Text-Media Studies


A specter is haunting English departments—the specter of a future without books. 

Associated with this anxiety is the sense that we are witnessing the demise of literature itself. A recently released study by the National Endowment for the Arts, alarmingly entitled Reading at Risk, has only confirmed what many have long suspected: habitual reading, especially of literature (drama, poetry and fiction), is in sharp decline. The sort of literary reading that the NEA sees under threat is inextricably bound to a modern, Western notion of literature that took shape during the massive expansion of print in the early modern period and was thus subtly inflected by a historically specific form: the printed book. Changes in technologies of communication now force us to confront this legacy. The printed codex can no longer be seen as the natural embodiment of literature, but is instead revealed to be a historically contingent form, albeit one with enormous power and resilience.

Arguments about the consequences of new communications media have informed debates about the fate of literature at least since the early 1960s when Marshall McLuhan wrote his influential account of the cultural effects of print technology, The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man. Tracing the impact of print five hundred years earlier, McLuhan simultaneously offered a prediction of the social transformations that the new electronic media of his day would produce. The NEA report reflects the ongoing influence of McLuhan’s argument when the authors attribute “the decline in reading” to “increased participation in a variety of electronic media, including the Internet, video games, and portable digital devices.” Significantly extending the possibilities offered by the film, audio tape, radio and television available in McLuhan’s day, the new electronic media appear to threaten an ever more complete displacement of the codex book and the modes of reading, habits of reflection, and hierarchies of value that it helped foster.

Yet it might be noted that new media have frequently provoked fears among the intellectual caretakers of the established order, who see their influence threatened by the novel media and the new modes of expression that they foster. Writing, the very first “new medium,” evoked responses that can seem remarkably fresh today. In Plato’s Phaedrus, Socrates voices a profound hostility toward the harmful effects of writing on personal relationships and the individual’s powers of memory. Echoes of Plato’s fears about writing can be heard in jeremiads against the decline of writing’s technological heir, the book. As the ancient example makes clear, and as Jacques Derrida’s critique of Plato’s logocentrism elucidates, anxieties about stable meaning and identity are bound up in debates about new media.

We can shift the frame and cast a fresh light on textual media if we consider a counternarrative to the tale of the contemporary decline of print and its forms. In this counternarrative, the era of Gutenberg was also the age of new performance forms. Europe in the sixteenth-century saw not only the rapid expansion of the printed book but also the rise of modern drama, with its novel theatrical spaces, acting styles, and social modalities. Around the same time, the arts of modern political oratory were created through the spread of classical rhetoric in the humanist academy and the expansion of the bureaucratic state. Contact with the Americas and other parts of the globe introduced Europeans to new performance traditions. In the second half of the nineteenth century, the growth of the performance arts was further enhanced by dramatic technological advances, with the development of enhanced acoustics and the invention of technologies for the recording and dissemination of sound and performance. New verbal and visual technologies have animated the work of performance artists, sound poets, and authors of electronic books, along with that of artists working in more traditional media, including storytellers such as Spalding Gray, who have reshaped their ancient arts in the context of a new performance culture.

Yet another approach, rather than singling out one textual medium and tracing its trajectory, focuses instead on the intersections of the many varieties of text-media. Collage emerged as the key art of the twentieth century because it is the art that acknowledges as its primary condition the coexistence and interpenetration of media. Collage says there is always more than one context, always more than one medium involved in any present event. Print, manuscript, and performance have had multiple relations to one another in producing and disseminating texts in the past. With the proliferation of new media in the twentieth century — linotype, display type, lithography, photography, radio, phonography, tape, typewriters, film, television, video, computers, the web — artists have taken the collision of media as a central fact of life and have developed collage techniques for drawing attention to this fact and offering meaningful ways to live with it. The decentering, anti-metaphysical, postmodern art of collage values the very qualities that Plato and his heirs deplore: heterogeneity, unstable hierarchies, shifting identities. Turning the Platonic aversion to new media on its head, postmodern artists embrace new technologies in order highlight the inescapable fact of mediation and its implications for self and society.

Thinking through Text-Media Studies 

In our working group, and more generally in work on text-media, a number of shared concerns emerge as loci of discussion. The heterogeneous scholarship on print, manuscript, performance, and electronic media manifests a number of prominent shared concepts, notably materiality, technology, and history.


New approaches to text-media, while varying widely in their philosophical and political commitments, share an emphasis on the inescapability of the material text. Texts are intersubjective and social only to the extent that they take material form in voice (whether digital, audio tape or live), script, print, film or pixels. Rather than seeing the material instantiation of a text as accidental in both senses (contingent and unessential), recent work recognizes that the material form of the text is a rich source of meaning that inflects and reshapes the text itself. At the same time, the recalcitrance of material forms provokes the creative ingenuity of artists and artisans whose improvisations frequently lead to new forms and new technologies. The consequence is a rich dialectic between the desires and intentions of creative agents and the capacities and potentials of the media at their disposal. At the same time, an emphasis on the material modes of communication, whether performative, textual, or hybrid, introduces an irreducibly historical aspect to textual analysis. Recent approaches to the editing of Shakespeare texts, in effect “unediting” them into separate recognizable entities according to their published forms, insistently foregrounds the historicity of a particular textual variant. The case of dramatic texts is rendered especially complex by the dimension of performance. Since every performance both supplements and abbreviates the author’s text, is each performance its own unique version of the play? However one chooses to answer, the question itself forces one to confront the significant gap between the material book and the physical theater, as well as the historical dimension of each form.


Along with this interest in the material text comes a focus on the technologies of communication, their procedures and protocols, their constraints as well as their power. While it was once common to look at the history of technologies of communication as a linear succession in which each new technology displaced the one that preceded it, recent work has rightly insisted on the concurrence of multiple forms of technology. Just as writing did not displace speech, print did not displace manuscript, nor is it likely that electronic forms will entirely displace print. Instead, a multiplicity of technologies exist simultaneously fostering a collage effect -- that is, a textual culture of multiple and hybrid forms. Jerome McGann’s work on The Rossetti Archive, for example, has demonstrated that the technologies of hypertext and the internet are especially well-suited for the exploration of a complex body of work that includes print, manuscript, and images. Rather than consigning Dante Gabriel Rossetti to oblivion, the new electronic media offer unprecedented access to his printed and visual works and, as importantly, new ways of reading those works.


Work on the technologies of communication is informed by an insistent awareness of history. In the past, such an awareness often took the form of a metanarrative that assumed a progress from orality to script, from script to print, and, finally, from print to electronic media, but more recently a general incredulity toward metanarratives has led scholars to focus on the local and the specific. Such microhistories have produced genuine discoveries, but they have also promoted a hyper-specialization, which frequently isolates scholars from those working in adjacent fields or periods.

Text-media studies provides a paradigm that highlights the historical dimensions of textuality while exploring relations among the forms of media. Alternative historical narratives, such as the counternarrative of the rise of performance, and new forms of historical narrative, such as the stress on collage with its emphasis on the interpenetration of different media rather than their competition and displacement, offer new ways of thinking about the social quality of texts and the varieties of meaning that they carry.

Participating Faculty