Brian Hochman. Savage Preservation: The Ethnographic Origins of Modern Media Technology. 312pp., 18 b&w photos, 12 color plates, notes, bibl., index. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2014. $82.50 (cloth), $27.50 (paper)
The turn-of-the-century idea of salvage ethnography—that indigenous cultures were doomed to disappear in the face of modernization, and therefore were in desperate need of permanent, objective preservation—played an important part in the development of modern media and technology in ways that were directly pertinent to race. This is the main contention proposed by Brian Hochman in his book Savage Preservation, where he argues that we should not only think of media as shaping modern understandings of race, but that notions of race were fundamental in how new media were employed in the early twentieth century.
Hochman opens with John Wesley Powell’s efforts to develop a universal, subjective writing system to preserve native languages. This was premised on long-held ideas which saw culture as static and recordable, and also on the belief that societies which were incapable of recording their language or culture—those that lacked what Hochman calls the “media function”—were doomed to extinction in the face of the civilizing process. Hochman’s second chapter discusses Garrick Mallery’s painstaking attempts to preserve the Plains Indian Sign Language (PISL) in written form, and how Eadweard J. Muybridge’s development of chronophotography chimed with Mallery’s desire to record movement and time objectively. With the advent of the phonograph, Hochman suggests in chapter three, ethnographers and writers were faced anew with questions of objective recording. The phonograph’s use as a tool by ethnographers, he suggests, was based again on a politics of race that denied indigenous agency by turning the ethnological encounter into a one-way street. In chapter four, Hochman further posits that Robert and Frances Flaherty’s documentary film Moana (1926), one of the first to use color-sensitive panchromatic film stock, was informed by racial ideas which hinged on celebrating traditional, unblemished life, and “the exotic spectacle of the Samoan body” (126). Hochman’s fifth and final chapter explores the adoption of autochrome color photography by National Geographic, and how photographers and editors navigated the fine line between ethnography and aesthetics. Drawing on the notion of “ephemerality of permanence” (186), Hochman concludes that the irony underlying these various attempts at “savage preservation” was the issue of format deterioration. This meant that the various media used supposedly to capture cultures facing inevitable extinction have eroded or deteriorated beyond recognition, whilst the cultures themselves—thanks in part to their fluidity—have largely survived.
Hochman outlines two main objectives at the beginning of the book: to highlight, through a “media archeology,” the previously overlooked “connections among a network of US historical figures” (20), and to show that contemporary ideas about race played a transformative role in shaping media history in the United States. Hochman’s choice of extending his objects of study to include filmmakers, journalists, writers, and publishers under the umbrella of ethnographers is an astute one, thus underlining how ideas of race and media permeated into public discourse. The only question some readers may have is whether thinking more transnationally about this “network” may lead to a more complete picture. Hochman succinctly explains his second main objective in the introduction: “race produced media […] even as media produced race” (xxiii). This way of phrasing things is, however, slightly imprecise and should not be interpreted as meaning only that the technology itself was shaped by race—although Hochman does allude to work by Richard Dyer on this point. The book’s premise is not that the media-technological advances of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century were themselves influenced by racial preoccupations, but rather that the applications of these new media, particularly as understood by ethnographers, were premised on racial attitudes. On the whole, Hochman realizes both objectives with success; Savage Preservation is a generously researched book which draws on considerable archival work in order to support both of these propositions. Whilst paying close attention to different media apparatuses, he crafts a larger narrative about the relationship between ethnography, media, and race at the turn of the century.
Hochman is persuasive in highlighting the persistent traction that the ideas of salvage ethnography held, referencing as evidence 1960s media theorists like Walter Ong and Marshall McLuhan who held similar beliefs regarding the atavistic nature of oral societies in their “great divide” theories. However, there is a significant gap in the narrative that Hochman tells—clearly the connection he makes between salvage ethnographers and Ong and McLuhan is not an entirely incidental one, and yet this link is not fully explained. This might have been achieved by being more consistent with his terminology. The term “media function,” for example, which he compares directly to Ong’s own idea of “technologizing” cultures, it barely mentioned beyond the first chapter. A more consistent application of the term—which certainly seems like a useful coining—might have led to a more cogent explanation for the reviving of similar attitudes towards media and race later in the twentieth century.
Savage Preservation is also an important contribution to historicizing the relationship between media and the senses, and the focus of his early chapters on language, sound, and inscription is particularly pertinent in this respect. Hochman’s focus on inscription—whether visual or auditory—is fundamentally different to that of Jonathan Sterne in The Audible Past (2003), who concentrates instead on the relationship between media and sound reproduction during a similar period. Hochman’s work shows that, as ethnographers adopted new technologies in order to try to preserve what they saw as cultures at the brink of extinction, they not only cemented pre-conceived ideas about orality and inscription, but also insisted upon a narrow view of what culture was in the first place: static, fixed, preservable. This distinction between media as inscription—and documentation—rather than reproduction is an important one. As far as many of Hochman’s ethnographers were concerned, the important thing wasn’t necessarily how or why wax cylinders, documentary movies, or universal phonetic alphabets might be received (seen, listened to, interpreted), but the very notion that they existed as objective, documentary proof of the cultures they studied.
Hochman’s book is a clearly argued, broadly researched work with cogent case studies which should help to broaden our understanding of turn-of-the-century media and technology. His conclusions should be useful both to media historians and theorists, as well as anthropological historians, and his prose lacks the disciplinary jargon that might otherwise keep scholars in both fields from engaging with its ideas.
 Dyer, Richard. 1997. White. London: Routledge.
 Sterne, Jonathan. 2003. The Audible Past: Cultural Origins of Sound Reproduction. Durham: Duke University Press.
Maximilian Long: contributions / firstname.lastname@example.org / MPhil Candidate, English Faculty, Cambridge University
Leave a Comment