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  • Screen Culture: A Global History by Richard Butsch
  • Noah Arceneaux (bio)
Screen Culture: A Global History
By Richard Butsch. Cambridge, MA: Polity Press, 2019. Pp. 308.

Screen Culture is an ambitious attempt at a textbook, to put it mildly. In 225 pages, (supplemented with 72 pages of notes), esteemed scholar Richard Butsch sets out to provide a cultural history of electronic media technologies used for visual communication—specifically film, television, and online video, accessed via smartphones and computers. As the second [End Page 1217] word of the title suggests, Butsch is less interested in specific technical milestones but rather the social and cultural practices associated with each of these technologies.

Drawing from his previous work as a cultural scholar of audience studies, Butsch pays particular attention to the consumption practices for visual media, including the rowdy interactions of silent film patrons and the group-viewing practices from the early "tavern era" of television. Though Michel de Certeau and his famed concept of "making do" is explicitly cited only once, it is clear that this perspective underscores Butsch's work. Audiences are not depicted as passive vessels, but as active and fundamental participants in the interaction between mass media and society.

Staying true to its "Global History" subtitle, the book synthesizes prior scholarship on many countries. The initial focus, at least for the chapters on film and television, is on the United States and the United Kingdom. From there, Butsch then shows how these mediums proliferated and were received in other European countries, Asia, Africa, and South America. Specific topics include Egypt as a powerhouse for media production in North Africa and the Middle East, the popularity of South American telenovelas, and the booming film industries of India and Nigeria. While this global focus is refreshing and encouraging, given the vast amount of terrain the book intends to cover, none of these topics can be explored deeply. The hegemony of Western media remains at the fore.

One recurring theme is the anxiety, or sometimes moral panic, expressed by the ruling elite in each society over these new forms of communication. The consumption habits of the working class and rural audiences have often come under scrutiny. Another recurring theme is the concern over the American export of film and video products. In some cases, the concern was about the industrial threat coming from the West, as it jeopardized the viability of homegrown media industries; in other cases, the concern was about the corruption of local values by sensationalized American films.

The book loses its focus a bit in the final few chapters, which explore the growth of digital media. While it is undeniably true that these platforms, emphasizing personal computers and smartphones, are increasingly popular ways for people to consume visual media, these same devices can also be used for other purposes. When discussing mobile media, for example, Butsch devotes a good deal of attention to privacy and surveillance concerns. He also explores the growth of social networks on these platforms. Although these are all valid topics for scholarly analysis, chapters seven and eight in particular stray from the book's ostensible focus on "visual media" to survey digital media writ large. The final chapter documents the evolving nature of globalization; instead of a center of media production flowing outward to the rest of the world, we now have multiple nodes of production. There is no distinct concluding chapter to the book, perhaps an apt choice given that Butsch is highlighting a range of issues rather than presenting a cohesive argument. [End Page 1218]

For historians specifically interested in media technologies, the information on non-Western markets is useful. Despite the lack of granularity, the book's abundant references to so much prior scholarship provide a valuable starting point for further exploration. As a potential textbook, the book's somewhat repetitive style means observations are reiterated. The benefit of this structure is that individual chapters could function easily as stand-alone works and seem ideal to assign in upper-division or graduate-level seminars.

Noah Arceneaux

Prof. Noah Arceneaux is a historian of media technologies in the School of Journalism and Media Studies at San Diego State University. He is...


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pp. 1217-1219
Launched on MUSE
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