Plus ca change…

By , 26 September, 2008, No Comment

In my history of media course, we had a guest lecture by a young scholar of 18th century European print culture the other day. Dr. Will Slaughter is a protege of pioneering cultural historian Robert Darnton. Darnton basically maintains that there has always been a news media, because any spreading of information counts as news. The transitions from people gossiping in living rooms (c. 1700), to gossiping in streets (c. 1750), to writing down their gossip (c.1800), to videotaping that gossip (c. 1950) are technological superficialities. He denies that there’s any historical moment where mass media is born (and thus, denies any theories that link mass media to the rise of mass/democratic politics in the mid-19th century).

Slaugther applies Darnton’s theory to the present: if the essence of media is atemporal, then today’s blogosphere should function more or less the same way as the 18th century’s print culture. In the 18th century, newsletters or gazettes were produced in people’s basements and in small artisan shops and filled with the gossip–some political, some pop cultural–collected on street corners, gleaned from personal correspondence, or copied from other gazettes. There were no reporters out asking questions of sources, and very little emphasis on timeliness or news-breaking. Readership was limited to an elite literate class, often the same people who supplied the information in a gazette’s pages.

Readers as writers. Competitors as sources. A network of information sources, rather than an organically produced stand-alone product. A contraversial mix of gossip and political news. No bylines, no author copyrights, no proprietary information. So far, the comparison between blogs and 18th century gazettes holds. Indeed, says Slaughter, the 19th and 20th centuries, with their emphasis on authorship, objectivity and linear paths for information are an aberration from the historical norm. The blogosphere isn’t radical; it’s a move back to basics.

Here’s where his argument fails: the gazettes were an upper-class phenomenon, where the blogosphere is powerful because it operates all the way and up and down the social hierarchy. Moreover, bloggers consider that mass readership/writership, the masses’ right to know a key part of what we do. And that notion of the public right to information is a direct outgrowth of the way media developed in the 19th and 20th centuries, as a key component of mass politics, the “fourth estate.”

Like most newfangled trends, blogs are not entirely new: they draw in form on 18th century cultural practices, but in function and content on 19th century news media. But because they combine those practices, blogs don’t map neatly onto either of the preceding phenomena.

People are always looking for exact historical corrollaries: Obama is “just like” JFK, the credit crisis is “just like” the Great Depression, Iraq is “just like” Vietnam. History does repeat itself, I admit, but rarely in such obvious ways.

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