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  • Format
  • Meredith L. McGill

format, circulation, media, heft, media shift, audience, remediation

Format is a rare instance of a technical term that applies in similar ways to both old and new media, the production and circulation of books and of information that travels across a networked infrastructure. This congruence is surprising because the theories of communication that underwrite the study of book history and of information are so different. The modern idea of information implies the transmission and manipulation of standardized, quantifiable units. Bernard Geoghegan traces the origins of the concept to the invention of telegraphy, which offered a model of communication as individualized, mechanized writing-at-a-distance, a theory of the structure and transmission of knowledge that was taken up across the protosciences of the mid-nineteenth century.1 This model of communication could be seen as the antithesis of an approach to print that, following Michael Warner and Jürgen Habermas, emphasizes its abstraction and impersonality.2 If telegraphy gives us a writing subject who, through technical means, transfers messages to another across an end-to-end network, print gives us the drama of the disappearance of the writing subject into a public sphere of uncertain reach, a social totality that, Warner argues, comes into existence through the circulation and recirculation of texts. The circulation of print and the transmission of information offer different allegories of writing, [End Page 671] different models of the subject’s self-constitution in and through technological mediation. These different models of communication also entail different approaches to writing’s physical supports: the book historian, unlike the scholar of information, needs to preserve the medium of transmission as a trace of the social process that is constitutive of the knowledge it conveys.

Jonathan Sterne’s recent history of the mp3 file format can help us understand the resonances between the uses of the term in the study of books and of digital media. Turning away from large-scale concepts like media to embrace “smaller registers of analysis,” Sterne focuses on the compression techniques that have made the easily transmissible, low-bandwidth mp3 file so successful.3 Calling the mp3 a “triumph of distribution,” Sterne notes that the mp3 file sacrifices audio quality in the interests of transmissibility. To make an mp3, an encoder compares a larger audio file “to a mathematical model of the gaps in human hearing”; it “discards the parts of the audio signal that are unlikely to be audible,” then “reorganizes repetitive and redundant data,” producing a much smaller file that is easier to send through the network. Sterne’s study of the mp3 is in part designed to reroute the history of digital media through the history of telephony. He argues convincingly that telephonic research into the capacities of the hearing subject was crucial to the development of networked communication and to “the whole swath of algorithmic culture from packet switching to DVDs and games, and the protocols and routines of digital technologies.”4

Sterne’s account of what it means to study formats instead of media has implications beyond the study of audial and digital technology. Sterne describes the development of the mp3 format as a production decision that turns on calculations about distribution and reception, reminding us that theories about markets and about the perceptual capacities of audiences are built into production practices. His insistence on the mp3’s anticipation of the conditions of its reception zeroes in on the aspect of culture that has proved most difficult for book historians to conceptualize: circulation. Despite the fact that the discipline was founded by an article that sought to pull scattered historical disciplines into a “communications circuit,”5 book history has settled largely at the poles of production and reception—the history of publishing and the history of reading—in part because it is easier [End Page 672] for critics and historians to talk about agency at either end of the publication process.

Sterne turns to format to shift critical attention to the cultural specificity of particular media forms: the “range of decisions that affect the look, feel, experience, and workings of a medium,” and the technical and cultural “rules according to which a technology...


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pp. 671-677
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