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Michael Lempert - Review of Richard Bauman and Patrick Feaster, A Most Valuable Medium: The Remediation of Oral Performance on Early Commercial Recordings

Michael Lempert - Review of Richard Bauman and Patrick Feaster, A Most Valuable Medium: The Remediation of Oral Performance on Early Commercial Recordings

black and white photo of a man with a fiddle and an early recording device

How do you take a riveting oral performance based on human co-presence and rapt involvement—a storytelling event or church sermon or campaign speech—and preserve qualities of that public performance in a new medium limited only to sound and lasting a maximum of three minutes, to be listened to by individuals in the privacy of their homes? In A Most Valuable Medium, Richard Bauman, with assistance from Patrick Feaster, explores such questions of "remediation" in this fascinating historical ethnography of early commercial sound recording in the United States.In this book, centered on the formative years of 1895 to 1920, we not only learn what performers of the spoken word did to adjust their craft to the constraints of this remarkable new medium; we are also drawn into the then live question of what this medium was. Edison, tellingly, at first wasn't quite sure what his phonograph was for. He had casted about widely for its potential functions--and potential markets. Early on he thought his phonograph might be useful for office work, but that didn't work out so well; later, he and others invested in sound recording as a medium of entertainment. Bauman and Feaster in this way dwell on a historical moment characterized by great contingency and plasticity, allowing us to see an inchoate medium take shape.

The chapters are organized largely by discourse genre, beginning with the remediation of political oratory and ending with storytelling. In each chapter we are treated to an array of performance artists--George Graham, Bert Williams, Cal Stewart, Charles Ross Taggart, among others--whose work Bauman transcribes and analyzes with characteristic clarity, insight, and care. Even as Bauman highlights intricacies of these transcribed texts to teach us about the work of remediation, he often also teases out the threads of grander stories—about the sociohistorical world in which all this remediation was happening.

Chapter 2 is a vivid example, as it touches on US racial politics at the turn of the twentieth century. Bauman focuses here on recorded parodies of church sermons from the blackface minstrel-show tradition. He includes not just White performers but also Black vocal artists. Through comparison, Bauman exposes subtle but divergent stances on the figure of the "old time" Black preacher being parodied. For African Americans, this was an internally contested figure, as many debated what the "New Negro," who shed past oppression, required. Did this require turning decisively away from the Black preacher, or was such a response simply White supremacy internalized? Bauman in this way notices in these parodic performances contestation over the past and future. Chapter 4 is equally far-reaching, as he uses storytelling to unspool a larger story about the cultivation and commoditization of rural nostalgia--"country communicability"—during a period of rapid urbanization.

As this book opens up windows here and there onto the historical surround, it also raises deeper theoretical questions about remediation itself. Bauman likes the idea of remediation (and the cognate notion of intermediality) for the way it "captures, in the prefix re-, the sequential relationship involved in the adaptation of an antecedent performance form actualized by means of a specific medium, the embodied semiosis of voice and gesture, to a new medium, recorded sound" (8). In one telling moment, he advises us not to think of remediation as having any neat beginning. It isn't that "traditional storytelling," for instance, got transposed into the new medium of mechanical sound recording, because traditional storytelling had already been objectified and commodified for the stage and elsewhere (93-94). Storytelling had already been remediated, in a way, just not by means of a mechanical recording technology like the phonograph. As Bauman says, "the history of communication is a history of remediation all the way down, as established ways and means of communication are adapted to new communicative technologies, each with its own affordances and social relations of production, consumption, and circulation" (12). Similar arguments have been made by those who stress continuity instead of rupture in histories of mass-media transitions (e.g., from radio to film). But if we take "communicative technology" in the above quote more expansively—where technology doesn't necessarily mean machines in a narrow sense—then this argument about remediation becomes even more interestingly unsettling and may be compared with competing arguments made, notably, by those in German media theory. Which is simply to say that theorists of media will find this book interesting to think with.

This spirited and well-researched book is a must-read for many audiences, including scholars and students of media history, media anthropology, and sound studies; linguistic anthropologists, folklorists, and ethnographers of performance; and Americanists and historians of various stripes.

Finally, this book itself is a self-conscious experiment in intermediality. Not only have the authors remediated these old sound recordings for us, this time transposing them into written transcripts. Before we can reach these transcripts, or even the first words of the introduction, they have inserted a page that stops and enjoins readers, "Listen to the Records." By this they do not of course mean that we listen with the machines of old but rather that we visit the digitized sound archive curated by Feaster, who also supplies a discography as an appendix. Readers can in this way listen to each transcript as they go along. I listened a bit before starting the book and was struck by how strange and remote the recordings felt. It is a tribute to the authors that these otherwise remote recordings acquire an indexical fullness through this latest remediation. It is as if the Benjaminian "aura" of these recordings—all the singular indexical ties that bind a work of art to time and place and person, in a word, to its "context"—far from being lost by mechanical reproduction, have instead been restored, allowing us to experience, in print and sound, the value of this "most valuable medium."


[Review length: 977 words • Review posted on January 29, 2024]