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Reviewed by:
  • Residual Media
  • Megan Mullen (bio)
Residual Media. Edited by Charles R. Acland. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2007. Pp. 401. $75/$25.

Residual Media comprises nineteen scholarly essays examining our relationships with media technologies that no longer could be characterized as "mainstream." Editor Charles Acland does a superb job of laying the foundation for these essays in an introduction that not only previews the work of each author, but builds a sophisticated, thoroughly researched, and theoretically unifying argument about society's fascination with media that [End Page 506] have fallen out of use. He argues persuasively that residual media give important clues as to who we are and what we value in the present, explaining that "an inappropriate amount of energy has gone into the study of new media, new genres, new communities, and new bodies, that is, into the contemporary forms. Often, the methods of doing so have been at the expense of taking account of continuity, fixity, and dialectical relations with existing practices, systems, and artifacts" (pp. xix–xx).

The first section theorizes the nature of "residual," offering frameworks for understanding both how contemporary cultural contexts lend relevance to older media technologies and how the very concept of obsolescence can be engineered in the interests of capital accumulation. Will Straw uses the eclectic example of the website to assert that "it is not simply that the Internet, as a new medium, refashions the past within the languages of the present, so that vestiges of the past may be kept alive. Like most new media, in fact, the Internet has strengthened the cultural weight of the past, increasing its intelligibility and accessibility" (p. 4). In discussing the economically and environmentally wasteful "planned obsolescence" of microcomputers, Jonathan Sterne notes that "until they are 'obsoleted,' many computers show no significant signs of wearing out. So in important ways, computers' economic decay hastens the process of physical decay" (p. 26). Lisa Parks makes an analogy between harmful environmental impacts of discarded technologies and the rise of what she calls "wasteland TV"—genres about scavenging and makeshift technologies. Michelle Henning, discussing the concept of "remediation," raises important questions around the ways that planned obsolescence is made palatable to the consuming public—which spends unnecessarily large amounts of money keeping their personal technologies up-to-date.

The second section, "Residual Uses," looks at specific media. Here, authors argue that newer (emergent) media never entirely replace their forebears. Instead, the older (residual) forms either find subcultural niches to inhabit—as in the case of the vinyl twelve-inch dance singles discussed by Hillegonda C. Rietveld—or help to define the uses of newer media—as in the case of both the interactive museum media discussed by Alison Griffiths and the vaudeville entertainment discussed by JoAnne Stober. Collette Snowdon sheds light on the cultural longevity of the telephone, an older medium with many attributes that have not grown obsolete.

A third section, "Collecting and Circulating Material," considers historical messages and the media that made their cultural function significant. Haidee Wasson considers the popularization of museum exhibits through purchasable related products. Jennifer Adams considers the complexity of personal letters as a literary genre, noting that while letters capture feelings and emotions in ways that more formal genres do not, they nevertheless reflect the exigencies of the medium in which they were produced—and the conventions connected thereto. Kate Egan looks at the UK phenomenon of [End Page 507] collecting "video nasties" (home video products representing marginal taste cultures) both as a specific practice and as representative of trading communities that arise around semilegitimate cultural practices. John Davis relates the "collectibility" phenomenon to the socioeconomic history of vinyl record production during the twentieth century.

The fourth section is "Media, Mediation, and Historiography." Maria DiCenzo and Leila Ryan consider the role of the print media in the women's suffrage movements of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and ask the strikingly important question: "Whose history or whose versions of history will influence the structure and concerns of the history of media in a given period?" (p. 242). James Hay pursues the question of "how current forms ofWestern domination have rationalized a new regime...


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