Yesterday and all the yesterdays there ever were have a tremendous impact on our present life, and also on our future. Media history is a relatively young area of study, but with roots that are very old. This paper takes a position on three main questions of media history and historiography focusing on two readings selected from a list of readings in the History of Media class at Concordia University.
The readings include Hans Fredrik Dahl’s “The Pursuit of Media History” and Fred Inglis’s “A short History of Public Communication.” The three questions that will be focused on first, how does history media relate to history proper?; second, to what extent can historical knowledge be objective or factual?; should it be?; thirdly and lastly, should communication technologies be the focus of media history?
History Media Relates to History Proper in a Variety of Ways:
What is good to remember is that media history is history and it relates in a variety of ways. Two of the readings in particular highlight this point, Dahl and Inglis. The media as a historical object is far from fully understood at present. However, comparing media history to the study of history proper does aid in understanding it better.
According to Dahl, when compared to church history, media history shares some of the qualities of this older discipline. Above all, the complexity of objects, ranging from economics to culture, and of methods, spanning from hard number counting to text analysis and soft hermeneutics. But in other respects media history lacks just those qualities that blessed the older learning, that is, a clear thematic identity and great depth in time.
The communication historian is a historian engaged in uncovering the communication aspect of any broader social process. Communication history is part of the mainstream of history because its subject matter is integrated into the general currents of history and cannot be separated. Media history is a branch of history dealing with institutions of a particular type that are distinguished by much more specific purposes than the overall quality of communication.
Inglis says that to speak theoretically is to speak of understanding as a goal. And there are three stages of this – puzzlement, deliberation, and understanding. This relates the history of media to history proper. Inglis also notes that the first 5,000 years of media emphasizes that to attempt media theory is to bring together the history of ideas and the history of economic production.
History relates to history proper in a variety of ways, such as in the way that it relates to church history. The communication historian looks at the social process in a way that many other historians do, and the theory element of it is supposed to ultimately lead to understanding, which is the goal of history proper as well.
Historical Knowledge is not Objective and it should not be expected to be:
Objective means to deal with facts or objects, not with the thoughts and feelings of the speaker, writer, painter, etc. It means to be impersonal, like a science. As it deals with dates, it is indeed factual, but the very nature of a telling a story which history involves, makes it more subjective than objective. Even in universities the way history is classes as a humanity rather than a social science, alludes to its more interpretive nature. Although as was mentioned in class there is a move towards social science history, popular history as most people know it and was educated by it is classed in the humanities.
Theory is a storytelling that explains things – it is not factual or objective. Even in Dahl as he encourages the historian to use theory as a scientist uses hypotheses for one’s own work, there are still possibilities and alternatives in the discussion of the events disclosed.
Inglis highlights the point of theorizing that is important to the objectivity or factual nature of media history. It is an attempt to create an objective truth, but is indeed a way of storytelling. Inglis concludes that media history is a telling of a story – what is the temptation to make a story more interesting by the storyteller, in logic, observation, deduction and so forth – brought about by writing and reading is a question raised by Inglis. Inglis mentions Walter Benjamin and something he has written called “The Storyteller.” He wrote this sometime in the 1930s and states “the art of storytelling is coming to an end” (83). I would disagree with this. There is a tendency towards being an alarmist. The nature of storytelling has bloomed since the 1930s many more voices of colour have had a chance to tell their historical stories. Certainly the art of storytelling is not coming to an end, but has had many new beginnings.
Media history is not objective, or history in general as it is more popularly known, and it should not be expected to be. Essentially the historian, or storyteller, gets facts with dates, but much of the rest is an interpretation of events, an attempt of chronology that in some cases can be difficult to prove. Reading as much history as possible, from different perspectives, may indeed bring about some semblance of the truth.
Communication Technologies Should Not be the Focus of History:
Dahl says what historians tend to do is to write particular histories of particular media, and nearly always prefer to do so within the frameworks of particular national states as well. Media history or communication history has a lot to do with technology, and there is a tendency for it to be concentration on that technology. Everything from oral storytelling to the multimedia environment with DVDs that we live in today is the gamut of communication technologies that exist. Although these technologies are important to understanding media history, they should not be the focus of history. There are other elements as well.
Inglis points out that is monomaniacal to provide one notion of a theory in the babble of radio and television and the communication technologies of these times. Inglis notes “my potted history shows that books changed the mind of Europe in the space of a century” (15).
Media history should not only be focused on the technologies it, but also on the people involved with these technologies, and the culture at the time.
By analyzing two articles coming out of the history of media class, a position was taken on three questions raised earlier by the professor of the class, Bill Buxton. Media history relates to history proper in a variety of ways. Historical knowledge is not objective, and it should not be expected to be. Also, communication technologies should not be the focus of media history. These questions that were raised many yesterdays ago and answered in this position paper will lead to an individual growth of understanding on media history and historiography.