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Paper Knowledge: Toward a Media History of Documents

by Lisa Gitelman
Duke University Press, Chapel Hill, NC, 2014
224 pp., illus. 11 b/w. Trade, $79.95; paper, $22.95
ISBN: 978-0-8223-5645-5; ISBN: 978-0-8223-5657-8.

Reviewed by Jan Baetens

A new book by media historian Lisa Gitelman is always a sensation, and this one is no exception to this rule. Paper Knowledge can be read as a companion volume of "Raw Data" Is an Oxymoron (MIT, 2013) [1], a volume Gitelman recently edited, but also as the complete, book-length version of an article she contributed to the much remarked programmatic collection by N. Katherine Hayles and Jessica Pressman, Comparative Textual Media (Minnesota, 2013). [2] At the crossroads of media history, cultural history, science and technology studies, and cultural and literary theory, Paper Knowledge is an illuminating  discovery travel through the history of the document, which Gitelman defines as a special vernacular genre defined by the "know-show function" and as an "epistemic practice: the kind of knowing that is all wrapped up with showing and showing wrapped up with knowing" (p. 1).

The first key-word in the definition of document is "genre", which Gitelman distinguishes from medium on the one hand and format on the other hand. If "medium" refers to the material properties of the channel or host medium of the document, while "format" concerns the specific rules (content, style, presentation, circulation, etc.) a document has to obey in most cases, it is clear that no study of the document as a genre (i.e. a way of identifying and categorizing cultural productions)  is possible that is not also a medium history as well a history of its permanently shifting formats. Thanks to the triad medium-genre-format, Gitelman benefits from a very broad yet extremely supple instrument to tackle the notion of document. The efficient combination of the utmost abstraction of "the" document as a genre and the fine-mazed close-reading of specific documents and documentary practices that constitutes one of the most challenging and innovative aspects of Gitelman's approach. The author manages extremely well to bridge the gap between the claims of a generic approach on the one hand and a the seductions of four well chosen case-studies on the other hand. As a reader, one has never the impression that Gitelman is stretching the limits of the case-studies in order to produce a universal definition of the genre. Nor does one experience the attempt to produce a general history of the genre as reducing the space that is given to the irreducible specific details that can be expected from the "thick reading" of the examples.

A second key-word is "vernacular." Gitelman is not focusing in her book on the history of the document as the history of the Great Documents (for instance the Declaration of Independence, the 1886 Universal Copyright Convention or the Hayes Code of 1930, to give some just examples almost chosen at random). What she is interested in is the type of document that is so ubiquitous that is has become almost invisible, although its social, cultural, political, and ideological implications are dramatically strong and all-intruding. All case studies in the book have to do with the ways in which industrial societies actually use techniques to reproduce documents (and one sees immediately how this perspective brings in elements of transmediality and cross-formatting).  In the four chapters of the book Gitelman studies commercial or "job-printing" in the late 19th Century, the typescript books of the 1930s, the Xerox machine, and finally today's PDF. Not only are these objects and practices vernacular in the sense that Gitelman's study leads us from the world of High Culture and Great Learning to the workplace, the workshop, the office, the garage, the basement, and the manifold places where public and private spaces are intertwined. They are also vernacular in the sense that the author pays attention to objects, people, machines, institutions that have been forgotten or that stay often under the radar of traditional media history and theory -but which new media historians are now redisclosing for the great joy and benefit of the public (the names of the philosopher Siegfried Zielinski or the media archeologist Erkki Huhtamo [3] come easily to mind).

As already stated, the third key-word, which may resume all the other ones,  is "history". What kind of historical approach is Gitelman defending as well as illustrating? First of all, it should be underlined that the ambitions of the book, which takes as its starting point the post-civil war era and as its ending point our current fascination with fan culture, are not to offer a complete historical overview of the document as a genre. Gitelman explicitly rejects any kind of global or universal reading of the document, which often reduces the rich fabric of medium, genre and format to sweeping overgeneralizations (themselves frequently narrowed down to para-Hegelian schemes: orality, the Gutenberg galaxy, digital culture). Variations of this scheme can be found in the work of many great authors (McLuhan, of course, but also Kittler and Debray, for instance). Necessary and useful as these generalizations may be, they cannot do justice to the cultural density and complexity of media history. By insisting on the reproduction of the document, Gitelman raises fundamental issues on access and the way in which the uses of documents define and redefine the relationships between producers and consumers. In her approach, job printing, for instance, cannot be separated from the invention of small letter press machines that broke the monopoly of the traditional printer (and that redefined at the same time the old distinction between manuscript and print). In the same vein, typescript books are studied against the background of the microfilm revolution and the introduction of fair use reappropriation of copyrighted material, while the Xerox machine is presented as a wonderful example, the mechanisms of which are well known to all those familiar with science and technology studies (television and telephone would be similar cases), of a technology that ends up being used in ways that are quite distinct from those that its inventors had in mind and whose impact can only become clear when reframed in its historical context (in this case the Cold War and debates on secrecy and espionage).

In all cases, Gitelman offers a meticulous reconstruction of the historical context of the media changes she foregrounds and in many regards this book is a real Wunderkammer. At the same time, however, the author always scrutinizes the past in order to show what it can mean for us today, and here the political dimension of the book comes to the fore. For Paper Knowledge is also a passionate discussion of what knowing and showing are about, namely the possibility to producing, sharing, debating knowledge in a society to opens this knowledge to all of its members and whose structure, thanks to technology, is no longer determined by those who know and show and those who don't.


 [1] See my review of this book in Leonardo Reviews Online: : http://leonardo.info/reviews/oct2013/gitelman-baetens.php.

 [2] See my review in Image (&) Narrative: http://www.imageandnarrative.be/index.php/imagenarrative/article/view/424.

[3] See my review of his book Illusions in Motion: Media Archaeology of the Moving Panorama and Related Spectacles (MIT Press, 2013) in Leonardo Reviews Online: http://leonardo.info/reviews/july2013/hutamo-baetens.php.

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