Theorizing at High Speed
9 September 2021
Compared to the more traditional disciplines of the humanities (e.g. literature, history, fine arts, etc.), one of the peculiar aspects of media studies is the extent to which it is affected by the pull of technological development – or, to put it another way, by the purchase of contemporaneity. Of course, all scholarly fields of study are, at least to some degree, expected to sustain a certain contemporary relevance. But what stands out about media studies is the oft-tacit presupposition that it must keep up with whatever changes are occurring (and they always seem to be occurring) in the world of devices, platforms, and networks (along with all the content circulating amongst them) that constitutes its nominal object of study.
For some, the purported dissonance between the slow pace of media research – or more specifically, media theorizing – and the rapid pace of technological mutation and obsolescence is a source of frustration. Geert Lovink, for instance, derides the use of more traditional theoretical concepts and frameworks (whether drawn from earlier media studies traditions or from proximate humanities disciplines), asserting that ‘if the study of new media wants to mature and reach its potential to match the actual scale and diversity of its object of study, it must divorce itself from “old media” and go solo’ (80). For Lovink, digital, networked media research and pedagogy must be liberated from the hoary tropes of a theoretical armature built for the purposes of analysing print, broadcast, and cinema.
It is hard to argue with the suggestion that many of the critical frameworks handed down over the past few decades have lost much of their analytical efficacy
It is hard to argue with the suggestion that many of the critical frameworks handed down over the past few decades have lost much of their analytical efficacy – e.g. do students really still need to learn about McLuhan’s hot/cool media, Habermas’ public sphere, or Hall’s encoding-decoding model as a propaedeutic to examining social and mobile media, video games, and networked infrastructures? In particular, it seems futile to continue orienting media studies curricula around a number of fixed, discrete media forms, as was once commonplace. There can be no doubt that we need a heuristic approach responsive to the dramatic transformations wrought by the ever-increasing permeation of logics of digitality in to our lives.
The logic of ‘creative destruction’ (a concept famously popularized by the economist Joseph Schumpeter, describing the ongoing internal revolutionization of the economic structure under capitalism) has gradually been replaced, argues Hito Steyerl, by one of ‘creative disruption’, whereby new technologies are ‘violently shaking up existing societies, markets, and technologies’, leading to ‘social polarization through the decimation of jobs, mass surveillance, and algorithmic confusion’ and facilitating ‘the fragmentation of societies by creating antisocial tech monopolies that spread bubbled resentment, change cities, magnify shade, and maximize poorly paid freelance work’ (15). And this logic of unremitting disruption is accompanied by ‘a dimension of time that is no longer accessible to humans, but only to networked so-called control systems that produce flash crashes and high frequency trading scams’ (16). Under such circumstances, maybe we need to vigorously resist the notion that the temporality of theorization must, in some fashion, try to synchronise with or imitate such cycles. Must we adhere to the apparent exigency of ‘innovation’, or are there other ways of measuring the efficacy of critical thought?
Indeed, to demarcate a boundary between the study of digital, networked media and that of media more broadly, although helpful in certain contexts, nevertheless risks occluding the insights that a more ecumenical, expansive historical perspective can offer. At a moment when it may simply not be possible for conceptual thought of any kind to match the scale and diversity of the media systems and processes that it hopes to examine, it seems more important than ever to conceive of other ways of attaining some kind of adequation between theory and its object. This raises a host of challenging, but also intriguing epistemological and ontological questions, many of which media studies has neglected in the past.
Avoiding the typical recourse within media histories and archaeologies to models of epistemic discontinuity and rupture, is it possible that a focus upon the longue durée of technological developments and communicative practices can not only shed light upon often surprising consonances that span vast historical periods and provide illuminating perspectives upon our present conjuncture, but might actually provide means for challenging the ideological underpinnings of this obsession with innovation and disruption? ‘New media’, observes Carolyn Marvin, ‘are always introduced into a pattern of tension created by the coexistence of old and new, which is far richer than any single medium that becomes a focus of interest because it is novel’ (8). The historical recurrence of and variation in such patterns provides a powerful starting point for rethinking linear accounts of media development.
Digitality might be disruptive, but it has also revealed presciences and pertinences in theoretical concepts once considered hopelessly outmoded – e.g. the holistic methods of Innis, McLuhan, and Carey, amongst many others display new resonances at a time of continual convergence and remediation, dissolving the boundaries between different types of media and different processes of mediation. The uncanniness of theories formulated in relation to now-obsolete technologies can throw light upon our present circumstances. It seems crucial to me, therefore, that we try to avoid unwittingly subjecting media theory itself to the same commercial imperatives as the media that it studies.
At the end of the day though, when faced with a situation wherein, as Wendy Chun puts it, ‘we are forever trying to catch up, updating to remain (close to) the same; bored, overwhelmed, and anxious all at once’ (1), it seems more important than ever that we not simply mimic the frenzied temporalities of the media culture within which we are ensconced.
9 September 2021
Tom Sutherland is a senior lecturer in media studies, and programme leader for the MA Studies in Media and Culture, at the University of Lincoln.
Contributed as part of Workshop 1
- Wendy Hui Kyong Chun (2016) Updating to Remain the Same: Habitual New Media. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.
- Geert Lovink (2011) Networks Without a Cause: A Critique of Social Media. Cambridge and Malden, MA: Polity Press.
- Carolyn Marvin (1988) When Old Technologies Were New: Thinking About Electric Communication in the Late Nineteenth Century. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- Hito Steyerl (2017) Duty Free Art: Art in the Age of Planetary Civil War. London and New York: Verso.