Critical Approaches to Culture + Communications

A Weblog by Ron Burnett (Founded in 1994 and now celebrating 23 Years!!)

This site began as one of the first academic sites in Canada when the World Wide Web was in its early phase of development. I have maintained it through many iterations since 1994.

Paradoxes of New Media (2)

(The first paragraph connects part 1 and part 2.)

To understand why New Media may have been convenient for both scholars and artists one need only look at the evolution of media studies. Although humans have always used a variety of media forms to express themselves and although these forms have been an integral part of culture, and in some instances the foundation upon which certain economies have been built, the study of media only developed into a discipline in the 20th century.

There are many reasons for this including and perhaps most importantly, the growth of printing from a text-based activity to the mass reproduction of images (something that has been commented on by many different theorists and practitioners). The convergence of technology and reproduction has been the subject of intense artistic scrutiny for 150 years. Yet, aside from Museums like MOMA the disciplines that we now take for granted, like film, photography, television and so on, came into being in universities only after an intense fight and the quarrel continues to this day.

The arguments were not only around the value of works in these areas, (photography for example, was not bought by serious art collectors until the latter half of the 20th century which may or may not be a validation of photography’s importance), but around the legitimacy of studying various media forms given their designation as the antithesis of high culture. Film was studied in English Departments. Photography was often a part of Art History Departments. Twenty years after television started to broadcast to mass audiences in the early 1950’s there were only a handful of texts that had been written, and aside from extremely critical assertions about the negative effects of TV on an unsuspecting populace (the Postman-Chomsky phenomenon), most of the discourse was descriptive.

The irony is that even Critical Theory in the 1930’s which was very concerned with media didn’t really break the scholarly iceberg that had been built around various media forms. It took the convergence of structuralism, semiotics and linguistics in the late 1960’s, a resurgence of phenomenology and a reconceptualization of the social and political role of the state to provoke a new era of media study. In Canada, this was felt most fully through the work of McLuhan and Edmond Carpenter and was brought to a head by the powerful convergence of experimentation in cinema and video combined with the work of artists in Intermedia, performance and music.

Another way of thinking about this is to ask how many people were studying rock and roll in 1971? After all, rock and roll was disseminated through radio, another medium that was not studied seriously until well after its invention (sound based media have always been the step-children of visual media).

So, the resistance to the appearance of different media forms may explain why media were renamed as new media. It may explain why someone like Lev Manovich relies on the trope of the cinema to explain the many complex levels that make up media landscapes and imageworlds. New in this instance is not only an escape from history, but also suggests that history is not important.

There is another important question here. What makes a medium specific discipline a discipline in any case? Is it the practice of the creators? Is it the fact that a heritage of production and circulation has built up enough to warrant analysis? I think not. Disciplines are produced through negotiation among a variety of players crossing the boundaries of industry, academia and the state. The term New Media has been built upon this detritus, and is a convenient way in which to develop a nomenclature that designates in a part for whole kind of way, that an entire field has been created.

But, what is that field? Is it the sum total of the creative work within its rather fluid boundaries? Is it the sum total of the scholarly work that has been published? Is it the existence of a major journal that both celebrates and promotes not only its own existence but also the discipline itself?

These issues of boundary making are generally driven by political as well as cultural considerations. They are often governed by curatorial priorities developed through institutions that have very specific stakes in what they are promoting. None of these activities per se may define or even explain the rise, fall and development of various disciplines. But, as a whole, once in place, disciplines close their doors both as a defensive measure, but also to preserve the history of the struggle to come into being.

To be continued......