Friday, August 11, 2006

FIVE BOOKS OF NOTE

Larry Gross, once my advisor at Penn, now my enduring sensei, posted to the cultstud listserv recently. In this post, Larry announced the coming of a new online journal of communication. It will be called the International Journal of Communication (one is to be thankful for unpretentious journal names), and it looks like the official launch will be this fall. They're looking for review and manuscript submissions now. I'm sure the IJoC will be worth watching. Larry's editing with Manuel Castells, and it's a stellar board of editors (and advisory board). So, good.

As editor of the IJoC, Larry invites communication scholars to "send us brief [or longer] notes on the following two topics: the five most important books in your area in the past decade...; and/or the most important but overlooked books in your areas of interest." Never one to fail Larry in his hour of need, I offer my list of what I think are the most important books in my area (call it 'media studies') in the last decade. Here they are in no particular order:

1. Speaking Into the Air, by John Durham Peters (1999).
This book has the kind of breathtaking scope you wish books actually had when you read reviews that describe 'breathtaking scopes'. Peters holds a huge houserockin' party in the run-down shack that is communication theory, and he invites everybody: Adorno, St. Augustine, Derrida, Emerson, Hegel, Heidegger, Levinas, Josiah Royce, William Blake, and geez, all kinds of other folks. But this is not just some name-check jamboree. Peters has a quill full of arguments, and he's out to slay a number of dragons (and perhaps bring others to life). Great quote: "that we are destined to interpret, and that interpretation will always involve our desires and their conflicts, does not signal a fall from the supposed grace of immediacy; it is a description of the very possibility of interaction." Yup.

2. The Media and Modernity, by John B. Thompson (1995).
Thompson offers us, with this book, a very successful attempt to reconsider all of modernity in terms of media processes. He takes a multi-perspectival, but recognizably socoiological, approach to communication, and he throws a mean old knuckleball (not fast, but curve galore) at some of the more faddish approaches to media theory. Thompson integrates tremendous variety of social scientific perspectives on communication. There's a lot in this book that isn't very surprising. But in its own way, it re-shapes what can be thought of as figure and ground in media theory and research.

3. The Good Citizen, by Michael Schudson (1998).
Schudson's writing style is quite recognizable. Effortlessly intelligent, pugnacious without being snotty, surprisingly controversial, Schudson here traces the history of "american civic life". We've seen this kind of thing before, of course. But Schudson's not interested in the dime-a-dozen narrative of civic decline. The book is hopeful about civic life, and remains steadfast in the most Schudsonian mode of all: skepticism about the great promise of 'dialogue'.

4. Canonic Texts in Media Research, ed. by Elihu Katz, John Durham Peters, Tamar Liebes, and Avril Orloff (2003).
This is a rather widely-read collection of chapters concerning what could be taken as the canon of media research. The volume gives us truly thouhtful reconsiderations of works that are sometimes thought to be too dusty to be worth it. We get Peter Simonson and Gabriel Weimann on Lazarsfeld & Merton's "Mass Communication, Popular Taste, and Organized Social Action"; John Durham Peters's subtle take on Horkheimer & Adorno's "The Culture Industry"; and Menahem Blondheim's altogether brilliant reflections on Harold Innis's notion of the bias of communication. This book raises more questions that it could hope to answer (questions about canonization's desirability and pitfalls, the field of communication's frustrating lack of concern with its own history, and much else), and one hopes that that is the point.

5. Convergence Culture, by Henry Jenkins (2006). It's a Henry Jenkins book, and it concerns new media and old media being pulled together. I rarely agree with Jenkins entirely (and, of course, he should not care whether I do or not), but he's a great writer, and he gets his fingernails dirty with what it is that interests me about current directions in popular culture. His understanding of convergence is very well-grounded in much time spent looking at things from the audience's point of view. I think this will be essential reading for some time.

I'm likely to revise this list. More on unheard-of stuff soon.

2 Comments:

Anonymous Mark B said...

Dave:
Would agree with most of the books you list here (except for Jenkins and Thompson, only because I haven't read them). Couldn't decide on just five, so I thought I'd post five each on good recent work that's been done on American public culture, and on ritual communication.

Ritual:
1. Rational ritual, Michael Suk-Young Chwe
2. Ritual and religion in the making of humanity, Roy Rappapport
3. Media ritual, Nick Couldry
4. The ceremonial animal, Wendy James
5. Blood sacrifice and the nation, Carolyn Marvin and David Ingle

Honorable mention goes to Richard Sennett's Flesh and Stone, which is from 1994 but still a great book.

Public culture/history of journalism
1. In the midst of perpetual fetes, David Waldstreicher
2. Rum punch and revolution, Peter Thompson
3. Civic Wars, Mary Ryan
4. The tyranny of printers, Jeffrey Pasley
5. Politics and the American press, Richard Kaplan

Honorable mention here goes to a recent book by Brian Cowan, The social life of coffee, which like Thompson's book is an important contribution to our understanding of the historical public sphere and an interesting revision of the Habermasian notion. Also, Simon Newman, Parades and politics of the street.

3:17 PM  
Blogger Steve Macek said...

Dave:
I too would agree with most of your choices (except for Jenkins, who I've never cared for though I confess I haven't read this book). Just a few more titles that I think should be on your list.

1. Colin Sparks, Communism, Capitalism and the Mass Media. [Deftly analyzes what has happened to Eastern Europe's media system since the collapse of the Warsaw pact and uses the story to illustrate the limitations of the capitalist media.]

2. Mike Wayne. Marxism and Media Studies: Key Concepts and Contemporary Trends. [A rare "introductory text" that actually breaks new ground and poses interesting, often novel theoretical arguments.]

3. Robert W. McChesney and Ben Scott ed. Our Unfree Press: 100 Years of Radical Media Criticism. [From Irwin, Dewey, Seldes and Sinclair to the Kerner Commission and Chomsky and Herman. Evidence that critics have long been aware of the extensive shortcomings of the commercial press.]

4. Allen Ruff. We Called Each Other Comrade: Charles H. Kerr & Company, Radical Publishers. [_The_ book on what was for a long time _the_ radical publisher in the U.S. They were the first company to publish an English translation of Marx's Das Kapital and endured decades of harassment from anti-communist zealots in government. Kerr is still around and still based in Chicago...]

5. Paul Starr, The Creation of the Media: Political Origins of Modern Communications. [Ok, it is "popular history". But itis damn fine popular history based on primary research. And it won a Pulitzer.]

--Steve

7:18 PM  

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