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The Ethnographic Origins of Modern Media

An interview with Brian Hochman

On December 9, 2014, Brian Hochman delivered a lecture for the DCMI speaker series in Critical Media and Digital Studies titled "The Ethnographic Origins of Modern Media: A Brief History, in Color." This follow-up interview was conducted by Brian Lennon, DCMI Director, by email during December 2014 and January 2015. The interview covers topics including the origin of media studies in ethnographic linguistics, sound technologies and cultural historiography, the title phrase "savage preservation," and the inevitability of digital obsolescence.

Portrait of Brian Hochman

Ethnologists like Powell and Mallery believed that you could look at Native Americans and see living relics of what life was like before the dawn of media technology. As I show in the book, this logic pervades classic North American media theory, and I think it lives on as an unspoken bias in the study of media and communications technology today.

Brian Lennon, Director, DCMI: I find especially usefully provocative two suggestions in your book Savage Preservation: The Ethnographic Origins of Modern Media Technology: one, that the imagined decline of Native American languages is linked to the imagined “rise of modern media,” to use your phrasing in the book’s first chapter, and two, that one origin of media studies might therefore be located in the ethnographic linguistics of John Wesley Powell and others. I say “usefully provocative” because while I think the very best readers of your book will not necessarily have found it difficult to make that link themselves, it is likely to be received as an incongruity or even a counterintuition by other readers. Clearly, you sense this, since you admit that such claims may seem “unorthodox.” Might you say something more, first, about the historical relationships you’re describing here, in these formulations, and second, about the incongruity or counter-intuition they may suggest to some of your readers?

Brian Hochman: This gets to the heart of the book’s first two chapters. Many of the questions that motivated the study of media and communications in the twentieth century have origins in nineteenth-century ethnography. How do media innovations influence the course of human development? How do the world’s peoples variously transmit cultural information across time and space? What are the differences, both psychic and social, between groups that have access to modern media technology and those that don’t? These are some of the key questions that anthropologists like John Wesley Powell and Garrick Mallery started to ask at the end of the nineteenth century. They formulated them in response to their encounters with Native American languages, which they thought were disappearing and in need of preservation.

There are a couple of reasons why this narrative might seem unorthodox. First off, men like Powell and Mallery didn’t use the same terms to talk about media that we use today. So seeing the relevance of their work to modern media history takes some deciphering. (John Guillory’s oft-cited essay on the emergence of the “media concept” helped me in my thinking about this problem.) More broadly, the incongruity of these claims stems from the fact that Native Americans aren’t usually seen as having a role in modern media development. Of course, scholars have done a ton of great work uncovering how Native American subjects influenced the history of photography, for instance, and how the technologies of television and cinema have influenced the global construction of native identity. But since the nineteenth century, and perhaps even earlier, native groups have in part been defined by their technological deficiencies. So it should therefore come as no surprise that the study of Native American languages would seem to have little to do with the study of modern media.

One of the things that surprised me in my research was seeing just how intractable this myth has proved. The fable of the primitive “tribal man” — the Indian trapped in a distant past, ignorant of the technological present — has been passed down from generation to generation since the mid-1800s. And of course the roots of its story go back even further than that. Ethnologists like Powell and Mallery believed that you could look at Native Americans and see living relics of what life was like before the dawn of media technology. As I show in the book, this logic pervades classic North American media theory, and I think it lives on as an unspoken bias in the study of media and communications technology today.

(I wrote that last bit yesterday. But then this morning, while thumbing through the most recent issue of American Quarterly, I happened upon a great Lisa Nakamura essay on Navajo women laborers and the development of electronics in Silicon Valley. Maybe the tide is turning?)

Brian Lennon, Director, DCMI: Why do you think it took so long for the cultural authority of the phonograph, which you describe as grounded in “sound technology’s apparent ability to mediate racial differences,” to receive what you call “the sustained critical attention it deserves”?

Brian Hochman: When I first started working on this project it seemed strange to me that it was only in the last 10–15 years that cultural historians started to regard sound technologies as viable objects of study. Why is it the case that Lisa Gitelman’s Scripts, Grooves, and Writing Machines and Jonathan Sterne’s The Audible Past — two foundational books in the field of sound studies, and two books that inspired my own work in ways I’m still discovering — were only written in 1999 and 2003, respectively, when all of the foundational works in the history of visual media were written so much earlier? Of course, the field of sound studies has a genealogy that we can now trace back well before the early 2000s. But it’s only very recently that we can speak of something called “sound studies” in the United States and even know what it is that we’re talking about. The persistence of the idea that sound lies outside of history is a fiction that’s been handed down to us from the nineteenth century.

I’m honestly not sure why this is the case. But offhand I’d wager that the institutional dominance of visual studies — itself a product of a longstanding bias toward the visual in humanistic inquiry — has something to do with it. This is one reason why I’ve increasingly come to see the isolation of “sound studies” from “visual studies” as inherently limiting. (Why isn’t there something called “audiovisual studies”? Or maybe that’s what a truly historical “media studies” looks like after all?) Nevertheless, I think it’s a useful dichotomy to have in mind for answering such a question.

On one hand, I intend the phrase “savage preservation” to be read literally: as in, the preservation of so-called “savages.” On the other hand, it’s meant to be read more metaphorically: as in, the savage violence of cultural preservation. But there’s another pun in there, too. The technical term for the kind of ethnography I talk about in the book is “salvage” (i.e., preservative) ethnography.

Brian Lennon, Director, DCMI: As you mention briefly at the very end of your Introduction to the book, the phrase “savage preservation,” in the title, is meant both to describe the practices (or perhaps the justification of the practices) of ethnography and to remind us of what you call “the distinctive forms of cultural violence that the anthropological project of preservation clearly helped to reinforce.” Might you say something more about those distinctive forms of cultural violence and, more generally, about the double sense you’ve chosen for that phrase “savage preservation”?

Brian Hochman: You describe the double meaning of the title more succinctly than I do in the book! On one hand, I intend the phrase savage preservation to be read literally: as in, the preservation of so-called “savages.” On the other hand, it’s meant to be read more metaphorically: as in, the savage violence of cultural preservation. But there’s another pun in there, too. The technical term for the kind of ethnography I talk about in the book is salvage (i.e., preservative) ethnography. As one of my colleagues pointed out to me, the trick of the mind that makes the word “salvage” look and sound like “savage” also captures a great deal of what the book is about.

What I mean by “distinctive forms of cultural violence” is this: The people who were interested in salvaging disappearing cultures at the turn of the twentieth century were white men of considerable means. Many of them held influential government positions and had connections to lawmakers who passed racist legislation. Both consciously and unconsciously, directly and indirectly, the work that they did in the field — the recordings that they made, the images that they photographed, the films that they shot — helped to delegitimize native claims on sovereignty and perpetuate expansionist state policy. This, to me, is violence, albeit a violence of a slow and subtle kind.

But this brings up a larger issue that’s probably worth clarifying here. I don’t think it’s a generalization to say that the conventional scholarly account of salvage ethnography revolves around a narrative of exploitation. This narrative has a great deal of utility, and I think it’s accurate to a certain degree. But understanding salvage ethnography as nothing more than cultural exploitation also has the effect of downplaying the role that indigenous peoples themselves played in the ethnographic encounter. The native subjects who were filmed, photographed, and recorded at the turn of the twentieth century — these men and women weren’t unwitting pawns in the play of larger social forces. Many of them wanted to have their culture preserved, which means that salvage ethnography was in reality an intensely collaborative affair, the product of contradictory motivations and interests that aren’t easily reduced to a simple moralism. What’s more, the recordings and images that have survived over time have turned out to play a surprisingly important role in the contemporary project of native cultural revitalization.

These facts certainly don’t excuse turn-of-the-century American ethnology for its role in the violent process of nation-building. But they do suggest that the legacy of salvage ethnography is far more complicated than the received historical narrative seems to allow.

How can media studies — and the humanities, more generally — deal with the inevitability of digital obsolescence? I think history can help us answer that question.

Brian Lennon, Director, DCMI: The book’s Postscript ends with some remarks about lessons that the ethnographic origins of modern media may have to offer us in our present moment of digital boosterism, today. Might you elaborate on these remarks? What does your research on the history of discourse about new media technologies, as much as on the developmental histories of new media technologies in themselves, tell us about contemporary attitudes toward the digital in general, and specifically in relation to the dynamics of cultural preservation and cultural violence?

Brian Hochman: Historians aren’t in the business of prognostication, but one thing that the history of modern media teaches us is that permanence is a fiction. The storage technologies we regard as stable today are likely to deteriorate and become obsolete in the long term. The protagonists of my book thought otherwise, believing in the power of wax cylinder recordings and celluloid images to capture culture for all time. Yet history proved them wrong. The products of their efforts have literally wasted away in the stacks of archives, succumbing both to the ravages of material deterioration and the frustrations of format obsolescence. It’s a deeply ironic, almost comical, twist of fate that the vast majority of the recordings that ethnologists made at the turn of the twentieth century remain totally unplayable, while Native Americans themselves — the “disappearing” subjects of ethnological inquiry — still survive today. What does this reversal tell us about our present moment?

For one thing, it should alert us to the fact that the digital isn’t a fixed or final state. The digital age isn’t eternal. For the humanities to throw all of its eggs into the digital basket, so to speak, is to ignore where we’ve been and where we’re likely to go. I think it’s in in our interest to proceed with some caution, with a much longer view in mind.

This sounds more polemically conservative than I intend it. But the conversation is absolutely worth having. How can media studies — and the humanities, more generally — deal with the inevitability of digital obsolescence? I think history can help us answer that question.