Gleaning, Exchanging and Vernacular Media

MIT Press have recently published New Media: 1740-1915, an excellent series of essays looking at the social effects of various ‘new’ media from history, from the status of zograscopes as ‘virtual reality’ in 18th C England, to the reception of early telephone systems in Amish communities.

One of the most interesting essays is Ellen Gruber Garvey’s ‘Scissorizing and Scrapbooks: Nineteenth Century Reading, Remaking and Recirculating’, an account of the vernacular use of newspaper and magazine material in personal albums and collections. Garvey makes comparisons between the process of making scrapbooks and personal websites, but there is an even more striking comparison to weblogs.

Scrapbooks were a ‘coping’ strategy for old media at a time when distribution via railroads and cheap printing processes led to an overwhelming surplus of popular magazines and newspapers. Garvey describes them as “a new subcategory of media – the cheap, the disposable, and yet somehow tantalizingly valuable, if only their value could be seperated from their ephemerality”. Scrapbooks were one just one strategy for indexing and archiving cuttings, including commercial clipping services, but scrapbooks represented a private, vernacular response to this information revolution. This remaking of popular media is clearly a precursor of the current blogging phenomenon, and Garvey’s analysis of scrapbook making introduces some concepts that are useful in discussing blogging as part of our contemporary media culture.

Reading as ‘Gleaning’
Garvey draws on Michel de Certeau’s notion of ‘reading as poaching’ to describe the cutting and recompiling of published texts, but takes issues with the aggressive, macho overtones of de Certau’s ‘poaching’, as the scrapbook maker seeks to recombine and redistribute as well as to reclaim.

She introduces the term ‘Gleaning’, taken after the practise of picking up that which is consciously left behind. Gleaners were peasants who gather spare grain or fruit when farmers had followed (biblical) advice not to harvest all their crop, but to leave some for those who needed it most. In a similar fashion, scrapbook makers ‘harvest’ residual meanings or signification from the printed word, recombining it into new, vernacular, forms.

Is ‘gleaning’ a useful term to describe the process of selection, re-contexualisation and re-distribution that we see in weblogs? The ‘gift economy’ ideology of gleaning would be something that most bloggers would endorse, arguing that the protection of intellectual property rights through DRM technologies limit the future cultural mutation of information, and stifles innovation. But this argument often falters on the binary definitions of digital copying as piracy/freedom – perhaps ‘gleaning’ is a useful term to describe a model of ‘fair use’ that can’t be reduced by its opponents to total anarchy?

Where most scrapbook production was for private consumption, some of this practise was reflected in professional publishing. Newspapers would pick up and run stories from other regions, and editors would send ‘exchange’ editions to encourage this practise, carried by the post office for free. These exchanges were seen as a healthy part of the distribution of information, not a form of piracy or plagiarism. Garvey quotes a contemporary journalist: “A man who reads the daily exchanges of the country may see an idea travel from the Atlantic slope to the Pacific and from the Pacific to the Atlantic as visibly as a train of freight cars runs over the Vanderbilt system”.

The ‘exchanges’ of today are the blog indexing systems – the daypops and technoratis that allow us to track memes as they spread – or the uber-blogs at the top of the power curve. Garvey describes a quote from a missionary, suggesting that ‘[even if one column] of interesting religious matter could be introduced into each of [the nation’s many] papers, it would be equivalent to the annual distribution of more than sixteen hundred million tract pages”. The missionaries of today, selling tales of consumption rather than redemption, are already trying to find ways of using blogging as marketing, and to harness the power of its exchanges.

The material forms of scrapbooks also have echos in their modern, digital counterparts. Some people used old books as the basis of their scrapbook, leading to a palimpsest of original text and jumbled scraps, with columns overlapping columns and sentences running together. Soon, custom-made books were created for clippings, some with classifications like the ‘Scrapbook Systems’ advertised in 1891, with separate volumes for ‘Personal; Politics; Social Sciences; Health; Biographical; History; Book Reviews; Christianity; The Bible; Sermons; Temperance & Miscellaneous’. With the exemption of the latter religious headings, we can see echoes between these classifications and the structures of many a portal or weblog.

As well as classifcation, books were produced to aid in the production of scrapbooks. Most successful was Mark Twain’s Patent Scrap-Book, a volume with ready-gummed strips in columns, produced in different versions for authors, children, newspaper clippings, pictures, or even ‘druggists prescription books’. Twain’s scrap book earned him more than $50,000, more than any other book he published. The creators of contemporary blogging tools are following a distinguished historical line of authors-turned-entrepreneurs.

Vernacuar media as ‘parergon
So what is different about blogging? When so many similarities join the victorian aesthete clipping news articles into Mark Twain’s scrapbooks and the 21st century blogger linking news articles from the BBC or ZDNET, why are we getting so excited? Why do we think that blogging is democratising media? Haven’t we been here before?

Many media technologies started with significant vernacular cultures alongside their professional ones. 19th Century photography was used for both family memento and scientific record, with its technological progression being driven by the former as much as the latter. In his essay on vernacular photography, Geoffrey Batchen uses Derrida’s term ‘parerga’ [literally ‘next to main work’] to describe the personal, intimate photographies that have fallen outside the canon of ‘proper’ photography. But as post-modernism has criticized the idea of the canonical text, these vernacular practises have been analysed for their role in defining our culture:

“As a parergon, vernacular photography is the absent presence that determines its medium’s historical and physical identity; it is that thing that decides what proper photography is not.”

At first glance, it might seem as if blogging has been anything other than an ‘absent presence’. The amount of commentary it generates in relation to actual activity looks like hyperbole, and that alone differentiates it from the invisible, domestic production of scrapbooks. Predictions of blogging’s cultural impact focus on the point at which its radical connectedness will overthrow the slower, centrally-editorialised journalism of the media dinosaurs. Clay Shirky’s influential work on Power Laws has shown that in massively distributed systems, the cream rises to the top even faster than when there are clear definitions between ‘professional’ and ‘amateur’ output. This mass-amateurisation does not lead to equality, but to an accelerated focus of attention, a hype-tornado that quickly blows the strongest memes to its apex.

But the value of blogging will not just be measured by the few ‘winners’ who manage to compete or succeed the incumbent media hierarchy. Previously the economies of mass distribution have meant that the wider social practises of ‘new’ media have been invisible to history for many years, whilst academics fought over the establishment of a ‘canon’, authenticating the practise within an accepted cultural milieu. Vernacular media – the scrapbooks, family photo albums and intimate mementos – have lain in attics, trunks and cupboards for years until time gives them a patina of curiosity worthy of a critic’s attention. It is only then that these ‘absent presences’ are discovered, and the single line of media history bifurcates into a messy, branching network of amateur and professional innovation.

With blogging, we have the opportunity to study the vernacular as it happens. As critics, we should be embracing the whole power curve – looking at the stars at the top for their interface with professional media, the ‘exchanges’ in the middle to see how the network shares its own influences and resources, but also to the long, dark tail of vernacular production.

It is rare to be able to find such a wealth of social and cultural production with such ease, but worrying that this material is less likely to last than the gummed strips of the 19th Century. The technological ephemerality of this medium means that we will not have the luxury of stumbling across these intimate mementoes in 100 years time. There will be no scrapbooks lying in attics, no photographs enamelled onto tombstones. One of the most enlightening social documents of our age wil be erased by the very attention-economy that pushes its brightest stars into the history books.

We do need to ask questions about how blogging might change the landscape of journalism, broadcast media or politics, but we also need to notice how it is affecting the lives of its millions of practioners, every day, in subtler ways. How is this vernacular practise helping people make sense of their lives? How is it affecting their concept of family, friends, work or home? How is it changing the grammar and discourse of language itself?

History tells us that we won’t get the answer to these questions from the loudest voices, as power is inextricably linked with assimilation. Only by listening to the gleaners, those picking at the forgotten edges of the field, will we understand the real beauty of the landscape we are creating.


  1. Headshift

    Gleaning, Exchanging and Vernacular Media

    Review of MIT Press publication “New Media: 1740-1915”, looking at the social effects of various ‘new’ media from history…

  2. Chrislunch

    This is probably the single most exciting, accurate and useful account of blogging I’ve read in ages trawling sites for social software analogies I can actually *use*.

    The gleaning metaphor works well, not least in that it recognises the role of the vernacular in interfacing with and weaving amongst the structures of professional media systems.

    Equally, the use and criticism of De Certeau is apt. I often use De Certeau in my everyday life (excuse the pun) as a corporate whore. But I always have to preface any use of his theories with an apology for his rigid macho stereotyping of the wiley guerilla consumer poaching the corporate spaces. This definition does few favours for either party.

    Gleaning is great, as it allows the creativity that De Certeau identifies to be given more room to breathe as a symbiotic activity, one that is initially on the fringes but eventually is accepted and incorporated into the mainstream.

    This doesn’t mean it loses it dynanism, it just means the practice changes focus, is captured momentarily and preserved in aspic as a mainstream commercial process, or fights against this assimilation only to be reborn again as something more dynamic.


  3. So Dietschy

    New Media

    MIT Press has published New Media, 1740-1915, a collection of essays that examine the adoption of new media in historical, social, and cultural contexts. Test: Gleaning, Exchanging and Vernacular Media discusses one such new medium, newspaper and magaz…

  4. Hypergene MediaBlog

    New Media, 1740-1915

    New media is not something that just happens to us. At every technological turn, society and commerce have adopted, feared and profited from more innovative forms of media.

    With that in mind, MIT has just published (and we\’ve ordered) [url=http://w…

  5. blaine

    The ‘Gleaning’ reference may be derived from a french film released in 2000 called “Les glaneurs et la glaneuse”, in which the director, Agnes Varda, explores modern manifestations of ‘gleaning’. It was the first DV feature I actually enjoyed… Definitely worth checking out, although it doesn’t deal with gleaning media, just the physical sense (dumpstering, etc).

  6. TeledyN

    The New Gleaners

    Matlock reviews the new MIT Press New Media: 1740-1915 in Test: Gleaning, Exchanging and Vernacular Media and wonders if blogging is simply extending the same fair use culture of the noble art…

  7. The New Commonplace

    W. G. Sebald, Gleaner

    I have just finished reading The Emigrants, by W. G. Sebald, a German novelist who died in a car crash in 2001 at the relatively young age of 57. “Max” Sebald (pronounced “Tzebalt”) lived in England from 1970, and at…

  8. The New Commonplace

    W. G. Sebald, Gleaner

    I have just finished reading The Emigrants, by W. G. Sebald, a German novelist who died in a car crash in 2001 at the relatively young age of 57. “Max” Sebald (pronounced “Tzebalt”) lived in England from 1970, and…

  9. The New Commonplace

    W. G. Sebald, Gleaner

    I have just finished reading The Emigrants, by W. G. Sebald, a German novelist who died in a car crash in 2001 at the relatively young age of 57. “Max” Sebald (pronounced “Tzebalt”) lived in England from 1970, and…

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