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Savage Preservation

The Ethnographic Origins of Modern Media Technology

2014
Author:

Brian Hochman

Savage Preservation

How ethnographic encounters shaped audiovisual media in late nineteenth and early twentieth century America

Brian Hochman shows how widespread interest in recording vanishing races and disappearing cultures influenced audiovisual innovation, experimentation, and use in the U.S. Drawing extensively on seldom-seen archival sources, Savage Preservation offers a new model for thinking about race and media in the American context—and a fresh take on a period of accelerated technological change that closely resembles our own.

Savage Preservation is an eye-opening account of the mutually entangled origins of ethnography and the meanings of modern media: recorded sound, color photography, documentary film. Not only does Brian Hochman enrich his readers’ sense of culture as a concept available to historical change, he demonstrates convincingly that North American media studies remains haunted at its core by the racial ‘science’ of earlier generations.

Lisa Gitelman, New York University

During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, writers and anthropologists believed that the world’s primitive races were on the brink of extinction. They also believed that films, photographs, and phonographic recordings—modern media in their technological infancy—could capture lasting relics of primitive life before it vanished into obscurity. For many Americans, the promise of media and the problem of race were inextricably linked. While professional ethnologists tried out early recording machines to preserve the sounds of authentic indigenous cultures, photographers and filmmakers hauled newfangled equipment into remote corners of the globe to document rituals and scenes that seemed destined to vanish forever.

In Savage Preservation, Brian Hochman shows how widespread interest in recording vanishing races and disappearing cultures influenced audiovisual innovation, experimentation, and use in the United States. Drawing extensively on seldom-seen archival sources—from phonetic alphabets and sign language drawings to wax cylinder recordings and early color photographs—Hochman uncovers the parallel histories of ethnography and technology in the turn-of-the-century period. While conventional wisdom suggests that media technologies work mostly to produce ideas about race, Savage Preservation reveals that the reverse has also been true. During this period, popular conceptions of race constructed the authority of new media technologies as reliable archives of the real.

Brimming with nuanced critical insights and unexpected historical connections, Savage Preservation offers a new model for thinking about race and media in the American context—and a fresh take on a period of accelerated technological change that closely resembles our own.

Savage Preservation

Brian Hochman is assistant professor of English at Georgetown University.

Savage Preservation

Savage Preservation is an eye-opening account of the mutually entangled origins of ethnography and the meanings of modern media: recorded sound, color photography, documentary film. Not only does Brian Hochman enrich his readers’ sense of culture as a concept available to historical change, he demonstrates convincingly that North American media studies remains haunted at its core by the racial ‘science’ of earlier generations.

Lisa Gitelman, New York University

The book’s intersection of technological development and evolutionist cultural theory make a valuable contribution to media history.

Afterimage

Refreshing and original.

CHOICE

Hochman crafts a compelling account of the unexpected ways in which race and new media technologies intersected during this era.

MELUS

Savage Preservation

Contents

Introduction: The Passamaquoddy Experiment

1. Media Evolution: Indians, Alphabets, and the Technological Measures of Man
2. Representing Plains Indian Sign Language
3. Originals and Aboriginals: Race and Writing in the Age of the Phonograph
4. Race, Empire, and the Skin of the Ethnographic Image
5. Local Colors: The Work of the Ethnographic Autochrome

Postscript: Fictions of Permanence

Acknowledgments
Notes
Bibliography
Index

Savage Preservation

UMP blog: Where do cultures go when they die? The story of Codfish, the Indian, and the phonograph.

Meet Jesse Walter Fewkes, one of the most influential anthropologists of the late nineteenth century. His colleagues at Harvard University, and later at the Bureau of American Ethnology, called him Dr. Fewkes. But behind his back they liked to refer to him as “the Codfish,” a nickname that I’m willing to bet has a great story behind it.