“Misunderstandings are the medium in which the noncommunicable is communicated.”
– Theodor Adorno, Prisms.
Among the definitions provided by the Oxford English Dictionary for “mediation,” those most pertinent to studies in media theory are:
“Agency or action as an intermediary; the state or fact of serving as an intermediate agent, a means of action, or a medium of transmission; instrumentality.”
“The interposition of stages or processes between stimulus and result, or intention and realisation.”
Whereas the first positions mediation in the context of communications, the second is wholly psychological in meaning. Yet mediation, situated at the liminal zone between medium and those actors operating around it, is curiously ill-defined. In “Genesis of the Media Concept,” John Guillory provides an excellent tour through the development of ‘medium’ or media, in counterpoint to the historical priority placed upon mimesis.1 From Aristotle until almost the late nineteenth century, the issue of media was almost never raised in connection with communication. Aristotle in Poetics may have been among the first to map out a specific relation between creation and communication by arguing that the focus of the fine arts lies around the concept of mimesis or imitation, rather than communication per se.2 It is only when the contents of a medium are transposed onto a different medium that the original medium becomes perceptible, in the sense that we are made aware of the parameters of the original medium when a different medium brings them into focus. This is precisely what happened with the advent of print, and on a broader level, mass means of communications.
The process of mediation may seem self-evident in the fact that a medium exists and operates, yet there are few instances of the phenomenon of mediation being extrapolated from the medium.3 Combining the two OED definitions mentioned earlier, the very fact of mediation implies a need to bridge a conflict between two entities. Mediation, then, is a process or a phenomenon. It is in Hegelian dialectics that the very precept of immediacy is rendered futile by virtue of a mediating space between subject and object.4 Hegel’s general concept of mediation posits an accumulative comprehension of existence, but one that is simply too complex to be perceived wholly by human consciousness (even if this sort of totality is indicated by theory). This is where agencies of mediation emerge, almost as an inevitability of human intellectual progress. Extrapolating this further, it becomes clear that mediation is a multiplying process that itself mediates disparate processes within the media into a “plurality of mediums.”5 Mediation has, since the time of Hegel and his successors, attained a highly sociologically governed meaning. By this I refer to the enormously diverse ways in which society has tended toward an increasingly fractionated and mediated awareness of itself. From primitive days of runners who would convey messages from one village to another, we now type into a computer terminal which sends off the message instantly (perhaps to another country altogether). The levels of mediation involved, at the very least, involve: translation of human text to machine-readable code, encryption in digital format, transmission via a non-corporeal ‘network‘ (that is only represented by cables and wires), decryption at the receiving terminal, re-translation of machine language to human-readable script. It may conclusively be understood that increasing technological dependency engenders an increasingly diverse array of mediated interactions within social existence. I will here focus more narrowly upon the closer relationship that mediation itself bears with regard to its ‘message’ (or, per Marshall McLuhan, the medium) and its replication, reconfiguration, or other manipulation. I will further explore the implications inherent in thinking about mediation as a phenomenon, grounding its genesis in John Guillory’s work on the ‘media concept’. My objective, therefore, will be to explicate the ramifications the process of mediation sets in motion, from the viewpoint of media studies.
McLuhan famously stated, “The medium is the message.”6 Media theorists have debated this ostensibly simple line for decades with no conclusive outcome. Here, instead of rehashing that argument, I want to highlight two parts of that sentence: medium, and message. Prior to McLuhan, general understanding suggested that a medium acts as a container for its message, which is embedded or otherwise encoded within. This message is subsequently propagated via a channel, or channels, within the chosen medium to a receiver who is then able to decode the message. This sort of simplistic communications model can be traced back to Shannon and Weaver.7 McLuhan’s Zen-like statement forced a radical re-thinking of this impersonal model that naively supposed the medium to have no great impact upon the nature of the message. If now we are to treat the message and the medium as having a far more symbiotic relationship than previously believed, what are the new limits to the understanding of media itself? Mediation, as mentioned earlier, is implicit in the very fact of media itself. According to Raymond Williams, mediation defines how the producer is ‘alienated’ from the product.8 Another way of examining this is to consider precisely how the medium impinges upon the receiving consciousness. Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin with radical simplicity state, “a medium is that which remediates.”9 Indeed, a medium cannot simply “mediate” or transmit. There is no purely passive medium. Therefore we must confront the reality that a medium by the very terms of its existence remediates. It absorbs the form and content of other media and reworks, reconfigures, or otherwise refashions them. Remediation counters Walter Benjamin’s implicit suggestion that mechanical reproduction, to an extent, satisfies a desire for ‘transparent’ mediation, or immediacy.10 At the same time, by slipping into remediation at the instant of its mediation, a transfusion occurs whereby older media is reshaped by the newer, and re-presented anew, in a potentially different form of media.
In dialectical relationship with mediation–or, as its eventuality, remediation–lies Garrett Stewart’s concept of demediation. In “Bookwork as Demediation,” Stewart defines the term as “the process by which a transmissible text or image is blocked by the obtruded fact of its own neutralised medium.”11 In other words, then, demediation runs contrary to the sort of reiterative reconfiguration suggested by Bolter and Grusin. Demediation strips away the manifestations of the medium material itself, transfiguring in some manner the message content. In a sense, it is the very erasing of the material that permits transmission of the “communicable object.” Where demediation detaches itself, although arguably remaining a niche within the overarching concept of remediation, is in the fact of its destruction of the older media even as it emerges re-created. In less extreme instances, an irrevocable unidirectional change may take the place of an absolute loss of the older form. Stewart puts it well when he says, “Once conceptualised, these same things vanish in respect to their thinghood.”12 Although here he refers to the linguistic and innately reductivist phenomenon of naming (and thereby irrevocably reducing or destroying) the native ‘thing-in-itself’-ness of something, the principle applies most definitely in other forms of mediation as well.
An exemplary instance of the phenomenon of demediation can be found in the composer William Basinski’s work, The Disintegration Loops. In the early 1980s, Basinski made some tape loops of recorded music. Almost twenty years later, he wanted to transfer the music from analog reel-to-reel tapes to digital format. Once he started the transfer process, he realised that the magnetic tapes had deteriorated with age, and even during the process, were degrading further. Instead of stopping, Basinski allowed the recordings to finish, capturing the ‘death’ of his music (as it had existed on the magnetic tapes) and simultaneously the ‘re-birth’ (the new music as it emerged on hard drive in digital format having further decayed).13 Although the music itself as originally composed is fairly simple and even unremarkable, listening to the Loops gradually brings out the glitches and progressive deterioration of the physical medium–the tape–that embodied Basinski’s original recordings. This effectively transforms the nature of what is being listened to completely. This is not music that Basinski created, but rather a creation of pure technology (more precisely, the failing of technology). Thus, despite the original medium (and its constituent message) being ‘lost’, what we are left with is a new message which carries mere vestiges of the old one. In a certain sense this does ‘destroy’ the older message, but only insofar as it reconstitutes itself in a completely new and radically different manner.
Bolter and Grusin’s conceptualisation of mediation as something that cannot be self-sustaining but must at the moment of its inception appear as remediation (or, as Garrett would suggest, in certain cases as demediation) is exceptionally relevant to 21st. century society. Immersed in a multi-faceted existence that is arguably constantly being remediated across channels and societies, it is difficult to pinpoint the crux of the mediation phenomenon. What is truly new is the manner of reconfiguration and re-presentation by every iteration of its earlier elements. As Bolter and Grusin put it, “what is new about new media is therefore also old and familiar: that they promise the new by remediating what has gone before.”14 It is worth questioning whether history’s ancient quest for true immediacy may ever be fulfilled. As this discussion (broadly sketched by limitation of its scope) shows, mediation can be envisioned in two major parts. In the first part, mimesis remained dominant, and the ultimate aim of mediation and remediation was to achieve the illusion of immediacy via a sort of trompe-l’œil. In the later part, one that is still ongoing, media and communication became inseparable in concept and practice. From this point onward, mediation has never truly existed in pristine isolation, but has always shifted around, chameleon-like, in any number of forms. To achieve true immediacy, at least within the parameters of mediation and consciousness that we accept, it is requisite that a form of media arise that bears no link to any extant form, and in the manner of its action make no reference whatsoever to any extant form. Further, it must also in the very act of presenting and communicating, make is own infrastructure intangible, to such an extent as to disappear completely. In concluding this brief commentary on mediation and its (dis)contents, it appears such a goal remains for the present, an unrealisable abstraction.
John Guillory, “Genesis of the Media Concept,” Critical Inquiry 36, no. 2 (January 2010), 322-323
G. W. F. Hegel, The Phenomenology of Spirit, trans. A. V. Miller (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1977), 68
W. J. T. Mitchell and Mark B. N. Hansen, eds., Critical Terms for Media Studies (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010), xx
Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1994), 7
Warren Weaver and Claude Elwood Shannon, The Mathematical Theory of Communication (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1949), 9
Williams, Raymond. “From Medium to Social Practice”, Marxism and Literature. Oxford University Press: Oxford, 1977.
Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin, Remediation: Understanding New Media (Massachusetts: MIT Press, 2000), 65
Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” in Hannah Arendt, ed., trans. Harry Zohn, Illuminations (New York: Schocken, 1999), 233-234
Garrett Stewart, “Bookwork as Demediation,” Critical Inquiry 36, no. 3 (March 2010), 413
David Stubbs, “Invisible Jukebox,” Wire: Adventures in Modern Music 307 (September 2009), 20-23
Bolter and Grusin, 271
Benjamin, Walter. Illuminations. Edited by Hannah Arendt. Translated by Harry Zohn. New York: Schocken, 1999.
Bolter, Jay David and Grusin, Richard. Remediation: Understanding New Media. Massachusetts: MIT Press, 2000.
Guillory, John. “Genesis of the Media Concept,” Critical Inquiry 36, no. 2 (January 2010): 321-362.
Hegel, G. W. F. The Phenomenology of Spirit. Translated by A. V. Miller. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1977.
McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1994.
Critical Terms for Media Studies. Edited by W. J. T. Mitchell and Mark B. N. Hansen. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010.
Shannon, Claude Elwood and Weaver, Warren. The Mathematical Theory of Communication. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.
Stewart, Garrett. “Bookwork as Demediation.” Critical Inquiry 36, no. 3 (March 2010): 410-457
Stubbs, David. “Invisible Jukebox.” Wire: Adventures in Modern Music 307 (September 2009).
Williams, Raymond. “From Medium to Social Practice.” Marxism and Literature. Oxford University Press: Oxford, 1977.
The Oxford English Dictionary. Online Edition, 2010.