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Theory and Cultural History of 20th Century Media
ENGL 236 - Winter 2002,  William Warner

The 20th century was marked by an unprecedented expansion of new media forms--for example, film, radio, TV, the Internet. During the century, vast human and financial resources were expended upon the production and use of these new media forms. Among cultural critics, the rise of the cultural power of electronic media caused both alarm and fascination. An impressive body of intellectual work was developed to theorize the nature of media and calculate its social and aesthetic effects. In this course we will read some of the most influential theories of modern media, and we will seek to understand these theories in relation to the historical and technological developments of new media. For example Walter Benjamin develops his theory of media in order to explain how a culture of print and the book, with its fairly familiar aesthetic groundrules, it changed by the mechanical production of photography, film and radio; in response to the rise of television, Marshall McLuhan develops a media theory by contrasting the coherence he attributes to premodern oral cultures, with the hyper development of the eye he attributes to print.

Media that reach a large number of people at the same time seem to bring the inchoate variety and diversity of reality into focus as a single compelling image, voice, or narrative. Modern electronic media are often understood as something singular and totalizing, for example, through the blockbuster movie, the hit TV series, or a televised crisis “The War Against Terrorism.” The use of the singular definite article before the plural word “media”, as in “the media,” helps to promote the interpretation of “the media” as a single, powerful, separate entity. In this course, we want to take critical account of this popular, sometimes deceptive and sometimes self-serving idea of media. But we also want to understand the emergence of 20th century media forms and practices as part of the history of American networks. In other words all media (voice, writing, print, radio, etc.) are a means of connection, a complex system of relations through which humans communicate, network, and experience pleasure. These networks are sustained by labor, money and human interest; their effects of contradictory: networks enable liberating politics and coersive surveillance.

The reading assignments and screenings in this course will offer a selective tour of 20th century media forms and the theories developed to explain them. It is my hope that the seminar will become a laboratory where seminar members will explore and test these theories and histories by developing their own projects upon 20th century media.


William Warner

Office and Office Hours
SH 2507
On sabbatical


SH 2635
M, 2:00 PM4:30 PM

Required Texts

Walter Benjamin Illuminations
Essential McLuhan, Ed. Eric McLuhan and Frank Zingrone. New York: Basic Books, 1995.
Reader for Comp Lit 205A/ English 236: at The Alternative Copy Shop. 6556 Pardall Road; Isla Vista, CA 93117. Phone: 968-1055

Recommended Texts

Mercury Theatre: The War of the Worlds (October 30, 1938)

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