Screening the Past is a year old. The editorial team gathered together recently to consider what had been achieved in that year, and where we want to go in future. A number of changes to the site are planned, and one of these is to publish an Editorial in each issue.

Personally, the Editorial is the part of any publication that I read last – or not at all. Now that I must write one, I am exploring the form, and very much feeling my way. As we publish abstracts of all the papers in “First release” and “Re-runs”, and introductions to all the papers in “Classics and Revivals”, I do not want to insult a reader’s intelligence by repeating information they can obtain in other ways.

So, perhaps the most useful editorial would be one that explains how and why editorial decisions were made. When we first started out, we had two overriding objectives – to publish high-quality papers in an area which we considered to be under-represented among publications on the media, and to do this in an electronic forum that would use the resources of the new media in ways that print cannot do. This is the old form/content dichotomy, currently unfashionable, but still heuristically useful.

The media which we will address are, comparatively, clear – film, television, photography, multi-media, and whatever new media arise to complement or displace these. We are interested in the history of the media, in the history that these media represent and in the history of how these media have been conceptualised and written about. So our discipinary focus is diffuse: it draws on social history, media studies, cultural studies, archive and library studies and media practice. We are concerned to remain inter-disciplinary, and we are still open to new approaches.

In our first issue, we raised the question of archiving as a professional practice. Our “Classic” for that issue was Matuszewski’s 1898 call for the preservation of history by the archiving of film: our “First release” section presented current archival issues from the perspective of the archivist (Ray Edmondsen), and of the film theorist/analyst (William D. Routt). This issue, we continue this focus with Sam Rohdie’s fascinating paper on the Archives de la Planéte, and a note in the “Short subjects” section on the Taipei Film Archive. It seems important to us that those who create and administer archival collections remain in dialogue with those who use them, and that the rest of the community of scholars interested in the history of the media have access to these debates.

Which brings me to the audience for our publication – our “readers”, though we hope they will increasingly become also viewers and listeners, as we explore the technology and become skilful enough to use more of the possibilities which electronic publishing opens up. It has limitations, of course: some of our potential audience has no access to electronic forms, and some has their access limited by the speed of the computer equipment available to them. We cannot help the first problem, but we are very mindful of the second, and wish to present our content in the most accessible way available to us. That was why we offered two versions of Felicity Collins’ paper in Issue 3 – one for those who can access film clips easily and one for those who cannot, or just do not want to spend so much time downloading. Better solutions will become available – and when they do we will use them.

Much of our content till now has concerned film, but this issue widens the field. The Archives de la Planète (discussed by Sam Rohdie) includes various kinds of still photographs as well as films. And the central focus of this issue concerns the concept of the “televisual”.

It is actually a very old concept. As early as 1896, when the cinematograph was still in its infancy, there were people imagining the televisual, like this commentator in the Sydney Bulletin:

The cinematograph continues to be the principal source of boom at the Tivoli. Sydney is gradually going mad over this new invention, and the signs are that the cinematograph is going to rage virulently for a time. What is badly wanted now is some device whereby the machine can be connected with the telegraph and made to represent events while they happen, so that the public can sit in a theatre on Cup Day, and see the race in spectral guise on a white background as it progresses.

By the time Lèon Moussinac was writing (1927), this dream was in the process of being realised. For him, it would be not simply a technological marvel, but a social force, in Richard Abel’s words a way to “eliminate the differences among people caused by spatial distance.” To some extent, this is indeed what has happened. But, as Moussinac himself acknowledged, technologies constantly change, and such change is “expected, necessary, inevitable.” It is when people overlook this inevitability that we have what William Uricchio calls the “Trouble with television”: when its functions and applications are transformed, while its essence continues to be spoken of as a given, as if the “televisual” remains a constant throughout these transformations.

Less than ten years after Moussinac’s piece was published, the 1936 Olympics ushered in live television transmission in a context very different from that envisioned so idealistically by Moussinac. So, Allen Meek’s concern is with how television may be said to produce Walter Benjamin’s concept of the “fascistic subject”. But idealism remains, as Peter Hughes shows in his case study of an Australian government program designed to encourage innovation in documentary, but acknowledging that the audience for documentary has shifted largely to television.

These papers move from the general to the particular, from television as an entity to television as a site of spectatorship to television as a site of distribution and exhibition. But each is concerned fundamentally with what makes television what it is – with what the “televisual” may mean or be made to mean.

Please accept our invitation to engage in these debates yourself – that is what our Foyer is for.

Ina Bertrand
10 August 1998

About the Author

Ina Bertrand

About the Authors

Ina Bertrand

Ina Bertrand is Principal Fellow, Cinema Programme, School of Culture and Communication, University of Melbourne, Australia. She was foundation editor of Screening the Past.View all posts by Ina Bertrand →