Lisa Gitelman Ehem. Senior Fellow

Lisa Gitelman
Juni - Juli 2016


Lisa Gitelman, born in 1962, has been associate professor at the Departments of English and Media, Culture, and Communication at New York University since 2009. After receiving her Ph.D. in English and Comparative Literature for her dissertation titled The World Recounted: Science and Narrative in Early Nineteenth-Century Exploration Accounts from Columbia University in 1991, she participated in the edition of the Thomas A. Edison Papers at Rutgers University (1991-1999). She then taught at the Catholic University of America, where she was director of the Program in Media Studies from 2002 to 2006. From 2008 to 2009, she was visiting associate professor of the Department of the History of Science of Harvard University. In 2011/12 she was Fellow at the Humanities Initiative at New York University.

Fields of research

Media history; American print culture; new media in historical context; techniques of inscription

IKKM Research Project

Making Knowledge with Paper

Documents are an important if understudied vernacular form. Making Knowledge with Paper explores documents across media as a means of understanding the ways that texts become authoritative according to the structures and practices of their circulation. It adapts approaches from media studies, science studies, and the history of the book in order to focus on examples that are at once historically and culturally specific yet that point toward contemporary conditions of knowledge production more broadly.

“Documents” in this context are that important subcategory of texts which embraces the subjects and instruments of bureaucracy or of systematic knowledge generally. “The dominion of the document,” John Guillory notes, “is a feature of modernity,” though documents of course predate the modern (113). They were part of the way that medieval subjects, for instance, expressed distrust amid the anxious contexts of uncertain power relations (Clanchy 6, 46). In the modern era documents have cultural weight according to institutional frames—the university, the corporation, and the state—however remote the contextual framework may sometimes seem. In their ubiquity, documents importantly help to define by contrast; they circumscribe other forms of text (like “the book”) and other uses of text (like literature). They prompt questions about the relationship of genre to format that seem proper to textual studies, while they adjust the focus of media studies away from catchalls like “manuscript” and “print” and toward an embarrassment of forms and formats. The document has helped to shape the modern concept of information in important ways (Nunberg 120), while as “artifacts of modern knowledge practices” documents also form the paradigmatic site and subject of interpretation across many disciplines (Riles 6). Documenting—documentation—is part of how we know.

The main body of Making Knowledge with Paper consists of four interconnected chapters considering different documentary forms arranged chronologically. The first considers late-nineteenth-century commercial printing—known as “job printing”—and the production of pre-printed blank forms. The second addresses efforts made in the 1930s to re-conceptualize and broaden scholarly communication in light of what one observer dubbed “new tools for men of letters,” particularly photo-offset and microfilm (Binkley). The third chapter explores the meanings of xerography (photocopies) in the extended moment (late-1960s and 1970s) before digital or “optical” scanning helped to reframe what it means to copy. And the final chapter considers the PDF format (1993-) and documents that are managed by relational databases. One of my framing assumptions throughout is that the work of documents is most visible amid the contexts of their reproduction, and particularly when the modes of reproduction are subject to change. The paper-to-paperless arc of the whole book gestures toward changes afoot today, while the interventions of individual chapters center on specific episodes in the history of the document genre. In each of the chapters I have adopted a fairly narrow chronological focus and have further limited myself to the cultural geography of the United States, with which I am most familiar. While such a perspective has obvious shortcomings, the specificity of each case permits an exacting account that is nonetheless broadly suggestive of the ways that documents have functioned and continue to function in the production of knowledge.

Every chapter works by recuperating documentary forms and actors that have been neglected by media studies, arguing by example that the field must consider what Michel Foucault called “little tools of knowledge” in addition to larger, glitzier—that is, capitalized—forms (Becker and Clark). This move may be seen as one from “the Media” as such to one of apparatus, a term which appeals both to nitty-gritty documentation (footnotes are “apparatus”) as well as to Althusserian ideological state apparatus and the effective structures of daily life. One narrative thread connecting all four chapters concerns the role that documents play in articulating such structures as well as in transcending and transgressing them. (Unlike the double logic of publication and publics—wherein the cultural meaning of printedness is said to equal the public sphere—the logic of documents operates on a lower register, less private-versus-public/published than they are inside-versus-outside, where the relevant ins and outs are institutional, associational, corporate, and governmental: neither wholly private nor public.) Another narrative thread that spans all four chapters is a related set of observations about amateur cultural production avant la letter, forms and practices of reproduction that might work as part of a longer history than is commonly rendered for user-generated content generally and for the so-called digital humanities more specifically.



Paper Knowldedge. Toward a Media History of Documents. Durham: Duke University Press 2014.
Always Already New: Media, History and the Data of Culture. Cambridge: MIT Press 2006.
Scripts, Grooves, and Writing Machines: Representing Technology in the Edison Era. Stanford: Stanford University Press 1999.

Edited books

“Raw Data” is an Oxymoron. Cambridge: MIT Press 2013.
with Geoff Pingree: New Media, 1740-1915. Cambridge: MIT Press 2003.
Associate Editor of Thomas A. Edison Papers, A Selective Microfilm Edition, Part IV, 1899-1910. Eds. Thomas E. Jeffrey et al. Bethesda: University Publications of America 1999.
Assistant Editor of Thomas A. Edison Papers, A Selective Microfilm Edition, Part III, 1887-1898. Eds. Thomas E. Jeffrey et al. Bethesda: University Publications of America 1993.


“Daniel Ellsberg and the Lost Idea of the Photocopy.” In: Anders Ekström, et al. (eds.): Participatory Media in Historical Context. New York: Routledge 2011.
“Welcome to the Bubble Chamber: Online in the Humanities Today.” In: Communication Review 13:1 (2010), p. 27-36.
“Modes and Codes: Samuel F.B. Morse and the Question of Electronic Writing.” In: Clifford Siskin and William Warner (eds.): This Is Enlightenment. Chicago: University of Chicago Press 2010, p. 120-135.
with Jonathan Auerbach: “Microfilm, Containment, and the Cold War.” In: American Literary History 19 (Fall 2007), p. 745-68.
“Mississippi MSS: Twain, Typing, and the Moving Panorama of Textual Production.” In: Charles Acland (ed.): Residual Media. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press 2007.