CMS.801 | Fall 2012 | Graduate
Media in Transition


Course Meeting Times

Lectures: 1 session / week, 3 hours / session


We will focus this semester on transitional moments in the history of the book and in various media that rely on visual cognition (two-dimensional still images, theater, and film). Towards the end of the term, we will discuss strategies for placing today’s so-called “digital revolution” in historical perspective. The emphasis will be on media in the West from the Middle Ages forward, but we will also look at non-Western examples in various periods, especially the case of printing in pre-modern China and Japan. Our goal is not to create the illusion of a complete survey of media change over the past two thousand years (an impossible, and thankless, assignment!). Rather, the class should open up new perspectives, primarily historical, that will add depth to your thinking about comparative media today. Some of you may also glean ideas and comparisons from our work together that will be useful for your master’s thesis.

Subject Requirements

At our first meeting, each participant will sign up for a class presentation on a theme suggested by our common readings. Instructions for presentations will be provided at the first class meeting. In addition, students are expected to read carefully the required readings for each week, and come to class prepared to share thoughtful questions and comments with the group. A five-page paper comparing early modern readers in China and Italy (Qian Jinren and Menocchio) will be due on session #4. Lastly, each seminar member will prepare a final paper approximitly 15 pages in length. In certain well-defined situations, a substantial digital project may, with the consent of the instructor, be substituted for the final paper. The last two class sessions will be devoted to oral presentations of these projects. Instructions for oral presentations and the final paper will be handed out in class. These assignments and responsibilities will be weighted in determining the final grade.


Activities Percentages
Class presentation 10%
Weekly class participation 20%
Five-page essay 20%
Final Paper/Project 40%
Oral presentation of final project 10%


Part I: Book History
In weeks 2–5 of the seminar, we will focus on a classic debate in media history, the “Printing Revolution” thesis put forth by the historian Elizabeth Eisenstein. We will discuss the strengths and weaknesses of the thesis, and examine book history issues in other times and places in order to gain perspective on the questions she formulated. Finally, we will spend some time examining the objects themselves, or at least some of the examples in the MIT Rare Books Collection, and we will think about individual readers in the pre-modern world.
1 Introduction–Posing Questions  
2 Rethinking the “Gutenberg Revolution” I: The European Context  
3 Rethinking the “Gutenberg Revolution” II: Examples from China and Japan Guest Lecturer: Christopher Leighton, MIT Historian
4 Menocchio and Qian Jinren Compared

Five page paper due

MIT Rare Books Collection visit with Stephen Skuce

Part II: Visuality and Media
In weeks 7–10, we will shift our focus from the history of the book to an examination of the changing relations between texts, images and performance from the European Renaissance to the beginning of the twentieth century. We will continue to consider texts, but we will think about them alongside still and moving images, and we will consider their uses in theater and early film. We will also foreground some epistemological issues that we first encountered in Ong and McLuhan, especially the extent to which media change reshapes human perception of the external world and the individual self.
5 A Visit to the MFA Department of Prints, Drawings and Photographs MFA visit with Benjamin Weiss, the MFA Curator of Visual Culture
6 Page and Stage to the Late Nineteenth Century  
7 Conceptualizing Change in Visual Media Final project prospectus (one page) due in class
8 Early Film  
Part III: The “Digital Revolution” in Historical Perspective
Our readings and discussions in the following sessions will allow us to consider media change from Paleolithic humans to the present. They offer a long-term perspective on today’s media changes, which some claim are capable of entirely refashioning human society and individual consciousness. The last two weeks of the term will be devoted to the presentation of your final projects.
9 Histories of Information Management Guest Lecturer: Dr. Gretchen Henderson, Mellon Post-Doctoral Fellow, Comparative Media Studies
10 Historicizing the Internet  
11 Student Presentations I  
12 Student Presentations II Final paper due
Course Info
As Taught In
Fall 2012
Learning Resource Types
assignment Written Assignments