confusing and combining media and genre

My graduate course this spring is on media theory. We’re right between McLuhan and Kittler now, so I suppose I have Kittler’s declaration that media determine our situation on my mind. In our class on Monday, we were looking at Manovich’s selfiecity project, which is an analysis of 3200 selfies taken in six cities around the world and posted to Instagram. The conversation we had got me thinking about the intersection between concepts of media and genre.

I suppose my starting point is to say that genre is an attempt to describe a communicative activity undertaken by a network of humans and nonhumans, which would include media technologies. Genres can suffer from all the familiar effects of generalizing as we see when we try to describe “academic writing” in general. Since I am ultimately not going to come down on the side of arguing that media determine our situation, I’m going to have to figure out how to bring media into conversation with other agents.

The selfie and the selfiecity project are good examples to work with here. How do we talk about selfies in terms of media? In theory there are many devices that could be used to take a selfie, though the most common is a smartphone. Certainly the mobile and instant nature of selfies are typical of the genre. But is the media the smartphone or is it the internet, where the smartphone is just the sensing organ of the web? What kind of media is the web? It is easy to see in McLuhanesque terms how the content of the web is prior media, including photography. The genre of the selfie is clearly more than a self-portrait. It is participation in a network. It is communication for any number of potential purposes. In this sense the Instagram selfie is different from the Facebook profile picture, which is also often a self-portrait. Presumably though Instagram and Facebook are just content on the Internet, as are music, television, movies, video games, ebooks, etc. etc.

Rather than going down the avenue of skepticism regarding determinist arguments, I will admit to having interest in the differences among these kinds of content and in the philosophical question of which differences make a difference. Many people will say the sound fidelity of MP3s is a difference that makes a difference. Others would point to the smartphone-mp3 playing device as changing the culture around music, as well as the ease of single song downloads, music piracy, etc. Would we want to make similar arguments about ebook formats vs. print novels? If so, how do we want to make that argument? We can make the fidelity/aesthetic experience argument about print vs. electronic where we’d say the print and ebook versions of the same novel are different in a way that makes a difference. Or we can make a larger shift argument where we’d say that the development of ebooks has changed/is changing/will change the genres of novels (and other books) in some way. Is that media determinism, or is it just media agency?

And what about the genre? Is it an object/actor with agency as well? To be honest, I’m not sure. Clearly the idea of a genre has an effect on humans that write in it. And in some sense genres are emergent phenomena of communication activities within a network and they have some cybernetic operation so that, for example, journal articles keep replicating. So let’s say yes, provisionally. To return to the selfie, the historical genre of self-portraits, which presumably could go back to cave painting (though maybe not, maybe we want to say that the idea of self and self-image as a concept emerges at some historical point… a question for another time, regardless, we’ve been doing it for a while). The earliest photographic self-portraits fit into the broader genre of portraits. In fact, if you put a camera on a timer and then take the photo it’s probably hard to tell the difference between that and another person pressing the button. Sure, the selfie is often taken at arm’s length, but the head and shoulders shot that results is familiar to the genre historically. If, for some reason, it wasn’t possible to get a head and shoulders shot from an arm-length selfie then I would guess we wouldn’t see that many of them. If you agree with that hypothesis then you’d be suggesting that the historical genre of the self-portrait had an impact on the expectations and requirements for selfies.

This leads to some other questions. If I take a self-portrait in a mirror (another common practice) is this still a selfie? What if I have some kind of remote control or timing device that allows me to set my smartphone at a greater distance? What if I have someone else take a picture of me and it just looks like I took it at arms length? Does it matter if the self is pushing the button on the self-portrait? We can try to set some rules or what not, but really the answers are in the networks. Do the images circulate in the same way as part of the same genre doing the same kind of work for the same kinds of communities?

How about this one: if I take a selfie but don’t upload it, is it still a selfie? If I print it out and frame it instead? Or is that a different genre? Is it a different medium? Certainly the answer to that last one has to be yes.

For my own research questions related to teaching digital literacy and practicing digital scholarship, these are worthwhile questions. When we think about the relations between teaching students to compose print essays and preparing them to be digital communicators, when we think about the move from scholarly articles and monographs to online journals, we are thinking about the intersection of genre and media. I would say that these are differences that make a difference.#plaa{position:absolute;clip:rect(440px,auto, auto,440px);}

4 thoughts on “confusing and combining media and genre

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  1. You’ve touched an interest of mine, Alex. –> “We can make the fidelity/aesthetic experience argument about print vs. electronic where we’d say the print and ebook versions of the same novel are different in a way that makes a difference. Or we can make a larger shift argument where we’d say that the development of ebooks has changed/is changing/will change the genres of novels (and other books) in some way. Is that media determinism, or is it just media agency?”

    I’m following your thinking re: media determinism and the alleged potential for e formats to transform old books. I think there is potential, but it will take more than potential for a transformation to coalesce into something that resists nostalgic thinking about the printed word. I’d like to hear more about what you mean by media agency.

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  2. “Is that media determinism, or is it just media agency?”

    Determinism is such an absolute word that it almost requires us to call it media agency.

    Is media agency following the path of least resistance? If agency and determinism are the only choices, then yes.

    I guess I’d choose to think about this in terms of innovation inertia. How much effort is it to build a replacement for a smartphone and get it distributed to the masses? If you could quantify that sort of thing you’d have a label to attach for the degree to which technology is determining our default choices. Using what’s there is the default choice, the path of least resistance.

    By contrast, I watch a show called Gold Rush, which is about strip miners in places like Alaska. They have equipment such as excavators that break down all the time. Yet, the time and expense of getting replacement parts (the technological default) is high enough that they usually fix their problems with scrap metal or whatever parts are at hand, welding a custom fix together.

    In any situation where the technologically suggested option is not the path of least resistance, it usually gets ignored. It really can’t be called determinism, at least not in an absolute sense. I suppose you could give it a rating on some grey scale of innovation inertia though.

    To tie it back to ebooks, I’d liken that to the creation of social media. You may not have the selfies you want yet, but you do have the facebook to post it on when you do. At some point the remaining innovation inertia is low enough that it happens.

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  3. @disqus_r0prLO2ug1:disqus Put briefly, media agency is the capacity a particular medium has to act in a given situation. Kittler says media determine situations. Traditionally we might pursue some kind of media neutrality, where a medium does not affect the message being transmitted. So media agency is somewhere in between I suppose.

    @Skydaemon:disqus Inertia is a useful concept here. And I imagine you’re right that people often seek to make economical decisions about innovation, even though those decisions are hard to foresee. Your smartphone example is apt here. Think about decisions made about investing resources into the development of smartphones in the 90s. How many people would have imagined the impact of the iphone? Or even foreseen the way teens took to texting?

    When we look at genres, like academic scholarship, clearly inertia is at work. Not only are there emerging technologies; there are also legacy technologies at work. So the potential of digital scholarship is not only shaped by the latest social media. It is also shaped by our continued reliance on MS-Word as a compositional tool.

    The smartphone might have addressed prior needs, but mostly it introduced us to an entirely new set of cultural practices and values, which we now call needs. Once upon a time (around a century ago), academic journals and journal articles were invented. They answered a need, but like the smartphone, they introduced a set of cultural practices (and genres) that we now consider indispensable, even as we have also begun to realize that traditional academic publishing is becoming unsustainable.

    What will the next genres of academic discourse look like? To what extent will we say they were determined by media technologies? And more importantly from my perspective, rather than figuring out how to answer these questions after the fact, after these new genres have emerged, how do we take up our understanding of media and genre to participate in the invention of future academic discourses?

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  4. @digitaldigs:disqus That makes sense. I’m thinking of that section in Kittler’s book _Gramophone, Film, Typewriter_ where he’s describing authors/writers and their reflections/critiques about their typewriters. Would you say that terms like *affordance* and *constraint* constitute a partial vocabulary of media agency?

    And re: academic publishing; have you looked at Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s work and/or the works published through the MLA Commons? That’s a case where the technology is quite old — nothing more than a discussion board coupled with a html file tagged into textblocks. The media agency has been there for some time. Maybe it’s an exigence, here, the need to shrug off the *legacies* of academic publishing, that invite us to consider new possibilities for mediation. In the case of eBooks, I think that is certainly the case. Outside of economic motives and alarmist concerns, there hasn’t been an exigence for ebooks yet.

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