Has the world ever been changed by anything
save the thought and its magic vehicle the Word?
– Thomas Mann, “Freud and the Future”
[I]t is not as vehicles of content, but in their
form and very operation, that media induce a
social relation; and this is not an exploitative
relation: it involves the abstraction, separation
and abolition of exchange itself.
– Jean Baudrillard, “Requiem for the Media”
In the space between “vehicle” as transformative language, Mann’s medium of social change, and “vehicle” as simulacrum, Baudrillard’s notion of fallacious representation, lies a field riddled with both vastly different and faintly nuanced meanings for the word that has movement as its basis. “Vehicle,” drawn from the Latin root vehere (to carry), denotes a means of embodiment, transmission, dilution, expression, or transportation. It suggests the experience or thing that it encapsulates or moves; without the subject that it serves, its constitution appears hollow and unnecessary. A vehicle often coheres with or manifests something separate from itself so that the properties of the vehicle merge with or perform the thing(s) it alters or puts forth during their connection through space and time (cf Time/Space). Spanning across disciplines in the arts and humanities, social sciences, and physical sciences, “vehicle” serves as a key term to describe a myriad of mediums of conveyance. For example, there are vehicles of transport (from wagons to space ships), vehicles of artistic display (from soliloquies to concertos), and vehicles of physical or chemical transmission (cf Transmitter, Transmission) (from sound to dextrose solutions). There are also vehicles representing spiritual elevation (from the Christian spirit to the three vehicles of Mahayana Buddhism); media vehicles or channels (such as magazines and television shows); and vehicle currency used in international trade transactions. In tracing how the notion of vehicle is used and developed, however, it becomes clear that its distinguishing characteristic—that of carrying or conveyance—shifts under scrutiny. Definitions of vehicle as a carrier, as the encapsulation of separate content, or as an entity distinct from an underlying meaning or subject, break down.
Before outlining vehicle’s conceptual framework, it is first necessary to examine the overlap and slippage between the meanings of medium and vehicle. Though both terms share the characteristics of communication, vehicle is more frequently associated with movement and transition (with altering, manifesting, and transporting), while medium has a more a significant relation to translation and unification (by mediating (cf Mediation), channeling (cf Channel), and linking). Both terms, however, share the overarching denotations of embodiment and conversion, of encompassment and change. One definition for vehicle in the Oxford English Dictionary equates it with a “means or medium by which ideas or impressions are communicated or made known” and “a medium of expression or utterance,” while in a latter definition, vehicle is “a material means, channel, or instrument, by which a substance . . . is conveyed or transmitted from one point to another.” These definitions ally the terms as nearly synonymous.
In literary studies, most often in poetics discourse, “vehicle” is used to describe the figurative connection in a metaphor. I.A. Richards coined the terms “tenor” and “vehicle” in Philosophy of Rhetoric to represent the fundamental workings of metaphor. While “tenor” is the literal or main subject of a metaphor, “vehicle” is the figurative connection, the likeness, or the thing that is compared to the literal subject. Though writers and critics have subsumed both terms in forming a basic understanding of metaphor in its distinct yet contingent parts, the notion of the vehicle as a carrying force separate from yet responsible for tenor’s full illumination elides the complexities of vehicle’s origin and application. As can be seen in Aristotle’s Poetics, the role of the vehicle is couched within the enactment of metaphor, which is “the transference of a term from one thing to another.” The vehicle is the instigating force in metaphor that creates a “similarity of dissimilars”; it elucidates qualities in the tenor that are divergent from yet in one or more ways significantly alike those of the vehicle. What is also discernable, however, is that in the act of transference—in the construction of a singular metaphor—the vehicle creates a collision with the tenor that conflates the distinctions between them. In his 1775 dictionary, Samuel Johnson advances this notion of conflation, which he sees to be inherent to metaphor’s operation: “The application of a word to an use to which, in its original import, cannot be put: as he bridles his anger; he deadens the sound; the spring awakens the flowers. A metaphor is a simile comprised in a word . . . ” Johnson’s conception of a metaphor as a curtailed comparison, a word employed in a way not meant in its “original” capacity, reveals his understanding of the simultaneity of the literal and figurative levels that a vehicle must reveal. He shows that the figurative aspect of metaphor’s function is actually vehicular in its movement to perform acts of exposure. (see narrative, lyric, drama, language)
What and how this exposure takes place is fundamental to a tension within the role of vehicle in media studies. By examining key terms in semiotics that align with “vehicle,” one gains a deeper understanding of its intricacies. The function of Ferdinand de Saussure’s signifier—the perceptible part of the sign that manifests to the senses (cf Sense) the signified, that which is absent or lacking—closely represents vehicle’s position in relation to its content. Just as the signified is dependent upon the signifier for its very existence, the signifier requires something to signify in order to avoid mere objecthood. The signifier and the signified only exist in relation to each other to form a sign, a signification. This paradigm can also be applied to the vehicle and its content. Just as content is dependent on its vehicle for an embodied form, expression, or transition, so too does the vehicle demand that content provide it with substance. As Saussure illustrates in his discussion of the concept (the signified) and the sound-image (the signifier), the “two elements are intimately united, and each recalls the other” (66). They are reciprocal and interdependent.
The role of the vehicle also correlates to core functions within C.S. Peirce’s semiology and within the three orders that structure human existence in Lacanian psychoanalysis. It corresponds to Peirce’s sign (or sign vehicle) in his triadic definition of the sign, the other components being the object of the sign and the interpretant that results from the sign (99). To distinguish between his overarching notion of the sign and the part of it that most clearly operates as the conveyer of the sign’s function, Peirce’s successors coined the term “sign vehicle” to express the component of the sign that is most responsible for this conveyance. Here the vehicle relates to the object iconically through resemblance, indexically through actual or referential connection, or symbolically through convention (104). (see symbol-icon-index) The vehicle also significantly relates to Jacques Lacan’s notions of the symbolic. In the realm of the symbolic, one internalizes a social order that engenders human subjectivity. In other words, the symbolic serves to order and signify the subject, just as Peirce’s sign vehicle transmits the sign’s object and Saussure’s signifier manifests the signified. As the translator of The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis clarifies, the symbols within Lacan’s order are signifiers (in the Saussurian sense of the word) which are “in themselves without meaning [and] which acquire value only in their mutual relations” (279). This mutuality or reciprocality becomes vehicle’s essential and heuristic quality in the project of understanding the term’s intricacies. (see symbolic-real-imaginary)
In looking at memory as a vehicle, the pull between mediation and immediacy (cf Immediacy) becomes apparent. As seen from Frances Yates’s discussion of Simonides and his task of remembering the guests who were crushed by the collapse of Scopas’s banquet hall, memory is born out of and shaped by space and architecture in its task of reconstructing events and ideas. [cf ,memory, (2)] It is a vehicle that travels through rooms, buildings, and streets in its act of memorization, and it becomes systematized and ordered by interaction within these different environments. The memory that requires training to strengthen itself—to fortify its memories—is a malleable yet artificial vehicle in its need for structured intervention. It is unnatural and mediated because its recollections do not arise “simultaneously with thought” (5). In Phaedrus, Plato considers memory in a similar light, but he does so in relation to the difference between the undesirable mediation of writing and the truthful, unmediated soul that stems from memory. It is through pure, unobstructed mind that Plato envisions a connection to the world of knowledge: “[O]nly in principles of justice and goodness and nobility taught and communicated, orally and written in the soul, which is the true way of writing, is there clearness and perfection and seriousness” (90-91). For Plato, the only “true,” immediate knowledge is that which thrives in the vehicle of memory.
With Marshall McLuhan’s groundbreaking concept that “the medium is the message,” it becomes clear that the distinction between the content of the vehicle and the vehicle itself are inseparable and indistinguishable. Borrowing McLuhan’s paradigm, the vehicle is the content. Because, as McLuhan tells us, “the medium . . . shapes and controls the scale and form of human association and action,” it can be said that media figure entire societies and that they cannot be made distinct from content (9). In addition, McLuhan shows that mediums are extensions of the body and our sense lives: “All media as extensions of ourselves serve to provide new transforming vision and awareness” (60). For example, McLuhan represents the vehicle of the car as an expansion of man by serving as a mode of communication and a force of social equalization. It also serves as a “carapace, [a] protective and aggressive shell, of urban and suburban man” (224-225). Man’s engagement with the world is transformed by and through his use of the vehicle. The difference between embodiment and momentum—between the vehicle and its content—come to be as conflated as the fusion between the medium and the message.
This same collapsing of the distinctions between form and content, and between the art object and its aura, reveals that the vehicle has no inside, no metaphysical significance that is separate from that which lies outside of it. Whatever embodiment the art object or vehicle inhabits, it is one that holds an emptiness or space that becomes interpreted. As Martin Heidegger examines in “Art and Space,” sculptures are bodies that contain an emptiness that “plays in the manner of a seeking-projecting instituting of places” (7). In other words, the vehicle of the art object reflects or projects the surrounding place/space rather than emanating something that is inherent to it. Walter Benjamin explores this emptiness as the loss of aura in a work of art. With the onset of mechanical reproduction, Benjamin argues that art is liberated from primitive notions of authenticity and from the dependence on ritual (224). Once a work of art is designed for reproducibility, it loses a core of meaning and its autonomy. The piece of art—or the vehicle—is no longer unique because it is wholly constructed by the mode of reproduction. The vehicle has nothing substantive to transmit but nonetheless continues in its conveyance.
As the Baudrillard epigraph displays, it is a false notion that a vehicle or medium manifests distinct content. Rather, it is the vehicle itself, in its function and force, that abstracts, distances, and interrupts human relations (169). The vehicle asserts its own ideology by perpetuating itself. In addition, Baudrillard claims that media’s encoding disallows reciprocal human relations and that, if an unmediated form of communication is to exist, the code (the enacting agency of the vehicle) must be destroyed completely (183). Without human intervention, the vehicle functions within and for its own continuance. As can be seen quite clearly, the ramifications of this understanding of vehicle are significant. If content is driven by the encoded vehicle, what are the consequences on human agency? Where and how will the unmanned vehicle direct itself? If the vehicle is the content, or if the vehicle is merely the vehicle’s expression, is there space for re-entering a revised code? Or, to amend a question introduced by Lev Manovich in The Language of the New Media, is the externalized, objectified, and standardized mind the realm in which all vehicles must travel (61)?
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Plato. Symposium and Phaedrus. New York: Dover Publications, 1993.
Richards, I.A. Philosophy of Rhetoric. New York: Oxford University Press, 1936.
de Saussure, Ferdinand. Course in General Linguistics. Ed. Charles Bally and Albert Sechehaye. Trans. Wade Baskin. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1966 .
Yates, Frances A. The Art of Memory. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1966.