Sensory History: A Primer


Everyone loves lists. The editors of Tropics of Meta have shown how much fun lists of scholarly books can be. Alex Cummings identifies ten books crucial to the study of media history, and Ryan Reft adds nineteen that explore U.S. military history (war and society). Both lists provide a pleasant introduction to excellent scholarship in important but sometimes misunderstood fields.In the same spirit, here’s a gentle invitation to ease your way into another fascinating but somewhat mysterious field, sensory history. Although there is nothing new about the explicit study of the five human senses (Aristotle shaped basic ideas about the role, meaning, and uses of the senses that still pervade the … [Read more...]

Ten of the Greatest Books on Media History

Mixtape salesman from owen's VV article

Historians have always had a tough time writing about media. The danger of technological determinism tends to loom over any discussion of technologies such as television or the Internet—the risk of arguing that a particular medium or device causes people to behave or think a certain way. That fear has been present since the earliest days of media studies, when the War of the Worlds and the pioneering audience research of Paul Lazarsfeld and the Bureau of Applied Social Research in the 1930s raised questions about the “effects” that mass media had on people, both as individuals and groups. Meanwhile, the power of Hitler’s megaphone implied that people as a mass were pliant, susceptible to a … [Read more...]

From Bauhaus to Your Mouse: Fred Turner’s Brilliant New Book on the Origins and Politics of Interactive Media

glimpses of USA

Democracy is a funny word.  In the strictest sense, it means “government by the people,” with decisions made by direct choice of those governed (in the classic Athenian or New Englandian sense) or by elected representatives. “Democratic” can mean inclusive; it can mean egalitarian.  It can mean diverse, in the sense that a democracy includes multiple voices, even if some end up prevailing over others.  It can also be a cultural sensibility—blue jeans, sloppy joes, and general unostentatiousness. “I know you like to line-dance, with everything so democratic and cool,” David Berman sang sixteen years ago, “but baby there’s no guidance when random rules…” The classic Silver Jews tune makes … [Read more...]

The Lego Movie and the Gospel of the Creative Class


Any parent who has ever stepped on one of the wonderful Danish bricks known as Legos might find their faith in karma reaffirmed by The Lego Movie. Indeed, a reasonable observer could not be blamed for doubting that a film adaptation of a toy could be hailed by critics as “the first fantastic movie of 2014,” or as “wickedly smart” with “a joyous wit.”  Yet this is what the Lego company—and directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller—have given us as payback for all those hurt feet: a fresh, dizzying, and audacious animated film about interlocking blocks and anonymous minifigurines. Of course, Michael Bay’s Transformers movies gave us plenty of reason to doubt the premise of toy-as-movie, … [Read more...]

When the Netflix Bingestrution Model Goes Wrong, or Why did Everyone Stop Talking about Orange is the New Black


When Orange is the New Black first became available on Netflix, one could almost feel the wave of deserved critical praise that washed over podcasts for months afterward. It was like riding the Tidal Wave roller coaster at Six Flags Great America--exhilarating, breathtaking, and then, over.   Most critics felt obliged, rightly so, to only address the first couple episodes lest they ruin anything for those of us struggling to play catch up. “Orange burns with the kind of laughter that usually only comes after tears; it's audacious, shocking, intimate, and intense,” applauded Grantland’s TV critic Andy Greenwald. Normally a curmudgeon on the topic of the Netflix bingestrution model, … [Read more...]

Filtering Music through a ToM Lens


"Starting with the affirmation of man/ I work myself backwards using cynicism," Mike Watt sings on the Minutemen's classic track "The Glory of Man." "I live sweat, I dream light years/ I am the tide - the rise and fall." For many of our writers individuals like Mike Watt and bands like the Shins or rap groups like Das Racist have served as a means to connect and filter our understanding of late 20th  and early 21st century culture and history. Needless to say it was a veritable red letter day when Watt tweeted at ToM regarding an article we had written about the band.  Undoubtedly, Watt remains a testament to the ethos of the hardcore punk movement—"Punk rock is an idea, not a musical … [Read more...]

Democracy of Sound: Music Piracy and the Remaking of American Copyright in the Twentieth Century

Democracy of Sound banner

The first book by ToM's own Alex Cummings, Democracy of Sound: Music Piracy and the Remaking of American Copyright recently dropped from Oxford University Press.  Based on his dissertation at Columbia, the book traces the winding history of technology, property rights, and music since the invention of sound recording in the 1870s.  From sheet music  to piano rolls, and from reel-to-reel tape to CD-burners, new technologies have constantly raised the question of how sound and music ought to be regulated.  Composers didn't want their songs to be used to make player piano rolls or wax cylinder recordings in the early twentieth century--unless, of course, they were getting paid for the … [Read more...]

A Day Spent Listening to Talk Radio

Rush Limbaugh angry

On a drive around the great state of Georgia, I got to indulge in one of my favorite pastimes: taking the temperature of conservative talk radio.  Tuning into the AM dial is like checking into an alternate reality version of America: the commercials endlessly promote end-of-the-world survivalism; the hosts fixate on political issues and grievances that most of the rest of the country has given little, if any, thought to; and the world as these stations portray it is stuffed to the gills with robbers, rapists, child molesters, terrorists, con artists, malevolent conspiracies, and venal politicians of the most incomprehensible kind.  Talk radio is like an overweight white man stuffed into the … [Read more...]

Nothing Is Impossible, Except for Dinosaurs (and Smart Television)

Jack and Liz - 30 Rock

30 Rock is kind of like a microbrew. Ten or fifteen years ago, most Americans didn’t know there was an option beyond Budweiser or, if you were feeling really adventurous, Heineken.  Due to restrictive local regulations and the apathy of the American beer industry, we didn’t know that you could pack a lot more flavor (and alcohol) into a 12 oz bottle. But once you had a Ranger IPA or a Bell’s Two Hearted, why would you want to go back to Yuengling? The same goes for TV. The sitcom has rarely been celebrated as an artistic medium, with the exception of the occasional M*A*S*H* or Seinfeld, but a number of new, smarter shows hit the airwaves in the last decade. Series like Community and 30 … [Read more...]

A Mediating Mess: How American Post-WWII Media Undermined Democracy


Editors notes: This review originally appeared in The Sixties: A Journal of History, Politics, and Culture (5.2, pages 254 - 257).  Unfortunately, in its original publication, the review  misidentified Professor Morgan as Edmund rather than Edward. These errors  have been corrected here. Apologies to Prof. Edward P. Morgan for the mishap. When the Swift Boat controversy engulfed the 2004 election campaign, America’s obsession with the Vietnam War once again reared its ugly head.  Democratic candidate and decorated Vietnam Veteran John Kerry’s staunch opposition to the war upon his return from deployment drew harsh critiques from conservatives in the early 1970s and in 2004.  The “swift … [Read more...]


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