Abstract for Alexander Starre’s talk at the symposium “Imagining Media Change” (June 13, 2013, Leibniz Universität Hannover):
Evolving Technologies, Enduring Media: Material Irony in Octave Uzanne’s “The End of Books”
In the electric shockwaves sent through the United States by the World’s Columbian Exhibition of 1893, the French writer and publisher Octave Uzanne appeared to have lost his belief in the future of the book. As a reporter for Le Figaro, Uzanne spent three months touring the country, meeting President Grover Cleveland and inventor Thomas Edison, besides strolling the fairgrounds in Chicago. After his visit, he published the short story “The End of Books” in Scribner’s Magazine in 1894, which depicts a future in which books have been replaced by the phonograph. In the seminal volume Rethinking Media Change (ed. David Thorburn and Henry Jenkins), Priscilla Coit Murphy reads “The End of Books” as an exuberant embrace of new media. This paper aims to complicate Murphy’s analysis through a materialist perspective on Uzanne’s text as a historical artifact. “The End of Books” does not unfold its full complexity in the English text printed in Scribner’s. The French version “La fin des livres”, which forms part of the collection Contes pour les bibliophiles (1895), exposes the material irony embedded in the text. Octave Uzanne’s relationship to technology was strikingly ambivalent and manifested larger shifts in networks of communication and cultural distinction. While he was fascinated by new electro-mechanical inventions, his ultimate goal was to improve the quality of printed artifacts. From this peculiar case, my paper will extract several theoretical implications for current debates in media studies and book history.