- Seeing by Electricity: The Emergence of Television, 1878–1939 by Doron Galili
Seeing by Electricity: The Emergence of Television, 1878–1939 By Doron Galili. Durham: Duke University Press, 2020. Pp. 264.
With the COVID-19 pandemic and the shift of an evergreater portion of daily life into mediated online spaces, familiar anxieties have been resurfacing—especially the suspicion that we are witnessing a transformation not only in the texture of daily life but also in the shape of media. Written before the pandemic, Doron Galili's Seeing by Electricity proves immensely instructive for grappling with the implications of and precedents for such upheaval.
Media scholarship over the past two decades, from Rethinking Media Change (David Thorburn and Henry Jenkins, eds., 2003) and Allegories of Communication (John Fullerton and Jan Olsson, eds., 2004) to Film History as Media Archaeology (Thomas Elsaesser, 2016), has underscored the need to reevaluate the history of intermediality and media change in light of new digital technologies. Galili's book contributes to this ongoing effort by offering a history of television across the many decades of conceptualization and development that preceded its emergence as a mass medium. Parsing an extensive array of primary sources, it demonstrates how popular, technical, and scientific discourses addressed the technological prospect of moving-image transmission—a prospect that preceded the term "television" and significantly exceeded the institutional formation around television broadcasting in the mid-twentieth century. As Galili shows, this expands the history of television by exposing the array of cultural and medial practices bound up with its technology, including cinema. Indeed, Galili's history reveals television's long-standing intermedial entwinement with cinema, and its central role alongside cinema in articulating the moving image's relation to modernity. In addition to its insights on television, the book thus simultaneously reassesses key historical and theoretical views on cinema. In excavating the diverse cultural and medial frameworks within which both television and cinema emerged in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the book illuminates many paths not taken. In doing so, it challenges the linear view of media history that frames recent instances of media change as radical ruptures to fixed forms. And it insists that every moment of such change must be situated within a historically rooted network of discourses and practices, in line with the best works of media archaeology—for instance Artificial Darkness (Noam M. Elcott, 2016), an interesting pairing with Galili's book.
The book advances this project on two fronts. First, it pursues an archaeology of moving-image transmission across several discursive and practical areas. Here, Galili situates the idea and pursuit of moving-image transmission in relation to other electric technologies, especially the telegraph [End Page 951] and telephone, as well as cinema. Examining the cultural dynamics associated with these technologies, from their configuration in networks to their modes of temporality, he shows how they operated as parallel responses to the experience of urban-industrial modernity. Galili also puts the development of moving-image transmission technologies in the context of scientific discourse on vision, demonstrating how early experiments with television were modeled on modern understandings of the physiology of perception. Within this context, television was conceptualized as a form of prosthetic vision, providing a grounded historical example of what would become a prominent idea in media theory. Finally, Galili reveals how early cinematic systems and films were enmeshed with the notion of television. For example, inventors envisioned cinema's capacity for recording as an auxiliary to transmission, and filmmakers used representations of movingimage transmission in the effort to demonstrate the value of recording.
The second part of the book offers three case studies that explore television's proximity to prominent cinematic institutions, practices, and ideas in the first decades of the twentieth century. Taking a global purview, this part examines the role television played in the Hollywood film industry, the writing and films of Soviet director Dziga Vertov, and the work of German film theorist (and perceptual psychologist) Rudolf Arnheim. Vertov and Arnheim are usually considered important figures in elaborating cinema's medium...