Tag Archives: phonograph

CCR 633: Labels, Emergency, and Ontology

Early on in her introduction for Scripts, Grooves, and Writing Machines, Lisa Gitelman states a thesis that also expresses a methodology and worldview regarding textual machines:

Edison identified his phonograph as a textual device, primarily for taking dictation. With this mandate, the invention emerged from Edison’s laboratory into and amid a cluster of mutually defining literacy practices, texts, and technologies, among them shorthand reporting, typescripts, printing telegraphs, and silent motion pictures. Even Edison’s own famous light bulb, now a universal icon for “I have an idea,” had to make sense within an ambient climate of textual and other representational practices, a climate it would, in fact, have an ample share in modifying. (1)

In many ways, this connects to many of the questions already taken up in the class, like the role of sociotechnical systems or alphabets as technologiesĀ  or the notion of ambience and complexity. Here, in particular, I am definitely feeling Rickert and Heidegger: that the phonograph emerged from and became intelligible through a “world” [Welt] of already existing relations. For example, as Gitelman argues, shorthand, or “phonography,” as a technology set the stage for the phonograph. Without this already circulating ambience, the phonograph would not have had the same intelligible impact.

On the one had, this sort of claim reminds me a bit of Steven Johnson’s “adjacent possible,” an idea that certain networks, ideas, and materials need to be in place in order for an idea to take root. Often, as he points out with Charles Babbage’sĀ  “computer,” an idea that is ahead of its time dies out. It needs to still be in stage of possibility, but such a possibility must be “adjacent” to the present and the local.

But the role of labels, as Gitelman details, provides an interesting complication. As she writes, “The label is a vital cultural nexus, a point where producers meet consumers, where owners meet spectators, where novelty and originality enter the commonplace of the market and commodities perform” (151). I want to spend some time with this idea.

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