Editor’s Note

Is That a Thing?
The Twitching Document and the Talking Object

Barbara Friedman, Editor

Barbara Friedman, Editor

The historical study of material culture is . . . one of the most interdisciplinary ways of investigating the past, with historians comfortably in dialogue and collaboration with archaeologists, sociologists, folklorists, and anthropologists, as well as museum curators and antiquarians, among others.[1]

A venerated historian referred recently to state records, that most traditional of primary sources, as “frozen history.” He explained, “What we have to do is warm them up a bit so they begin to twitch, and then the diaphragm starts heaving and they talk to you, and you can talk back.”[2] Slightly creepy but undeniably vivid, Peter Hennessy’s image of the twitching document provides an impetus for thinking about materiality in our field and, moreover, the ability of those things to talk.

Textual documents, such as the ones described by Hennessy, possess significant evidentiary value and, as one might expect, they dominate our field’s primary-source material (that’s certainly true for the articles in this issue of American Journalism): newspapers and magazines, business and personal correspondence, scripts and transcripts, for example. But consider for a moment the range of material objects that populate our field’s history: the printing press, newsprint, advertising placards and trinkets, ink, the press pass, green eyeshades, typewriters, carrier pigeons, bicycles, and caffeine, for example. Materiality, as both historical object and scholarly expression, could include any of the tools used in the production of news and in other forms of communication, as well as things that tell us about how the work was carried out—photographs of newsrooms, for example, that suggest such things as organizational hierarchies and the impact of industrialization on the production of news.[3] Magazine mailing labels, as another example, may hold clues to the elusive historical audience.[4] Anything goes—the study of material culture “takes an interest in all conceivable objects and every historical period.”[5]

The emergence/reemergence of material culture as a distinct field occurred in the mid-1990s,[6] an orientation most likely spurred by the desire among historians to “connect with the ‘real,’” wrote one scholar.[7] The studies that emerged from this renaissance were refreshingly transdisciplinary; collections represented the hard sciences as much as the humanities. Some of this work was written by scholars loosely connected to the journalism and mass communication field, but studies in material culture from our field are few in number and range widely in quality. This is not because we have neglected the study of artifacts but because we rarely treat their authority as equal to textual document—and because our work seldom engages overtly with the methodological approaches and theories of material culture studies.[8] Ours is a tendency to “look through objects (to see what they disclose about history, society, nature, or culture—above all, what they disclose about us), but . . . only catch a glimpse of things.”[9] Why does that occur? “Because there are codes by which our interpretive attention makes [things] meaningful,” explains literary theorist Bill Brown, “because there is a discourse of objectivity that allows us to use them as facts.”[10]Eschewing textual documents for material objects “require[s] different sense economies and modes of working,” notes H. Otto Sibum, a historian of science. Not that the two are mutually exclusive—consider, for example, books, which take both text/object forms. What Sibum suggests has more to do with taxonomy. “Texts are still very important, but we have to rethink their exclusive status in providing evidence as much as we have to work hard to develop methods in order to make speak the silent representatives of the past, the working knowledge embodied in physical things.”[11]

Thus, Sibum returns to the notion of talking things. But how do things talk? Lorraine Daston has described the capacity of objects to express meaning through their materiality: how they were made, their intended uses, the ways they are/were talked about—some of the qualities that confer thingness.[12] “Even if they do not literally whisper and shout,” she wrote, “these things press their messages on attentive auditors—many messages, delicately adjusted to context, revelatory, and right on target.”[13] Elsewhere, she has described “coming into being,” a process by which a “heretofore unknown, ignored, or dispersed set of phenomena is transformed into a scientific object that can be observed and manipulated, that is capable of theoretical ramifications and empirical surprises, and that coheres, at least for a time, as an ontological entity.”[14] Daston’s field, science history, has led the way in historicizing materiality.

What would the material turn in our field, a move (and not necessarily a departure) from the “twitching” document to the “talking” object, look like? One harbinger might be Lisa Gitelman’s Paper Knowledge: Toward a Media History of Documents, which addresses documents as epistemic objects; or, Michael Stamm’s upcoming book, which examines newspapers as an industrially produced material object. A recent collaboration between journalism studies and communication history scholars provides further clues: Organizers called for work that moves “away from the perspectives focusing on overarching forces—be they of an economic, ideological or technical nature—as the main explanation of what happens in the making of the news. Without denying the existence of such forces, the approach advocated here tentatively explores the very material objects, sometimes seemingly innocuous or univocal, involved in journalistic production.”[15] Research presented at that session examined, among other things, the material evolution of newsrooms and the materiality of fact-checking work.

A material turn could bring to the forefront historical ethnographies,[16] privilege new sorts of primary source materials,[17] widen the field of book history, and invite historical treatments of “form without matter.”[18] Our field has examined the concept of professionalism from many angles, but as yet there has been no study of the press pass, a material object that conferred legitimacy upon journalists and provided them with access to privileged (and in some cases, dangerous) spaces.[19]

The nascent material turn will be energized by the work of a growing community of scholars eager to engage with fields already proficient with studies of material artifacts. These transdisciplinary pioneers will need to busy themselves at first sorting out the methodological challenges that material studies pose to the journalism/mass communication field. Current demands upon journalism schools to marry the abstract and the practical—to “connect with ‘the real’”—should be exploited to the fullest. (If you’re displeased with all the talk about engaged scholarship, just think of it as making lemonade from lemons.) The ability to think with things rather than through things surely will give us wider range to talk about things important to our field.

“People use [things] differently from words,” wrote historian Leora Auslander. Thus, “objects provide another, a different, source from language. Without things, our understanding of people is impoverished.”[20] More than props, the material artifacts of our field, examined in their historical context and in their complex “thingness,” can lead us to new understandings about the origins and evolution of our field. If the material turn is upon us, it is a good thing.


[1] Leora Auslander et al., “AHR Conversations: Historians and the Study of Material Culture,” American Historical Review 114, no. 5 (December 2009): 1355.

[2] “Peter Hennessy,” British Academy Review, February 2014, 38.

[3] For an excellent example of photographs as revealing of news work, see Hanno Hardt and Bonnie Brennen, “Newswork, History, and Photographic Evidence: A Visual Analysis of a 1930s Newsroom,” in Picturing the Past: Media, History, and Photography, ed. Bonnie Brennen and Hanno Hardt (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1999). Also, see, Joel Snyder, “Res Ipsa Loquitur,” in Things That Talk, ed. Lorraine J. Daston (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2004), 195-221, in which the author examines nineteenth-century understandings of photographs and, of particular interest, objections to the admissibility of photographs as evidence in American courts of law.

[4] Carolyn Kitch demonstrated in a conference-panel session how much could be known about an individual reader, including education and socioeconomic status, by tracing the mailing label from an early twentieth-century women’s magazine. Berkley Hudson et al., “How To Teach Students to Mine Media History Archives” (teaching panel presented to annual conference of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication, St. Louis, MO, August 12, 2011).

[5] Auslander, et al., “AHR Conversations,” 1355.

[6] A historiography of the field is not the aim of this essay, but it should be noted that material culture studies have always been part of certain disciplines—art, anthropology, and archaeology, for example—and numerous studies of material cultures circulated in the 1960s and 1970s. For examples of 1990s work, see the collection by David Kingery, ed., Learning From Things: Method and Theory of Material Culture Studies (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1996). As more specific examples, see these studies of, respectively, objects used for child-rearing and Victorian-era household goods: Karin Calvert, Children in the House: The Material Culture of Early Childhood, 1600-1900 (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1992); Kenneth Ames, Death in the Dining Room and Other Tales of Victorian Culture (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1992).

[7] Bill Brown, “Thing Theory,” Critical Inquiry 28 (Autumn 2001): 2.

[8] Philosophers Martin Heidegger and Immanuel Kant are closely associated with the concept of “thingness.”

[9] Brown, “Thing Theory,” 4.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Auslander et al., “AHR Conversations,” 1359.

[12] Martin Heidegger, “The Origin of the Work of Art” in Basic Writings, ed. David Farrell Krell (New York: Harper Perennial Modern Thought, 2008), 139-212, in which Heidegger explained the notion of thingness. It may be fair to say that some people are not as enamored as are philosophers and historians with thingness. See, “Artists Get £20k to ‘Grapple With the Concept of Thing-ness’: Taxpayer-Funded Projects Denounced as ‘Self-Indulgent’ Waste of Money,” (London) Daily Mail, June 7, 2014.

[13] Daston, ed., Things That Talk, 12.

[14] Lorraine Daston, ed., Biographies of Scientific Objects (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 5.

[15] Excerpt from a description of and call for papers related to “The Objects of Journalism,” a pre-conference at the 2013 meeting of the International Communication Association, http://objectsofjournalism.wordpress.com/2012/09/25/call-for-papers-the-objects-of-journalism-media-materiality-and-the-news.

[16] See, for example, C. W. Anderson, Rebuilding the News: Metropolitan Journalism in the Digital Age (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2013).

[17] See, for example, Ellen Gruber Garvey, Writing With Scissors: American Scrapbooks from the Civil War to the Harlem Renaissance (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013). Garvey’s scholarly base is English, yet her research often examines media artifacts, including advertising memorabilia and newspaper clippings. See, also, Ellen Gruber Garvey, The Adman in the Parlor: Magazines and the Gendering of Consumer Culture, 1880s to 1910s (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996).

[18] Paul Leonardi has addressed this topic as it relates to modern media. See, Paul M. Leonardi, “Digital Materiality? How Artifacts Without Matter, Matter,” First Monday 15, no. 6-7 (June 2010), http://firstmonday.org/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/3036/2567.

[19] For a possible model, see, Craig Robertson, The Passport in America: The History of a Document (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010); see, also, Lisa Gitelman, Paper Knowledge: Toward a Media History of Documents (Durham: Duke University Press, 2014).

[20] Auslander, et al., “AHR Conversations,” 1357.