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Residual Media

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Charles AclandEdit

Charles Acland is a Concordia University Research Chair in Communciation Studies (Tier 2) in the Department of Communication Studies. He earned his B.Comm., specializing in Economics and Marketing, at Carleton University in Ottawa, and a Ph.D. in Cultural and Media Studies from the Institute of Communications Research, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Dr. Acland joined Concordia in 1999, after holding positions at Queen's University and the University of Calgary.

Residual Media [2007]Edit

In his introduction to this edited collection, Acland describes Residual Media as a text which “addresses media and cultural history, bringing together studies of technology and cultural practice. It contributes a corrective to contemporary scholarship's fetishization of the 'new'” (xix).

The idea of the residual is an alternative to the new and the shiny rhetoric of “new” media. In one sense, it attempts to account for the “fond references to things and sentiments that won't stay lost, dead, and buried” (xiv). Here, media has a relation to nostalgia, perhaps as a “yearning for authentic presence” (as Susan Stewart's On Longing) suggests or as an appropriate and positive response to a deficient present (as suggested by Stuart Tannock in his essay “Nostalgia Critique”, with nods to Fred Davis' Yearning for Yesterday) (xiv). Similarly, these objects have a role in our consumer society, as they are reloaded with semiotic value for some subcultures and become part of a re-purposed economic system, and thus “an organization of taste and value” (xv). Because our own economic culture learns toward novelty and innovation, it sustains “a gargantuan accumulation of materials, to be followed by increasingly intricate modes of accommodating the leftovers” (xv). As such, these topics and objects have become a rich source for academic investigation and artistic exploration.

Acland pulls this notion of the residual via Raymond Williams' writings Marxism and Literature and “The Base and Superstructure in Marxist Cultural Theory”. Historical change occurs according to three distinct yet related cultural forms: emergent, dominant and residual. The residual and the emergent are “prefiguring formations of the not yet fully dominant” (xx). The emergent accounts for new meanings and values that constantly arise within culture, while the residual, according to Williams, applies to “experiences, meanings and value, which cannot be expressed in terms of the dominant culture, are nevertheless lives and practised on the basis of the residue—cultural as well as social—of some previous social formation” (xx). It is a formation shaped in the past, but active in the present cultural process, and affective as such. The residual is this the presence of the past within the present (the residual is not “archaic” because the archaic is wholly in the past). The residual bears an oppositional potential for Williams, “because they represent areas of human experience, aspiration, and achievement which the dominant culture neglects, undervalues, opposes, represses, or even cannot recognize” (xxi). Thus, social change is always more like social wrestling, in which formations emerge from existing dominant ones, and residual practices also create opportunities for opposition. The past lives on, and continuity and discontinuity both create the motivating forces of social living.

For the authors in Residual Media, Williams' ideas “highlights a suspicion about the overemphasis on media revolutions, as it is frequently an attention that drags along fixed equations of social formations, of which technological determinism is the most prevalent” (xxi).

Of note in this collection is Jonathan Sterne's essay “Out with the Trash: On the Future of New Media”. In assessing obsolescence within the computing industry, Sterne argues the computers are no longer “new” media in relation to other media (as the microchip is over 40 years old), but new only in reference to themselves. Computer engineering has an ideological practice of sending out half-researched hardware and software, designing their tools to break, and making backwards compatibility more difficult. This, in turn, couples with the general trajectory of market capitalism, that seeks near term profit rather than long term stability. He closes by suggesting that alternative business models are not improbable, but need to be demanded by a public largely blinded by the annual vicissitudes to style.

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