over Twitter. I had several initial reactions to Dr. Fischer’s feedback:

  • First, I was a bit embarrassed that I had so underplayed the importance of the  history of technology to my thinking on the topic. A very large number of the books on my bookshelves fall under the history of tech rubric. The exhibit that I recently helped curate, on postal systems technology, is very much informed by a history of technology viewpoint– I was interviewing engineers and even had machine schematics hanging over my desk. And I would very much also argue the story that it tells is part of communications history. I think I had thought that the connections between the kind of communications history I’m advocating and the field of history of technology were more implicitly obvious than they actually are, upon re-reading the post.
  • I also felt that, in my experience, historians of technology tend to privilege the science community, business concerns, and legal issues that shape technological development– sometimes to the expense of users. I recalled going to several telecommunications-related panels at a SHOT conference where I heard a lot about Bell Labs, packet switching, and the like, but almost nothing on customers or users.
  • Finally, I just felt there was an ineffable difference between the two. Certainly communications technology deserve to be part of the literature of a history of technology, but to me there just seemed some hard-to-identify difference, something special about communications that made it somehow a little unique, a special case within technology. This was the hardest reaction to express and impossible to defend, but it was also the deepest-felt.

As is often the case on Twitter, the question quickly sparked a lively and very helpful conversation. Dr. Fischer and myself were quickly joined by Shiela Brennan of RRCHNM and Trevor Owens of NDIIPP.

I had expressed concern that people might not consider things like early nineteenth century mail systems “technology” per se, and that much of postal history is written by postal historians (something I regretted while researching for the above-mentioned exhibit.) But I was actually told that there had been several postal presentations at the most recent SHOT conference— something I was encouraged and excited to hear.

It was also pointed out to me that there is much more of a literature on users than I had been aware of within the history of technology community, and I was recommended several very interesting books on the topic that I look forward to reading. And yet that feeling that there was an ineffable difference persisted– while historians of technology may indeed deal with users, surely there must be a significant qualitative difference between, say, users of electric razors or polio vaccines, and participants in the republic of letters? Of course, it was then pointed out to me that the written word itself is a technology, and must be thought of as such, and not falsely naturalized.

As the conversation wound down, I was still not satisfied that communications history should be seen as necessarily a subset of the history of technology– there was that can’t-put-my-finger-on-it feeling still there. But I did have a lot of new ideas to explore about the intersection of the two, lots to read, and lots to mull over. (When Twitter is collegial and helpful it’s truly an amazing thing.)

Ultimately, I ended up simply asserting that, to my mind, it was an issue of tent size, so to speak.  The history of communications is a very large topic, even if it fits within the auspices of the history of technology. While it is imperative that communications history draws from history of technology, and while there is certainly a place for communications media within the history of technology, it is a large enough and important enough topic to warrant discussion as a discrete thing. Similarly, the advent of gender studies didn’t obviate the need for women’s studies. Every square is a rectangle, but not every rectangle is a square.

And yet, even that answer didn’t fully satisfy me. I still felt there was some fundamental difference. I still suspected that ultimately, it wasn’t like women’s studies. It was intersectional. Historians who study African-American women can’t be satisfied to draw just from women’s history, or from black history. They have to draw from both, because their subjects lived within both experiences. African-American women aren’t off-limits to historians who focus on women’s history or black history– they just have to be mindful of that intersectionality and not be reductionist.

I’ve been trying to figure out why I felt that way, trying to justify this suspicion, ever since. And after a few day’s thought, I think I’ve figured it out.

The issue, as I’m coming to see it, is that there are a whole host of comunicative cultural practices that are difficult to shoehorn into the category of “technology” that are nonetheless very much a part of communications history as I’m conceiving it. (It is also important to remember that the point of these posts is not to prescriptively assert subdisciplines as discrete items, but for me as a PhD student to better articulate the scope and shape of my own specialization. Communications history as I conceive it is essentially all that matters, ’cause I’m trying to hone my own conception, here.)

To give some examples of such phenomena from works that engage with what I think of as having a place in the historiography of communications history:

  • Parades, toasts, and parties. David Waldstreicher’s In the Midst of Perpetual Fetes discusses the use of parades, toasts, and parties as communicative acts that helped to reinforce national unity and identity in the early republic. Of course, the utility of doing so is deeply contingent upon use of these events to shape discourse within the emerging news media, which was growing precipitously at this time, but while communications technologies were used to broadcast the events and reinforce their import, I would feel uncomfortable describing a toast or a parade as a “technology.” They are social practices with deeply communicative intent.
  • Blackface and racial melodrama. Beyond the “technology” of using burnt cork as make-up, blackface is not a technology. It’s a mode of cultural expression– a deeply problematic and revealing one, and one that WT Lhamon Jr. argues ably in his Raising Cain has proven quite good at bridging genre, media, and time. Likewise, Linda Williams’s Playing the Race Card demonstrates that racial melodrama– an understanding of racial relations and identity deeply entrenched in the narrative conventions of melodrama– is a “wonderful, ‘jumping’ fish,” one that has bridged media and been a dominant narrative in American entertainment since Uncle Tom’s Cabin. This is a coupling of a dramatic/narrative mode with a set of cultural constructions– not a technology. While both blackface and racial melodrama play through media, they are not in and of themselves technology or media.
  • Stand-up comedy. In Revel with a Cause, Stephen Kercher provides a challenging, fascinating history of liberal satire during the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations. While the book is almost encyclopedic in its scope, two figures who definitely stand out are (unsurprisingly) Mort Sahl and Lenny Bruce. Both men’s careers must be framed in terms of communications technology– Bruce’s career was largely built on records, at a time when censorship of “blue” recordings had only recently decreased, and he dealt with the media ecosystem of his time– from the news media and contemporary politics to jazz. Sahl, even moreso, was a product of mass media, in that he was a direct and vocal critic of it. He read the paper as part of his routine, and gave commentary. Stand up itself was forever changed by the advent of electric amplification. But a man joking and telling stories on a stage? Decidedly low-tech stuff. But due to cultural impact, these comedians are important to understanding the media environment of their times.

…I’m sure there are debates, quibbles, and questions one could bring up with these examples and others. But ultimately, I think they demonstrate the reason for my discomfort with seeing communications history as simply a subset of the history of technology. To me, communications history is– or should be– history at the intersection of cultural and media studies on one side, and the history of technology on another. 

Of course, this is still a dramatic simplification. The history of communications also intersects with aspects of legal history, social history, economic history, and countless other subdisciplines. Every breed of historian borrows liberally from others. But I see the intersection of communicative cultural acts and the technology that mediates communication as key.

We’re also all the products of our experiences, and I’ll be the first to admit that this conviction may be the result of my education– my concentration on drama and cinema in college, my intense interest in media studies and cultural theory while getting my MA in American Studies, and finally, coming to George Mason, with the prevalence of technology in its History department.

That said, I think what I’m identifying here is a fertile little niche for historical scholarship. And my dissertation, still in the early stages of research, definitely fits within it. At the core of what I’ve been saying in these two blog posts is something I think is pretty uncontroversial– Communications is a very important aspect of the modern world. And I would like to see even more scholarship on it.