Following the Progression of Technology And History

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Following the Progression of Technology And History

From an almost common-sense point of view it is obvious that the phenomenon of television in American culture is multi-dimensional. Therefore, it cannot be fully understood by focusing on the act of viewing or audience activity in general, since this would preclude a consideration of the relation of individualized experiences to larger social norms and structures. Similarly, an exclusive focus on the history and structure of the institutions relevant for broadcasting--such as the major networks or the Federal Communications Commission--would preclude a consideration of the practices that surround television as a cultural phenomenon. However, most studies of television deal with one of its aspects in isolation, that is, only on one of the analytical levels mentioned above. More specifically, media histories have put their emphasis virtually exclusively on an institutional point of view. As O'Sullivan (1991, 60) points out, histories of British television tend to be more concerned with the inner workings of the broadcast institutions themselves, the BBC and ITV, their production policies and practices, their early and developing presence in the public world of post-war politics, culture and social affairs.

The same can be said of histories of American television. This understanding of history is described by Allen as 'naive empiricism' and by Fogelson as positivist history. It has an attitude of "neutral objectivity" and focusses on documents as evidence that represent historical truth. Alternative historical techniques and a new conception of the idea of documentation are therefore needed in media histories as well as other historical genres.

Fogelson poses a crucial question for my concerns with media history, "who possesses history?" (1989, 142). The postmodern historian Keith Jenkins advocates a related conception of history that is not primarily concerned with major political/institutional events and the reconstruction of the discourses of the ruling class, but instead attempts to construct cultural contexts for historical situations.

Jenkins' central question--"who is history for?(1991, 18)"--thus assumes a central role for historical research. For Jenkins, historical truth and knowledge are never objective, but constructed for someone, that is, a particular group. He sees history as a variety of potentially competing discourses about the world and rejects all-encompassing 'master histories' that give voice to privileged social groups and serve to suppress other histories as alternative discourses. The common emphasis on institutionally centered media history, for example, makes research on non-institutional media production and particularly research on the history of audiences' viewing practices virtually impossible. The silencing of certain aspects of history and significant historical exclusions are thus a predicament that is difficult to avoid.

There is no history outside [institutional] pressures, any (temporary) consensus only being reached when dominant voices can silence others either by overt power or covert incorporation (Jenkins 1991, 19).

Jenkins' emphasis on the construction of counter-histories and the writing of history as discursive struggle seems to be especially important for media history. Throughout the history of popular culture, the gaps between privileged (elitist) criticism, the media texts themselves, and the specific historical viewing practices of the audience seem to be very large. The significant differences between these discourses and the strong privileging of certain discourses makes the writing of alternative histories an important strategy for media researchers.

For this specific purpose the discipline of ethno history, located in the intersections of anthropology and history, can be of some utility, since it offers the opportunity to combine document research on a variety of diverse source materials with anthropological/empirical methods such as archeology, ethnography, and oral history. Or, as Loretta Fowler puts it:

"Ethno-historical method" refers to the process of critically examining and evaluating the evidence provided by written records in light of the insights provided by anthropology.

Similar in its interdisciplinary nature to communication and cultural studies, ethno-history thus attempts to overcome the epistemological and methodological blind spots of other disciplines.

The introduction of television into American households in the 1940s and 1950s in particular is a significant event in media history that needs to be approached from multiple perspectives. Lynn Spigel (1992) attempts to map the relation between the industry strategies and audience practices in the establishment of television further by looking at popular magazines such as Better Homes and Gardens or McCalls from the late 1940s to the mid-1950s. Advertisements for television sets and articles on interior design in relation to television both provide an important framework for the actual installation and placement of new television sets in the home. As Williams (1974) has pointed out previously, these institutional discourses were extremely careful to incorporate television conveniently into existing ideological positions. In particular, television advertisements tried to incorporate existing idealized gender roles (father is working, mother is a housewife, they have two children) and they portrayed the nuclear family as a primary social unit that would be further united by watching television.

Television was supposed to bring the family together but still allow for social and sexual divisions in the home. In fact, the attempt to maintain a balance between these two ideals was a central tension at work in popular discourses on television and the family (Spigel 1992, 37).

While most works on the introduction of television still have an official or institutional focus, they come considerably closer to the practices of actual audience members than the positivist histories Fogelson describes. Since advertisements to some extent need to reflect the tastes and preferences of consumers they are much less imposing patterns of media use on the audience. Nevertheless, they certainly do represent desirable lifestyles and behaviors from the perspective of the television industry and other dominant social forces. For the most part media history thus again privileges industrial discourses and underestimates the importance of audience activity. Warren Susman's warning that cultural historians should not, like military historians, overemphasize the point of view of the powerful or the victors thus gains even more relevance.

Instead, Susman calls for audience resistance as an alternative focus for media research. The relation of the institutional definition of communication technologies to its appropriation in the household is the focus of some recent ethnographic research by Silverstone, Hirsch & Morley (1992). Their concept of the moral economy of the household is centrally concerned with how a commodity is bought and incorporated into a household and how it is converted to suit the family's household routines or individual practices. It is thus assumed that communication technologies can be and are regularly converted in their daily use, while institutional discourses attempt to define appropriate uses.

This illustrates Sahlins' (1981) more general remarks on the relation of structure and change in society. While human actions--including the use of technologies--emerge from a specific structure and attempt to reproduce this structure, there is no determining relationship between structure and practice and it is possible that "what began as reproduction ends as transformation (Sahlins 1981, 67)."

In terms of the introduction of television, this still leaves open the question of the power balance between the social and industrial structures and the practices of actual television audiences. While there is some understanding of the institutional forces in the introduction of television, it remains unclear whether and how these forces are effective in a specific social context.

Oral history is one of the approaches that tries to address the problem of accessing historical sources for groups that are not the focus of political or administrative institutions. Thompson (1988) points out that the more personal, local, and unofficial a document, the less likely it was to survive. The very power structure worked as a great recording machine shaping the past in its own image.

He is confident that through the use of oral history communities can be given their own historical voice. Fogelson (1988, 136) agrees that oral history can aid significantly in the interpretation of written documents. While I would argue that it is dangerous to assume that through the use of oral history all power relations that are usually involved in the writing of history will disappear or that personal memory is an unproblematic concept, I certainly agree that oral history is an attractive way of approaching the lived experiences of historical groups or subcultures that are usually very difficult to access.

Two media historians have recently approached historical radio and television audiences from this perspective. Tim O'Sullivan and Shaun Moores both address the problem of "how television viewing cultures became established" from the audience's point of view. While these approaches certainly provide additional historical information about the introduction of new media--radio and television--in the home, they also tend to replicate the findings of institutional histories and cannot fully illuminate the issue of audience resistance.

It seems very significant that all major historical accounts of the introduction of radio or television into the household came to similar conclusions: The institutional forces at work in the introduction of new media were able to familiarize the technologies and subsequently advanced the restructuring of household activities. However, the two exploratory oral histories that are available so far very likely do not offer sufficient evidence for a clear determining relationship between institutions and audiences. As Silverstone et al.'s (1992) more conceptual research makes clear, people's relationships to new technologies are more complex than either institutional or oral/alternative histories can account for right now.

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