How Text Lost Its Source: Magnetic Recording Culture

Sayers, Jentery. How Text Lost Its Source: Magnetic Recording Culture. 2011. University of Washington, PhD dissertation.

Adviser: Herbert Blau

How Text Lost Its Source: Magnetic Recording Cultures is a cultural history of magnetic recording (1878 to the present) that focuses on the popular perception of a technical impossibility: separating audio and electronic texts from the sources of their inscription. Written at the intersection of literary criticism, media studies, and science and technology studies, it traces the construction of ideal magnetic media, which transmit seemingly immaterial information by creating and then erasing a split between original and copy. Examples include disembodied voices on wire, remote memories on tape, and immersive novels on floppy disks. Today, such a history is relevant because, though ubiquitous, magnetic storage is rarely an object of humanities inquiry, where the Internet and (according to Nick Montfort) the computer screen have dominated scholarly attention. Such a history is also timely since, as Matthew Kirschenbaum shows, electronic texts are frequently rendered fleeting phenomena free from inscription. On their face, these issues are merely technical matters; however, the moment of the merely technical is when intuitive technologies and imperceptible media are indeed the most ideological. That said, How Text Lost Its Source also examines historical inattention to magnetic media and its relationship to writing (broadly conceived) through magnetic sound reproduction, which—like today's electronic texts—has long been subtended by a cultural impulse to erase any perceivable trace of its inscription during playback. Ultimately, the dissertation argues that traditions in studying audio, and not just print, should inform research on today's electronic texts. In so doing, it mobilizes the work of Kirschenbaum, Wendy Chun, and Jonathan Sterne toward a materialist criticism of how magnetic objects and recording practices are transubstantiated into the spirits of sound and electricity.

Status of Research or Work: 
Completed/published
Research Type: