Full Title: How Text Lost Its Source: Magnetic Recording Cultures
PhD Granted by the University of Washington in June 2011
How Text Lost Its Source: Magnetic Recording Cultures is a cultural history of magnetic recording (1878 to the present) that focuses on the popular perception of a technical impossibility: separating audio and electronic texts from the sources of their inscription. Written at the intersection of literary criticism, media studies, and science and technology studies, it traces the construction of ideal magnetic media, which transmit seemingly immaterial information by creating and then erasing a split between original and copy. Examples include disembodied voices on wire, remote memories on tape, and immersive novels on floppy disks. At the center of each chapter are two perspectives. One—commonly held by scientists, engineers, and designers (such as Mark Weiser and Donald Norman)—claims that a technology’s operations should be imperceptible. And when they are, technologies are elegant and intuitive. Meanwhile, cultural critics (including Neil Postman, Bruno Latour, and Lisa Nakamura) argue that with imperceptibility comes the naturalization of ideologies, where only input and output matter. Rather than privileging either perspective, How Text Lost Its Source investigates the problematics of this debate through the notion of magnetic recording’s “default settings.” I use this term to imply the narratives (e.g., in fiction and hardware manuals) and readymade standards (e.g., quarter-inch tape and storage capacity) that enable the imperceptibility of magnetic storage media and the immateriality of information. My approach not only bundles technical and cultural programs together to avoid determinism and instrumentalism; it also stresses how the development, representations, perceptions, and physical characteristics of magnetic media are all historically contingent vehicles for normalization.
Today, such a history is relevant because, though ubiquitous, magnetic storage is rarely an object of humanities inquiry, where the Internet and (according to Nick Montfort) the computer screen have dominated scholarly attention. Such a history is also timely since, as Matthew Kirschenbaum shows, electronic texts are frequently rendered fleeting phenomena free from inscription. On their face, these issues are merely technical matters; however, the moment of the merely technical is when intuitive technologies and imperceptible media are indeed the most ideological. That said, How Text Lost Its Source examines contemporary inattention to magnetic media and its relationship to writing (broadly conceived) through magnetic sound reproduction, which—like today’s electronic texts—has long been subtended by a cultural impulse to erase any perceivable trace of its inscription during playback. Ultimately, the dissertation argues that traditions in studying audio, and not just print, should inform research on today’s electronic texts. In so doing, it mobilizes the work of Kirschenbaum, Wendy Chun, Andrew Ross, and Jonathan Sterne toward a materialist criticism of how magnetic objects and recording practices are transubstantiated into the spirits of sound and electricity.
Given its broad historical scope, How Text Lost Its Source anchors its default settings in specific technologies, with each chapter framed around what Susan Leigh Star, James Griesemer, and Geoffrey Bowker refer to as a “boundary object,” or an object that meets the shared needs of multiple communities of practice while being put to different uses by each community. The boundary objects I discuss are the telegraphone, magnetic wire and tape, and the personal computer. And their communities of practice range from scientists, engineers, and military personnel to artists, authors, and entertainers.
Chapter One, “The Telegraphone,” highlights how magnetic recording was affiliated with permanent, immaterial sound during its first six decades (1870s-1920s). Oberlin Smith (1878) initially framed it as a scratch-free alternative to Menlo Park inscription methods and Edison’s tinfoil phonograph. And later, Valdemar Poulsen’s research on the telegraphone, including his demonstration of it at the 1900 Paris Exhibition, suggested that even then magnetic recordings could be erased and re-recorded. Intended as a mechanism for writing the voice from a distance, the telegraphone—which could only store approximately four minutes of barely audible sound—was an economic failure in the United States and Europe, reduced solely to military use by 1917. However, author and amateur criminologist, Arthur B. Reeve, did write about the telegraphone during the 1910s and ’20s. Spanning magazines, cartoons, film, and radio, Reeve’s incredibly popular science fiction detective tales didactically introduced audiences to the presumably magical affordances of the relatively unknown telegraphone, mixing technical specifications with paranoia about the infallibility of forensic science and disembodied voices forever recorded on wire. Despite the telegraphone’s economic failure, the magnetic aura of imperceptible audio and immaterial sound still gained traction in consumer markets well before tape in the 1940s.
The second chapter, “Magnetic Wire,” shifts from a narrow emphasis on the telegraphone to a broader look at magnetic wire recording in the United States between the 1920s and ’50s. As a case study, the United States is interesting because—unlike in Germany, the United Kingdom, and Sweden—wire, not tape, was the primary magnetic storage medium for research, manufacturing, and commercial purposes before 1946. Chapter Two integrates this scene with phonographic and gramophonic cultures from the time period, with particular attention to the rise of amplification and rhetorics of noise. Whereas authors such T.S. Eliot, James Baldwin, and Virginia Woolf associated the phonograph and gramophone with unclear signals, malfunctioning audio, and intrusions on the private acoustic sphere, Tony Schwartz described his 1940s wire field recordings as authentic representations of American folk life. While remaining in a single New York postal zone, Schwartz began a wire-by-mail exchange premised on the mobility and clarity of wire recorders, which escaped the physical fetters of Edison’s cables, needles, and discs. Schwartz’s work (among others) exhibits how high fidelity magnetic recording was translated from a late 19th century concept into a mid-20th century practice.
Referenced throughout Chapters One and Two, magnetic tape becomes the boundary object of Chapter Three. Beginning in 1928, when Fritz Pfleumer patented what he called “sounding paper,” the chapter traces the transfer of tape from Germany to the United States. In science and engineering, accounts are often constellated around how Jack Mullins, Bing Crosby, and Les Paul incorporated magnetic tape into the U.S. entertainment industry. How Test Lost Its Source adds to these accounts by examining the cultural theories and experimental media practices that emerged alongside them between the 1950s and ’70s. First, it demonstrates how two antithetical approaches to sound—Pierre Schaeffer’s acousmatics and R. Murray Schafer’s schizophonia—were both motivated by a desire to split original from copy and render sound a pure phenomenon. It then juxtaposes these two approaches with the tape works of Samuel Beckett and William S. Burroughs, who showed how magnetic storage is both distinct from and conflated with memory. The chapter concludes by suggesting how examples from tape inform today’s critiques of electronic texts, namely the tendency to perceive them as ephemeral and immersive.
The final chapter, “The Personal Computer,” moves from the analog, off-screen thinking of Burroughs and Beckett to the digital, screen-inclined period of the last twenty-five years, in which the ostensible immateriality of electronic text intersects with magnetic storage media enclosed “in the box” of computers. Starting with a close reading of Apple’s Macintosh II (1987)—the first Mac with modular architecture and an internal hard disk—the chapter interweaves ongoing changes in storage and computing with the ever-shifting ideologies of the electronic literature industry. For instance, in the 1990s, Eastgate hypertexts like John McDaid’s Uncle Buddy’s Phantom Funhouse (1992) critiqued the linear limitations of print and were sold on floppy disks and CD-ROMs. Later, in 1998, William Gillespie, Scott Rettberg and Dirk Stratton independently published their free hypertext novel, The Unknown, on the web. Unbeknownst to the authors, their web-based hypertext was interpreted by many in the electronic literature community as an egregious rebuke of Eastgate’s imprimatur and removable media tradition. And today, writers such as Kate Pullinger publish collaborative multimedia novels, which resist the e-book format as they rely on seemingly infinite storage “in the cloud.” Indeed, immateriality is no longer limited to sound and information. Once only imperceptible, their storage media have joined them, too.
With support from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the journal Vectors, and the Scalar platform, in July 2010 I began composing How Text Lost Its Source as a multimodal project. A proof of concept is now complete, and all of the images on the left are screen shots of the dissertation’s dynamic and digital components. Prior to working with Vectors, I also received support as a Society of Scholars Fellow in residence at the Simpson Center for the Humanities.
Having now completed the dissertation, my most tangible learning experience was sustaining a cogent, methodical, and focused argument over several hundred pages. The dissertation was also an opportunity to mobilize, complicate, and intervene in the theories I studied during my graduate seminars. Other engaging challenges were wrangling over 130 years of history, representing historical texts and media accurately (through multiple perspectives) while making claims about them, and determining which aspects of the dissertation should be print and which should be digital. Over a three-year period (2008-11), the research, writing, and revision processes were intensive.
I am currently revising the dissertation into a hybrid book (i.e., part print, part digital) intended for a university press.