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Keeping a Cultural Memory Alive: University Art Programs as Mediating Systems

“We transmit meanings so that the things we live, believe, and think do not perish with us …” (Regis Debray, 2000, p. 3) 

Artwork from UNIBEN

An Introduction

We live in a world of artefacts. Whether they are analog, digital or a hybrid mixture, the post-modern globalized culture is highly influenced by the artworld. For art to have precedence it needs a place to live – and these spaces are offered through institutions such as museums, libraries, archives and schools. Initially, one may visualize such institutions in their physical geographical context, housed in structures or buildings. However, institutions are quickly building their presence in the digital, online world to reduce the ever-growing intricacies of access to cultural history. With a realization that art is critical to preserving cultural history, this multimedia paper aims to answer the question of: how does an emerging nation participate in the artworld?

Media theory will be used to answer this question and support the view that university art departments and art programs have a significant role in preserving cultural artefacts. This includes paintings, sculptures, instruments, statues – virtually all categories of art. Academic institutions, especially those in developing nations, need to realize the importance of establishing a digital footprint to both preserve cultural artefacts and contribute to the artworld that is being facilitated online through platforms such as the Google Art Project. The country of Nigeria, located in West Africa, will be of specific focus throughout this project.

Theoretical Framework and Methodology

The primary argument held is that university art programs such as fine arts departments are mediating, cultural memory systems. Such departments are critical in a community’s ability to contribute to the local artworld. For significant contribution on a national or international level, universities in developing nations should place more emphasis on communal new media platforms like the Google Art Project, which has already established a system for cultural expression and preservation across multiple genres, histories, and diverse societies.


To make this case and answer how Nigeria participates in the artworld both offline and online, the project will proceed as follows: first, mediation and mediating systems from Regis Debray’s perspective will be explored. Mediation studies is used to argue that universities are institutions where art can be transmitted, not just communicated. To support this claim, two university art departments in Nigeria followed by the Google Art Project platform will be analyzed, or de-blackboxed. Then, the concept of the future museum and reproducibility are characterized by building off the theories of André Malraux and Walter Benjamin. Lastly, thoughts about Pierre Bourdieu’s cultural capital model will be adopted.

Although there have been significant work done on the topics of art, the artworld, libraries and archives in the information age, there is minimal scholarly work discussing the role that university art departments play as mediators transmitting culture in the artworld. Even though Floridi’s (2010) work focused on information and computing, he had a useful point about the world we live in today: “the threshold between here (analogue, carbon-based, off-line) and there (digital, silicon-based, online) is fast becoming blurred” (p. 15). We are constantly being surrounded by analog and digital information whether it involves art or other objects such as fashion, music, or literature. Preservation of culture is invaluable, and art is just one way to engage in it.

A Brief Overview of Art History in Nigeria 


With a strong historical influence from Britain, Nigeria is the most populated nation in Africa with over 250 different ethnic groups and twice as many indigenous languages (“CIA,” 2013). One of the native groups in Nigeria, the Edo people, illustrates the cultural diversity of the nation. The Edo State Government’s website, a medium in and of itself, explains how “effigies of Obas, heroes and heroines were molded for posterity,” and “media such as bronze, brass, mud (terracotta), ebony 

wood and ivory feature in these works of art” (“Arts and Craft”, 2013). The term “oba” refers to traditional rulers (kings) of certain native groups. Artists for centuries have been making statues, sculptures, and figurines as a way to honor the obas. What has differentiated the Edo culture since the 13th century are the Benin bronze artworks created by indigenous artists and the nation’s leading brass industry in Africa (“Arts and Craft,” 2013). It can be assumed that all of the cultural variations in the region influence the vast number of cultural artworks created by these native groups. With this overview in place, demonstrating how Nigerian university art departments mediate historical and modern cultural artefacts can be shown

 Mediating Systems as Cultural Memory – Debray  

For Debray, transmission equals making culture (2000). It is transmission that really makes our experiences, thoughts and beliefs have a cultural legacy instead of vanishing with us individually (2000). This is based on Debray’s term mediology, in which he defines this interdisciplinary approach as a way to “bring to light the function of medium in all its forms, over a long time span and without becoming obsessed by today’s media” (1999, p. 32). In other words, Debray wants mediums to receive just as much credit and hype as “new” media or traditional media receive. Mediology is simply another vehicle to analyze the commingling networks of technology and culture without limiting oneself to formal disciplines such as sociology, history or communication theory (Vandenberghe, 2007).

It is through institutions, Debray argues, (libraries, schools, governmental systems) that structure meanings (M. Irvine, Media Theory lecture, Jan. 23, 2013). Institutions of learning in particular serve multiple purposes to teach and preserve culture. This can be through readings, texts, research, and the production of art. With similar opines to Debray, Manovich (2003) made a point to mention how institutions of modern culture “are responsible for selection what makes it into the cannon of our cultural memory and what is left behind…” and that “in general, our official cultural histories tend to privilege art…over mass industrial culture” (p. 7). This applies to universities, especially art departments. They are comparable to a museum due to their function of engaging humans in the transmission of culture through coursework, lectures, production of artefacts, and so on. They all have lasting effects. With this deeper understanding of Debray and mediation now in place, an analysis of two major tertiary-level art programs in Nigeria (and later another country) is meant to shed new light on how these institutions create cultural meanings and participate in the artworld.

University Art Programs in Nigeria 

Two universities that have established fine or creative art programs in Nigeria will be examined. First, The University of Benin (UNIBEN) will be explored, followed by the University of Nigeria, Nsukka (UNN) as a way to see how art is being reproduced and preserved in an emerging country. These findings will then be juxtaposed with the Google Art Project, a completely online-based art venture.


The University of Benin combined its smaller art programs into the Fine and Applied Arts department in 1987 (“Fine and Applied Arts,” 2013). This is a standard four-year degree-granting program for students who wish to obtain a Bachelor of Arts in the specialization areas of: painting, sculpture, ceramics, graphic design, textile design/technology, metal design or art history. Analyzing UNIBEN’s website tells a great deal about the institution’s capabilities and approaches to participating in the artworld. When browsing through UNIBEN’s Fine and Applied Arts website, one will find standard website formats, with headers, footers, hyperlinks and pictures. For the purposes of mediation, the Gallery button presents an interface that highlights some of the artworks on display in the university’s own art gallery.

UNIBEN’s art department website

What stands out is the remediation of UNIBEN’s physical art gallery into a digital format, via its website. When navigating through the site, users see a box-like interface that acts as a “window” into the artworld of UNIBEN’s art department. Vandenberghe’s (2007) summary of Debray applies to the instance when “…the intervention of concrete material objects like monuments and documents, bodies and bikes, vocal chords, radios and computer screens…make the production of ideas, their diffusion through space and their transmission through time, possible” (p. 29). Actual physical artefacts can now be viewable thousands of miles away. This includes native cloths (slides 3 and 10), textile-producing machines (slide 4), canvas paintings (slides 5 and 6), plus intricate sculptures and pottery (slides 1 and 2). These representations of culture connect people despite geographical distances. More importantly, when looking at this from a mediologists’ point of view, these physical and digital artefacts store memory and allow for the “temporal reproduction through the transmission of culture from generation to generation” (Vandenberghe, 2007, p. 26).

Currently, there are 14 slides one can traverse through on UNIBEN’s online art gallery. Without the institution explicitly stating so, users can infer that this institution may have limited resources to place their artefacts online (note the reduced image quality and sparse pictures). Nevertheless, UNIBEN is participating in the artworld.



The other university art department under analysis of mediation studies is the University of Nigeria, Nsukka (UNN). The university’s Fine and Applied Arts department like UNIBEN, offers a B.A. degree for students with specializations in art education, art history, studio art, textiles, ceramics, visual communication, painting and sculpture (“University Academics,” 2013). UNN’s art department has a unique history. Founded in 1961, the department’s early teachers were either British or American and brought a strong influence of the Western styles of naturalism and pictorial realism (“General Information,” 2012). By the late 1970s, the civil war in Nigeria was over and art production and teaching began to shift towards depictions of indigenous life, nature, and the newfound Nigerian identity (“General Information,” 2012).

The University of Nigeria, Nsukka has also made efforts to participate in the artworld. Instead of doing so by means of their own website, this effort can be seen though a university-related project initiated in 1991 known as The Pan-African Circle of Artists (PACA).  The mission of this group initially was to “create a forum on which art and culture in Africa could be promoted and disseminated from inside by Africans and on Africa’s terms,” while evolving to stress “re-imaging the arts in Africa” (“The Pan African Circle,” 2013). Their efforts function similar to that of a museum, which is to preserve culture and extrapolate future value. As Debray puts it, “there could never have been a modern museum without first a politically motivated creation of the national patrimony, a matter of institutional authority…” (2000, p. 14). PACA’s members, with help from the institutional powers of UNN, are able to build close associations and promote their national artistic heritage by building cultural memories that can be shared with future members.

The Pan African Circle of Artists

This is done through use of conferences, exhibitions, lectures and roundtables related to the artworld. PACA recognizes the importance of “claiming a space in the international art market” and part of its goal is to have a more collaborative art scene by exchanging ideas with the creative industry networks throughout Africa (“A Note About PACA,” 2013). Ultimately, PACA is creating a network of artists that can then share their works internationally through use of its website. This is also a demonstration of symbolic systems mutually working together. For example, PACA’s website is the platform to read text about the artists, but one can also view photos of the network in action.

 Given that PACA was founded by artists from the University of Nigeria, Nsukka it is also worthwhile to look briefly at the course requirements students in their Fine and Applied Arts departments take.  According to UNN’s course catalog, students in their first semester are required to take introductory classes in drawing, 2D and 3D design, art appreciation and the history of Nigerian art. This is in addition to required philosophy courses and an option of taking foreign languages. It is likely that many of these students will go on after their university career and continue producing in the local art domain. This can mean establishing a shop in town or working at a craft store, museum or even selling their goods in the street market. Initiatives like The Pan-African Circle of Artists allow for a two-way level of interaction of the artworld, being both hyper-local and international.

Case Study: Google Art Project 

Google Art Project

The educational institutions in Nigeria that have just been unpacked are indeed mediating systems contributing to the artworld of Nigerian artefacts. However, their impact is limited due to the political, social and economic factors of an emerging nation. By looking at the Google Art Project, we will find how this platform can be a common ground for emerging countries. They do not necessarily have to reinvent the wheel or start from scratch to share their local artworks on an international level online. The Google Art Project, started by Google, Inc., is a joint venture between the technology company and more than 150 art institutions spanning 40 countries (“FAQs,” 2013). Google maintains that:

“Few people will ever be lucky enough to be able to visit every museum or see every work of art they’re interested in but now many more can enjoy over 30 000 works of art from sculpture to architecture and drawings … all in one place.” (2013)

According to Manovich (2003), by the 1990s the artworld in the United States began to focus on ‘net art’ or “web-based pieces whose exhibition does not require much resources” other than having a PC with an Internet connection (p. 3). The Google Art Project is a modern-day implementation of an interface making two previously non-compatible things work together (a physical museum space and virtual-reality technology).

But what does this mean for artists and art institutions in the developing world? According to Debray, “there can be no cultural transmission without technological means” (2000, p. 12). It appears that the Google Art Project could be the technological means to host an art department’s cultural artefacts on a grander scale, and with higher quality images. Of course this requires, inter alia, significant improvements in the local Internet infrastructure. This is key because university art departments must adapt to changing technologies. The Google Art Project is an example of how museums are extending their purpose and illustrating a new structure of mediation (M. Irvine, Media Theory lecture, Mar. 20, 2013).

This instructional video from the Google Art Project is a prime way of visualizing how university art departments can potentially extend art mediated online. First, the user can search for specific artists, genres or museums. Then, one has the ability to “walk through” a museum or gallery and get close (digitally) to the artworks. The experience is even more interactive if using a touch screen device such as an iPad or Android tablet. After browsing, the user can finally organize their favorite interactions into individual User Galleries which can be useful for research and re-visitation of past memories. Even though time cannot be added per se, space can (M. Irvine, Media Theory lecture, Jan. 23, 2013), and these spaces are increasingly in the online world. The Google Art Project is a unique modifier of culture given its ability to place cultural goods within a cultural good. This, in effect, has the potential to make smaller-scaled art institutions as accessible as time-honored and distinguished institutions such as the Smithsonian, The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), The Palace of Versailles, and The Princeton University Art Museum.

The ways in which works of art are presented have not fundamentally changed. Artefacts are still shown “in an institutional context” and in a common environment be it museums, university art galleries, exhibitions, catalogs, or markets (Irvine, 2013a). Whether this environment is online or offline is now really up to the end user. She or he could choose to travel thousands of miles to an indigenous art expo or view such works from the comfort of his or her own home computer. It depends on how much physicality the user wishes to extract from the art experience.

Why Should Cultural Mediating Systems Digitize? The Cultural Category of Art and Reproducibility

There remains an obvious question that wishes to be further explored – why exactly should cultural mediating systems digitize? I will now turn to Malraux’s cultural category of art and museums and later Benjamin’s ideas about reproducibility. The digital era is facing an ongoing problem of how to preserve the cultural memory of physical art works. This challenge first hit Malraux in the 1950s spurring him to utilize Umberto Eco’s term “cultural encyclopedia” when describing the function of museums as institutions which work to assemble and categorize different types of artefacts (Irvine, 2013b, p. 2). Thus, the museum is comparable to an encyclopedia, but on a more interactive level.

For Benjamin, his ideas rested primarily on the concepts of technological reproducibility and a challenge to technological historians. Simply put, Benjamin states how: “the work of art has always been reproducible. Objects made by humans could always be copied by humans” (2003, p.  252). It is relatively easy now to take a picture of something and upload it online, thus creating a digital copy of a once-physical object. Take for instance, the abundance of handmade pottery, baskets, furniture, cloths, shoes, jewelry, and bronze statues that are made by Nigerian artists and students. Once completed, they find their placeholder either in an art gallery, school, or personal home. For these indigenous artists, they may be simply unaware of the criticalness to reproduce their works online, even if it is as simple as uploading a photo or as detailed as working with institutions like the Google Art Project. Jones (2001) explained some of this reasoning:

“The main reasons to digitize are to enhance access and improve preservation. By digitizing their collections, cultural heritage institutions can make information accessible that was previously only available to a select group of researchers. Digital projects allow users to search collections rapidly and comprehensively from anywhere at any time” (para. 4).

This follows Benjamin’s stance that the way humans perceive culture changes over time (2003). Now, artists have expectations to make cultural artefacts that can be produced and reproduced digitally (M. Irvine, Media Theory lecture, April. 3, 2013). If an item cannot be produced digitally, what does that mean for the artist and the institutions that he or she may have a relationship with? The answer to this question will not have a linear solution.

South Africa: This Country is Mediating Culture Too, Through Art

Returning to using university art departments as examples of mediating institutions, comparing Nigeria to another country within Africa leaves room for insight about how participation in the artworld can take place in non-Western environments.

 In South Africa, a country with significantly more economic resources compared to other nations within Africa, many of their university systems have art departments or art programs. At the University of South Africa (UNISA), there is a Department of Art History, Visual Arts and Musicology. The department has a Facebook page detailing even more information about the school. Additionally, the Unisa Space Art Gallery was established in 1986 to host contemporary art and also serve as a resource for students in the forms of workshops, catalogues and research (“Unisa Space Art”).  This art gallery also has a Facebook page meant to mediate and preserve cultural goods in an online format.


Unisa Space Art Gallery

In comparison to the university art departments in Nigeria such as UNIBEN and The University of Nigeria, UNISA has a stronger online presence and format of using technology to share their cultural artefacts through a digital medium. The art department even has a list of art galleries in South Africa, a useful community resource for students, faculty and staff of the university. Moreover, South Africa is represented on the Google Art Project by the Iziko South African National Gallery, with 44 artists and 57 pieces. The South African model may be a useful tool for emerging nations like Nigeria to emulate a stronger, more structured online presence to transmit culture and participate in the artworld.

Some cultural artefacts from Iziko National Gallery

Despite the differences, cultures are proud of their work. In Benjamin’s view, scarceness is closely linked to value (2003), and reproducing cultural materials is a way to reduce some of the scarcity. Still, this leaves us with questions regarding reproducibility and cultural value. When thinking about the larger view of digitally reproducing artworks online, one should consider if any form of representation is worthwhile versus having nothing at all. Also, there may be instances in which an artwork simply cannot be reproduced – thinking about the implications this may have on culture are significant as well. 

UNIBEN vs. GAP: The Cultural Capital Gap

UNIBEN art department

UNIBEN and the Google Art Project are both mediating systems that serve the purpose of preserving art as a cultural category. Google as an institution, though, has more power to influence compared to a single art department in an emerging nation. This issue cannot be discussed without mentioning Bourdieu. In his concepts of the various forms of capital, these universities that participate in the art world via digital platforms enhance their cultural capital, particularly in the form of the objectified state. According to Bourdieu (1983), the objectified state formalizes itself through cultural goods like instruments, pictures, books, machinery and other technical devices.

The case to make here is that if UNIBEN (or other similar institutions) worked to establish a presence on Google Art Project, it would enhance the department’s robustness in the art world and feasibility to participate in the international online art world. By putting cultural goods such as paintings, sculptures, clothing and others online, the smaller-scaled institution is able to gradually build up its social capital. Social capital is key because financial benefits can result from the buildup of prestige and recognition (M. Irvine, Media Theory lecture, Mar. 20, 2013).

Google already has strong name recognition, financial stability and worldly appreciation. If UNIBEN’s or the University of Nigeria’s art galleries were featured on Google, this would enhance their networked position in the artworld. The connectedness to other institutions and users is a positive network effect which would reap more rewards (Irvine, 2013a) than remaining only connected to the local network and university’s website network. Lastly, this level of multilateral collaboration among institutions enhances the symbolic and economic value of certain artefacts (Bourdieu, 1983). If more users from various geographic regions can learn and interact with cultural goods on the Google Art Project, it builds another incentive for individuals interested in learning about indigenous cultures to do so in a new format.

Digitizing Cultural Materials – What Are the Implications?

With all the push to digitize and for cultural goods to have a strong online presence, one should reason that there are inherent implications when adapting to the constant-changing relationship between art and technology. Three major areas for thought include: the role of the artist, the influence of technology and the costs to digitize.

The Artist:

The artist who creates cultural goods has a role to share his or her creations with as wide or narrow of an audience to their liking. This is where institutions (schools, libraries, museums, etc.) come in as a way to help artists share their stories to the world. In the modern world of digitalization, the artist and institution hosting the works may have varying ideals. Manovich (2003) points out how technologies have “overtaken” art while the influx of human-computer interfaces, programming and new media innovations still portray the artists’ work “…but they extended them much further than the artists originally imagined” (p. 5). At what point may a technology intended to help the artist make them feel distant from their own work? Jones probes deeper into this question asserting “this does not mean, however, that digital copies should be seen as a replacement for the original piece” (2001) and warns how even digital formats are not permanent or negligible from care.   

Technology’s Influence:

The major selling point for digitization is its ability to translate analog materials (human-readable) to a digital format (machine-readable) (Jones, 2001). As important as this is, Jones suggests that institutions should take a quality over quantity approach when considering digitalization, since “digitizing 500, 1,000 or even 100,000 images means nothing if they are low quality, hard to locate in a database, or not interesting to the public” (2001). Adding to the social influence of technology, Malraux wanted us to think about the shifting consequences of turning museum collections (entire historical cultural artefacts) into digital formats (1951). Rare cultural objects can now be easily accessible to the mass populations, but we should be careful to characterize the modern museums as flawlessly democratic or fostering equal-access to all (1951). Malraux’s La Musée Imaginaire (“The Museum Without Walls”) was written more than 50 years ago, but his discourse is still applicable today.

UNIBEN art students at work


In addition to the individual and technological implications to digitizing cultural artefacts, there are a number of costs, both financially and socially that must be accounted for. Jones (2001) explains how taking on the task to digitize analog materials can be expensive and that “costs for digitization continue even after a project’s conclusion,” since maintenance is a perpetual requirement long into the future (para. 8). With institutions like UNIBEN or other art departments in emerging countries, these perpetual fees and high human labor costs can be a hindrance to produce high-quality renditions in a digital format. Socially, educational institutions may lose out on being able to accurately illustrate art online as it appears in reality. Malraux’s infers that reproduction does not always do justice to art objects, “systematically falsifying the scale of objects” (1951, p. 24).  Although the function of a museum will always be social, institutions must carefully consider how legitimate reproducing art online really can be. This applies to small-scaled and financially limited art institutions as well as highly-regarded and powerful institutions.

Is There a Solution For Emerging Countries to Participate in the Artworld?

Logo from Goethe Institut’s Twitter

Thus far, we have seen that art-related departments in universities have a place in local indigenous communities for participation in the art world. But because of political, economic and financial constraints, large-scale participation through digital platforms can be limited. Even though there are no cure-all solutions, the best bet is for small-scaled art departments in universities to bridge stronger ties with already-existing institutions that participate in the artworld. There are plenty of models in addition to the Google Art Project. One example is the Goethe-Institut Nigeria, located in Lagos, Nigeria.

Comparable to a university or museum, this institute partakes in exhibitions, workshops, gallery events, and lectures. It also holds seminars for Nigerian teachers interested in learning the German language, and has a library which “serves as a resource centre for getting information on the cultural, social and political life in Germany” (“About Us,” 2013). The Goethe Institut in Nigeria has a Twitter and Facebook page, where additional means of transmitting culture is exhibited. Currently, the institute works with universities such as the University of Lagos, which makes the idea of building a stronger network between university’s art departments and this institute realistic.

Cultural activities

Universities such as UNIBEN and the University of Nigeria, Nsukka can gradually work to digitalize their cultural artefacts with help from the Goethe Institut. As Jones suggests, having a test-run or pilot program can be the best way to anticipate true needs of a program. He suggests that any digitization projects should be “manageable” (start with a few collections instead of trying to do an entire art gallery) and maintain consistency – objects like photographs and documents should all be the same digital size or file format (Jones, 2001). Universities could make part of their curriculum a prerequisite to attend the Goethe Institut’s workshops or seminars, as this serves as a way to bridge ties between two major cultures instead of just one.

Conclusion: What is the Significance of This Project?

By looking at how specific academic institutions participate in the artworld, the goal of this multimedia paper was to offer a glimpse into how humans construct meaning that stems from analog and digital cultural artefacts. Art galleries and art museums in universities are not exempt from contemplating how they wish to preserve their cultural memory in the future. The methodological approach throughout this paper used interdisciplinary models to explore mediation, transmission, and new media platforms’ social and technical influence. Looking deeper at the behind-the-scenes media activity of university’s art galleries offers new insight into the efforts required to preserve cultural memory. Platforms like the Google Art Project should not be a replacement, but a complement for already-existing means of transmission. Furthermore, universities should advocate for students to gain new skills in art programs such as taking courses that teaches methods of digital culture and digital archiving or preservation of cultural goods online. This can be done in the classroom and through external cultural institutions such as the Goethe Institut. The first step in realizing that the future must always be accounted for is that the dynamic between human and machine-enabled cultural work is here to stay.


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Zed, E. (2013, May 2). Email interview.



Interview with Mr. Eye Zed, graduate from UNIBEN Fine and Applied Arts Program

May 2013

-What type of art do you specialize in?

I specialize in painting and appear to favour oil painting with regard to preferred medium

-What challenges do artists in emerging countries such as Nigeria face when sharing and displaying their art?

A particular challenge appears to be a lack of adequate or appropriate forum whereby artist can meet, interact & form relationships with industry people i.e. curators & galleries to promote & distribute their work. Artist still have to deal directly with the (often rare) buying client most of the time and this doesn’t allow fair negotiation particularly for the artist who has to make ends meet. 

-How important is it for artists to be skilled in digital media and/or computer graphics?

Today the artist in Nigeria has to have relative skills in digital media because traditional fine art appear to have a niche & fast shrinking demand compared to applied arts such as graphic art and photography. In fact majority of graduate artist in Nigeria (no matter the specialization) are absorbed into one of the several advertising agencies in the country

-Did your courses utilize computer-based learning? If so, to what extent?

No, my course did not require utilization of the computer because I specialized in painting. However out of interest I have since garnered digital media skills from all the available tutorials online 

-What is your knowledge of the Google Art Project? []

Didn’t know about that at all to be honest. Will look it up.

-Does the university digitize collections online? (This can mean taking photographs, videos and uploading them on the Internet)

Not sure the university I attended (University of Benin) had that sort of practice/documentation in place at the time, perhaps they do now. Rhodes University (where I studied my MFA) did have digital documentation as standard practice.

-How does UNIBEN school preserve students’ artwork? What challenges does the department face such as climate, money funding.

Honestly, I’m uncertain about the challenges Uniben faces with regard to storage and maintenance of their collection but I believe some of the likely factors you mentioned above are likely challenges they may be facing today.

-What do students typically do after completion of their degree? Do they come to the U.S., travel or embark on other pursuits?

I’d rather not generalize on what would only be my opinion with regard to this question but based upon some of the challenges pointed out earlier, it wouldn’t surprise me if statistics point towards artists abandoning this field or interest altogether in pursuit of other professions that provide means for themselves & their families.


Case Study 1: E-Books


The purpose of the book has always been the same: to read and become absorbed in a series of text and/or pictures. Just like the MP3 came along as a “new” and “revolutionary” technology in the popular culture sphere, e-books and e-readers are often donned with the same terms. But what makes them new or revolutionary? Is describing e-books as a technology even sufficient? Not entirely, if you analyze the e-book and related items such as digital ink, e-paper and thin film substrates from a theoretical, post-modernism, and digital media background. As Sterne said:

“If there is such a thing as media theory, there should also be format theory.” (2012, p.7)

Analysis of the Technology Functions:

Saying the e-book is a technology is simply not enough. It is a system of technical functions that aim to please the end-users, which is simply allowing them to read the text.  The most ostensible variations in the technology systems of a traditional book and an e-book is the format. Although Sterne talks in-depth about the format of an MP3, his analogies can apply to the book as well. According to Sterne, “format denotes a whole range of decisions that affect the look, feel, experience, and workings of a medium. It also names a set of rules according to which a technology can operate.” (2012, p. 7).

The format of the traditional non-digital book (no presence of digital ink, or electronic apparatus) involves the physical quality of paper itself, the binding, and the option of a hardcover or paperback. This traditional technology provides the user with an experience of touch and an individualized  memory function (one can fold the pages as an impromptu bookmark or one can use the index in the back of the book). For the e-book, its format allows the user to still hold the device the same way a traditional book would be held, but feels different (a smooth exterior, sans paper) and a built-in memory function for jumping to pages or using the index. There may even be a highlighting option, meant to replicate the function of highlighting text a reader would do with a physical writing utensil.

Analysis of the Mediations Functions:

No matter the format, the book transmits meaning through its mediation function. Just like Apple did not “invent” the MP3, Amazon nor other e-book manufacturers did not “re-create” the purpose of the book. The fundamental function (to read) is still here. The Kindle, Nook and other e-readers’ main function is to provide avid readers with new options, as we are in an increasingly growing convenience-based society.

Like the MP3, e-readers have the affordance of taking up less physical space. Ten physical books require more effort to carry than 10 books uploaded to an e-reader. To touch upon Manovich’s ideas, what really makes the e-book an e-book is its employment of software. Here, the software is working 24/7, whereas for the traditional book, the software was only used to produce. The e-book’s software must constantly be running to work for the user and be stored in compatible file formats. Nevertheless, e-books and traditional paper-based books still require information processing from the human  – e-books are intended to mediate the author’s messages, thoughts, and analyses in the same way a book would 20 years ago.

Analysis of the Interface Functions:

The e-book is no panacea for traditional reading issues. For example, if you’re reading a physical book in a crowded place and reading an e-book in a crowded space the reader may still grapple with outside noises and distractions. One would still be in dismay say, if he or she accidentally dropped her book or e-reader in a river. Granted, the monetary value of an e-book’s interface is probably more than a regular book. The value of the interface is still inherent, but it’s the way the book’s properties are presented that function differently.

The book is a cultural artifact whether or not it is in the form of an e-reader or it is a 50-year old paperback with a withering cover. In the near future we will see more presence of bendable screens, e-readers with greater capacities and digital ink becoming as relevant as the 2000-year tradition of paper-based books.


Sterne, Jonathan MP3: The Meaning of a Format (Durham, NC: Duke University Press Books, 2012), “Format Theory” (excerpt).

Sterne, Jonathan “The MP3 as Cultural Artifact,” New Media & Society 8, no. 5 (October 1, 2006): 825-842.

The Barcode: It’s a Cultural Software Too


As indicated through this week’s readings, we depend on software. A lot. One type of technology that may not come to mind first as an interface for digital media is the barcode, particularly the Universal Product Code (UPC). The UPC (a type of barcode) is a ubiquitous technology frequently relied on for purposes such as checking out library books, buying all kinds of merchandise or boarding an airplane. Something as simple as a barcode has a unique history rooted in the growth of American commerce and information technology. Just think of how often you come across UPC’s on a daily basis: the bottled water from a vending machine, the packaged snack from the cafe on campus and even on everyday objects such as folders, notebooks, and laptops. What we come across is the finished product but plenty of invisible work (involving software) has already taken place.

Technically Speaking

The UPC bar code is not a random order of black and white lines; rather the black and white design was chosen because it was easy to print and read the codes with minimal errors. On the left side of a UPC bar code, five digits indicate who the manufacture is according to the Uniform Code Council (Reilly, 2003). The five digits on right side represent what type of product is being sold, and also contains price information. The UPC bar code can only work through its interaction with a barcode scanner. This is where the function of the interface comes in, as a technical-material implementation of multiple softwares working together.

In Chalmer’s piece (2008), he talks about the act of labeling. I found that barcodes are a prime example of how labeling has become so entrenched as part of modern society. Chalmer describes how “labels allow us to focus attention on all and only items belonging to equivalence classes” (2008, p.46). Just think of how disorganized a grocery store would be without barcodes differentiating between organic bananas, regular bananas, or the bananas on sale for the week. Labels now automatically trigger linguistic and computing processes in our mind to categorize things and create a controlled system not only in a physical format, but also in our minds.

Furthermore, Chalmer goes on to state how labeling “…effectively and open-endedly add new ‘virtual’ items” which “reconfigures the problem spaces” (p.47). This got me thinking of Pinterest. This site has become somewhat of a quasi-retail site, as ways for retailers and really anybody to post items they like and Pinterest can ‘label’ the price of the item for them. In this scenario, one does not see the UPC, but sees the price right away. Still, it is software and multiple interfaces at work.

The UPC is a Gatekeeper

The earliest creation of the bar code began in the 1940s, when two graduate students at Drexel University patented a technology for scanning grocery items (Fox, 2011). Even since it’s beginning barcodes have worked by use of an interface. More notably though, the UPC acts as a digital gatekeeper. By the 1970s UPC-enabled bar codes were widespread when the primary purpose shifted to retailers’ ability to efficiently audit inventory. During this time, the U.S. faced high inflation and labor costs and this automated method could help stores reduce costs and manage goods instead of having each clerk manually tabulate and write down an entire store’s inventory.

Today, one could argue that the UPC is a cultural software in addition to its gatekeeper properties. Cultural Software as defined by Manovich (2008) is the “something else” that is “directly used by hundreds of millions of people” carrying fragments of culture” (p.3). UPCs surely are used by millions of people nationally and internationally, and are tied closely with the material culture we define ourselves by. For instance, grocery stores that offer “shopper rewards cards” are essentially metadata. These cards (with their own barcodes) identifies the individual shopper by when he or she buys (Do they only brand names? Or mostly junk food?). What we buy is a part of our culture.

Thus far, we have seen that media, information and communication are not the same thing but they are deeply interconnected. Contemporary issues are just remediations of past mediums, media and/or theories.



Brain, Marshall. “How UPC Bar Codes Work” 01 April 2000.
Clark, Andy. Supersizing the Mind: Embodiment, Action, and Cognitive Extension (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, USA, 2008), excerpts from the Forward by David Chalmers,
Fox, Margalit. “Alan Haberman, Who Ushered In the Bar Code, Dies at 81.” The New York Times. 15 June 2011.
Manovich, Lev Software Takes Command (ebook version, 2008).
Reilly, Edwin D. (2003). Universal product code.

Media in My Pocket

Apple claims that loving “it” is easy and great. But what’s “it” exactly – not just the phone, but the old, new, and digital media functions that come along with it.

I entered the iPhone world quite recently, this past January. Up until then I wasn’t necessarily opposed to the iPhone but found more cost-efficient cell phone options. After figuring out how to make my cell phone plan work with a gently used iPhone 4 given to me from a friend, I figured I’d give the iPhone a shot and see what all the hype is about.

Tying in this week’s readings with real-world experiences helped to conceptualize how frequently we try to categorize PCs, iDevices and tablets into one or two rigid categories. Take the ubiquitous iPhone for example – it is a phone, it is a digital content maker, a depository of media artefacts, and a medium for digital and new media. I found that Manovich’s argument of the computer can be applied to the iPhone:

No longer just a calculator, a control mechanism or a communication device, a computer becomes a media processor.” (Manovich, 2001, p.48)

This statement by Manovich shows how the initially, people viewed computers as a single-tiered operation tool. Now the computer has evolved into a robust processor of information, communication and media. Like the computer, the iPhone is not just a passive device to make and receive phone calls. It is a processor of media – the iPhone mediates verbal communication (via SMS and MMS), it has its own port of entry into the Internet, it can capture photos in a digital format which can be shared between other phones. Of course, the iPhone does much more than this, but I think it is useful to use it as media processor, just as a regular computer is.

Furthermore, when we consider the media functions of a specific device the “invisibleness” of it often gets overlooked. As Manovich (2012) stated in Media After Software, “The new ways of  media access, distribution, analysis, generation and manipulation all come  from software” (p.2). The software within the iPhone is mostly invisible because it is not the first part you notice about the device. The interface (the screen, buttons, total physical entity) gets noticed first, followed by the ‘regular’ media component such as telephone options and Internet capabilities. But its software and the constant updates that make the iPhone do all the “cool” digital and new media functions they cannot happen on their own.

Lastly, I found Bolter & Grusin’s (2000) take on immediacy relevant to the topic of the iPhone and the convergence of mediated systems. Their example of the 1996 presidential election being the first one covered on the Net was interesting because now it is hard to picture an election without it being mediated through various communication channels. The iPhone serves as a platform for mediated communications and new media (defined as cultural objects which distribute and exhibit by Manovich).

My takeaway is that we cannot take our devices for face value and should dig past the shiny interface of a screen to ask “what does this device do for me?” and “How is new media being implemented here?” Questions regarding the evolution of devices should also be asked – do they truly extend our cultural memories? Or do such devices fragment our cultural memory into invisible pieces across the digital and non-digital platform?


Bolter, Jay D. and Richard Grusin. Remediation: Understanding New Media. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2000.

Lev Manovich’s 5 Principles of New Media. Youtube.

Manovich, Lev.  The Language of New Media (excerpts). Cambridge: MIT Press, 2001.

Manovich, Lev.  edia After Software,” Journal of Visual Culture, 2012.

The University and the Degree from a Mediological POV

The university is a sociotechnical system. It is a hub of interconnected nodes consisting of knowledge, bureaucracy, entertainment, art, and infrastructure just to name a few. After soaking up Debray’s philosophy about mediology, it made me question how we view the almighty university degree. His work also inspired me to push the envelope a bit by considering the college degree as a media form. In other words, to ‘de-blackbox’ the degree using metatheory. In Papolias’ (2004) review of Transmitting Culture, the author explains how Debray and other mediologists aim to focus more on “the instruments and technical apparatuses that support the formation of cultural meanings” (p.166). So not only is the university degree a type of media, but it also should be regarded as a technical tool to transmit cultural values. The degree transcends our professional abilities (“I graduated with a degree in X”), social relations (“Oh I was also a Com/Bio/History major!”) and familial relations (parents pushing their children to “go get a college education’).

One cannot talk Debray without mentioning his view of communication versus transmission. In Debray’s mind, communication is very self-centered, focusing on temporal actions and responses. Debray argues that humans lack the purview to truly engage in transmission of meanings. For Debray, transmission equals culture. It is transmission that really makes our experiences, thoughts and beliefs remain within cultures (instead of vanishing with us individually). If that is the case, I see the university as one of the most frequent and respected ways humans engage in transmission – and the most ostensible end result is a degree. This leads into my point about the institutional forces that relate to mediology and the degree. Two other areas that I found relevant with my argument/stance include mediology’s view of material forces and selective forces.

Institutional Forces
We all know that getting a degree is a process- it requires several steps before it is handed to you: the application, coursework, payment and fees, etc. All of this involves an oft-hidden political economy at work right under our noses. The university knows that to sustain itself (financially and for relevancy), it must have a supple amount of patrons a.k.a students to make the two, four, or six year commitment. According to an article by the Chronicle of Higher Education, “for the typical family, college is one of life’s big-ticket purchases.” This pricey ticket is worth it for hundreds of thousands of students and their families. Why? Institutions have for hundreds of years instilled hope and assuredness that certain treasured values (namely, knowledge) and cultural footholds will live. As Debray states:

The institution acts as a kind of registry or patent office, but rather than passively conserving its changes, it is never done sifting, revising, censuring, interpreting, and peddling them. It also authorizes others to turn to pass on its achievements or even to deflect and divert them. The church though its preaching, the university through its teaching…” (2000, p.11, emphasis added)

Each time a student earns a degree it is recorded. It is meticulously registered formally though commencement activities (the grandiose ceremonies), and informally by the Registrar’s office and academic departments (mundane tasks). This is the university at work keeping track of students’ culmination of individual achievements. It is also important for the university to keep track of the path students traveled down to earned their degrees because future leaders, Nobel Prize winners, etc could be in the ‘pile’ of degrees.

Media Forms / Material Forces
To understand the degree as a media object, I see it as a physical message. It’s the tangible way of saying “I have met the minimum qualifications to earn a Bachelors/Masters/etc degree in this field.” If you compare the degree to common media such as TV, a book or a website it has similar properties as these undisputed physical forms of media. Debray would argue that TV, books, and the like have certain values attributed to them, and have social influences on our social constructs. I believe that the degree is a media form because it is first a highly-symbolized artefact (made by humans) and second, it is a way of communicating and transmitting meaning across mass channels. The degree does significant work for the university – just imagine if every time you applied for a job or applied for another degree some university official had to talk to whoever was reviewing your application and explain “Yes s/he completed coursework in X amount of time, did this, and this, and majored in this.” Our cultural norms make it acceptable to simply state you obtained a degree and move on.

Selective Forces

Lastly, it was in Chandler’s reading that he made a point to mention how selective of media are and how it in effect, creates an uneven power distribution in society. The university from the beginning was created for elite scholars but even today there are still concerns over access to institutions of higher education (which is why online ed and MOOCs have been in the spotlight). This is another major issue but it’s worth bringing up considering Debray point that every school needs someone to lead it to make decisions (as well as who else will makes decisions) from admissions to budgets to academic life.


I used Debray to offer a (hopefully) newer insight on components (physical and non) of the university that often are overlooked or are invisible. This may be an area I choose to delve deeper in for our final papers/projects. There is still a lot of ground to cover with mediology and plenty of critics to go along with it too.

Videos For Thought: 




Chandler,Daniel. “Processes of Mediation.”

Debray, R. Transmitting Culture, trans. Eric Rauth. New York: Columbia University Press, 2000.    Excerpts in pdf: From Chaps. 1-2; from Chap. 7, “Ways of Doing.”

Papolias, Constantina. Review of Transmitting Culture: “Of Tools and Angels: Regis Debray’s Mediology,”Theory, Culture & Society, 21/3 (2004): 165-70.

Supiano, Beckie. (2012) Degrees With a Price Tag. The Chronicle of Higher Education. 


The Google Art Project is like Disneyland


After interfacing with the Google Art Project, it left me with a unique perspective on:

1) the power vested in users to ‘accept’ or reject artwork as transformative entities

2) Our new approach to the concept of reproducible objects and

3) what it means to be an art institution

To start, lets look at the image above – my guess is that a majority of the audience can correctly identify the name of the art and the artist. Why is that? How is it possible that without any identifying information other than the high-resolution characteristics of the art itself (color, brush strokes, etc) the art is still recognizable?  Art has always been presented as a visual experience. The way I make sense of this is to not look at its digital format as something revolutionary or groundbreaking. This artwork has been transfigured into posters, notebook covers, mouse pads, coffee mugs – long before its natural transgression into a digital format. Essentially we indicated that it was OK for this work of art to be copied and put into the hands of everyday people. Do viewers have the choice to ‘reject’ or stop a piece of art being transformed over and over again? What about the artist’s say? Thanks to initiatives like the Google Art Project, art never really dies.

Benjamin (1936) claimed that “the work of art has always been reproducible” and that anything human-made can be copied as well (p.253). Benjamin also went on to claim that “technological reproduction can place the copy of the original in situations which the original itself cannot attain” (p. 254) which I found is useful in  teaching us to look beyond the scope of the traditional object and remain open-minded to new creative outlets.  

Just like this chair above. It is more than a simple chair-it is Napoleon’s Throne Chair, a deeply symbolic and historical artefact currently held by Chateau de Fontainebleau, 3,900 miles away from Washington, D.C. Yet, through a technological reproduction (the Google Art Project), this chair puts itself in new situations like it is in now. It is being talked about, shared on people’s screens and ‘played’ with. I can zoom in on the chair’s intricate details from the comfort of my own chair but I highly doubt I’d be able to get this close if I went to the Chateau de Fontainebleau in person.  


The Google Art Project is an institution. The site does not need to explicitly state in text “we are an influential organization” or “we are changing how art is viewed in the mediasphere.” It is simply implied. And so is Disneyland – an institution. Upon entering its premises, visitors are not handed brochures that tell you “this is where you can escape reality for a few hours or a few days!” – it is simply implied. Baudrillard went as far as to call Disneyland “a perfect model of all the entangled orders of simulacra” (1981). By this, Baudrillard gave Disneyland the ability to simulate or imitate childhood memories. Just like Disneyland, art institutions that lively exclusively through the web provide an opportunity for simulacra and simulations. The artworks we see through the Google Art Project are not the originals, hence they can only depict the original’s reality to a certain extent. Imitation can only go so far. Eventually one must leave Disneyland, and eventually one must exit from Google’s interface. One could leave his or her browser’s window open for a few hours, walk away and come back, but it’s still not the same as it recreating the reality of ‘resting’ on a public bench at a museum. Or watching other people analyze artwork – not that’s reality that can’t yet be recreated online.

Disneyland: Come relive your childhood memories – or at least imitate them as much as you can for a fee!

The Google Art Project is a great real-time case study to analyze the ways in which the broad topics of representation, mediation, and cultural transmission function in a post-modern world. Reality, and imitation, can only go so far but how far we let it go will be up to our own devices.


Baudrillard, Jean “Simulacra and Simulations” (also in html version). From Simulacra and Simulation, 1981; English trans., 1988.

Benjamin, Walter “The Work of Art in the Era of its Technological Reproducibility” (1936; rev. 1939).

Château de Fontainebleau. Google Art Project.

“The Starry Night.” (1889). Vincent van Gogh. Google Art Project.


Modern Cartography – an Intermediality Approach

I often ‘favorite’ tweets when I come across interesting posts that I wish to return to later. Last week I came across a tweet from @brainpicker about how modern maps are a multifaceted resource not only for technical geographic purposes, but also for history, individual creativity expression and visual storytelling.

Brainpicker’s website (a project of writer Maria Popova) it explains how maps:

“have undoubtedly changed the world as both objects of art and tools of political power. They help us understand time and make sense of the universe. At their most beautiful, they reflect a level of stunning subjectivity.”

I found the Text-Centered Model of an Intertextual Meaning System (p.28) as a useful way to apply cartography to the ways we interpret expression.  

The diagram below depicts my take on explaining modern maps as dialogic systems: 


Picking apart the intertextual qualities of the map really makes one realize this seemingly mundane objects contains an abundance of cultural expressions that often are overlooked.  This relates to the idea of ‘unlimited semiosis’ since one can interpret a map through one lens, while another person can interpret the map of a map since the most rudimentary definition of a map is a visual representation of something physical.

Maps as Symbolic Entities

I liked Barthes’ (1971) explanation of the text. At one point he asserts that “the text is radically symbolic” and plural in meaning (p.158-159). The same goes for maps. No matter our linguistic background, nearly everyone can recognize what a map is – this system of symbolic language has been encoded in our cultural shaping. We see the continents which most commonly appear with an image of North and South America to the far left, Africa in the center and Europe and Asia to the far right and accept it as the common structure for how maps should look. Yet what makes maps not closed off completely is that they can be altered and modified. As an example, the map of Vesa Sammalisto includes artwork that tells a story of an island in Spain. The artist uses the map to symbolize the rich culture of this island and at the same time provides useful information for would-be travelers to the island (such as places to dine by the coast, where to go sailing, and locations for bike tours across the land.

Communication through Maps:

Radford also had some good points on the meaning behind texts, using Umberto Eco as his footing. Asking questions such as “How does this text connect with other texts?”or “What are the codes that enable your understanding of these words?” once again applies to maps when considering them as a type of text. Of course we can misinterpret a map created 1,000 years ago due to semantic reasons, but 21st century maps that are combinatorial in nature present a new array of ways to debate what constitutes a “real” map. Does it have to be physical? Does it have to have a compass? As shown on brainpicker’s website, not necessarily. The art of cartography cannot be limited be antiquated definitions.

To sum, the map is just like any other post-digital media object: it’s future creation is strongly influenced by its past.  There has to be a common structure of what makes a map acceptable and the fundamental components of a map remain the same. But now, interpretation and expression is less restrictive given humans’ receiving of the digital platform. As long as there is a space and place to manipulate, maps will continue to be created for multi-use purposes.



Barthes, Roland “From Work to Text” (1971; trans. 1977; excerpt from Image, Music, Text).


Irvine, An Introduction to Meaning Making Systems and Cybersemiotics

Radford, Gary “Eco and the Model Reader.” Paper. Fairleigh Dickinson University.


The Mythology of Marie Antoinette (Uwa)

The movie Marie Antoinette (2006) places a unique twist on one of the most famous royal families in history. What makes this movie stand out is its amalgamation of light-hearted pop-culture and historical representation. Originally from Austria, fourteen year old Marie Antoinette marries into the royalty of France as a form of diplomacy between the two countries. In her view of the film, director Sofia Coppola refuses to call it a historical documentation, asserting:

“It is not a lesson of history. It is an interpretation documented, but carried by my desire for covering the subject differently.”

This got me thinking about Barthes argument about mythology. Barthes (1984) claims that “myth is a type of speech” and “speech of this kind is a message,” which involves photography, sport, shows and so on (p.108). If that is the case, then Marie Antoinette is a form of myth that challenges the problem of meaning.  The director purposefully tries to break down and reproduce the meaning of what Marie Antoinette life was – exploring new boundaries in a new (modern) era.

 Perhaps one of the most remembered scenes from this film is when Marie Antoinette and her coterie simply live the life of royalty in the 18th century. The clip below is called “I Want Candy,” synonymous for the title of the song by the New Wave band, Bow Wow Wow.

This all occurs while France is going through a massive food shortage. Riots ensue in and around the palace of Versailles where the royalties live. What I love about this piece is that the images of shoes, clothing, food and drinks are more than five second screen shots. As with Barthes inference of “a bunch of roses” signifying passion, the colorful shoes signify luxury and comfort, the decadent deserts signify an indifference to political upheavals, and the grand ensembles signify an intention by the royal family to maintain their lavish lifestyles. This persistent mixture occurs throughout the film, and one cannot help but notice all of the cultural sign systems present.

Movies are culture.  As Lotman (1978) argues, “there are many ways of defining culture” (p. 211). I consider this movie as an impressive bridge of cultural and linguistic history – and I would have to disagree partially with the movie director that it is not a historical lesson.  Marie Antoinette is a of course a historical lesson (we see her life portrayed in a new form) but it is also a semiotic lesson. Even though the movie is not in common format of a “historical” documentary, all of the signs and representations throughout the movie (such as in the clip above) are a new way of telling her story.

To use Lotman again, we should consider culture “as the long-term memory of the community…” (p.215). This movie is now a part of history, yet virtually anyone can access it across different mediums and apply their own take on the film, perhaps relating to the incompleteness of cultural objects – there is always room for re-visitation and re-purposing.

No one can go back in time to change the trajectory of Marie Antoinette’s life. However, movies may be the closest we can get to employ mythology and speech to repurpose the life of historical figures. Certain types of media have a great deal of power in which individuals can use to structure the pervasive symbols and artefacts we encounter every day.




Barthes,Roland.  Mythologies, “Myth Today” (excerpt from Mythologies, trans. Annette Lavers, 1984, pp. 107-45).

Lotman, Yuri (1978). “On the Semiotic Mechanism of Culture

“Marie Antoinette (2006 Film).” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 24 Feb 2013. Web. 28 Feb. 2013.

Marie Antoinette: “I Want Candy” [YouTube].

Meaning-Making in jùjú Music

Meaning-Making in jùjú Music

The topics of meaning making, sign systems and semiotics related to media theory can relate to a number of everyday human encounters, including music. Music has proven to be an inter-relatable subject in the field of media theory, and I found it useful to analyze a different style of music (that we have not talked about yet) with the idea of the ‘semiosphere,’ and theories of de Saussure and C.S. Pierce. The music of King Sunny Adé may not be a household name, but his music reveals distinct cultural values enmeshed with linguistics and signs.

King Sunny Adé of Nigeria is known as an influential “pioneer of modern world music” specifically for his Yoruba jùjú music (“King Sunny Adé”). Jùjú music is characterized by its emphasis on drums and the term literally means “throwing” or “something being thrown” in Yoruba language. (“Jùjú Music”). For many Nigerian artists and musicians, music is a performance and a way of life. One of his works that can be analyzed in a meaning-making context is “Suku Suku Bam Bam.”

I like to describe Adé’s music as soothing and mellow, with a familiar flow of drum beats and guitar strums comparable to the Caribbean or Jamaican music. Thinking of how Adé created meaning behind his music, the idea of the semiosphere (the socialness of humans and our desire for meaning making, which occurs in interconnected systems) can apply (Irvine). When Adé made this musical artefact, chances are he was influenced by other “second order systems” such as literature, art and other music (Irvine p.12)  instead of being inspired in an isolated state.

Language is yet another major influencer for media-related processes, and is required to make music. De Sassure took a technical approach by defining language (making clear distinctions on what is not language and what is speech ) and arguing that language is not only a social institution but “…a system of signs that express ideas” (p.15). Music, then is just an extension of language and speech (once again proving the interconnectedness) of how people can express ideas. Using de Saussure’s Place of Language in the Facts of Speech concept, he claims that the act of language “…requires the presence of at least two persons; that is the minimum number necessary to complete the circuit.” (p.11).

de Saussure

If that is the case, a similar approach can be applied to music. For meaning to be transferred, there needs to be at least another person to receive the information. Thus music, like language is “the social side of speech,” to use de Saussure’s terms (p.14). Furthermore, making music for oneself defeats the purpose of sharing information. One must keep in mind though, that when it comes to music, the outputs are so fragmented through the mediaspehere (videos, live performances, mp3s, etc.,) there it is hard to have a true 1:1 conversation or simultaneous circuitous response with the musician at any time. As popular as King Sunny Adé’s music may be lyrics, translations and significant scholarly review of his work is hard to come by. This leaves his audience to fully interpret his music and decipher what kinds of meaning he wanted to get across. As this YouTube user writes: KSA (King Sunny Adé ) “Is the ultimate Yoruba linguist, always using verbs and proverbs to instruct.”

This comment on YouTube shows how meaning-making rests heavily on signs and symbols, which all find their place in mediums such as the Internet. According to C.S. Pierce, there are three kinds of signs: likeness, indications, and symbols (p.5). Receivers of Adé’s linguistic metaphors (aka his music) can show their likeness by imitation such as commenting on his work or doing covers of his music. Pierce defines indications as a way of illustrating things through a physical means (p.5). As initially described, the unique guitar riffs and percussions are indicators of Adé’s music that imply “this is Adé’s music!” to gain the attention of people. Lastly, symbols are of importance because meaning comes from its use. Pierce gives the example of phrases, books and libraries. Just as the library is more than a building that holds books, music is more than the singing of words. King Sunny Adé’s music is a versatile symbol that varies in its use from person to person. It allows individuals to find their personal meaning (such as “I feel so connected to my heritage” or “I have discovered a new realm of music”) which is a constant process.

 Much more can be discussed about music and meaning making or music and symbolic systems – my goal was to see if I could uncover something new about how music can be a meaning-maker and relate to symbolic systems. If anything, this example proves how language (specifically linguistics) and individual meanings/representations of the world have social implications that unravel each time new issues are addressed.



C. S. Peirce, “What is a Sign,” excerpt from Peirce, Charles S. Essential Pierce: Selected Philosophical Writings (1893-1913). Edited by Nathan Houser, Christian J. W. Kloesel, and Peirce Edition Project. Vol. 2. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1998. 

Ferdinand de Saussure, extracts from Course in General Linguistics 

Irvine, “Introduction to Meaning Making, Symbolic Cognition, and Semiotics” Sections 1-4.

“Jùjú  Music.” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 22 Nov 2012. Web. 19 Feb. 2013.

“King Sunny Ade.” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 27 Jan 2013. Web. 19 Feb. 2013.


Art, the Media, and the Message(s)

With continuation into the depths of media theory, particularly mediums, media and mediations, I was fortunate to view some of the work by Nam June Paik in the last few days. Paik crosses traditional lines of art by incorporating unique and sometimes taboo television and video media into his art. In a figurative and literal way, Paik used art to “get out of the boxes” by using the medium of media to show that there is more to something than its technical inner workings or apparent social uses.

Art vs. Media vs. Communication

Seeing Paik’s work in person at the Smithsonian American Art Museum put much of the historical texts related to media theory to life. What first came to mind was how to distinguish between the difference between art, media, and communication. According to Gitelman, media are “socially realized structures of communication” whereas communication is “a cultural practice” often defined through rituals that people share (2008, p.7). This can be language, history or other means. Media, also left to the description of Gitelman, was termed as “unique and complicated historical subjects” (p.7). This description bodes well with the general perception of media, but when we begin to unravel what is dependent on media and what allows it to function, new lines of thought emerge.

TV Garden

One of Paik’s pieces that first stood out to me was “TV Garden,” which hosts numerous televisions sprawled on the floor, enmeshed in a jungle of foliage. Each television had some action going on – whether it was a distant televised segment of the past or random lights emitting from the antiquated screens. This is where McLuhan’s theory on the medium comes in. One of the many relatable points by McLuhan involves content and the state of media. First, McLuhan claimed that society was undergoing a transition from placing more emphasis on the effect of media rather than meaning. To McLuhan, “…effect involves the total situation” (1964, /26).

Recall that McLuhan’s The Medium is the Message was written in 1964. Paik’s “TV Garden” was first produced in 1974 but the significance is still applicable today:  Paik’s audience, by viewing his work, sees content within content. First the person enters an institution specializing in art, then the audience member views media (TV segments) through a medium (The television sets). This provides an individualized effect on each person (which varies based on his or her cultural milieu and communication background) for instance, will the audience share their reaction to a friend in another language? Or tweet their reaction instantaneously? Effect that media has on people cannot be overlooked, because when the combinatory systems become so enmeshed into a unifying entity, it can blur the lines of how to define common occurrences. 

The next point that is relevant when discussing media and communication is how and if it is possible to describe art as a scientific instrument. Gitleman explicitly says that it is helpful to consider media as scientific apparatus that somehow relate to society’s general livelihood, yet we often fail to know how media “does the job” (2008, p.5).  Ping literally opens the black box, (and even turns it sideways) of the ubiquitous television set, which is so often familiarized with McLuhan’s “the medium is the message” vernacular. To some, it is simply an art form, but in my view it can become a scientific instrument when it’s used to analyze society on a macro scale or to use its “mediumness” as an empirical or historical case study.  Even though TV as we know it may be a thing of the past, with streaming-over-the-web services and the ability to watch it on a laptop, Paik and other artists’ work that involve media artefacts still have meaning and will be useful as historical tools ten, 20, 30 or more years from now. Just think of the portable CD player that was all the rage in the 1990s and early 2000s. Although they are becoming antiques, the CD player is still a form of media even though its current use is virtually nonexistent. The CD player is in the memory of millions of people around the world. This is why the CD player can be viewed as a scientific tool – its history and representation do not vanish because new media and mediums are available.

2000 NYT Article describing the revered CD player of the time

To sum up, all of this shows the power and pervasiveness that art and media retain. Using Einstein’s analogy of the master printer serving as a book seller, publisher, “indexer-abridger-translator-lexicographer-chronicler” (1983, p.60), the same can be applied to artists. Artists may be a master in aesthetics, but they can also be researchers, instructors, storytellers, entrepreneurs and architects. Overall, art, media and communication each retain power structures in their own right. McLuhan has been a highly-regarded influencer on how we should consider media, but of course, everything McLuhan has said regarding media should not be accepted as the Ultimate Truth. As long as we are willing and able to modify theories from McLuhan, Williams, Cary, etc. to fit with the times, we’ll have a better grasp on the social implications of media and combined technologies.


Eisenstein, Elizabeth L.  “Some Features of Book Culture,” from Elizabeth L. Eisenstein, The Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1983. Rev. ed. 2005.

Gitelman, Lisa.  Always Already New: Media, History, and the Data of Culture. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2008.

Nam June Paik Studios. Web.

Poetry, The Website, and Making Meaning in a Combinatorial Symbolic World

(1) consider a media artefact as an instance of a combinatorial meaning system (an artwork, a Website, a movie, music composition) with some features investigated in readings

An artefact inside an artefact

Building off last week’s concepts regarding language and symbolic cognition, I was able to relate a recent experience to the concepts of symbolic cognition and human meaning-making. Last week, I attended a live discussion event by Dr. Maya Angelou at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian. Angelou is frequently referred to as “a poet, educator, historian, best-selling author, actress, playwright, civil-rights activist, producer and director” according to her official website (2013). I remember growing up with her work as a child, and also coming across her work throughout college.  After digesting this week’s readings, I found it relevant to examine her website, as a media artefact. This website allows individuals to interact with her metaphorical works in a drastically different means compared to 30+ years ago when Dr. Angelou was just as influential, but could only share her work through written text (books, poetic literature) and oral traditions (speeches and conversations). She still does this now, but her website is yet another outlet. Humans are constantly looking for ways to formulize meaning through all our media channels, and as we will see the website is basically a culmination of our ancestors’ histories and symbols that have accrued over time.

Angelou’s website is the epitome of how combinatorial meaning systems work and interact with humans today. As for nearly any website, key symbolic materials such as language (English words) visuals (videos, photos, graphic designs), sound (from the videos) are presented in an orderly fashion on Angelou’s website. To the majority of users, the resources make sense because they follow proper sentence structures like “Welcome to Maya Angelou’s Official Site”. According to Deacon (1998, p.98) “creating a larger sentence in a human language cannot just be accomplished by stringing together more and more words. It requires use of hierarchic grammatical relationships, as well as syntactic tricks …” One could also argue, though, that this artefact (the website) follows a certain grammatical/syntactical flow in the form of media content just described. The videos, text, images are not arbitrarily placed on one immeasurable page; instead there is a central organization and layout of media intended to appeal to users.  This example of her website appears to follow Clark’s (2001) definitions of syntactic and semantic properties [1].

What Maya Angelou is primarily known for is her poetry, and not her website. Nevertheless, her website bears weight because other artefacts (her poems, books, interviews) are placed or inserted “on” this seemingly grandiose artefact. In Renfrew’s (1999) view, artefacts have critical roles both symbolic and practical for humans. Considering just her poetic work, the terms ‘symbolism’ and ‘metaphor’ are often associated with poetry. For Wong (2005), symbolism can be regarded as “the invention of external storage of information – whether in jewelry, art, language or tools” which dates back to the evolutionary period (p.89).  Angelou’s poetry indeed holds symbolic power in the form of literature, but also as an art form and tool she uses to express her thoughts, beliefs, and experiences.

One of Angelou’s famous works

Furthermore, Angelou’s form of language is primarily metaphorical. Lakoff (2006) describes metaphors as “instances of novel poetic language in which words…are not used in their normal everyday sense” (p. 185).  Taking a look at one of Angelou’s most famous poem  I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings it is possible to apply Lakoff’s contemporary theory and conceptual framework surrounding metaphors, just like he did with the love poem that stated ‘Look how far we’ve come/ It’s been a long, bumpy road/ We can’t turn back now.” (p.189)

         This poem follows similar metaphorical patterns of ‘improper’ syntax (“on the back of the wind/ and floats downstream”) but makes complete metaphorical sense in the eyes of many poets or less syntax-focused individuals. I agree with Lakoff’s point that “the metaphor is not just a matter of language, but of thought and reason” (p.192) and that language takes a backseat in these instances. Here, Angelou’s website could perhaps be seen as a depository of information that allows for the combination of multiple artefact styles. Another relevant point that can relate to the artefact of Angelou’s website is the growing field of cognitive science. If the theory of ‘distributed cognition’ from Hollan et al. (2000) is applied to this case of media artefacts, it leaves room for new insights about the unique field of interface-centered technology. The distributed cognition theory basically implies that there is a need to understand the interaction between technologies and people, furthermore stating:

            “Digital objects can encode information about their history of use. By recording the interaction events associated with use of digital objects (e.g., reports, forms, source code, manual pages, email, spreadsheets) it becomes possible to display graphical abstractions of the accrued histories as parts of the objects themselves” (Hollan et al., p.187, emphasis added) 

A user can explore her history through the artefact (website)

Hollan et. al (p.187) provides the opportunity to try and apply Angelou’s website and poetry to this inquiry. A website can serve as a vast depository for history and as a projector of constantly revolving information. Once put on the website, Angelou’s poetry (her metaphorical language) transforms into a digital object. Once a tangible artefact, it is now an artefact comprised of computing numbers and codes. But the end user (the person who reads her poems through a computer screen) does not need to decode the artefact in a drastically different way than before – it can still be read, analyzed, copied, etc., but in slightly different measures. No matter which environment the artefact is positioned, the “highly-enriched digital” object (p.188) is an overarching representation of her poetic ability and history. What researchers mustn’t do, according to Hollan et al., is neglect the fact that culture and cognition studies should not be separated. If someone is trying to grasp how a user interprets the poetic artefact via a second artefact (a website), culture (which is comprised of person’s history, language, customs, etc) may very well influence their cognitive functions and abilities to create symbolic systems of meaning. Some can only wonder what the Internet will look like ten to twenty years from now, but I foresee higher levels of interaction through the “graphical abstractions” between humans and media artefacts


[1] Clark defines Semantic properties as “the ‘meaning involving’ properties of words, sentences, and internal representations,” and Syntactic properties  as “nonsemantic properties of, e.g., written or spoken words, or of any kinds of inscriptions of meaningful items” p.10,



Clark, Andy. Mindware: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Cognitive Science. New York:          Oxford University Press, 2001.

Deacon, Terrence W.  The Symbolic Species: The Co-evolution of Language and the Brain.        New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company, 1998.

Hollan, James, Edwin Hutchins, and David Kirsh. “Distributed Cognition: Toward a New   Foundation for Human-computer Interaction Research.” ACM Transactions, Computer- Human Interaction 7, no. 2 (June 2000): 174-196.

Lakoff, George. “Conceptual Metaphor.” Excerpt from Geeraerts, Dirk, ed. Cognitive Linguistics:            Basic Readings. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter, 2006.

“Maya Angelou.” Maya Angelou, The Official Website. Accessed 4.      Feb 2013.

Renfrew, Colin.  “Mind and Matter: Cognitive Archaeology and External Symbolic Storage.” In     Cognition and Material Culture: The Archaeology of Symbolic Storage, edited by Colin     Renfrew, 1-6. Cambridge, UK: McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, 1999.

Wong, Kate. “The Morning of the Modern Mind: Symbolic Culture.” Scientific American 292, no. 6 (June 2005)

The Language of Linguistics

“Linguistics is a classificatory science.” This was stated by CF Hockett  in 1942 and is still applicable today. This quotation was included in John Searle’s  analysis of Chomsky (1972), who is perhaps the most widely recognized name in linguistics. Considering linguistics as a classificatory tool helps to better understand how humans have used language to communicate and interact. For instance, we can easily classify Non-English speakers from English speakers simply by observing the noise of verbal or written messages. Think of the last time you were browsing the aisles of a grocery store and overheard someone talking in a different language. Typically, we tune out other’s mundane conversations in passing but yet when we hear something different (i.e. another language), our brains are attempting to decode this new information source. What about in the learning environment?  When faced with the task of sitting through a class lecture, communication, language, and symbolic systems are all interrelated.According to Shannon’s theory, understanding entails, in theory, a completion of  Shannon’s Communication system.

This would mean that information (such as learning a new topic, in both written form and verbal traditions) needs to be transmitted  from instructor to learner (the receiver).  It is during this process where the importance of understanding linguistics and its place in communication is crucial. Students are only able to understand an instructor if he or she follows a proper set of rules that make sense in a linguist’s point of view, which would be through a procedural grammatical structure. For instance, if  a teacher said “History DC we’re today gonna learn about” to a class, that would result in a complete breakdown in the intended message getting through to the receivers as opposed to “Today we’re going to learn about the history of DC.” Although there are many branches in which one could take with the concept of linguistics, two main concepts I took away from this weeks readings involve 1) the “universality” of languages and 2) sociolinguistics, particularly identity formation.

Sentence not following grammatical rules: Notice the occurrence of “fragments”

Sentence following grammatical rules.


The “Universality” of Languages

Despite drastic differences among languages many researchers argue there they all have universal characteristics. Chomsky found value in the meaning behind syntax, or the “grammatical rule underlying the construction of sentences.”(1972). Although “Σήμερα είναι μια καλή μέρα” might not make sense to non-Greek speakers, [1] that phrase was not formed arbitrarily; chances are to create that set of words, it had to follow a general set of rules and structure that makes sense to its users (Greek speakers). This is where Chomsky comes in. He attempted to tackle the burgeoning question of how do we, humans, learn to talk in our natural context? [2]  By “natural context” I mean one’s own geographical locale or native tongue. A baby born in Russia will learn to use  Russian language, while a child born in the United States (and who presumably remains in the same location with English speaking parents) will grow up to learn English without being “told” to do so.  Chomsky counters empiricists’ beliefs that the mind is a tabula rasa (blank slate) and instead claims that it comes down to the child having “…the form of the language already built into his mind before he ever learns to talk” (1972). In his view,  we are all equipped with a universal grammar that is “programmed” in our brains. But what happens when we aren’t babies anymore? Searle critiques Chomsky’s theory noting that he fails to “see the essential connection between language and communication, between meaning and speech arts” (1972). Perhaps there is a breakdown in the universality of meaning between language and communication since, alas, they are not the same thing. According to Foulger, communication is not a “thing” but a process (2004).  So if we look at language as a process, there may be universality in the early stages of linguistic acquisition, but once individuals learn to associate their cultural context to how they speak, language goes back to being a narrow classification of what communication means.


The second linguistic concept that I wish to touch upon is sociolinguistics, or how the social characteristics of people shapes language (“WordNet”). To continue with the first concept, culture plays a significant role in understanding language and our identity that is tied to language. But what begs to be questioned is where media’s role is in all of this. Folger’s discussion in “Models of the Communication Process” notes that “people invent and evolve media” just as they do with language (2004). If that is the case, can this claim be supported by considering the culture of computers? Computers, as a medium of transmitting multiple forms of media, were invented by humans. And indeed, people have contributed to their evolution in past 30 years. One could argue that our social characteristics (inclination to computer use), has created an entirely new language system. For example, anyone who’s taken a web design course, may recall how learning this skill requires the learner to translate new meaning into their current vocabulary (such as the color black being equivalent to #00000 or the fact that the “{“ and “}” are more than symbols-  they indicate a set of rules for a web page). In my view, computer code is a language in itself – a social one that humans have created. This is an area that could use deeper analysis of combining the social influence of non-human devices on humans and what semantic/ linguistic implications they do (or do not) have on us.

One Last Word… 

In the field of contemporary linguistics, exploring how communication and symbolic expressions result in our understanding of languages is key. This macro-level overview of just two concepts of linguistics indicates how easy it is to jump from one area to another. Having at least a basic understanding of linguistics is key to delve deeper in the understanding of media theory and digital culture. Nearly all cultures have words for “media,” “communication,” and “information” but their meanings vary depending on the language being used. People’s reactions and social influences from the term “media” (and how it is created), differs drastically if you’re in North Korea or France. Attempting to understand media and communications requires just as much of a structural approach as is required for understanding language through the lens of linguistics.



[1] According to Google translate this means “Today is a good day” in Greek.

[2] When thinking what exactly a language is, it helps to first address the notion of “FOL”, or  Faculty of Language. FOL is simply  humans’ ability to learn a natural language, namely, the language that he or she was born into  is learned first (“Linguistics: Key Concepts”).

Irvine, M. “Linguistics: Key Concepts

Foulger, D. “Models of the Communication Process” 2004.

Foulger, D. “An Ecological Model of Communication” 2004.

Searle, John.  “Chomsky’s Revolution in Linguistics,” The New York Review of Books, June 29, 1972.

Shannon, C.  The Mathematical Theory of Communication (1948). The Bell System Technical Journal Vol. 27, pp. 379–423, 623–656, July, October, 1948.

WordNet Search.

Finding Meaning in Communication and Information

As an introduction, the week’s readings covered topics that we will see throughout the course: a discussion concerning the history of communication and media theory, semiotics, cultural meanings, and digital life that intermingles the “non-living” analog systems with “a-live” [1]. This initial overarching exposé of all things “media” causes new media scholars (and even experienced ones) to take a step back and ask what can individually be dissected from the content.  What ideas are frequently brought up across disciplines? Are researchers and media experts sharing similar insights about the new dimensions of media and mediation? These types of questions must be running in the back of our heads to grasp any sort of understanding of an ever-present world of digital culture. What resonated with me the most was finding meaning in the often polarized worlds of communication and information.  Regis Debray helps to bridge this gap by urging people to think as mediologists. He wants us to re-conceptualize early communication theory and realize that there is indeed an “invisible force of institutions and social structures in providing the shared platforms for relaying messages, meanings, and cultural identities among large communities that endure over time”  (“Media Theory: An Introduction”). Looking at the large picture helps one to see that first, history counts and second, organizations have major influences over what types of technologies and mediums rise in their scope and use.  

To use the example of the telegraph system, its development signaled a shift in the desire for communication that was faster and more reliable. Everyday farmers and laborers prior to the mid-19th century did not all of a sudden demand that communication become “instant”, but the gradual shifting of American hegemonic ideologies encouraged innovation and new ways of producing. Thanks to the new rail network, time took on a new cultural meaning (significance of when, exactly, a message could be received) and the Industrial Revolution only highlighted the change of social ideals influenced by powerful institutions like Carnegie, Rockefeller, J.P. Morgan, etc.  And according to Carey, “the desire to increase speed and effect of messages as they travel in space” is still of extreme importance today (2).

The mediums in which communication and information are expressed in the current post-digital era still maintain a deep interconnectedness of social, political and financial forces.  A prime example of this type of convergence took place this past week with the 57th Presidential Inauguration.  Comparing how individuals in 2009 communicated the Inauguration’s personal and national meaning to how it was done in 2013, reveals that the medium in which meanings are shared must be flexible to adapt to our technological preferences.  Of course, photo and internet-capable mobile phones were of high use in 2009, but in 2013 the meaning of sharing information in real-time bears more weight.  I find that the momentarily popular vernacular phrase “pics or it didn’t happen” (which caught on well especially for digital natives) coincides with Floridi’s statement:  “no records, no history” (p. 3).  Photographs, since their inception have been vital mediums in how we extract “meanings” from historical moments.  They provide a hyper-visual format compared to basic and less-stimulating records such as text. Yet, in this current era, there is a burgeoning sense of pressure to produce records of the meanings we come across instantaneously. This form of recording, is now chiefly digital. People often deem it necessary to “capture” photos as a verifiable source of information that not only provides evidence of our actions at a particular moment in time, but also can be added to the plethora of information that gets added to our growing digital lockers. 

My photo. Taken 1/21/2013.

Memes have become quite popular recently.

Attempting to relate this idea back to mediology, taking photos at a presidential inauguration implies that the devices we use to capture history are more than a technical piece of equipment:  they suggest a social awareness of the cultural relationships that have  altered over time and imply that making a “record”  of a historic event can be shared across multiple platforms which can later be bought, sold or reproduced (Ask: what rights does Facebook, Instagram, Twitter have to this image I’ve uploaded? What financial gains or hidden losses can I get if I decide to sell my image online?). Delving deeper into the core of mediology and applying it to all areas, especially with social institutions and organizations, is what I hope to gain from this course.  Obviously, there is no single divine answer to how to find meaning in communication and information. But it is important to not get trapped by finding an answer to our questions by only considering approaches from one discipline. Unearthing media theory and culture in the digital realm requires a constant questioning of what has already been said and what people are saying about its future. And these skills will only be developed throughout the semester, especially by having an open environment of discussion among peers and new media theorists like myself.


[1] A-live, or “artificially alive” systems that have the ability to communicate, and learn with human and non-human devices, according to L. Floridi, Information: A Very Short Introduction, 2010. P. 17


“Media Theory: An Introduction”

Carey, James “A Cultural Approach to Communication”