I explore media in transition. My research encompasses film, video, print, digital arts, and the web. I'm interested in what artists and writers are doing and in what critics and scholars are saying.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Approaching New Media: Interdisciplinary Signposts

I’ve been looking at how scholars and critics from various disciplines in the arts and the humanities are approaching new media studies. Several collections of essays have served as guides, including the following books:

Martin Lister, Jon Dovey, Seth Giggings, Iain Grant, Kieran Kelly, eds. New Media: A Critical Introduction. London and New York: Routledge, 2003.

The contributors, all members of the School of Cultural Studies at the University of the West of England, Bristol, define new media “to be those methods and social practices of communication, representation, and expression that have developed using the digital, multimedia, networked computer and the ways that this machine is held to have transformed work in other media: from books to movies, from telephones to television.” They situate the emergence of new media in the mid-1980s when the personal computer gained popularity (2). Taking an interdisciplinary, “synthetic” approach to new media studies that draws on theories and frameworks from art and cultural history, popular culture, political economy, the sciences, philosophy, sociology, and traditional media studies, they address key debates in what they describe as a complex and contested field (1). Rather than limit their discussions to specific “new media” popular at the time of writing, they investigate “the more fundamental issues of what constitutes newness in media and what part technological change may play in that” (2–3). Committed to making sense of the cultural changes associated with new media, the contributors focus not on “the latest software upgrade, gizmo, avant-garde experiment, or marketing ploy” but on “what forms of understanding are being brought to bear on them, and what meanings are being invested in them” (2–3). While emphasizing both the historical dimensions of new media and the wider questions of culture and technology that studies of new media raise (4), the contributors take care to avoid the blind spots they associate with “critical critics,” who deny there has been any substantial change, and with “uncritical utopians,” who claim everything has changed and therefore utopia is near (3–4).

Lynn Spigel and Jan Olsson, eds. Television After TV: Essays on a Medium in Transition. Durham and London: Duke UP, 2004.

Concerned about the future of television and television studies at the beginning of the twenty-first century, Spigel recognizes the need for scholars to devise critical models that acknowledge roles “new media” are playing in everyday life. Sensitive to the reinvention of TV over the years and to the transformation of TV viewing practices, Spigel writes in her introduction:

“In this multimedia/multi-image context, audiences are learning new ‘viewing protocols’ that allow them to interpret TV images in relation to the textual materials found on the Net and/or on fragmented parts of a single screen. As images multiply on a variety of delivery systems and platforms, who knows what audiences are seeing—much less thinking—anymore? I will leave this issue to the social scientists; from my point of view the more interesting problem is precisely the uncertainty. Television—once the most familiar of everyday objects—is now transforming at such rapid speeds that we no longer really know what ‘TV’ is at all.” (6)

Skeptical of both utopian and dystopian attitudes toward new media, she favors a paradigm of television studies that supports “a critical engagement with what is actually going on here in the media-saturated present” (13).

(Spigel is Professor of Radio/Television/Film at Northwestern University; Olsson is Professor of Cinema Studies at Stockholm University, Sweden.)

David Thorburn and Henry Jenkins, eds. Rethinking Media Change: The Aesthetics of Transition. Cambridge, MA, and London, England: MIT Press, 2003/2004.

Thorburn and Jenkins state in their introduction:

“In our current moment of conceptual uncertainty and technological transition, there is an urgent need for a pragmatic, historically informed perspective that maps a sensible middle ground between the euphoria and the panic surrounding new media, a perspective that aims to understand the place of economic, political, legal, social and cultural institutions in mediating and partly shaping technological change. The essays in this book represent an effort to achieve such an understanding of emerging communication technologies. At once skeptical and moderate, they conceive media change as an accretive, gradual process, challenging the idea that new technologies displace older systems with decisive suddenness” (2).

They recognize the importance of “significant hybrid or collaborative forms that often emerge during times of media transition” and offer as a recent example contemporary storytelling-experiments that are “crossing and combining several media, exploiting computer games or web-based environments that offer immersive and interactive experiences that mobilize our familiarity with traditional narrative genres drawn from books, movies and television” (3).

Because they regard media convergence as a means to join old and new technologies, formats, and audiences, Thorburn and Jenkins caution against medium-specific analytic approaches, which, they assert, risk simplifying technological change to a contest in which one medium wins. They argue for a less reductive, comparative approach that considers “the complex synergies that always prevail among media systems, particularly during periods shaped by the birth of a new medium of expression” (3). It follows, then, that they resist notions of media purity. They also resist static definitions of media, such as cinema, in which a communications system is expected to adhere to a definitive form after it’s institutionalized and standardized (11). Underscoring the “processes of imitation, self-discovery, remediation and transformation” that are at stake during periods of cultural renewal, and proposing that old media rarely die, Thorburn and Jenkins link media change with “a mix of tradition and innovation, always declaring for evolution, not revolution” (12).

(Thorburn is Professor of Literature and Director of the Communications Forum at MIT; Jenkins is Professor of Humanities and Director of the Comparative Media Studies Program at MIT.)

Martin Rieser and Andrea Zapp, eds. New Screen Media: Cinema/Art/Narrative. London: British Film Institute, 2002/2004.

[The Center for Art and Media (ZKM) in Karlsruhe and the British Film Institute (BFI) in London entered a “trans-national agreement’ to co-produce the DVD that accompanies the book. ZKM was headed by Jeffrey Shaw (acknowledgments).]

Following an epigraph from Kurt Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions in which a character shuns writers who bring order to chaos and vows, instead, to bring chaos to order, editors Martin Rieser and Andrea Zapp begin their foreword with a warning: “We are entering an age of narrative chaos, where traditional frameworks are being overthrown by emergent experimental and radical attempts to remaster the art of storytelling in developing technologies.” Media artists and theorists themselves, Rieser and Zapp attempt to give “long overdue recognition to the maturation of new media art into a major innovation in screen narrative form and genres” (xxv). The cultural theorists, critics, and new media artists who contribute to the collection assess the challenges to cinematic and broadcast formats that new media pose, taking into consideration emergent narrative forms associated with hypermedia, installation and video art, the Internet, computer games, interactive television, and interactive film. Shifting dynamics between audiences and new media productions, and between audiences and authors, are examined in a range of contexts; examples include instances when audiences/viewers may be editors of parallel datastreams or inhabitants of virtual worlds (xxv). The collection has been designed “to provoke a new discourse concentrating on content rather than interface” (xxvi); the enclosed DVD provides visual examples of many projects that are discussed. Rieser and Zapp acknowledge viewpoints critical of new media and hope to engage cynics in constructive debates. They state their own position clearly: “We also hope that the reader [of the book] will conclude that new media marks a major watershed in the development of screen forms of narrative” (xxvii).

(Rieser is Senior Lecturer in Digital Media at Bath Spa University, UK; Andrea Zapp is a lecturer and media artist in Manchester.)

Jeffrey Shaw and Peter Weibel, eds. Future Cinema: The Cinematic Imaginary after Film. Cambridge, MA, and London, England: MIT Press, 2003.

[Exhibition catalogue for show curated by Shaw and Weibel, ZKM/Center for Art and Media, Karlsruhe, 16 Nov 2002–30 March 2003.]

In the preface to this weighty, oversized, and well-illustrated tome of more than 600 pages, Peter Weibel argues that independently produced digital media contrast with the “image industry,” which, during an era of globalization, promotes (creative) standardization. Weibel views digital media as alternative modes of production that “are providing an appropriate platform for the evolution of independent, experimental and personal cinema in the digital field.” He regards “those individuals formerly called artists” as new kinds of technologically skilled experts who are positioned to challenge “a cinematic homogeneity supported by millions of dollars, and to rival and surpass Hollywood’s innovative, narrative and expressive achievements.” According to Weibel, the book “offers evidence of a surprising fact: Even the technological and ideological apparatus of huge industries can be transformed by individuals” (16). The framework that supports this evidence considers the transformation of classical cinema “on the basis of apparatus,” a process that Weibel claims developed in three chronological phases: 1960s Expanded Cinema movement, the video revolution of the 1970s, and the digital apparatus of the 1980s and ‘90s (16). Concentrating on the apparatus-oriented approach and emphasizing technological innovation, while also acknowledging artistic and ideological content, the book has been designed to “deconstruct the total apparatus of the cinema, to transform the cinematic apparatus, and create new technologies that allow different psychic mechanisms, that subjugate subjects in the cinema, that allow different relations between spectator and screen, different representations/constructions of reality and subjects, a critical relation to representation” (17).

(Shaw is the Executive Director of the iCINEMA Centre for Interactive Cinema Research at UNSW, Sydney; Director of International Projects at the ZKM/Institute for Visual Media; and Visiting Professor at the University of Art and Media, Karlsruhe. Weibel is Chair and CEO of the ZKM/Center for Art and Media, Karlsruhe.)

Anna Everett and John T. Caldwell, eds. New Media: Theories and Practices of Digitextuality. New York and London: Routledge, 2003.

Anna Everett and John T. Caldwell introduce the collection in the following way: “Digital media technologies and their so-called killer apps, and the popular adoption and acceptance of these computer applications, are revolutionizing our sensory perceptions and cognitive experiences of being in the world. In the process, new visual, aural, linguistic, and literary codes and signifiers are emerging that require new hermeneutic responses on our part simply to keep pace. When we consider the far-reaching impact of ascendant digital media systems and what their increasing corporatization augurs for individuals’ technology access and technologized social processes alike, then the essential role of media theorists, scholars, and practitioners in helping to ensure that humanistic values prevail in the new digital order is clear. Our project of humanizing technology in what has been called a posthuman age requires a trenchant interrogation of the ideological, political, structural, and representational assumptions underpinning much of the new media hegemony. This includes technology legislation, policies, organizational and corporate patterns of use, and the cacophonous new media rhetoric (including hype and antihype). Alternative forms of digital media hype—more sober, democratizing, adventurous, and creative new media discourses and vision—become more important than ever” (xi–xii; original emphasis).

(Everett is Associate Professor of Film Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara; Caldwell is Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Film, Television, and Digital Media at the University of California, Los Angeles.)


My bookshelves contain many more titles related to new media than I’ve mentioned here. I’ll discuss the others another time, especially texts that consider alternative narrative strategies involving the media arts, writing, and performance. At some point I hope to do a comparative analysis of these various theories and practices and to introduce issues concerning memory, self-representation, and autobiographical modes.

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