The Routledge Companion to Cultural History

I am currently writing an article for the forthcoming Routledge Companion to Cultural History, edited by Alessandro Arcangeli, Jörg Rogge and Hannu Salmi, which will be published during 2018. My chapter will revolve around “media and mediatisation” during the 19th century (predominantly). I have just started working with my chapter – and the introduction currently reads as follows:

“There are no realities any more, there is only apparatus”, lamented the Austrian cultural historian Egon Friedell in the early 1930s. Writing a cultural history during the interwar period, media modernity finally seemed to have caught up with him and broken the spell and disenchantment of all previous ages—the Entzauberung der Welt as famously diagnosed by Max Weber—whereby traditional society and culture was replaced by secularisation, cultural rationalisation and modernised bureaucracy. For Friedell, however, even reality itself gave the impression to disintegrate into a mediated dimness, with film and radio as the main perpetrators for blurring cultural hierarchies between high and low. “As long as the cinema was dumb, it had other than film possibilities: namely, spiritual ones. But the sound-film has unmasked it, and the fact is patent to all eyes and ears that we are dealing with a brutish dead machine. The bioscope kills the human gesture only, but the sound-film the human voice as well. Radio does the same. At the same time it frees us from the obligation to concentrate, and it is now possible to enjoy Mozart and sauerkraut, the Sunday sermon and bridge.”

This dreadful and mediated “world of automata” appeared in the epilogue—ultimately entitled, “the collapse of reality”—at the very end of Friedell’s majestic, three volume Cultural History of the Modern Age (1927-31), a publication which became a huge commercial success, especially in the German speaking world, but which was also translated in numerous other languages. Spanning some 600 years, “from the Black Death to the World War”, and with the main focus put firmly on ‘great men’ and their achievements in art, science and culture, Friedell’s account of cultural history has been described as personal and even anecdotal. Yet, his account is also playful and witty—a present blogger designates the book as “obscenely readable”. With his somewhat odd background (for a cultural historian) as a cabaret performer and actor, Friedell simply knew how to please an audience.

However, given his personal experience of ‘low culture’ and the ways in which various form of mass media increasingly seemed to alter reality at the time of his writing around 1930, it remains surprising how murky Friedell’s account of modern media appeared in his cultural historical overview—that is to say, if media were mentioned at all. Friedell did state that the “high-speed printing press” was the most important machine introduced during the early 19th century, and he did devote a few sentences to “illustrated journals”, and yes, his account of the 1840s firmly described the “characteristic inventions of the age” as being “telegraphy and photography”. But apart from these brief notations, Friedell was not particularly interested in cultural historical media accounts, reports or descriptions, and consequently did not write about them (until in his epilogue). Media historiographically this remains somewhat peculiar since Friedell had previously published on the ways in which perception and representation around 1900 had been transformed via the medium of film. In 1912 he had, for example, stated that films are “short, quick, at the same time coded, and [the medium] does not stop for anything. … This is quite fitting for our time, which is a time of extracts.” Taken from his essay, “Prolog vor dem Film” these remarks (and others) in many ways forebodes cultural critic Walter Benjamin’s canonised account of the artwork in the age of mechanical reproduction (written during the 1930s). Yet, if Benjamin took a positive stance towards mass media, especially film—Friedell’s characterisation was way more gloomy. Still, given the accounts in the epilogue of Cultural History of the Modern Age, Friedell did seem to realise—and to some extent even anticipate—mass media’s increased importance. His final remarks were contemporary, but they could also have been historicised if he would had payed more attention to the cultural history of media.

Departing from Friedell’s paradoxical acknowledgement of both a “world of automata” and his lack of interest in situating media within cultural history, this chapter will provide an overview of the cultural impact of different media forms and technologies from the early 19th century until the advent of sound film and radio (that is, approximately at the time when Friedell was completing his cultural history). Taking my cue from novel ways to perform cultural historical media research and equipped with a media archaeological perspective—which seeks to avoid telling mono-media histories of technologies from past to present—I will pay attention to both new media as well as residual media formats (as the panorama and the stereoscope), while trying to pin down how these were publicly perceived, usually at the intersection between commercial attractions and instructive entertainment. The chapter will also discuss different historiographical ways to understand the cultural history of media, as for example theories of increased mediatisation. In general, the chapter will focus broader media systems—rather than particular media forms as the daily press—and especially pay attention to hybrid forms of media culture and various forms of intermediality, and how these altered over a longer period of time. If the technical reproduction of texts and images, sounds and moving images via fast printing presses, photography and phonographic recordings as well as later cinematography, were almost unimaginable in the early 1800s, a hundred years later they were all “treated as a matter of course”. How did this happen, what changes occured and which consequences did it have for the ways in which ordinary people perceived both themselves and their world?