media, mediation, intermedia, transmedia, multimedia writing penmanship, matter, materiality, handwriting, orature, inscription, book history, literacy, print
This essay does not propose a definition of media. Nor does it trace the conceptualization of media across time. Instead, taking for granted that media are semiotic, material, technology, practice, or protocol—and are often simultaneously so—this essay instead explores how scholars addressing early American material texts conceptualize the presence of and the shifts in such simultaneities. It does so by invoking a term drawn from communication studies, intermediality (and its related terms, intermedia and intermedial), as a framework for addressing the following questions. First, how do scholars explore the integrated levels of mediation that any medium registers? Second, how do scholars recognize “that media represent and delimit representing” both in the past and in our own time?1 Finally, how do scholars of material texts range beyond textual media in order to illuminate such simultaneities and shifts?
In attempting to answer these questions, and in order to underline the importance that concepts of simultaneity and shift often hold for makers of material texts themselves, it helps to recognize an early American media theorist in his own right. In 1826 Joseph Emerson, principal of the Female Seminary in Wethersfield, Connecticut, published The Useful Penman, an instruction manual. In the opening pages he made a bold statement about a future without handwriting. “Unaided by chirography, the mighty energies of the press would be paralyzed, and civilized man become a roving, rapacious barbarian.” In one sentence, Emerson theorized how the interrelation of media inflected social order. His claim for handwriting is simultaneously ahistorical, teleological, and deterministic. And it is laughable that his readers desired guidance in learning penmanship for fear of becoming [End Page 708] “roving, rapacious barbarian[s].” Yet Emerson’s dissemination of writing pedagogy by means of a printed book; the printed book’s initiation of an imagined feedback loop by which “chirography” could unleash “the mighty energies of the press”; and the mere fact that Emerson could imagine an apocalyptic nonprint culture—all speak to his firm belief that the social vitality of handwriting stemmed from its inextricable relation to printing.2
Emerson’s theory of old and (relatively) new media’s interdependence can be read as an on-the-ground version of the critique that Paul Duguid levies against prognostications on the end of the printed book. Duguid interrogates and finds wanting those predictions that posit “the idea that each new technological type vanquishes or subsumes its predecessors.” Instead, he points out, no such logic inheres in any medium.3 Media’s uses and meanings “produce . . . one another interactively over time.”4 Moreover, in rooting his imagined future without handwriting (and thus without “the press”) in the binary of savagery and civilization, Emerson makes a familiar political claim. He recapitulates an Enlightenment bias toward alphabetic writing literacy as an epistemologically sound underpinning for separating—that is to say, constructing—cultural haves from have-nots.
The Useful Penman thus offers a representation of media (in this case, “printing” and “handwriting”) in terms of an interrelation that delimits representation itself (in this case, through the social terms of “civilized man” and “rapacious barbarian”). Emerson’s sense of the integrated work that media do suggests that our own scholarly approaches should be—and in many instances, might already be—infused with an intermedial sensibility that inflects our understanding of the practice and politics of potentially any material-textual expression.
The term intermedial itself follows in part from a genealogy that has its origins in the word intermedia, coined by the twentieth-century Fluxus artist, Dick Higgins. Higgins used the word to refer to what he saw as a growing tendency toward the combination of different media (including genres, styles, materials) in single works of art.5 European communication [End Page 709] theorists of “intermediality,” such as Herzogenrath, Rajewsky, Rippl, Schroeter, and Wolf, have expanded Higgins’s understanding of the term to refer to the medial hybridity of expressive forms in general, as well as the medial hybridity of our approaches to interpreting these forms.6
With the exceptions of Andrew Piper’s recent work on book culture and...