Monday, 27 November 2006

Media Studies 2.0 - what we need ...

In Understanding Media McLuhan wrote that just before a plane breaks the sound barrier, sound waves become visible on the wings of the plane. For him it was a measure of reversal - how forms reveal new and opposite phenomena at their limit - but it also served to show how new technologies are break points; moments of irruption which suddenly allow us to see the older environment that is passing away .... The new media revolution accomplishes the same for media studies. Suddenly we can look back and see more clearly our own discipline and its limitations.

The limits of media studies become obvious the longer one teaches the field. Perhaps the biggest problems new media expose are those revolving around media theory, media history and technology.

Media theory is in a mess. Students taking sociology or cultural studies receive a background in the historical rise and development of their theoretical traditions, understood in terms of the history of ideas, thinkers, books and movements. In media studies, however, 'theory' just means anything that isn't practice. I've seen 'theory' books that do nothing but repeat the same old chapter titles from the first year texts (institutions, audiences, effects, images etc...) without anything I'd recognise as theory or any reference to a theorist. From the evidence of the books and modules available, few media students get any history of theory in their field; the theory that is thought acceptable differs wildly between institutions; older theories drop rapidly off the radar (Althusser and Gramsci were once popular but how much are they taught today?) and the banal stranglehold of audience studies has prevented new thought from being embraced. The result is that anyone wanting to understand contemporary developments in media theory is better off looking to sociology, cultural studies and cyberculture studies where this stuff is mainstream. Also it seems like so few media studies lecturers have any understanding or knowledge of the real history and philosophy of technology, media and communciation. Unlike in sociology or cultural studies where academics can specialise in theory and spend their career excavating the ideas and meaning of one theorist, very few media studies lecturers ever bother (or could do it...). But things are changing. Our new media require both a more radical and more informed theoretical knowledge and a detailed understanding of the history of philosophies of media and technology. Pointless, proliferating, RAE-friendly, funded research projects that do nothing and tell us nothing but simply copy up the predictable facts of their tiny subject matter are great for careers in the field but ultimately toxic for the discipline. At some point we have to move beyond the blinkered worlds of empirical and ethnographic study and take a broader vision - a theoria- of media today ...

Unintentionally at least, media history is actually doing well in the discipline. That's because most people are researching, teaching and writing about media worlds that have already disappeared thanks to developments in new media. Ironically actual media history - the history of the forms, processes, phenomena, social and cultural effects, political economy and interrelationship of media - is barely taught. How many University media departments offer modules on the history of media? And how many really go back beyond print and broadcasting to look at the forms that dominated the millennia before these ... Look at any book on 'media representation' to see a good example of the problem. Apparently images are relatively new, mostly magazine advertisements or film or TV images and are best approached through semiology ... Thus the entire history of image making and its anthropological, philosophical, theological and politcal and cultural significance in the west as well as in non-western countries and traditions is utterly elided ... The result is that we're producing an a-historical media studies, or at least one that's stunted in its scope in which the only acceptable histories are those of newspapers, films and broadcasting. I teach media history, and I have a curious passion for older visual media - magic lanterns, stereoscopes and the bewildering range of optical toys and entertainments of the pre-20th C world and it sometimes feels like no-one in media studies has even heard of these. You look in vain in media studies books for any discussion of these rich, complex, wonderful and once phenomenally popular worlds. The books that do exist are written by specialist collectors and inter-disciplinary experts and are routinely ignored by the field. Ultimately media studies' ignorance of media history is important because it is related to and reinforces the field's ignorance of new media. Missing out on most of the history of media it also fails to see how new forms are emerging today. Media history, however, is essential for new media studies. New media need contextualising in the history of media forms and the history of what these forms were attempting to accomplish. Only that grand view can inform us of what is happening today and where it might go. I wouldn't recommend media studies to anyone interested in those questions.

Media studies lecturers are no longer equipped to teach media: they know too little about technology. Too few even have any knowledge of the philosophy of technology - an emerging field making waves within philosophy and IT but which media studies has mostly ignored, but their ignorance of actual contemporary technology is even more remarkable. Too few use it, too few have any real idea of the different ways their students are using it, most haven't an inkling about the media worlds their own students live within and most have no real clue as to how contemporary technologies work. Today a thorough knowledge of audiences and semiology or the BBC and auteur theory isn't good enough. Media studies lecturers need to get to grips with the physical sciences, electrical engineering and computer science. Without them we can't make head nor tail of the media we have. I'm not suggesting these are sufficient on their own to understand media - they're clearly not - but without understanding the technology, we can't begin to understand what it does.

There is nothing here that can't be changed in the field. The great strength of media studies is its inter-disciplinary origins and nature. The worst thing media studies ever tried was to become exclusive - to definitively delineate what is and what isn't suitable knowledge or subject matter for the field. That has only resulted in equally restricted minds and departments across the country that are closed to different ideas and approaches, sitting there with the in-growing toenail of their own perspective ...

Like I said, it's time for Media Studies 2.0

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