Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Rea Amit reviews Seeing by Electricity

Doron GaliliSeeing by Electricity: The Emergence of Television, 1878-1939. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2020. 247 pp.

Review by Rea Amit

5 August 2020

Nam June Paik famously accused television of attacking us for a lifetime. Doron Galili’s trailblazing new study shows that it may actually have done so for much longer, and by means even more unimaginable.

Media archeologists unearth seemingly minuscule traces of communication technologies hidden under grand discourses of groundbreaking discoveries. Galili’s monograph follows a similar line of inquiry with regard to the medium that would eventually be commonly known as television. However, while the prehistory of motion pictures can often be recovered with palpable devices and documents, Seeing By Electricity takes a more radical approach of treating a medium generally seen as belonging to the postwar period as already latent in the mid-to-late nineteenth century, decades before it could be realized. Moreover, unlike histories of early cinema that identify technological developments as precursors of the image-projecting apparatus, Galili focuses on the conception of the medium, rather than actual manifestations of affiliated innovations.

Galili frames his discussion around the principle of “seeing by electricity,” one of several competing notions of what would later be popularized as the domestic medium. He then situates the concept within a range of utopian as well as dystopian visions of the medium, many of which converging on seeing it as an extension of other media. Underlining transmission in lieu with theoretical concerns about medium specificity, the author also assess articulations of several telecommunication networks as fantasized by inventors and fiction writers alike. Both groups, the study demonstrates, contributed to the evolving notion of an equally converging and diverging televisual discourse on the potential of transmitting moving images to distant viewers. This is, in this reviewer’s mind, the book’s most significant intervention. This discourse is not a mere speculative narrative, but an interweaving of science and science fiction, journalistic and academic accounts, as well as theory and literature along lines of a history that is still in the process of unfolding.

The book continues to flesh out points of interaction between early cinema with other media, mainly the radio, but also with what eventually will be television. Early films, in this discussion, channeled images (at times, even contradicting ones) of possible mutations of “seeing by electricity” or what distant viewing might look like. This is not simply a matter of representations. Rather, by opening the discussion to include cinematic imaginations of the broadcasting or transmission function―that at the time was mainly radio’s domain―Galili unravels a more dynamic, multi-faceted notion of periodization. After all, this was a pivotal time not just for modern mass-media, but for modernity itself, and the author thereby expounds an early televisual flow that nourished various medial desires and needs in that historical context. Seeing By Electricity thus historicizes a prolonged moment, or a mediascape, when boundaries between media were porous, whereas the otherwise antagonistic relationships between media can be seen as symbiotic. 

From this perspective, the book challenges a commonly accepted historical narrative, and suggests instead a more flexible and broader contextualization of radio, television, and film as mutually contributing networks. Similarly, it also facilities aligning classical film theorist such as Rudolf Arnheim with experimental filmmakers such as Dziga Vertov on the same platform with a popular medium. Along similar lines, one could theorize next to telegraphy, a notion Galili refers to at several points, the possibility of not just “seeing,” but even “reading” by electricity, as some indeed do today on their tablets or computer screens. Consequently, one might push this way of thinking even further, to see again beyond any apparatus, as a function of networking between several user-based, participatory modes of transmitting information, without relying on a sender-recipient model of communication or interaction. Finally, if one does attribute “seeing by electricity” to television, it would enable on the one hand to articulate streaming services, for instance, as taking part in a similar emerging evolution of the medium. On the other, however, one might ask if perception itself can entirely be dislocated from the apparatus, and televisuality emancipated from any boxed-in mechanism, electric or otherwise.

Nam June Paik may have already provided a clue as to what that might look like.