The inspiration for my review of Residual Media came from an unlikely source. It was a TV commercial for a cell phone company. The ad stars Bill Hader from Saturday Night Live as a guy who is trying to ruin his phone, so he can upgrade it. In the end he discovers that with this company he no longer has to wait two whole years to get a new phone.
The idea that a 15 month-old phone should be put in a blender struck me as so ridiculous that I could not get it out of my mind. When I discovered Residual Media, a book about the various forms of media that have come and gone over the past century, it seemed like the perfect answer to this mentality.
At first glance, the book appears to be a collection of essays about such outdated tools of communication as handwritten letters and vinyl records. As intriguing as these subjects are, they are really just the hook for an examination of the people who give these obsolete things a second life. There is an entire culture devoted to repurposing and appreciating abandoned media, and the stories about these quirky folks are what make the book so special.
There are 19 essays in Residual Media, which was edited by Charles R. Acland, and first published by the University of Minnesota Press in 2007. Considering the subject matter, it seems fitting that the book itself is “old,” but it is still in print. Having just read it, there is nothing in it that needs updating, all of the information about old typewriters and vaudeville (as two random examples) remains unchanged.
I think most of us have things that we have kept long past their prime, out of sentimentality or just because they still work just fine, whether there are more modern version available or not. My biggest guilty pleasure in this regard would be my vinyl collection. Not that mine is very extensive, but I do play my albums regularly.
There are two articles about vinyl, “Vinyl Junkies and the Soul Sonic Force of the 12-Inch Dance Single,” by Hillegonda C. Rietveld, and “Going Analog: Vinylphiles and the Consumption of the ‘Obsolete’ Vinyl Record,” by John Davis. There is some overlap in the two pieces, but as the titles indicate, the Rietveld chapter focuses more on DJ culture, while the one by Davis addresses guys (and it is a mostly male obsession) like me.
Davis begins with a discussion of the “format wars” of the ’50s, which shook out with the LP becoming dominant, and the 45 rpm single being the home of the hit single. It is a little hard to believe today, but there was a time when the people behind the 45 thought that an “album” would be a collection of 45 singles, rather than one 12-inch platter. He also describes how the industry literally killed off vinyl in 1989 by telling retailers that they could no longer return any unsold albums. In a business based on rapid turnover, the no returns policy was the end of the line for the LP.
Vinyl not only became obsolete almost overnight, but those of us who “kept the faith” were treated as weirdos for not moving on. Even in my group of music-fanatic friends, I was something of an outcast for not abandoning my records. Today those same friends regret dumping all of their vinyl, but they still consider me a little odd for not having gone with the program.
Davis talks about vinyl as almost a fetish object, what with all of the rituals involved. First there is the “hunt,” which details the ways we actually find the object of our dreams, and after finding it, there is a whole ritual involved in playing it. The album is carefully taken out of the sleeve, dusted off, placed on the turntable, and then the needle is placed in the groove. It is an involved process, and I am not ashamed to admit that it gives me a lot of pleasure.
In “The Celebration of a ‘Proper Product’: Exploring the Residual Collectible through the ‘Video Nasty,‘ Kate Egan describes something similar, with VHS tapes being the object of affection. The term ”Video Nasty,” does not refer to porn by the way, it is the nickname for a group of horror films that the British Board of Certification deemed “obscene.” A couple of these include The Evil Dead and I Spit on Your Grave. They were released on VHS in the early ’80s, before The Video Recordings Act (1984) required all home videos to be certified. When the titles were labeled obscene by the Board, they were basically banned, which made them instant collector’s items.
Before the advent of DVDs and the World Wide Web, the collecting made sense. If you wanted to see the full, uncut versions of these films, you had to play the game. But today, these films can be ordered from all over the world, complete with extras. Yet there is an entire “video nasties” subculture of collectors whose sole desire is to own every one of the originals on VHS for their collection. I had never even heard of this before, and now I am sort of sorry I have. I kind of want a video nasties collection of my own.
While collectors account for a high percentage of the people profiled in the book, there are many other “types“ as well. One is the artist Ivo Dekovic, who creates his works out of old electronics. In “Falling Apart: Electronics Salvaging and the Global Media Economy,” Lisa Parks describes an installation Dekovic made out of old television monitors in 1996. He used them as molds to create cement TVs, then sunk them in the Adriatic Sea. Every year he dives down and checks on how these concrete televisions have become part of the environment. Sea creatures are now using them to live on and in, and they have become part of their habitat.
Another great piece is “Recovering a Trashed Communication Genre: Letters as Memory, Art, and Collectible,” by Jennifer Adams. One point she makes that I had not previously considered is that people have been bemoaning the “death” of the letter since the advent of the telegraph. Where things really get interesting though is the way she breaks down what a letter is as a piece of writing. The following is an example of the types of insights found throughout Residual Media, and one that particularly hit home with me.
In looking at a personal letter, Adams sees an intriguing construction. In many ways the writer, the “I” is whoever they choose to be. Sympathetic, heroic, misunderstood, remorseful, whatever characterization they wish to present, they become through the power of the pen. And they control both sides of the conversation, as it is through their words that the recipient, or the “you” is defined. In this context, you are whoever they make you out to be.
Those are just four brief descriptions of the type of writing in Residual Media, and I hope that they are enough to pique your interest. As these chapters show, when an item becomes “obsolete,” its “life” is not really over at all. It is a concept that those of us who haunt thrift stores and garage sales instinctively embrace. But this is not the old fanzine Thrift Score, where hipsters regaled each other with tales of cool finds. The essays are almost scholarly in tone, featuring a well-developed thesis, solid data, and footnotes to back everything up.
Residual Media is also a lot of fun. Do not let the strong writing fool you, at heart, these people are talking about things they enjoy. As the saying goes, “Those who do not know history are doomed to repeat it,” and in these accelerated times, I think it is more important than ever to step off the treadmill and take a look back. Residual Media is one of the most interesting books I have come across in quite some time.