Review: Bazerman, Charles. (1999). The Languages of Edison's Light. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press. ISBN: 0-262-02456-X.

– Reviewed by Jonathan Alexander, April 14, 2001
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Charles Bazerman's The Languages of Edison's Light is the kind of book you can read a little bit at a time, here and there, and thoroughly enjoy as an intellectual history illuminating (pardon the pun) the "drama of the construction of electrical power" (2). Conversely, you could study this book diligently, perhaps with a section of graduate students, as a thorough and thoughtful case study in how "Technologies emerge into the social configurations of their times and are represented through the contemporary communicative media" (3). Either way, The Languages of Edison's Light represents the best of what can be done when contemporary theorizing about the historical and social nature of language is grounded in analyzing the rhetorics surrounding a particular invention, innovation, or discovery; the result is an accessible and enlightening re-understanding of the original "incident" and a re-appreciation of how rhetoric is the field through which we negotiate our inventions, our discoveries, and their various meanings for us.

To accomplish all of this, Bazerman performs a number of interrelated critical tasks: he narrates and analyzes the "immediate reactions of various publics" to Edison's creation of incandescent lighting; he explores "how Edison established meaning and value for his project in the several meaning systems that would bear on its success: news, finances, laboratory, patents, engineering, and the market"; he discusses how Edison's invention has been represented symbolically; and he meditates on "how the new material and social realities of incandescent light created new and enduring meanings in several domains" (5). All of which is to say that Bazerman's account is thorough, nuanced, and intriguing from a rhetorical point of view, as the author situates the invention of incandescent lighting in the exchanges and negotiations of meaning making, from Edison's time to our own.

Along the way, we meditate with Bazerman on the confluence of "rhetoric, technology, and society" through a critical and historically-based consideration of an invention that most of us have largely taken for granted for most of our lives. As only one of many examples, Bazerman traces and examines Edison's own negotiation of the rhetoric surrounding his invention, and he suggests that "Edison and his associates accomplished the magic of communication, saying the right things at the right time to keep the endeavor unfolding and creating the right representations to keep their project before the eyes and in the minds of the relevant parties" (333). When we consider the various rhetorics and representations that have surrounded "light" and electricity since Edison, we easily see that this is only one small part of a much larger story--and Bazerman is to be commended for attempting to give us much of that story, with little of its complexity lost or muted into simplicity. And because Bazerman's account is so thoughtful and so thorough, we steadily become convinced that a large part of any reality--and, indeed, what enables the reality of something so seemingly fundamental to the contemporary world as electricity--is the rhetoric, the series of complex representations through which we negotiate, rediscover, and understand (after our own, various fashions) that reality.

All of that aside, why is this book being reviewed in Academic.Writing, an online journal ostensibly dedicated to fostering discussion of writing across the curriculum? Besides modeling theoretically savvy and accessible prose that bridges several fields (social inquiry, technology, and rhetoric--among just a few), Bazerman's text could serve as a guidepost to those thinking critically about how writing across the curriculum might be brought to the engineering sciences:

…it is useful to extend the notion of heterogeneous engineering to encompass symbolic engineering; that is, the development of symbols that will give presence, meaning, and value to a technological object or process within a discursive system. (335)

To my mind, this is one of the most succinct statements of how writing could be taught profitably in schools or programs that concentrate on engineering, technology, or even the sciences (substituting "scientific" for "technological" and "science" for "engineering" in the above quotation). And the success of The Languages of Edison's Light could easily serve as a model for the kind of writing that could be encouraged in such courses.

Publication Information: Alexander, Jonathan. (2001). [Review of the book The Languages of Edison's Light]. Academic.Writing.
Publication Date: May 15, 2001

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Copyright © 2001 Jonathan Alexander. Used with permission.