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Abstract

This dissertation is about the magic lantern and how it conveys meaning in a shifting media landscape. It focuses on the form, language, and style of lantern images and performances that circulated around 1900, a period of pronounced technological and cultural change that is considered a significant turn in media history. By lantern image, I mean the projected image, performed by live narration, music, sound effects, and projection itself. By lantern performance, I mean the concatenation of lantern images and the transitions between them given by a lanternist before an audience. Through close readings of a series of lantern comedies, melodramas, and spectacles that remain largely unknown, underexamined, or undertheorized, this dissertation demonstrates that the lantern actively participated in an aesthetic of media transition typically reserved for the then-new media, yet pertinent to the then-old. It argues that it is characterized by actively superposing layers of practices and its reciprocal interchanges with neighboring media and art forms. Each chapter explores this intertwining dynamic of superposition and reciprocity through the lantern’s interaction with newer media and popular entertainments, locating their traces in the lantern’s formal and stylistic features. I argue that the c. 1900 lantern offers a new way of thinking with and through the lantern: a frame that reveals and embraces the lantern’s continuities, ruptures, and ambivalences while also serving as an invaluable tool for understanding our established and emerging mediascape.

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