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The Digital, the Arts, and the Humanities
By Marsha Kinder, Tara McPherson
UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESSCopyright © 2014 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
MEDIUM SPECIFICITY AND PRODUCTIVE PRECURSORS
In this era of transmedia discourse and postmedia pronouncements, we might question whether it is still productive to talk about medium specificity. Yet, given that new media forms are replacing each other so rapidly—usually before we have time to fully explore their social and aesthetic potential—perhaps a discourse on medium specificity might enable us to recuperate unique possibilities that otherwise would have been lost.
In 1999 at the Interactive Frictions conference, one could still hear echoes of Marshall McLuhan's famous refrain that fetishized medium specificity for the fifties—"the medium is the message!" Adopting this idea from turn-of-the-century modernism, McLuhan applied it to the emerging new medium of television as it began displacing cinema as the reigning mass medium worldwide (129). But by 1999, at the end of the millennium, this utopian refrain was being repurposed for computers, the Internet, digital media, and the database documents they spawned.
This refrain was challenged at the conference by even stronger echoes of Raymond Williams's influential critique of "technological determinism," which, he claimed, was based on a medium specificity that ignored the way old power struggles were inevitably remapped onto newly emergent forms (Television 5). In the late 1970s and 1980s, this critique sharpened the ideological edge of British cultural studies and its "thick" descriptions of reception, a cluster of politically engaged methodologies that privileged active readings by a diverse range of historically situated spectators over technological or aesthetic mastery by any single artist in any specific medium. Still, the analysis of medium specificity survived these cultural debates, for even Williams recognized the value of defining the formal specificity of television—its unique combination of segmentation and endless flow.
By the end of the 1990s, medium specificity had regained considerable force within the emerging discourse on digital media yet was still frequently accompanied by some form of defensiveness. For example, in Visual Digital Culture (2000), British new media theorist Andrew Darley felt compelled to vigorously defend his interest in the formal aesthetics and medium specificity of popular visual entertainment genres (such as spectacle cinema, computer animation, music video, simulation rides, and computer games) because he knew such discussions would be read as deviations from the ideological rigors of British cultural studies (1–8). Despite the assumed postmodernist erasure of the distinction between high and low culture, he realized that such aesthetic concerns would be deemed more appropriate to the elite "marginal practices" of avant-garde computer art (his usual object of study) than to the "low" forms of popular entertainment he was now discussing (which typically fell under the scrutiny of cultural studies). To bolster his case, Darley turned to Susan Sontag and David Bordwell (odd bedfellows), whose Against Interpretation and Planet Hong Kong used phenomenology and neoformalism, respectively (in different decades and with different ideological goals) to legitimize the aesthetics of medium specificity both for popular and for experimental forms.
These later digital versions of medium specificity opened a space for a revival of structuralism, generating a new mode of discourse that I call "cyberstructuralism." These emergent objects of study seemed to arouse a desire for clear-cut distinctions between old and new media, showing (as Williams had warned) that technological determinism dies hard. Cyberstructuralist dynamics are especially apparent in Lev Manovich's pioneering book The Language of New Media (2001). The reemergence of medium specificity as a driving force is an idea that is not only implicit in his title but also explicitly defended against potential charges of naive obsolescence:
In fact, regardless of how often we repeat in public that the modernist notion of medium specificity ("every medium should develop its own unique language") is obsolete, we do expect computer narratives to showcase new aesthetic possibilities that did not exist before digital computers. In short, we want them to be new media specific. (237)
While satisfying this desire for medium-specific distinctions, cyberstructuralism frequently performs three other collateral moves that prove problematic: it privileges formalism while ignoring the ideological implications of structural choices; it treats narrative as a rigid formal structure defined by a chain of causality and a set of binary oppositions, while minimizing its cognitive, affective, and social functions; and it fosters an illusion of wholeness without leaving room for the unknown.
Many contemporary media theorists have called attention to these limitations, including Diana Taylor, who sees computer-based archival histories not as neutral repositories of data but as forms of knowledge-production with dire ideological effects. Taylor challenges the illusion of wholeness found in these archival histories by exposing what has been excluded. In The Archive and the Repertoire: Performing Cultural Memory in the Americas (2003), she argues for the inclusion of live performance genres, for otherwise the ephemeral knowledge they are based on will be lost and their performers relegated to the margins of history. Even before the digital era, these limitations in structuralism had been exposed by Roland Barthes, whose work (as we see in this volume) is frequently referenced by new media theorists and historians of digital culture. His critique was most powerful in those works that revealed his own crucial move from structuralist binaries to open-ended post-structuralist networks. For example, in S/Z (1970; the quotations used here are from the translation by Richard Miller, published in 1974), a theory of reading that transforms narrative into an open-ended database, he famously claims that the "text is a galaxy of signifiers, not a structure of signifieds.... [T]he systems of meaning can take over this absolutely plural text, but their number is never closed, based as it is on the infinity of language" (5–6). As the emergent post-structuralist feminists of the 1970s and 1980s acknowledged, Barthes's S/Z had thereby redefined the goal of narrative theory: it was no longer focusing (as Teresa de Lauretis succinctly put it) on "establishing a logic, a grammar, or a formal rhetoric of narrative ... (its component units and their relations)" but rather on understanding "the nature of the structuring and destructuring ... a production of meaning which involves a subject in a social field" (105). As soon as Barthes moved the process of inquiry into the social field, all textual meanings necessarily took on ideological implications—even those posing as neutral denotations, as if to falsely suggest that language could ever be "innocent." In S/Z, Barthes seemed to take great delight in introducing precise structuralist binaries (e.g., denotation/connotation, readerly/writerly, sequential narrative/agglomerative database) and then playfully exploding them with his dialectics (e.g., making "denotation" the last of the connotations, and performing a writerly reading of the readerly). It was as if he were underscoring his own movement beyond structuralism into the more complex ideological realm of post-structuralism, where gaps in our knowledge are exposed and room is left for the unknown. It is this insistence on the inevitability of both open-endedness and ideological meaning that keeps Barthes so crucial to the ongoing debates on medium specificity and post-media discourse, particularly as argued in this volume.
This section of our anthology addresses some of the ways these arguments about medium specificity were voiced at the conference and continued to be revised in the years that followed, particularly with the emergence of transmedia migration, mobile technologies, and other digital forms of social networking. Focusing on four pairs of essays, this introduction stages these texts as a series of interwoven dialogues that give different narrative accounts of what is at stake in medium specificity historically and ideologically; which precursors, contemporary theorists, or artists are the main protagonists in this unfolding discursive drama; and how the interactive frictions and continuities between old and new forms can be read most productively within their social and historical contexts.
HAYLES AND MANOVICH ON MEDIUM SPECIFICITY
The first pair of essays are by N. Katherine Hayles and Lev Manovich, who were then (and have remained) two of the most rigorous and influential new media theorists in the field. Although she hails from literary studies and he comes from cinema, they both engage medium specificity from a cyberstructuralist perspective, even though Manovich explicitly acknowledges the "severe limitations" of structuralism. Despite their dedication to considering new media's relations with earlier forms, their primary contributions lie in their ability to identify formal and material differences with great clarity and precision.
Hayles's contribution to this volume is the original paper she delivered at the conference, "Print Is Flat, Code Is Deep: The Importance of Media-Specific Analysis." Although she would later publish several major books, How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics (1999), Writing Machines (2002), My Mother Was a Computer: Digital Subjects and Literary Texts (2005), and Electronic Literature: New Horizons for the Literary (2008), her distinction between flat print and deep code still lies at the heart of her work on medium specificity. As she puts it in her "Afterthoughts," this distinction is "the beginning of a trajectory that continues to spin out its implications in my work and thought." With her signature lucidity and elegance in structuring a line of argument and her astuteness in selecting a rich assortment of persuasive concrete examples, this essay presents a coherent case on behalf of a medium-specific analysis that addresses both the particularity of the form and one medium's citations and imitations of another. In this way, it attends to what she calls "simulation and instantiation" rather than merely "similarity and difference." Thus, she strategically insists that the term "hypertext" be applied to print as well as to digital media—to traditional encyclopedias and brilliant experimental novels like Dictionary of the Khazars as well as to electronic CD-ROMs and websites. Otherwise we would lose a valuable opportunity "to understand how a literary genre mutates and transforms when it is instantiated in different media." Although she frames these mutating movements from one medium to another as a historical process that forces us to deal with the materiality of literary texts, she does not address how these formal changes relate to larger social or cultural histories.
The rest of her essay is concerned with defining "what distinguishes hypertext instantiated in a computer from hypertext in book form." Listing eight concrete characteristics, she creates a useful typology that considers both the medium itself (their instantiation in digital computers) and the extent to which their effects can be simulated in print. Like a mathematical problem of subtraction, this two-step calculation repeatedly yields a singular functional difference: "print is flat, code is deep."
Like most of the writers within this section of the anthology, Hayles designates Barthes as a crucial precursor of hypertext, particularly because he was singled out so convincingly by George Landow (also a keynote speaker at the conference) in his groundbreaking book Hypertext: The Convergence of Contemporary Critical Theory and Technology. Focusing on Barthes's essay, "From Work to Text," Hayles begins by agreeing with Landow (and David Bolter) that Barthes "uncannily anticipates electronic hypertext." Yet she is equally convinced that Barthes's "vision remains rooted in print culture." Thus, she catalogues his works along with those other print hypertexts—old encyclopedias and experimental novels whose relationship to electronic hypertext is simulated. Following the same strategy that she pursued with her typology, she uses this close comparison to uncover a key functional difference: "In positioning text against work, Barthes was among those who helped initiate semiotic and performative approaches to discourse, arguably one of the most important developments in literary studies in the past century. But this shift has entailed loss as well as gain.... [I]t also had the effect ... of eliding differences in media."
Although Hayles argues that nondigital literary works can only "simulate" computer-mediated hypertexts and that "we have moved [far] beyond" Barthes, she denies that she is implying any teleological sense of progress or that literature is doomed. While she claims that books are "too robust, reliable, long-lived, and versatile to be rendered obsolete by digital media," she also acknowledges that books are subject to change, which she embraces as part of living form. With historical hindsight, we see how the Kindle and iPad uphold these observations. Undoubtedly used to reassuring her more traditional literary colleagues that she is still committed to books, Hayles makes her arguments appear less radical than they actually are. In fact, they appear compatible with the more traditional tactics of comparative literary analysis: the more similar the works we compare, the more precise we can make the distinctions between them. This rhetorical strategy of reassurance contrasts sharply with that of Lev Manovich, who frequently emphasizes the sense of rupture even while arguing for continuities between old and new forms.
Designed as a provocation, an attack on the very concept of media, Manovich's essay, "Postmedia Aesthetics," is not only postconference but also postpublication of The Language of New Media (2001), the groundbreaking book that has led him to be perceived by many as the world's leading new media theorist and (along with McLuhan, to whom he is frequently compared) a strong advocate for medium specificity. Always privileging the new, Manovich presents himself as an avant-garde theorist who is constantly driving the discourse on computer culture into new conceptual domains. With its teleological position signaled by the "post" in its title, the essay implies that those who have not adopted his most recent "postmedia" vocabulary risk obsolescence or being left far behind. It attempts to settle this running argument on medium specificity through a bold act of renaming. However, Manovich was not the first to reach this conclusion. Quoting from the contributions of Anne Friedberg and Henry Jenkins in his anthology The New Media Book (2002), Dan Harries claims that
With the growing use of digital video, computer-based editing and special effects, we are witnessing a convergence of media images. As Anne Friedberg notes, "the movie screen, the home television screen, and the computer screen retain their separate locations, yet the types of images you see on each of them are losing their medium-based specificity".... As Henry Jenkins suggests, "because digital media potentially incorporate all previous media, it no longer makes sense to think in medium-specific terms." (171)
Friedberg, Jenkins, and Harries come to this conclusion from the side of reception, whereas Manovich converts it into a formalist argument aligned with technological determinism, for he argues that one of the primary causes of this "postmedia" condition is "the digital revolution of the 1980s–90s." This move represents another break from The Language of New Media, wherein Manovich tried "to avoid using the word digital because it ambiguously refers to three unrelated concepts" (52). Dubbing our new era a "postdigital, postnet culture" (the prefix signaling not obsolescence, as in the case of "postmedia," but a functional difference or rupture), this essay now substitutes "media" (and, by implication, its derivatives "transmedia" and "medium-specificity") for "digital" as the primary term under attack and erasure.
Excerpted from Transmedia Frictions by Marsha Kinder, Tara McPherson. Copyright © 2014 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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