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Reviewed by:
  • Historisches Wörterbuch des Mediengebrauchs ed. by Matthias Bickenbach et al.
  • Jake Fraser
Matthias Bickenbach, Heiko Christians, and Nikolaus Wegmann, eds. Historisches Wörterbuch des Mediengebrauchs. Cologne: Böhlau, 2015. 722 pp. €69.90 (Hardcover). ISBN 978-3-41222-152-2.

Readers attracted to the Historisches Wörterbuch des Mediengebrauchs by the blend of conceptual history and media theory promised by its title will not be disappointed. Each of the volume’s forty-six entries, ranging in length from eight to twenty pages and sourced from over forty contemporary scholars, traces the historical inflections of a term with clear relevance for media studies (e.g. “Aufnehmen,” “Speichern,” “Zerstreuen”) through a number of social, medial, and scientific networks, revealing often startling continuities and leaps. This is in keeping with its genre: as a “historical dictionary,” the volume aligns itself both in method and in scope with the German tradition of Begriffsgeschichte, evoking projects like Joachim Ritter’s Historisches Wörterbuch der Philosophie and the Geschichtliche Grundbegriffe of Koselleck et al.1

The present volume diverges from its predecessors in one significant respect: whereas previous historical dictionaries have concentrated largely on nouns, the entries in the work edited by Matthias Bickenbach, Heiko Christians, and Nikolaus Wegmann each take as their point of departure a single German verb. This innovation reflects the theoretical context in which the text arose: the volume at hand belongs to what one might call the “verbal turn” currently transforming German media studies. Sailing primarily (although not exclusively) under the flag of “cultural techniques,”2 the term indicates a move away from thinking media as instruments or “extensions of man,” as in Marshall McLuhan’s 1964 Understanding Media,3 toward a perspective that views media practices as agents in their own right, shaping and shaped by the historical-technical milieus in which they appear. Media theorist Cornelia Vismann captures the logic of this turn nicely in an oft-cited formulation: “If media theory were, or had, a grammar, that agency [of media and things] would find its expression in objects claiming the grammatical subject position and cultural techniques standing in for verbs. Grammatical persons (and human beings alike) would then assume the place assigned for objects in a given sentence” (83).4

The short preface to the present volume, signed by all three editors, gestures toward this context, although it deliberately eschews any overarching theoretical framework in favour of thick historical descriptions of specific practices: “Die einzelnen Beiträge des Wörterbuchs setzen nicht bei der Frage an, was Medien eigentlich sind […]. Stattdessen eröffnet die Verb form den Blick auf die Wechselwirkung zwischen Medien und ihrem Gebrauch” (10). The editors argue that focusing strictly on usage – and not just prescribed usage but also historical [End Page 238] deviance and misuse – allows the individual entries to provide “eine historische Analyse von Einzelgeschichten, ohne Anspruch auf einen übergeordneten Zusammenhang” (10). Although the merits of such a decision are significant, the decision not to engage in explicit theorization does not mean that theoretical decisions have not been made. Thematizing some of these will help us understand the specific achievements of the volume at hand.

Standing in for an organizing theoretical structure is a formal one: the editors have opted for a standardized format across all forty-six articles, requiring that each be composed of nine prescribed subsections. Thus, each entry begins with an anecdote (1) related to the activity in question, then moves through sections on the etymology (2) of the verb and the contexts (3) in which it has been used. A fourth subheading listing various historical “Konjunkturen” (4) is followed by sections on counter-concepts (5), new “perspectives” (6) opened up on the basis of the preceding analysis, and current research directions (7); finally, each entry concludes with reading recommendations (8) and cross-references (9) within the dictionary.

Such a structure – simultaneously over- and underdetermined – is naturally quite demanding of both author and subject: the format’s success relies not just on individual authors’ ability to weave together a number of subsections but also on the suitability of the term. Thus, a second major editorial decision – beyond the consistent format – lies in the choice of the verbs...