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The Languages of Edison's Light. (Reviews).

The Languages of Edison's Light. By Charles Bazerman (Cambridge and London: MIT Press, 1999. x plus 416pp. $39.50).

The story of how incandescent electric lighting was invented, developed, and commercialized by Thomas Edison and his associates in the late 1870s and 1 880s has been told many times. In the Languages of Edison's Light, Charles Bazerman, a professor of English interested in the rhetoric of scientific and technical communication, draws on those earlier accounts as well as the extensive documentation of the Thomas A. Edison Papers to ask new questions and seek additional insights into our understanding of the place of technology in society. By studying how the technology of electric lighting was constructed as both a symbol and a set of tangible artifacts through its representation within a variety of social systems of communication, Bazerman argues, we can understand how the process of creating meanings enables a novel technology to be accommodated to "existing sets of beliefs and social institutions" (p. 2).

The great strength of the book is its account of what Bazerman calls systems of discourse among the various social groups and institutions that influenced the emergence of this new technology. Each of his chapters explores a particular discursive system such as newspapers, financial markets, business organizations, and legal institutions. Each has its own dynamics but as Bazerman shows they are linked to each other as well. Thus, for example, Bazerman discusses the ways in which discourse about patents takes place not only in the legal system but is linked to the laboratory, business organizations, and financial markets. And in a linkage that he does not make explicit, it also enters into the public realm through newspapers and technical journals, which in turn exert additional influences over how the discourse over patents affects, for example, the way financial markets react to a new technology. What these chapters make clear is that determining whether the system worked was not just a function of its techn ical capabilities.

Yet, while each chapter adds something to our understanding of the emergence of incandescent electric lighting somehow the parts of the book never quite come together to produce a significant new interpretation. For example, in his chapter on the Menlo Park laboratory, Bazerman does a very fine job of explicating the collaborative nature of the work in the laboratory as it was communicated through the texts of the notebooks. Yet, this is hardly a new insight. Other chapters also provide interesting details that add to but seem not to greatly alter our understanding of how various actors helped to define what the technology of electric lighting was and what its place in the social structure should be. Which is not to say that those additional details don't sometimes provide important insights. For example, by paying close textual attention to the forms and reports used within the Edison lighting companies, Bazerman adds considerably to our understanding of how the business organizations established to commerci alize the new technology developed standardized practices that made them less dependent on Edison himself.

Bazerman also makes a significant contribution in his last narrative chapter where he treats the hitherto neglected consumer end of electric lighting. Particularly insightful are his discussions of gender in regard to a technology that has almost universally been analyzed within the context of the male-dominated worlds of technology and finance. We find out, for example, that the design of commercial lighting fixtures drew on related notions of class and gender that continued to influence the marketing of electric lighting in the world of upper and middle class urban communities.

While these kind of additional insights are not unimportant, I can't help thinking that this is a book that should be much more innovative than it is. Bazerman could have made a greater contribution by providing a larger theoretical framework for his analytical tools, which themselves remain largely hidden until the conclusion. If he had set out a theoretical framework and discussed the analytical tools he uses at the outset and then carefully shown how certain insights can be gained by their use throughout the narrative Bazerman would have made a stronger case for his approach. The one instance in the earlier chapters where Bazerman does make explicit use of theory is in his discussion of the patent process, where he spends some time exploring the concepts of speech-act theory. Speech-acts also make a brief appearance in a subsequent discussion of Edison's public credibility. Yet, readers unfamiliar with the analysis of speech acts may find it difficult to follow some of Bazerman's discussion without reading the conclusion where he more carefully sets them within a larger theoretical framework for writing this kind of history.

Setting out some clearer theoretical frameworks at the beginning and paying closer attention to them as he wrote each chapter might have enabled Bazerman to see some additional ways in which they could be applied. For example, Bazerman notes the importance of genres as a form of speech act in his discussion of patent applications. However, nowhere else does he explore how the idea of genre might be a useful category of analysis. But certainly the ways in which texts such as newspaper articles, corporate reports, or exhibition catalogs communicate are shaped by the kind of genre that they represent. Indeed, it might be particularly useful to analyze demonstrations and exhibitions as specific kinds of genre common to the discourse over new technologies.

Bazerrnan might also have aided us in understanding how the symbolic construction of a new technology works if he had paid more attention to how electric lighting was perceived by those outside of the Edison orbit. Bazerman touches on this most directly in his discussion of news reports and patent office proceedings. Yet, the Edison Papers also contain extensive correspondence from people who did not know Edison but were responding to those press reports; these might well provide another way of exploring the discursive meanings surrounding this new technology.

As a first try at bringing rhetorical analysis to the history of technology this book is only partially successful. Nonetheless it challenges the reader to think in new ways about familiar subjects and I would recommend it to anyone interested in understanding how electric lighting or other new technologies gain meaning and stability.
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Title Annotation:Thomas Edison
Author:Israel, Paul
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 2002
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