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Reviewed by:
  • Residual Media
  • Leah Price
Residual Media. Charles R. Acland , ed. Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 2007. Pp. xxvii + 401. $75.00 (cloth); $25.00 (paper).

How do new media age? What happens to hardware and software that have passed their use-by date but refuse to discreetly decompose? And what is the history of the idea of the new? Residual Media draws its often disparate topics together under the rubric of the "living dead": the recycling, repurposing, reappropriating, and reframing of objects that have outlasted their original context, but also, more inertly, their storage, archiving, cataloguing, and collecting. Residual Media is as interested in the landfill, that is, as in the quotation. "Reconfigured, renewed, recycled, neglected, abandoned, and trashed media technologies and practices" challenge triumphalist or supercessionist claims about the new driving out the old; in the process, they also pose an embarrassment to historical grand narratives more generally.

One great strength of the collection is the historical spread of the media in question. Some of the chapters focus on practices: shopping, collecting, storing, and discarding. Others turn to superseded objects: typewriters (Lisa Gitelman), vinyl records (Hillegonda Rietveld, John Davis), telephones (Collette Snowden), computers (Jonathan Sterne), player pianos (Jody Berland). Some focus on software, others on hardware; some on textual content (the suffrage press or plans for postoccupation Iraq), others on material media (from paper to vinyl). Touching on topics from museum gift shops (Haidee Wasson) to discontinued perfumes (Will Straw), the whole is quirkier than its parts.

Such a grab bag invites a strong editorial hand, and one of the striking accomplishments of Acland's introduction is to marry the conceptual ambition of academic cultural theory with the kind of fine-grained attention to particulars more often found on eBay. The most provocative essays in the collection itself, too, are those that consider the afterlife of things. Jonathan Sterne's cheeky self-referentiality takes as its starting-point the obvious but overlooked fact that universities periodically supply professors with new computers and trash the old ones: far from being dematerialized or disembodied, he reminds us, new media and media novelty both depend on the accumulation and disposal of rubbish. "When most people write the phrase 'new media,'" Sterne points out, "they probably think that they are talking about the newness of computers and digital hardware in contrast to other, older analog media forms. Yet . . . computers have reached a point where their 'newness' references other computers and not other media" (18). The problem of discards, he goes on to argue, is central to this shift from comparison across media to comparison within a medium. As Sterne observes, computers are usually represented as clean and sleek, where our own computers tend to confront us with "dust-covered CPUs and monitors, screens dotted with fingerprints, and keyboards darkened by use" (21). Lisa Parks offers a different perspective on "e-waste," the hardware piled up in basements, attics, garages, and landfills. Such objects, she shows, complicate distinctions between "old" and "new" media; so do new (and old) practices of salvage and reuse. Sterne and Parks both resist a logic of exceptionalism or technological determinism, tracing the short life expectancy of personal computers to the system of "yearly model change" introduced by car manufacturers in the 1920s. In both cases, the "new" is defined through marketing, and different types of consumer goods spend different proportions of their working lives classified as "new," "functional," or "obsolete." Computers (Sterne's subject) and televisions (Parks's) move through space as well as through time: the "clean" objects of the West become landfill in Asia.

Lisa Gitelman's witty essay formulates an ambitious "phenomenology of text, ca. 1883" via Mark Twain's decision to deliver Life on the Mississippi to its publisher in typescript. Where film scholars have long been sensitive to questions of media and technology, she points out, literary [End Page 418] critics have paid relatively little attention to the visual. This is all the more paradoxical given that the recent proliferation of textual formats—.txt, .doc, .pdf, and so forth—should make academics especially aware of visuality. The typescript, she argues, was to Twain's generation what the PDF is to...