Making Sense of Media

You’d think after all this time (I first studied Media in 1982 and have been teaching in the Media field since 1985) that I’d have a clear idea about the notion of media. But no, I find myself regularly rethinking its meaning and implications. When I began, media was associated with Media Production, which was in turn associated with the emerging and avowedly interdisciplinary Communication discipline. Media was associated particularly with the study of Mass Communication, which focused on the political and cultural consequences of mass media. It seemed relatively easy within this context to identify media – they were associated with the distinct, modern, technologically based communication forms of photography, film, television and radio. Studying media involved critical study of media history, institutions, formal strategies and cultural implications, as well as the development of specialised skills in the various production disciplines. At the same time, however, there was always the awareness that media preserved a more general sense – that speech, writing, printing, telegraphy, telephony and even train lines (McLuhan) were forms of media. Media figured as the concrete corollary of the whole communication problematic. The novelty of the Communication discipline was that it struggled to conceive society in terms of relational processes and networks rather than as a field of linked, but residually autonomous, things. At the most abstract, philosophical level contemporary media appeared as a peculiarly modern and exaggerated manifestation of the play of communicative mediation – of spacing, delay, representation, intercession, veiling and perceptual and cognitive extension – that has always been integral to, and even constitutive of, human society. At the time then the notion of media had a double sense; it denoted the field of modern technological communication, but also indicated an uncertain middle terrain – of active/passive agency – affecting every aspect of human communication. The relationship between these two meanings is not altogether easy. If all communication entails a dimension of media then is what is it that distinguishes modern media? Is it the technological form? Or must we rethink the concept of the technological itself, allowing it to feature within the space of ‘natural communication’?

[I should really say something here about how 1960s & 1970s art theory conceived media, particularly how it figured as a means of thinking beyond the modernist obsession with identifying the essential features of an artistic medium. Think of Dick Higgins notion of “intermedia” or Rosalind Krauss’s later analysis of the ‘post-medium’ condition.]

The 1990s concept of new media had weird implications. At one level it seemed to indicate an opening – accepting, for instance, the whole field of computation as media – but at another level it gained a restricted technological focus (linked to the need to distinguish the analogue from the digital, etc.) that ended up drawing it towards a more conventional, modernist conception of a medium. Manovich, for instance, defines new media in terms of its fundamental material-technical characteristics (numerical representation, etc.). This was useful in terms of making sense of the transformation of the immediate media environment but also had the tendency to overemphasise a technical conception of media.

The contemporary notion of media art aims to shift beyond this narrow focus and to forge links to much wider traditions of media practice, yet it remains bound to a restricted conception of media practice as an engagement with systems of technologically based representation and communication. While technological media remain very important and are definitely characteristic of contemporary communication contexts, there is a need to discover ways of considering and enabling broader possibilities.

To be honest, I end up following multiple contradictory paths – at times imagining that it is through rigorous engagement with the technical layers of media that creative possibilities emerge, while at other times suggesting that media transcends any specific technical conditions, that its implications stretch beyond the technical, that the technical is only a metaphor for a deeper conception of the space of alien constitution and disappearance that mediation represents. Perhaps there is less a need to inisist on a singular, consistent sense of media, than a need to acknowldege the play of semantic, conceptual and material possibilities. The awkwardness, however, is when I am pushed to define a set of fundamental skills. What would this involve? At one level there is clearly a need for dimensions of historical and critical-theoretical understanding, which must necessarily have a very broad orientation, taking in, for instance, aspects of cultural performance, reproduction and memory, philosophical issues of mimesis and representation, debates about the circulation of power and ideology in contemporary society and traditions of discussion concerning the nature and relevance of the concept of artistic medium. Then there is a need to identify specific areas of media practice. Here is where there is a tendency to fall back on more limited conceptions of media, to focus on a conventional sense of the media and new media industry (either at the corporate-professional level or in terms of traditions of technological artistic practice). The weakness then is in failing to develop conceptual and practical means to effectively mediate between the open and more resticted conceptions of media.

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