Richard Bauman on his book, A Most Valuable Medium

Interview by Ilana Gershon

Ilana Gershon: What inspired you to study early commercial sound recordings? And what problems did these recordings present to their makers?

Dick Bauman: In hindsight, my turn to early commercial recordings seems almost overdetermined. First, the work of Milman Parry and Albert Lord on oral-formulaic composition had a profound effect on my thinking about oral poetics and performance, which have been close to the center of my scholarly interests throughout my career, from graduate school on down. A key aspect of Parry and Lord’s work focused on what happens to oral poetics with the advent of writing and print, a problem, after all, in remediation. Then, in the ‘80s and ‘90s, there was an opening among linguistic anthropologists to related debates concerning the correlates and effects of writing and print on verbal expression, stimulated by the work of Walter Ong, Jack Goody, Elizabeth Eisenstein, et al., and by further extension to the relationships between print culture and digital media. The term, “remediation,” of course, was coined by scholars interested in the advent of digital media. All of these issues, I should add, resonated with the strong turn toward contextualization and recontextualization that lay at the center of my work at the time with Charles Briggs and with colleagues in various working groups at the Center for Transcultural Studies.

In the late ‘90s, my involvement in the formation of the department of Communication and Culture at IU, which brought me into intellectually energizing dialogue with colleagues in media studies and public culture, led me to an interest in the advent of new media more generally and the dynamics of remediation as established expressive forms were adapted to the affordances of new communicative technologies. At around that same point, by a stroke of good fortune, Patrick Feaster appeared in a graduate class I was teaching on performance. In advance of a seminar presentation he was scheduled to deliver, Patrick distributed a CD to class members containing a sampling of spoken-word performances on early commercial sound recordings from the formative period of the mid- to late 1890s. That CD just knocked me off my chair. I realized that the performers were engaged in a formative moment in the development of a new medium, trying to devise ways of accomplishing the performance of genres that people were accustomed to experiencing in co-present, multi-sensory situations—stories, political oratory, sermons, market cries–employing technological means that relied on sound alone and allowed two and a half to four minutes to get the performance done. Moreover, sound recording separated the time and place of performance from the time and place of reception and shifted the site of performance from public to domestic space. How did they pull it off? That’s what the book is about.

Ilana Gershon: In the first chapter, you offer readers a way to distinguish between different types of publics that I personally find enormously helpful for thinking about the various forms of public address I happen to study –gathered publics, historically founded publics, and distributive publics..  This goes a step further than Michael Warner’s take on publics in a way that introduces techniques for engaging with differences between publics ethnographically.  What would you recommend anthropologists focus on to know what kinds of publics they are analyzing?

Dick Bauman:  Ever since I first encountered his work in a Center for Transcultural Studies seminar on languages and publics, I have found Warner’s work on public culture and the generation of publics energizing and provocative. In regard to chapter 2, my approach comes at the discursive constitution of publics from a perspective that is complementary to Warner’s but different in its focus and emphasis. At the risk of oversimplification, Warner is interested in the ways that publics may be constituted by the circulation of written texts, texts that are to be read. What I am concerned with in chapter two is the metapragmatics of remediation and performance, with specific reference to a particular genre, namely, political oratory. Political oratory foregrounds the rhetorical function, with a set toward the addressee. What I am trying to get at in chapter two is how, specifically, recorded forms of oratorical performance manage the addressive function, how performers interpellate receivers from whom they are removed in time and space as members of particular orders of public. Part of that problem implicates what recorded oratorical performances bring with them in the process of remediation from co-present performance to sound recording. Warner’s work, in Publics and Counterpublics (2002) takes up all of these issues to greater or lesser degrees. He notes early on that a public can be “a concrete audience” in a co-present performance, but he sets that order of public aside as outside his agenda. He also acknowledges the differential effects of genre in the discursive constitution of publics. More importantly, he attends closely to the fundamental formative importance of addressivity, at least in general. But again, we’re coming at publics from different—though complementary—perspectives. His literary perspective leads him to focus on the circulation of written texts. My interest, from the vantage point of linguistic anthropology, folklore, and media history, is on genre, performance, and remediation.

Ilana Gershon: I am struck throughout the book at the ways in which it seemed like it was an open question of the ideal life trajectory of a phonographic recording.   You stress that marketers encourage collecting, and at least for some of the recordings you mention, they could easily be seen as souvenirs or items to be collected, even when they were campaign speeches, and so might seem irrelevant after an election.  This is a striking contrast to how people seemed to treat newspapers – disposing the newspaper after they have served their daily or weekly purpose.   Could you say more about the markets being called into being using phonographs?

Dick Bauman: Great question. When early phonograph entrepreneurs turned from marketing phonographic equipment essentially for stenographic purposes to a marketing strategy that combined the sale of relatively low-priced playback machines with the promotion of ready-made recordings as the principal source of profit, they faced the problem of defining and building markets for the phonograph of a medium of entertainment. The first effort to exploit the phonograph for entertainment purposes was to place nickel-in-the-slot phonographs in public places—arcades, train and ferry terminals, hotel lobbies, and the like. The most far-reaching marketing effort, though, was to promote the shift of phonographic entertainment from public sites to domestic space, framing sound recordings as a medium of home entertainment—in fact, the first mass-medium of home entertainment. This creative commercial process demanded the cultivation of an audience-cum-market prepared to engage performance forms that they were accustomed to experiencing in live, co-present situations now in the privacy of their own homes. These promotional efforts—specifically, how record producers and performers conceived of and aligned their records of home audiences—is one of the core problems of my book. The practical answers to that problem were many. They ranged from symbolically constructing phonograph records as prestige goods, to cultivating star performers whose records were attractive enough to create a fan base who could be encouraged to collect all of the star’s recordings, to promoting certain classes of recordings, such as presidential campaign records, as having durable value as historically important collectibles. In addition, marketers emphasized the potential of the new medium to expand audiences by including women, for example, who might not have been comfortable in attending certain kinds of live performances. Yet other efforts were devoted to proclaiming the acoustic fidelity of recordings vis-á-vis live performance. The discover and analysis of these processes make up perhaps the central problem of the book.

Ilana Gershon: Are there productive differences between aural blackface and aural class parody?  I am struck by how much your chapter on country rubes resembles similar othering performances to the aural blackface and I was wondering what patterns you saw in the ways in which aural parodies were used to comment on identities that for some could be adopted and put down again.

Dick Bauman: I use the term “aural blackface” because the burlesque sermons I analyze in chapter 3 are indexical icons of sermon performances in blackface minstrelsy as a platform genre of popular entertainments. Blackface minstrel shows would have been the frame of reference through which listeners to the recordings heard the recorded performances. “Blackface,” or course, foregrounds the burnt-cork  “blacking up” of the mostly white performers who made up the blackface troupes. It is a visual emblem of blackface minstrelsy. “Aural blackface” switches the sensory modality from the visual to the auditory, as befits a turn to sound recording. In larger scope, the register and style of the recorded sermons served as classic signs of difference, acoustically realized. Dialect humor—Irish, rube, German, Yiddish, African American–was extremely widespread in the popular entertainments of the period I examine in the book, ca. 1895-1920, period of burgeoning immigration to the U.S. and internal migration within the U.S. Stage dialects of all kinds were aurally performed signs of social dialects heard and marked as Other in the contemporary world of the recordings I examine. They were performance registers that indexed social types and characterological figure, both in society at large and in the domain of popular entertainment, blackface minstrelsy, early vaudeville, medicine shows, and the like.

Dick Bauman:  That question requires a bit of a stretch. Let me answer by assuming that the majority of my readers will be folklorists, linguistic anthropologists, and maybe ethnomusicologists, at least open to the idea that attention to remediation and intermediality might illuminate persistent problems in their fields. After all, as I suggested in earlier answers, questions concerning orality and literacy, recontextualization, and sonic media have been around for a long time and bear on important aspects of communication in society. So, for those folks on the threshold, I have several broad suggestions to offer.

First, I would advocate for extension of remediation studies more broadly and comprehensively across media. The advent of every new medium involves remediation, yet the study of remediation in linguistic anthropology and folklore has been very selective in coverage, focusing overwhelmingly on the advent of writing and print and the development of digital media, but it’s remediation all the way down. Passing over recorded sound as a new medium, for example, as I argue in the book, gives rise to distortions and misconceptions. I should mention, though, that the still emergent field of sound studies in anthropology, energized by linguistic anthropologists and ethnomusicologists, like Steve Feld, Don Brenneis, and Ana Maria Ochoa Gautier, has opened up important new lines of inquiry and modes of analysis in the anthropological study of remediation.

            Second, I would argue that the remediation of performance forms is especially revealing insofar as performance—at least as I conceive of it—is a highly reflexive mode of communication that tends to reveal especially clearly what performance forms bring with them from prior contexts and how they manage recontextualization in a new medium.

            Third, I would advocate for close attention to form-function interrelationships, to genre (in its formal, thematic, and pragmatic aspects), participant roles and structures, and the dynamics of contextualization as existing forms are adapted to the affordances of new media. Here is where linguistic anthropology and ethnomusicology can lead the way.

            Finally, for now, anyway, I would urge linguistic anthropologists and folklorists to cultivate the skills of media historians and to apply their own anthropological, linguistic, and folkloristic skills and toolkits to historical processes of remediation. We’ve contributed a lot to the orality-literacy debates,  and I believe we have just as much to offer to the historical and ethnographic study of new media more broadly.