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Reviewed by:
  • Video Revolutions. On the History of a Medium by Michael Z. Newman
  • Yvonne Spielmann (bio)
Video Revolutions. On the History of a Medium. By Michael Z. Newman: New York: Columbia University Press, 2014. Pp. 160. $10.

In Video Revolutions, Michael Newman argues that video is not one thing but many, and therefore the history of video as a medium should be regarded as a history of changing technologies and cultural uses. In this view, video is a dynamic medium created, manipulated, stored, transmitted, and viewed via multiple technologies. Newman’s video “revolutions” take place over several decades and are understood in relation to cultural practices as well as to television, film, and the internet. Departing from research approaches that either discuss the appropriation and modification of video and electronic technologies in the arts or give accounts of the technical steps in their development, from television to video to computers, Newman instead focuses on the history of “video” as a term. For him, “video” is a cultural keyword, and the changes in what video meant mark revolutions in technology and meaning.

In his cultural analysis of video revolutions, Newman adapts Raymond Williams’s well-known analysis of the importance of technology in shaping the cultural form of television. Newman describes three different phases that each express a different meaning of the term “video.” The first phase covers the time frame from early television to the 1960s when video was another word for television and their meaning was interchangeable. The second phase goes hand in hand with the development of portable video technology, Portapak cameras, and videotape. It shows a differentiation from and an emerging adversarial relationship between television as a mass medium and video as part of alternative culture. This phase, not the advent of the digital, is the most important one to Newman, because with the introduction of the video-recorder to the home consumer market in the seventies, video became a medium of its own, distinct from film and television. Newman emphasizes that this step was a far-reaching video revolution that changed every aspect of entertainment culture. As the author states, this video revolution “redefined categories of leisure experience by revising prevailing conceptions of television and cinema as mass media” (p. 44). [End Page 1010]

Phase three involves new configurations in the digital phase, when “remediations” are the driving force in the convergence into one image format of the previously separate media forms such as viewing movies in theaters, on television, and on video. To Newman, this phase of networked television and internet still operates within the same parameters of participation, and to some extent democratization, that already were developed with the introduction of the videotape recorder. The connection lies in audience participation, since viewers using video-recorders already were able to participate and interact with the medium in dynamic ways. Here, Newman refers to Nam June Paik’s “Participation TV” in making the argument that video should be seen as a two-way, participatory medium. In this view, the video revolutions that differentiate video from television and cinema at the same time bring video nearer to the structure of games, in particular video and computer games.

Newman’s book is an enjoyable, masterful tour of the history of a medium, one that helps us understand the peculiarities of electronic culture. In a historical perspective, as the author suggests, the plurality of video as a dynamic medium that has no fixed structure needs to be addressed in its own context of cultural practices. This is important to note, especially with regard to the larger media discourses that still tend to overlook or lack understanding of the plural forms, uses, and meanings of the medium of video.

Media histories tend to classify video as an in-between step from analog to digital and do not regard video as a medium of its own. In light of this broader picture and the ongoing neglect of comparative discussions of video’s characteristics, Newman’s essay contributes to a much-needed repositioning of video as a cultural form in relation to film, television, and digital media. The only downside lies in his exclusive focus on the visual qualities and characteristics...


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pp. 1010-1011
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