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  • Paper Knowledge: Toward A Media History of Documents by Lisa Gitelman
  • Jan Baetens (bio)
by Lisa Gitelman. Duke University Press, Chapel Hill, NC, U.S.A., 2014. 224 pp., illus. Trade, paper. ISBN: 978-0-8223-5645-5; ISBN: 978-0-8223-5657-8.

A new book by media historian Lisa Gitelman is always a sensation, and this one is no exception. Paper Knowledge can be read as a companion volume to “Raw Data” Is an Oxymoron (MIT, 2013) [1], a volume Gitelman recently edited, but also as the complete, book-length version of an article she contributed to the much remarked programmatic collection by N. Katherine Hayles and Jessica Pressman, Comparative Textual Media (Minnesota, 2013) [2]. At the crossroads of media history, cultural history, science and technology studies, and cultural and literary theory, Paper Knowledge is an illuminating discovery journey through the history of the document, which Gitelman defines as a special vernacular genre defined by the “know-show function” and as an “epistemic practice: the kind of knowing that is all wrapped up with showing and showing wrapped up with knowing” (p. 1).

The first keyword in the definition of document is “genre,” which Gitelman distinguishes from medium on the one hand and format on the other hand. If “medium” refers to the material properties of the channel or host medium of the document, while “format” concerns the specific rules (content, style, presentation, circulation, etc.) a document has to obey in most cases, it is clear that no study of the document as a genre (i.e. a way of identifying and categorizing cultural productions) is possible that is not also a medium history, as well as a history of its permanently shifting formats. Thanks to the triad medium-genre-format, Gitelman benefits from a very broad yet extremely supple instrument to tackle the notion of document. The efficient combination of the utmost abstraction of “the” document as a genre and the fine-mazed close reading of specific documents and documentary practices constitute one of the most challenging and innovative aspects of Gitelman’s approach. The author manages to bridge the gap between the claims of a generic approach on the one hand and the seductions of four well-chosen case studies on the other hand extremely well. As a reader, one never has the impression that Gitelman is stretching the limits of the case studies in order to produce a universal definition of the genre. Nor does one experience the attempt to produce a general history of the genre as reducing the space that is given to the irreducible specific details that can be expected from the “thick reading” of the examples.

A second keyword is “vernacular.” Gitelman does not focus on the [End Page 96] history of the document as the history of the Great Documents (for instance the Declaration of Independence, the 1886 Universal Copyright Convention or the Hayes Code of 1930, to give some just examples almost chosen at random) in her book. What she is interested in is the type of document that is so ubiquitous that it has become almost invisible, although its social, cultural, political and ideological implications are dramatically strong and all-intruding. All case studies in the book have to do with the ways in which industrial societies actually use techniques to reproduce documents (and one sees immediately how this perspective brings in elements of transmediality and cross-formatting). In the four chapters of the book, Gitelman studies commercial or “job-printing” in the late 19th century, the typescript books of the 1930s, the Xerox machine and finally today’s PDF. These objects and practices are not only vernacular in the sense that Gitelman’s study leads us from the world of High Culture and Great Learning to the workplace, the workshop, the office, the garage, the basement and the manifold places where public and private spaces are intertwined. They are also vernacular in the sense that the author pays attention to objects, people, machines and institutions that have been forgotten or that often stay under the radar of traditional media history and theory. (New media historians are now...


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pp. 96-97
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