An effort to categorize the word screen is at first problematic due to its various diverging and converging definitions. Yet when looked at from a different perspective, these problematic definitions facilitate a more encompassing understanding of the medium and its message. Though the screen acts as a neutral medium, it becomes biased once its message is considered.
The origins of the word screen are traced to medieval Europe; there are subsequent variations of the word and meaning of screen. Escren from Old North French; Escran from Old French was “a screen against heat”; Scherm either from Middle Dutch or Frankish meant “screen, cover”; Skrank , whose origins are unattested to a written source, meant “barrier”. The origins of the word screen illustrate its beginnings as a noun, a physical object of protection. In the late-15 th century the word “screen” evolves into verb form once it begins to mean “to shield from punishment, to conceal” ( Online Etymology Dictionary ). The Oxford English Dictionary lists two entries for the word screen, as a noun and as a verb. One definition of the noun screen is as a “contrivance for warding off the heat of a fire or a draught of air.” As a verb screen has complimentary associations to the physical associations. If at first the screen was the object protecting the user from the fire’s heat, it is now the act of protection: “To shelter or protect with or as with a screen, from heat, wind, light, missiles, etc.” Screen as a verb cannot be defined without first defining screen as a noun. Because of the dual nature of the word screen it becomes a complicated word to define. Yet screen, be it noun or verb, is always a medium with a message.
In attempting to define the word screen one inevitably encounters a multitude of synonyms. Because of its various implications, it is easier to define screen through these synonyms: surface, projector, net, divider, curtain, shield, etc. Utilizing these synonyms I have designated nine primary categories: “protection”, “display”, “divider”, “mask”, “buffer”, “filter”, “interceptor”, “scrutiny”, and “translate”. Some categories overlap while some categories have counter-categories. My final categorization is of four groupings of the original nine categories: divider-buffer-protector, transmitter-translator, display vs. mask, and surface vs. storage. The issues of the media and the message in these categories vary. The screen as a medium is a divider and the act of division, a mask and the act of masking, etc. The message of these media is essentially one of neutrality and/or bias. The question of how the media act on us, via their message, becomes apparent through an examination of the dichotomy.
The divider-buffer-protector trio represents the fundamental definition of the word screen. The first definition of screen was as an object of protection from heat. As a form of protection, the OED defines the verb screen as “to shield or protect from hostility or impending danger”. OED defines divider as “a partition of wood or stone, pierced by one or more doors, dividing a room or building into two parts”. Buffer, the intermediary between the words protector and divider, is a form of protection in that it is a divider. OED defines screen as a buffer or “a line or belt of trees planted to give protection from the wind”; “a small body of men detached to cover the movements of an army”. The word screen can be applied to the human body, both as buffer and as protector. As a buffer, the human body is used with other human bodies to create a “human shield” in war. In her Chicago Tribune article, Mary Schmich links the word screen as a “protector” of the human body in her warning to always “wear sunscreen”. The article itself was composed of bits of advice to so-called graduating students, a sort of “protector” or “buffer” for them to have before they go into the real world. Thus her warning to “wear sunscreen” goes beyond wearing lotion, to always being protected. In this trio the media of screen are at first more neutral, thus the message of fortification does not contain much bias. Yet, if the media act as dividers, buffers and protectors they become means of enclosure; thus man becomes prisoner to their message of enclosure.
The transmitter-translator pairing considers the word “screen” as a transmitter and/or translator of information. Both words act as mediators, like the screen in Lacan’s picture (see illustration). A screen as a transmitter acts as a filter whereas a screen as a translator acts as a more sophisticated filter, one that also scrutinizes. Out of the two the transmitter appears the most neutral; like a window or glasses the transmitter merely acts as the medium of transmission of things, in this case information. Yet by being such a medium, the transmitter filters and thus has bias. This bias is taken to a further level through the translator; the physical component of the screen as a more biased translator is apparent in the screen between the artist and model in the Durer’s picture (see illustration). (see eye and gaze)
Marshall McLuhan explores this idea of screening as a form of translation in Understanding Media. McLuhan examines the ideas of “grasp” and “apprehension” regarding media as a translator. The words “grasp” and “apprehension” point “to the process of getting at one thing through another, of handling and sensing many facets at a time through more than one sense at a time” (McLuhan 60). As a transmitter or filter, a screen sifts what passes through it; as a translator or scrutinizer, a screen “examines systematically in order to discover suitability for admission or acceptance” (OED). Thus a screen both “handles and senses” the information that it intercepts; in this way a “screen”, as a media, acts as a translator. Since screening is a form of translation, screening is also a means to knowledge. McLuhan considers technologies, like screens, as “ways of translating one kind of knowledge into another mode”. The information a screen translates is neither inconsequential nor is it necessarily physical, it is knowledge. McLuhan calls this process of translating nature into art “applied knowledge”. Thus beyond being inconsequential, the information being screened has its own characteristics: “‘applied’ means translated or carried across from one kind of material form into another” (McLuhan 58). This knowledge undertakes special characteristics because it is being translated or screened. These special characteristics represent the bias of the screen’s message. In the same way that the screen, as a form of protection, becomes a means of enclosure through bias, so does the screen as a translator become corrupted. The bias of the message of the translator encloses the receptor from the true information. Screening fundamentally involves such exclusion because it is an inherent characteristic of the screen; it cannot interpret without excluding. Thus man, already dependent on information, becomes dependent on the screen for censorship.
The third grouping considers the screen as both a display and a mask. OED defines screen as a noun as “an upright surface for display: (a) of objects, (b) of images, (c) in photography, as a focusing screen.” In the instance of showing images on the screen, both screen and “display” become verbs: “To show (a picture) on a screen; to project on to a screen as with a magic lantern or film projector; to exhibit as a production for the cinema or television.” This is perhaps the best known form of the word screen, both in noun and verb form, like in Sugimoto’s picture (see illustration); the screen is both being displayed and the display. In Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave” the images are displayed on the wall which acts as the display:
And you will see, if you look, a low wall built along the way, like the screen
which marionette players have in front of them […] and [the humans] see
only their own shadows, or the shadows of one another, which the fire throws
on the opposite wall of the cave? (514)
In this instance sight, or the act of seeing [Eye and Gaze] the shadows, is a form of screening. Yet there are elements of masking since the images are shadows; if the display of images is supposed to be clear, then what does it mean that the shadows are irresolute? The answer lays in the dichotomy between the screen as a display and displayer and the screen as a mask and masker. While the screen functions as both the display and the act of displaying, it is also a type of mask. Another OED definition of screen as a noun is also as “a wall thrown out in front of a building and masking the façade”; “something interposed so as to conceal from view,” like the confessional, itself a form of translator. Screen as a verb also has mask-like connotations: “To hide from view as with a screen; to shelter from observation or recognition”. Thus display and mask are antonyms. Ideally, the screen as a display is neutral, in that it does not filter that which it displays; the screen as a mask is biased because it filters what it will show. To complicate things further is the question of what this means for the viewer. It is possible that since the screen can be both a display and a mask, that there can be both neutrality and bias in every projection; an image on display can be biased while a masked image can be neutral. The message of the screen as a display or a mask is thus inherently contradictory.
The idea of the screen as a display leads into the examination of the screen as a surface. Surface is related to the word screen in the display-like sense, as “an extent or area of material considered as a subject for operations” (OED). In this scenario the object of operations would be the projection of images, thus surface refers to the physical face of the screen, when it is an object of display. However the screen as a surface goes beyond the idea of display, which denotes projection. Surface in this sense is superficial, it is not meant to translate or retain but at the same time it is neither simply a question of reflection. When exploring the question of a screen’s surface, the true capacity of the screen as a media is realized– storage. In contrast to surface is the issue of storage, an idea McLuhan explores in Understanding Media. In continuing with the theme of projection of images, McLuhan examines the uniqueness of film: “In terms of other media such as the printed page, film has the power to store and to convey a great deal of information” (McLuhan 288). What is storing the information? Is it the film, or the thing transmitting it? Julian Huxley believes that “man […] unlike merely biological creatures, possesses an apparatus of transmission and transformation based on his power to store experience” (McLuhan 59). In regards to the screen, this analogy would be reversed– based on its ability to transmit information; can the screen also store experience? If so, what is the screen’s holding capacity? In essence, the question is, does the screen have a memory?
The issue of storage can further be explored through an examination of memory, (2). In 1899, Sigmund Freud publishes “Screen Memories.” The screen memory in this essay, as defined by the editor, is “one in which an early memory is used as a screen for a later event” (302). Freud relates a consultation on a patient’s childhood memory. The screen memory is of the patient in a meadow of dandelions with a boy cousin and girl cousin; the memory ends with the patient eating bread. In this instance the screen memory is both a selector and a mediator. The memory is selective because the elements of the dandelions as yellow and the bread as delicious have been chosen as the most important because they serve a purpose; these elements act as a gateway to other suppressed memories that allow the patient to discover his true fantasies. It is in this way that the screen memory, as a gateway, acts as a mediator. There is ambiguity regarding the “genuineness” of the screen memory; if it represents pure fantasy or elements of an actual memory (318). A discussion on screen memories is important because it combines several elements of a screen, as selector and mediator. But does it answer the question of storage? In this instance, Freud utilizes the word screen to describe the memory because of its selector-mediator connotations. Yet can these connotations be as much part of the memory experience as the memory itself? If so, could they become this memory, thus enabling the screen to be the memory experience? These issues compliment the question of genuineness of the screen memory; perhaps a third aspect of the genuineness debate is how the screen participates in the memory experience. The issue of the screen’s memory capabilities is relevant because it is the greatest threat against the viewer. If the screen as a translator, protector or mask had the capabilities to manipulate information, the human body and images, the screen as memory has the capability act upon the viewer even more. It is no longer an exterior manipulation but an interior one.
The word screen, which began as an object of protection more than six hundred years ago, has evolved into a complicated word. Through this evolution of usage and adoption of various connotations, the word screen is both mystifying and enriching. A study of screen as a media and its message aids in illustrating the effect of the media and its message on the viewer. Through its seeming neutrality yet apparent bias, the screen has a definite effect on the viewer: censorship, manipulation of truth, and captivity from freedom. The dichotomy of the screen’s message, of neutrality and bias, demands attentiveness from the viewer. The viewer cannot remain passive as the screen acts upon him; if anything, through his involvement he can at least be conscious of this manipulation.
Jacques Lacan. Diagram of the scopic and the vocative
Albrecht Durer. Reclining Nude in Perspective
Hiroshi Sugimoto. U.A. Walker. 1978
Durer, Albrecht. Reclining Nude in Perspective.
Freud, Sigmund. “Screen Memories.” 1899. The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. Trans. James Strachey. Vol. 3. London: The Hogarth Press Ltd., 1962.
Lacan, Jacques. Diagram of the scopic and the vocative. Course Documents, chalk.uchicago.edu
Marshall McLuhan. Understanding Media. 1964. Intro. Lewis H. Lapham. Cambridge: The MIT Press: 2002, 60.
OED online version.
Online Etymology Dictionary. Ed. Douglas Harper. Nov. 2001. 2 Feb. 2003.
Schmich, Mary. “Advice, Like Youth, Probably Just Wasted on the Young,” The Chicago Tribune-Online Edition 1 June 1997, 2 Feb. 2003
Sugimoto, Hiroshi. U.A. Walker. 1978. Hasselblad Center. 22 February 2003.