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final paper

Paulina Johnson

Final Paper

Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where Nature may heal and cheer and give strength to body and soul alike.- John Muir

Beauty as Myth

Philosophers over time have tried to understand the nature of reality. How is it possible to understand reality when myth exists? How does myth affect one’s perception of reality? Do some people ever discern myth from truth–or does the myth become their truth as they subscribe to it?

Beauty is one aspect of myth that can be quite interesting– we as humans are especially susceptible to subscribing to myths when they pertain to things we find beautiful. As John Muir famously quoted, “Everyone needs beauty.” Does our need for beauty ever deceive us? Is beauty deception? Roland Barthes (1915-1980), the French literary critic and semiotician, was a major cultural theorist of the 20th century who contributed to the development of modern critical thought. Myth “hides nothing and flaunts nothing: it distorts; myth… is an inflexion” (Barthes).

Theoretical Framework

Beauty is one of the most powerful motivators. It motivates us to date and to marry, to travel, to make a decision on a house, a city, a town. For these reasons, beauty is a subject of myth for the ordinary individual.  The theories of Roland Barthes will guide this paper on the meaning of myth as a cultural symbol. Barthes would argue that if we are to consider beauty as a myth, then embedded within the subject of beauty are symbols and signs that we are meant to decode.

Therefore, how is beauty reflected as a form of myth in our culture? In what domains is there evidence for beauty being perceived as a myth. This paper will explore the myth of beauty in the areas of physical beauty and advertising, romance, place and location, and inner concepts of beauty.


Physical Beauty

In this day and age, how do we value aesthetics, and how do we convey this value within our society and on individual levels?

Barthes wanted to relate the method of semiotics to understanding everyday life phenomena, especially in popular culture because he was believed that objects and events always meant more than themselves; ‘they are always caught up in systems of representation, which add meaning of them’ (McNeill, 1999). Barthes described semiology as being able to:

…take in any system of signs, whatever their substance and limits; images, gestures, musical sounds, objects, and the complex associations of all of these, which form the content of ritual, convention or public entertainment: these constitute, if not languages, at least systems of signification. (Barthes, 1967: 9).

Barthes believed that semiotics would offer an suitable reading of modern culture because unlike liberal studies of culture by humanists, semiotics ‘a science of signs that not only possesses a notion of ideology against which the truth of science can be measured, but it promises a scientific way of understanding popular culture’ (Strinati, 2004: 97). Barthes in his famous book Mythologies (1957), examines semiotics in order to reveal particular pieces of cultural material which according to him were being used by the bourgeoisie as a way to impose their values on others. His semiological evaluation of popular culture involved the decoding of signs in areas of photography, fashion, music, literature and magazine.

The Dove Real Beauty Sketches video shows how people should know that they are truly beautiful, inside and out. The Dove brand is “about listening to women” and encouraging them to love themselves for who there are. (Dove 2013) Dove did a major global study called The Real Truth About Beauty: A Global Report to launch the Campaign for Real Beauty in 2004. The campaign began a “global conversation about the need for a wider definition of beauty” after the study proved that the definition of beauty has become unattainable and limited in today’s society (Dove 2013). Dove’s goal was to dispel the myths women hold about their own beauty.  In the findings, only two percent of women around the world described themselves as beautiful. Since 2004, Dove employed  “various communications vehicles to challenge beauty stereotypes and invite women” to discuss beauty (Dove 2013). As of 2010, Dove has evolved their campaign and launched a big effort to make beauty a source of “confidence, not anxiety” with Dove’s Movement for Self-Esteem (Dove 2013).

The Dove Campaign for Real Beauty was created to have discussions and debates pertaining the true definition of beauty. From 2004-2011, they proved what the true definition of beauty could be.  In 2004, the Campaign began advertising women whose appearances “are outside the stereotypical norms of beauty” (Dove 2013). Women were asked to look at the women’s looks to determine their kind of beauty. In 2005, Dove’s second phase was advertising women with real bodies and real curves. This was used to debunk the stereotype that stick thin is beauty. In September 2006, Spain banned overly thin from their fashion runways. In response, Dove created a short film called Evolution which “depicted the transformation of a real woman into a model and promoting awareness of how unrealistic perceptions of beauty are created”  (Dove 2013).  In 2007, Dove launched the third phase called Beauty Comes of Age. This global study revealed that “ninety-one percent of women ages fifty-sixty-four believe is is time for society to change its views about women and aging”  (Dove 2013). The campaign focused on the idea that girls are constantly given the “unrealistic, unattainable images of beauty and images that impact their self-esteem”  (Dove 2013).

Dove came out with an online film called Onslaught that portrays the bombardment of dramatized beauty images. In 2010, the Dove Movement for Self Esteem and Dove teamed together to make women with the opportunities to mentor young girls and celebrate their natural real beauty. Some of the ways that one can get involved with the Dove Movement for Self Esteem is joining the Dove brand to extend their vision to women around the world. In the United States, Dove supports the work that the Girl Scouts of the United States of America Inc. and Boys and Girls Clubs of America. Dove has also created “self esteem-building, educational programs and activities that encourage, inspire and motivate girls around the world”  (Dove 2013).

Dove has reached approximately seven million girls with these programs and should reach a global goal of reaching fifteen million girls by 2015. In 2011,  Dove released their results of their largest global study called The Real Truth About Beauty: Revisited. In this case, Dove discovered that only “four percent of girls around the world consider themselves beautiful and it begins at a young age … seventy-two percent said that they felt pressure to be beautiful”  (Dove 2013). The study also discovered that only eleven percent of girls like using the word beautiful to describe themselves. There is a universal increase in beauty increase and a decrease in girls’ confidence as they grow older.

Despite Dove progressing in a positive direction with their campaigns, there is a lot of work that needs to be done. Girls and young women are constantly influenced by societal norms of how beauty should be portrayed. In magazines, television, movies, music, and other forms of media, the image of beauty is distorted. One example of this is the Kardashian family, particularly the female Kardashians, as they attract a lot of attention and are known for their beauty. Due to this, they set a high bar of how beauty should be: including how women should do their hair and makeup, how they should dress, and how they should act. They are not the best role models because they sexualize beauty, which perpetuates some of the myths that women carry about beauty that may transfer into their relationships.

Dove is spreading a positive message of beauty. There are so many girls and young women who “develop low self-esteem from their looks, and consequently fail to reach their full potential in life” (Dove 2013). The media and society give girls and young women a dramatized view of what beauty should be. This is how low self esteem is developed. If more girls understand the true meaning of beauty, there would be happy and high self esteem girls in the world. In a video, an artist drew portraits of people by asking them how they view themselves. Most of the people being drawn had negative views about their bodies. After, he asked strangers about the people who were drawn and redrew them based on the strangers view. The second drawing were more positive. They were positive  because other people looked at another person and looked passed their flaws. More people should love themselves for who they are.  The Dove Self-Esteem Fund was created to act as an agent of change to inspire and educate girls and women about a wider definition of beauty.

In contrast to Dove’s initiative to the true definition of beauty, there are  people who feel they need to look beautiful to feel beautiful. People with low self esteem who do not think they are beautiful try to make themselves more beautiful and give themselves false definitions of beauty. Girls do not need to wear as much makeup as they think they do because they should know that they look beautiful with a modest amount of makeup, not an excess amount. Sometimes wearing too much makeup can send the wrong messages, such as attention seeking or insecure. The positive message about wearing makeup is that one can be creative and feel confident in wearing makeup. Once this has been achieved, one can understand that they are truly beautiful. If someone only covers themselves in makeup to cover their flaws, it does not build up self esteem and makes someone insecure, even if it is not admitted. An extreme case of changing one’s appearance to make one feel beautiful.  In an video, women with cancer were given makeovers to make them feel better about themselves. Cancer treatments, such as chemotherapy, weaken the body and make people feel as if they are unattractive. During the video, women were allowed to enhance their appearances to look differently as if they did not have cancer.  These people were given makeovers because their physical appearance would help them on the inside to feel better about cancer.

Additionally, there are those who believe the myths presented to them in video games and cartoons (which are products of fantasy themselves), and go so far as to modify their physical characteristics to look like these characters, based on a physical and emotional connection that they feel to these characters. One prominent example of this is Anastasiya Shpagina, who transformed herself into a walking, talking anime character.

Another example of this phenomenon is Valeria Lukyanova, who transformed herself into a Barbie doll.


Beauty in Romance

 Many people hold myths about relationships in general: “Disney princess effect” and have to suffer from the fallout of their expectations meeting reality. The Disney generation of women were raised to believe that they needed to wait for their own personal Prince Charming to sweep them off their feet and save them from their single lives.

 Others find themselves persuaded by someone’s looks, blinding themselves to the reality of who the object of their affection who may have a rotten personality beneath their sweet exterior.

Another version of myth in romance is fetishism. Those who hold a fetish for one type of person are automatically making generalizations about an entire stereotype of classification of people without knowing anything about one individual person. One popular interracial dating stereotype is the “Caucasian man + Asian woman” pairing. This phenomenon is also known as “yellow fever.” When someone “assumes anything about [a person’s] personality based on [her] physical attributes, or disregards [her] autonomy because of [her] anatomy,” they are blind to reality because of their ideas of beauty (Chen).

Beauty as Place

It is easy for human beings to romanticize certain places, professions, and sometimes a combination of both. The beauty of certain places creates an illusion for people to fall beneath– they see everything through rose-colored glasses and have very specific (sometimes even high) expectations for what they expect their lives to look like as a result of being surrounded by and engaged in the beauty of the life they have perceived. Barthes’ belief that culture applies to everyday life makes it seem as if one could have access to an infinite amount of data through the semiotic examination of all the signs produced by society (Ribière, 2008: 29). Barthes’ influences to the study of cultural practices could be applied to the myth about the beauty of place. One can argue that the ideal of living in a certain place helps the individual to be seen as one who could be successful. This myth that by buying real estate or choosing to reside in a certain city an individual is helping to construct his personality show the consumerist ideology of the desire to market the city in question. One prominent example of this is New York City–the Big Apple– a place where “if you can make it there, you can make it anywhere.” Society has turned New York City into some kind of self-selecting mechanism of exclusivity. This phenomenon of moving to New York city to pursue a career in the literary, fashion, or even financial industries has inspired some to write a book about it:  Goodbye to All That: Writers on Loving and Leaving New York. Author Cheryl Strayed wrote: “New York City isn’t just a city, it’s an idea—a projection of our fantasies and desires, like Paris or California or that beautiful person across the room. Because so many have imbued New York City with such meaning, it’s hard not to be a bit over the top in one’s reaction to it” (Westgate).

Paris is similar to New York City in that it attracts those who want to live the writer’s dream, as well as painters and other creative professionals. The City of Lights has another nickname however: The City of Love. Paris has become an ideal spot for lovers to be romanced–whether by the city or by each other. Those who believe the stereotypes of Paris may find beauty on every corner while others only see grimy city streets and odorous metro stops.

EF Live the Language has created a series of videos as a part of its marketing campaign to better familiarize people with different areas of the world.

Los Angeles is another city that perpetuates the myth of Hollywood stardom for many would be actors, models, musicians, screenwriters, and directors. These groups of people flock in droves to the City of Angels to pursue their glamorous dreams of making it in the television and cinema industries. Oxford Dictionaries defines glamour as: “the attractive or exciting quality that makes certain people or things seem appealing or special.” Merriam-Webster defines glamour as “a magic spell; an exciting and often illusory and romantic attractiveness” (Webster). When something or somewhere, is beautiful to us we fall in love with it, not so differently than we may awe at the novelty of a potential romantic interest. Many people end up working as baristas or bartenders while pursuing their dreams on the side. However, some have an idea of what their ideal life would look like that is grounded in reality, while others may be up for some disillusionment due to high expectations. A common belief of the latter might be, “If I could just sell one screenplay, get cast in one starring role, make one hit album, then I’ll have arrived. I would have made it.”

Reality television has only further perpetuated myths about Southern California. Shows such as The O.C., Keeping Up with the Kardashians, Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, The Hills, Laguna Beach, Beverly Hills Nanny portray life as it so called “is” according to the cast members of the show. People who do not have direct experience with life in the Southland are likely to hold beliefs and make generalizations about Southern California and its residents.

The Kardashians in particular have created an empire based on their portrayal of the reality of their lives.

As evidenced in the previous paragraphs, it is easy for an aspiring member of a certain industry to idealize and succumb to myths about the industry hub of their choice. Silicon Valley is not an exception to this. Silicon Valley, another reality television show, was produced recently in order to portray what life is like in the startup capital of the nation.     

Additionally, Charles Dickens has written about London and its characteristics as another object of wanderlust.

Beauty as Spirituality

“It’s not what’s on the outside, but what’s on the inside that counts.”

Inner beauty is something that many choose to focus on–and inner beauty is often directly tied to spirituality. Beauty of the spirit is another facet of beauty that mystifies many people. Upon deciding to embark on a spiritual path, many people subscribe to myths and illusions about what being spiritual entails. Many seekers believe that in order to be spiritual, they must deny financial abundance and remained detached from emotions, situations, people, and experiences.

Those who wish to possess an inner beauty often find that they do not have the wherewithal to actually become the kind of person they wish to be.


This essay explored the concept of beauty as myth, using Barthes’ theory of myths in order to analyze the symbols and signs embedded within the cultural representations of beauty today. One of the driving beliefs we have about beauty may be founded in perfection– if something is beautiful, we idealize it and have a difficult time disbelieving the myths we have either been exposed to, or created in our minds throughout our lives. The dangerous thing about perfection is that it either a) keeps us from living to our fullest potential because we believe we can never live up to the myth and are so disillusioned by it, or b) we never enjoy the experience of living life because we are always striving after the next best thing, in order to complete our vision of a beautiful life–whether that beauty is found in our profession, where we live, or in the eyes of another person. We project our image of beauty onto the things and people around us and experience things based on these illusions. It is only sometimes that these projections are altered or even destroyed when life (or whatever experience we are after) does not meet our expectations. Technology and digital media have only made it easier for us to fall in love with ideals through constant exposure to them.  


Works Cited

Strinati, D. (2004) An introduction to theories of popular culture, London: Routledge.

Ribière, M. (2008) Barthes, Penrith: Humanities-Ebooks.

Barthes, R.  (195): Mythologies

Environmental Art: Human Cognition of Nature Through Museums

By Catherine Cromer

A key tool in interpreting media and digital culture is forming a narrative or language of how to read the how human symbolic systems have been passed down through language and remediated in different formats as we attempt to make sense of them. One of the ideas found globally in every culture is an attempt to cognize—through speech, painting, writing, photography, film and many other mediums– the social function of “being one with nature” or exhibiting a sense of despair at the loss of connection with the natural world. For the purposes of this paper, I define “being one with nature” in the art world as a social function of utilizing materials of the earth or depicting nature through a creative means that is symbolic of the relationship between humans and the environment. Nature as art and nature in art has been a symbolic practice for over 75,000 years; the burgeoning of the mythology of mankind and the earth. Furthermore, the semiotics of earth and the environment in visual culture and media theory provides a cultural encyclopedia that varies in form, social significance and structure. The institution of the museum is one that mediates the interaction of complex ideas such as these by categorizing and organizing them in a familiar and socially significant venue that can communicate the complex intertextual nature of many artworks.

Based on the recognition of the museum as a form of cultural transmission, I aim to discover how the human desire to capture nature is mediated through art exhibits across the U. S. I believe that although the creators of artworks bring forth their own interpretations based on cultural norms, history and geographic location, they are inevitably remediated and defined by the U.S. museum structure through westernized social constructs and ideologies of race, religion and ethnicity. To research the validity of this claim, I will analyze three museum exhibits displaying artwork focused on humanity’s relationship with earth and the environment. These case studies will focus on the representation of “environmental art” from three different geographic locations mediated through three American cultural institutions.

The case studies include:

Because of the limitations of time and length, this paper limits its scope to these case studies because of their diverse geographic and cultural origins and their position as a mediator of nature and the human symbolic faculty. These are compelling examples of how the westernized art institutions in the U.S. frame understanding of earth and nature based on westernized cultural encyclopedias. Firstly, by defining the human-environmental relationship such as “being one with nature” and inevitably the a loss of connection with the natural world, this essay will contextualize the environmental art movement in its discursive practices and the cultural networks of each case study through Roland Barthes’ “Mythologies.” Then, through the application of Andre Malraux’s Museé Imaginaire, I will explore the way curatorial framework of the museums impose a western cultural encyclopedia of meaning to contentious and interpretative issues surrounding nature in order to communication to a popular audience. Case studies from Africa, Asia and the U.S. will help to demonstrate the imposition of western narratives of earth and the environment to “primitive” art forms and the semiotics of cultural differences. Finally, analyzing the mediation of the artworks through cultural lenses of climate, nature and the earth through the relations between the senders, receivers and intermediaries of the message will aid in understanding the function of the museum in the cognitive interpretations of environmental metaphors. To do this, Yuri Lotoman’s “Incompleteness Theorem” and theory of cultural semiotics will be used to reveal the sign systems that make up the memory of communities.

Earth as a linguistic metaphor has been a symbolic function of mankind since the paleolithic era, one that has been remediated from depictions of mother earth as seen below to modern reproductions which are concerned with the degradation of nature and loss of the earth.

Chausidis, p.8

The creation of pictorial representations in Africa and Asia thousands of years ago are the fundamental source in the human cognitive process in making sense of the environment outside of the mind and into a metaphor that we can process into language. Unlike people today, the creators of the artifacts above “did not possess objective, i.e. scientifically based, representations of the shape of the earth.

“Every culture formed personal representations regarding this question based on the characteristics of the local environment and the specific treatment of the culture towards it.” (Chausidis, p.6)

Thus, each culture began their understanding of nature by generating a cultural encyclopedia that has been reused and expanded upon to become a part of a global narrative that has common thematic elements yet differs by the mythology and semiotics of each culture.

Mythology and Nature

Barthes uses defines myth as a system of communication and mode of signification; a myth is not a concrete object or idea, but a message which is determined by its social usage and semantics. The study of semiology tells us that these myths are a form of speech and that the meaning we garner from them are “already made of a material which worked on so as to make it suitable for communication: it is because all the materials of myth (whether pictorial or written) presuppose a signifying consciousness, that one can reason about them while discounting their substance.” (Barthes, p.115. Mythologies) The implementation of nature in art is based on a myth of the earth and mother nature is based on a sacred idyll that has inconsistent meaning through localized, nationalized and global contexts.

Nyaba Leon Ouedraogo b. 1978, Burkina Faso. Earth Matters

The “Earth Matters” exhibit at the National Museum of African Art focuses on art dating back to the 1800’s that look at the human relationship with environment, land and nature ” through the lens of Africa, focusing on the very creative and visual ways in which individuals and communities negotiate complex relationships with the land beneath their feet and the earth at large.” As a continent full of rich natural resources yet economically and politically unstable,  the issues “that shape our times” and “lie at the heart” of the exhibition are structured around Africa as a less developed nation are more connected and understanding nature than developed counterparts. Drawing from origin myths of mankind and its birth from “mother nature,” (Chausidis, p.7) the exhibit     presents the different forms of art as a way to make sense of the environment that from its origin, the place where humans and nature evolved together and still holds some sort of mythical power of  creation and reverence. Furthermore, the categorical organization of the exhibit –Material Earth, Power of Earth, Imagining the Underground, Strategies of the Surface, Art as Environmental Action and Earth Works–facilitates the metaphor of Africa not just for the artists or the citizens, but to recall previous semantic meaning to signify the art works.

The picture to the above is one example of the way in which a art work gains meaning through the narrative of how the earth and human relationship that is not based on the myth, but on the cultural encyclopedia and semiotics of the institution. The burning of a computer by the young man in Africa shows discontent between modernization and nature, but it is mediated through simply more than the photo and photographer, it is processed through viewers symbolic function.

In “Going Green-New Environmental Art From Taiwan,” we see another construction of earth and environment from a non-western nation that uses the symbolic functions of the myth to call attention to the danger and degradation of the land. The exhibit summary itself sets up a cultural and institutional structure that activates the art as a social function not just for the environment, but for the social and political institutions as well as seen in the exhibit description”

The exhibition offers to the USA audiences an international perspective on environmental art and reflects the unique viewpoint and approach to nature of Taiwan’s contemporary artists who are just beginning to focus on the environment as an important issue for their country and the world. Taiwan is a very urban and highly developed technological country with many contemporary artists specializing in video art and new media. It is only recently that artists in Taiwan have begun to focus on the environment, and re-introduce to contemporary art the use of natural materials and a focus on the natural world that has always been of major importance in traditional Chinese art and culture.

Su-chen Hung’s ‘Tree with Arteries’ (2009)                                                                                                         Trees have arteries; they can feel the pain when we human beings are killing them.-Hung


Umberto Eco states that metaphors are the tools that help us truly understand encyclopedic properties (270) and in the case of metaphors of nature and environment, the myths we conceive through the symbolic faculty of our culture shapes how we see our own relationship to nature in light of others, particularly those from different non-westernized continents. 

The metaphor of tress having arteries displayed out in a literal fashion in the Hung’s art piece and spiritual metaphors and depictions, such as another piece by artist Cho-chung Lee called Everything is Buddha’ places the cultural semiotics of nature from one nature into that of our own view of Asian philosophy.  

Finally, the American exhibit “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine) is presented within a cultural encyclopedia already familiar to western ideologies, including the pop culture reference to the identically titled song by the band REM. The concept of western industrialization versus the environment is not a new phenomenon, but it has become a naturalized framework. The conquering and destruction of land that coincides with economic prosperity has become a given as the U.S. in particular is far more detached from the myths of nature surrounding those of African and Asian cultures.The piece from the Rampao Gallery above is far more reminiscent of displaying classical art, an example of the differentiating myths on cultural connections to the Earth that are less provocative and more modern/industrial focused.

It’s the End of the World as We Know it (and I Feel Fine)

The myth of earth and connotations of a culture’s connection has been remediated constantly over time to the point where the concept has become blackboxed and taken for granted. The depoliticizating effect of myths, as Barthes describes, “purifies the assumptions, makes them innocent,  gives them a natural and eternal justification, and a clarity which is not that of an explanation but that of a statement of fact.” (p.143) Therefore, our understanding of environmental art, although described by curators as a new perspective into art, still holds onto the semantics we have developed through our contexts of art, location, ethnicity and race in the U.S. as well as through the overarching effect of the museum as a legitimized and elite institution.

Museé Imaginaire & Cultural Semiotics 

The three examples above are curated by different institutions yet when combined within the same symbolic framework  can still be understood with the same “conceptual-organizational system ” maintained by the museums as institutions. Malraux’s concept of the Museé Imaginaire as a postmodern process museums and art history  is one way to place this collection of environmental art and humans in perspective.  As Malraux states:

 the collecting of works from diverse cultures and histories, and presenting them as a coexisting totality or unity, with the consequence that a contemporary work inserted into the collection modifies the concept of the whole.

Earth Matters brings forth art objects from the 1800s and from several locations throughout Africa to present a curatorial framework that is representing African views on the environment as a whole. Overall, the concept of the project attempts to bring together a collection about Africa, Earth and Art and that signifies history of humankind’s relationship with the nature, yet receivers of the message are already predisposed to understand a cultural encyclopedia based on western definitions of how people in Africa and Asia view and are connected to nature.

This remediation of artwork to fit into our own symbolic functioning system is an automatic process that happens within culture; rarely is it a mindful practice. According to Yuri Lotman, in order for culture to function it is vital for societies to create unified constructive principles and that our cultural expressions work as a “nonhereditary memory of the community,a memory expressing itself in a system of constraints and prescriptions.” (p.214)  As we look at the pieces of the work in each exhibit, we see not what the artist sees, but the history of our own cultural and context in which our mind has come to categorize concepts and ideas into language.  Asking what the word “earth” means is to delve into the mediums of communication, history and language, one that is not similar among individuals, much less cultures. 

Thus, if we look at Lotman’s “Incompleteness Theorem” we see that people are continuously “searching  for new ways to make their cultural experience whole through the development of new works, new interpretations, commentaries.” (Lotman) The metaphors, meaning and symbolism behind nature and earth are in a state of constant remediation and evolution in all cultures, not only our own. However, it is key to remember that the institutions providing the exploration in Africa, Asia and U.S. views of the environment have a history of social, political and economic contexts as do the viewers, the cultural encyclopedia is what enables use to make sense of our cognitive processes. A person viewing exhibitions such as ‘Earth Matters’ and ‘Going Green,’ will be susceptible to their exposure to “being one with nature” as a social function as experienced by their own culture, yet, at the same time will always be looking for new ways to understand the semantic context of the content to fulfill a desire of cultural mastery.


Works Cited

André Malraux, “La Musée Imaginaire (The Imaginary Museum)”.

Chausidis, Nikos, “Mythical Representations of ‘Mother Earth’ in Pictorial Media” Archaeology of Mother Earth Sites and Sancturies Throughout the Ages. 2012. 

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

Earth Matters: Land as a Material and Metaphor in the Arts of Africa. Exhibition at the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art.

Eco, Umberto. “Metaphor, Dictionary, and Encyclopedia.” New Literary History: 15:2 (1984): 255-71.

Going Green: New Environmental Art From Taiwan. Travelling Art Exhibition.

It’s the End of the World as We Know it (and I Feel Fine). Exhibition at the Rampao College, New Jersey.

Kate Wong, “The Morning of the Modern Mind: Symbolic Culture.” Scientific American 292, no. 6 (June 2005): 86-95.

Roland Barthes, “From Work to Text

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

Yuri Lotman, “On the Semiotic Mechanism of Culture



Mediating Social Control in Two Medias: A Chance for Mediology to Meet Critical Theory

by Mark L. Cabling

This essay explores the heuristic relationship between Mediologist Theory and Critical Theory. The former and the latter, as this essay will show, could compliment each other and further the amalgamation of Communications and Cultural Theory, especially, as this essay argues, through the bridging of the two theories by the Bourdieusian concept of symbolic power. In order to explore the potential of this theoretical foray, this essay will use the concept of social control as a cultural function that is mediated throughout time and throughout various media. Because of the limit of time and length, this essay limits its scope by using two different case studies that mediate the cultural function of social control: (1) Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (BNW) as dystopian literature from the 1930s; and (2) A Public Service Announcement (PSA) from the American Forces Network (AFN) as mass, top-down televisual media from the present. Power relations, the subject of much Critical Theory, and cultural functions, the subject of Mediologist Theory, are arguably intertwined in such a way that researchers that study either can find themselves theoretically interdisciplinary. This predicament begs for there to be a discussion on the cumulative and complex evolution of how the dialectic of human symbolic faculty and cultural artifact can benefit from a plethora of rich, nuanced cross-theories. Most importantly, these very different case studies will show how pervasive and continuous cultural artifacts, in this case the function of social control, are mediated regardless of the superficial change in technology and media. In other words, by showing how much Critical Theory and Mediologist Theory benefit each other heuristically, this essay also aims to bring insight into how cultural functions are mediated.

Social Control as Cultural Function: Mediology meets Critical Theory

Social Control is a Social Function that is mediated and remediated over time and by various medias and technologies.

Social control is defined as the competence and capability of the authority system to engender and reinforce the belief that its leaders and institutions are interested in the public good- not in the reality of its politically motivated goals (Paletz et. al. 1977). Such a cultural function begs necessitates and presupposes an authority system that must be legitimate in order to garner acceptance, and one of the basic problems faced by authority is to harness such legitimacy (Paletz et. al. 1977).  Once the public is convinced that the authority has the public interest in mind, society then accepts this authority (Paletz et. al. 1977). In order to reap this acceptance, those in power must socialize the public into accepting the existing authority system (Paletz et. al. 1977). Socialization can be overt i.e. via church, home, and school or they can be covert i.e. through messages that lack explicit political content but actually are incredibly, politically relevant (Paletz et. al. 1977). This appeal to the public’s behavior is an effort to shape desirable behavior, attitudes, and values (Weiss and Tschirhart 1994).

This covert social control is found manifest in many media throughout time as such a function is mediated by various technologies. Latour’s assertion that ‘…“to have” (friends, relations, profiles…) is quickly becoming a stronger definition of oneself that “to be”’ (Latour 2011, 802) signals a paradigm shift that students of communications, culture, and technology must explore and expand on in order to do justice to their subject(s) of inquiry, especially the subjects of knowledge and power. This is useful because it asks the type of questions that should be asked about the mechanics of power, nature of organization, and the heterogeneity of network materials, and their implications on agency (Law 1992). Debray takes this paradigm shift further with the concept of Mediology (Maras 2008; Debray 1999). To Debray and other Mediologists, the subject of interest is not the technical innovation but what is in between technologies i.e. the cultural practices, social beliefs, and communicated messages (Debray 1999). The reason why the media itself is ancillary to these ‘in between’ aspects is because whilst media is the means by which synchrony (present communication) is achieved, it is vis-à-vis social beliefs and cultural artifacts that transmission (the more important transfer of communication over time via technologies and institutions) occurs (Debray 1996).

Debray and other Mediologists can be theoretically bridged with Critical Theory.

This is a critical development in communications heuristics because unlike in past communications theory, Mediology is anathema to technological determinism. As Irvine states: ‘technologies can’t be usefully described as having “effects” on cultures or societies, because technology is culture and only empowered by culture’ (Irvine 2005). This necessary paradigm shift deals with power and agency and according to Irvine, Mediology is a way to uncover these power relations. Some of the conceptual frameworks we have been learning throughout the semester thus far can be incredibly useful in helping synthesize Mediology’s concepts and take them further, especially on fundamental issues surrounding how authority systems are legitimized. What Mediologists do is provide a means of distinguishing what is rendered invisible by the black box of technology and media. What they do not do however is explain or give attribution to what/whom such a de facto power benefits and how.

The Frankfurt School are Neo-Marxists that conceived Critical Theory.

This is the significant instance wherein Critical Theory would be helpful to judge the power relations that are uncovered by Mediologists; Critical Theorists attribute agency to those in power. In the Institute for Social Research at the University of Frankfurt in Germany, which was established in 1923, problems were being discussed by the likes of Adorno, Horkheimer, Pollock, Lowenthal, and Benjamin (Agger 1991). Attempting to explain why the socialist revolution prophesied by Marx in the mid-nineteenth century did not occur, the Frankfurt School developed Critical Theory by reconstructing Marxist method and logic in order to make it relevant to modern capitalism (Agger 1991). According to the Frankfurt School, Marx underestimated the proletariats’ false consciousness; thus, their critical theory emphasizes the individual as someone who could be so manipulated, socialized, and determined that he is incapable of resistance (Schoolman 1980). Thus, it is characteristic of such thinkers that agency is given to tools of power such as media and technology. Critical Theory as a means of rigorous academic discussion has ‘the potential to play a role in the liberation of humanity from oppression’ (Freedman 2000, xx). Oppression against what? The essential connection between Critical Theory and media studies is based on the idea of the destructive misuse of science and technology as domination over the individual. Its critique of technology helps us understand that technology is used for social control (Feenberg 1995).


The Critical Theories perspective would argue that since legitimacy involves garnering acceptance, socialization is a key way through which members of society can be led to embody appropriate attitudes that are conducive to accepting the authority system (Paletz e. al. 1977). According to Bourdieu, himself a theorist that bridges Mediology and Critical Theory, this socialization happens covertly, through what he calls symbolic power in the production of belief- a power that is effective precisely because it is unrecognized, or recognized as arbitrary (Bourdieu 1991). Bourdieu would thus ask questions that go beyond the Critical Theorist framework of assigning agency on technology and blame on governance and domination:

(1) How covert is the reification of [insert any technology or media] and is this clandestine effort successful in garnering acceptance of [insert said technology’s or media’s corporation, maker, regulator, user, etc.]?

(2) Which invisible institutions (cultural, legal, etc.) are linked to visible media technologies and how are they so?

(3) Are social networks powerful because of the technology itself or because of the networks, cultural artifacts, and social institutions that surround it?

(4) To what extent does [insert any technology or medium of communications]‘s ‘agency’ and arguments/claims about causality (via black-boxing) contribute to its legitimacy?

Hence and ultimately, the Mediologist question, (5) What cultural functions are being mediated by technology and why?

The way to explore such questions is to use the concept of symbolic power to scrutinize via de-blackboxing (Latour 2011) because in order to fully understand the legitimizing and socializing processes that are present, the hidden power relations must be uncovered by analyzing the thingified technology itself as an ideological producer. Because the ‘ideological products offered by the political field are instruments of perceiving and expressing the social world’ (Bourdieu 1991, 172), the forming of opinions, and thereby individual thought-process, depends on the scope of available instruments of perception and expression. In other words, it is imperative to uncover any hidden or embedded political agenda in the process of reification because the political field effectively censors via its limiting the scope of what is politically thinkable.

These questions and methodology address fundamental elements in the quest for finding and developing a sound and rigorous conceptual framework and paradigm for a richer view of mediation and communication: symbolic power and its role in the legitimization of those in power, and the socialization of those being overpowered. Using such concepts from Critical Theory via the Bourdieusian theoretical bridge, will thus essentially help add nuance and insight to the inquiries of Mediologists.

Social Control: Mediated by Dystopian Literature

Brave New World (as depicted by a BBC movie production in 1980)

Europe and America of the 1920s was witness to the threats to freedom from a dogmatic egalitarian, the intensification of the eternal youth cult, the implications of conspicuous consumption, the possibility of eugenics as a means to shape future man, the impact of Fordism on the psyche, and the rampant growth of positivism.

It is from this context that the British novelist, Aldous Huxley was compelled to write his famous novel, Brave New World (BNW), published in 1932. BNW was written in an unprecedented time of instability in British politics. He was not only worried by overpopulation of the masses, but also by the risks that the legions of the unemployed and the unregulated advance of technology posed for social stability (Bradshaw 1994, xvii). He was therefore faced by problems of controlling these masses. Consequently, Huxley used BNW as a satirical science fiction dystopia to caution his readers of the dismal future that could be as a result of technological agency and domination.

Critical Theory helps us understand what social control is as mediated in BNW, but it is helpful to deconstruct (read: de-blackbox) in a Mediologist manner, how such social control is mediated by the media of dystopian literature. Because of its genre, it is obvious that the end message is meant to be one of beware-of-totalitarian-domination. Debray and other Mediologists would argue that the problem with Critical Theory is that it would automatically agree with Huxley’s position that technology has the agency to negatively affect and be used solely for domination in society. Critical Theorists such as Marcuse on the other hand would argue that Mediology merely provides a method of critical analysis but without providing any significant identification of power relations. In order to reconcile these two frameworks in a way such that they compliment each other, BNW is de-blackboxed in order to find what is culturally transmitted.

The Frankfurt School, especially Marcuse’s critical theory, helps us understand that social control is mediated by BNW by arguing that (1) sex, (2) welfare, and (3) labor are agents of totalitarian domination.

Sex as a Form of Domination

Frankfurt thinkers argue that industry and technology has an impact on our lives. Marcuse takes this argument further and emphasizes its impact on our erotic lives. Although there is a perception that society has become more sexually permissive with its pornography, encouraged use of contraception, and a more laissez-faire attitude towards sex, Marcuse argues that industrialization is in fact inhospitable to our sexual impulses (Fremstad 1977). He compares lovemaking in a meadow and a lovers’ walk in the country to that of lovemaking in a car and a walk on an urban street. As he argues, ‘in the former cases, the environment partakes of and invites…[eroticness, and the] libido transcends beyond the immediate erotegenic zones.’ However, in the latter examples, their ‘mechanized environment seems to block such self-transcendence of libido,’ which leads to the intensification of purely localized sexuality (Fremstad 1977, 87). For example, the flowers, grass, and trees of a park should provoke a full erotic experience but industrialization has left us admiring instead the short skirts and shirtless torsos of park goers because the libido is contained to such localized sexuality (Fremstad 1977). Furthermore, the public display of sexuality is meant solely to be visual i.e. nobody is to touch the legs that those short skirts reveal or the abs on the naked torso. Sexual display, in other words, is for the well behaved and as Marcuse concludes: ‘pleasure, thus adjusted, generates submission’ and thus prevents us from challenging the dominating system (Fitzgerald 1985, 92).

This type of sexual domination helps us understand how sex in BNW is an agent of totalitarian domination. In BNW, legalized sexual freedom is also possible because of the various technological advances: contraception is prescribed by regulations, intensive years of hypnopaedia (sleep-teaching) condition promiscuity, Malthusian drills three times a week during adolescence prevents pregnancy (Bowering 1968). More importantly, the ideas of family, of mother, father, and love have become obsolete while monogamy has become obscene and promiscuity the only socially acceptable sexual behavior (May 1972). For example, the orgy-porgian Solidarity Services and the overtly sexual advancements of Lenina on the Savage paint a picture of completely released but empty sexuality (Firchow 1972). Because chastity means passion and passion means instability, and instability means a threat to happiness, sexual license along with the obliteration of love and family is a guarantee against creative emotional tension, and thus any negative thinking to challenge the status quo (Bowering 1968). The society of BNW thus is sexually permissive according to Marcuse, but it is through this permissiveness that we understand BNW’s sex as a tool for dominating its inhabitants.

Welfare as Domination.

Another agent of totalitarian domination is welfare. Marcuse argues that we no longer desire freedom because our welfare governments have given us happiness in the form of relative affluence. Critical Theorists argue that people’s reasons for political dissent are removed when their needs are satisfied (MacIntyre 1970). However, these needs are what Marcuse calls ‘false needs,’ or needs that are ‘superimposed upon the individual by particular social interests’ (Fitzgerald 1985, 88). Individuals are not free to understand what they truly need as the barrage of advertisements tells them what they must need (Munshi 1977). They thus become passive instruments of the dominating system.

In BNW, conditioning instead of advertisements tells individuals what they must need. Not only are disease, old age, illness, or even the fear of death completely obliterated in BNW, but every conditioned desire is fulfilled. Their ‘needs’ for mechanized amusements are fulfilled via playing Excalator Fives, Riemann-surface tennis, Obstacle Golf, and the Feelies (Huxley 1932). Their ‘needs,’ ingrained into them via hypnopaedia in mantras such as ‘everyone belongs to everyone else’ (Huxley 1932, 52), ‘orgy-porgy gives release,’ or ‘One cubic centimeter cures ten gloomy sentiments’ are fulfilled via promiscuity, organized orgies, and soma respectively (Huxley 1932, 66). Because these needs are fulfilled, the inhabitants of BNW as Marcuse would argue, have no reason for political dissent and therefore remain passive to the dominating system- a system that not only provided for the needs but defined them.

The Caste System in Brave New World.

Labor is another agent of totalitarian domination. According to the Frankfurt School, in order for the successful production of commodities to be precise, calculable, and efficient, regimentation, specialization, and standardization must be upheld (Schoolman 1980). Because regimentation tasks follow strictly binding and specific rules, removed are individual initiatives and personal discretion from the process of production. This removal enhances production’s predictability but subsequently limits human capacity to objective measurements; individual action and thought transforms into reaction, reflex, and habit (Schoolman 1980). In other words, this one-dimensional labor apparatus creates one-dimensional thought as the individual’s mind is identified only with the productive functions it performs and is dominated by it (Schoolman 1980).

This standardization of man via labor helps us understand BNW’s labor-dominated society. It is not surprising that Ford is the prophet and patron saint of BNW because Huxley believed that the factory of the industrialized world was antithetical to individualism (Bowering 1968). Therefore, in BNW, individuality is eradicated because on the Fordian assembly line, the laborer does the same task repeatedly. As Critical Theorists would argue, individual action thus must transform into reaction, reflex, and habit. In BNW this occurs via hypnopaedia (Huxley 1932). Pillow microphones condition Betas to believe their own caste the foremost, preferring themselves to those above and below them (Huxley 1932). After all, Epsilons cannot read or write and although Alphas are cleverer, they have to work harder. Being an Alpha, Beta, etc. is therefore the most pleasant thing in the world. For example, those who repair the undersides of space vehicles are conditioned to be happy when standing on their heads (Huxley 1932).

Sexual license in BNW along with welfare and labor are the tools of domination characterized by Critical Theory’s technological agency. But in order to realize the more profound reason why this is so, the cultural institutions must be identified and analyzed, which Mediologists would identify as social control through the Bourdieusian vocabulary of symbolic power. So how are the dominating tools of sex, labor, and welfare mediating the concept of social control as cultural function?

Freedom vs. Happiness

In BNW, happiness is social control and the ultimate goal of sex, labor, and welfare. The society of AF 632 makes its inhabitants happy rather than allowing them to choose to be so. Therefore, this orientates them to the status quo, and prevents instability. Huxley’s future world is controlled by a small group of World Controllers who rule five castes of subjects. Their castes are divided not just socially but biologically, since they were bred in bottles and have been conditioned to their future tasks. For happiness’s preservation, the World Controllers obliterate everything that can provoke passion or thought (Huxley 1932). Alphas, Betas, Deltas, and Epsilons are all prevented from experiencing unhappiness by being prevented from experiencing any kind of real emotion. For example, Mustapha Mond, the Controller of Europe, says that Epsilons, the lowest caste who do menial work remain happy in their conditions because conditioning ‘has laid down rails along which he’s got to run. He can’t help himself; he’s foredoomed. Even after decanting, he’s still inside the bottle of infantile and embryonic fixations. Each of us…goes through life inside a bottle’ (Huxley 1932, 245). Furthermore, the Director of Hatcheries explains that ‘the secret of happiness is…liking what you’ve got to do. All conditioning aims at that: making people like their inescapable social destiny’ (Huxley 1932, 16). In other words, happiness in BNW is at the necessary expense of freedom.

In order to understand how this happiness/freedom clash in BNW mediates social control, it is helpful to use Bourdieu’s (1991) symbolic power, which posits that social criticism can only be derived from individual thinking. Consequently, one of Bourdieu’s greatest subjects of inquiry was socialization of people and legitimization of power structures (Bourdieu 1991), something that successfully and systematically happens in BNW.

In the context of BNW, how can the Alphas or Epsilons, who are essentially happy slaves, find freedom? In order to remain happy, they cannot find freedom. In Chapter Seventeen of BNW, in which John, a savage from an uncivilized reservation, is left alone with Mond. This part of the novel is a straightforward debate between Mond and the Savage, through which there is an open case of alternatives: ignorant freedom or insufferable knowledge (Huxley 1032)? Mond explains that both science and art in their ‘purer’ forms belong to truth and therefore are incompatible with happiness (Huxley 1932). Through Mond, Huxley is opposing happiness to truth and beauty. Personal freedom and religion, both absent from BNW, can serve as agents of misery while social justice in the form of equality is virtually impossible; therefore, according to Mond, conditioning is desirable and needed so that no-one feels treated unfairly (Huxley 1932). On top of being bred and conditioned to live in slavery, people in BNW are vaporized with a ‘euphoric, narcotic, pleasantly hallucinant’ drug called soma if they express any public discontent (Huxley 1932, 70). Alas, mental and physical unhappiness disappears- but so do art, religion, and poetry. And the power structures of society remains. Ergo, the symbolic power found in the happiness-vs.-freedom dichotomy exposes the cultural function of social control.

Social Control: Mediated by Public Service Announcements

Social control is a cultural function that is remediated by many medias and technologies throughout time. To exemplify this, a different media/technology from the genre of dystopian literature is analyzed to make visible this remediation.

Public Service Announcement: Kicking the Can

Televisual Public Service Announcements (PSAs) from modernity, according to the research on them thus far, do not often change behavior but canalize audience predispositions and already existing behavior, such as general beliefs about certain gender roles and racial stereotypes (Storey 2008; Dudley 1947; Yarwood 1982). In the case of PSAs, social value in human terms i.e. quality of life, is the paramount goal- not efficiency and financial return such as that of commercial advertising (Storey 2008). There is consensus by those who have studied PSAs that although PSAs are proclaimed to be apolitical and for the public good, they are actually tools for government to (1) promote social cohesion and consensus; (2) assure its power; and most importantly to (3) reinforce values and attitudes that bode well with and ensure the political system (Block 1948; Kehl 1983; Yarwood 1982). The issue is that these are all political in nature despite government assuring otherwise.

I choose to focus on one PSA from the American Forces Network (AFN) because it is targeted at a very specific yet important audience i.e. at the 2.6 million service members and their families whose de facto TV channels abroad are limited to those provided by AFN (AFRTS 2009). A chunk of the American population watching almost exclusively only nine channels on their TVs seems lacking in choice, especially when put in the context that the in-house production team consists of seven people (AFRTS 2009) i.e. only seven people basically control what 2.6 million people will view in terms of PSAs and topics of PSAs. I choose to focus on a PSA called Kicking the Can, which is one that discourages the consumption of smokeless/chewing tobacco also known as snuff. It is a 29-second clip that seems benign because its message is quite common to US PSAs in that it discourages tobacco consumption. The message seems to be in the public good in that it discourages a scientifically proven unhealthy behavior. The PSA involves a woman dressed as a can of snuff nagging a man who is about to play baseball.

Why is snuff represented as a stereotypically annoying ex-girlfriend? Critical Theorists would argue that this is because the male is the dominant one in gendered power relations and that the PSA is given the agency to propagate this message. There is the classic stereotype of women nagging men but more telling is the stereotype that women are temptresses and the weaknesses of men. Not only does this PSA use the seductress stereotype for the woman in the PSA, but the woman is also portraying an inanimate object that is purely consumed for pleasure and for a temporary high that leads to the downfall of men. When watching this PSA, everything about Nicki is personified and very human except of course for the outlandish and flamboyant mascot-like costume that is supposed to convey to the audience that she is a metaphor for snuff, which is scientifically founded to be unhealthful and highly addictive. The distinction between what is snuff and what is woman is blurred. This is because the seductress is a woman already known by the audience to be careful of, for although she is tempting with her abilities to make your ‘heart pump’, she is inevitably bad for you. Therefore, this feeling of wariness for the seductress is easily transferred to smokeless tobacco. Snuff too is attractive but is also unhealthy to consume. The baseball player is a male stereotype of athletic prowess as he is on his way to a sports event. He also fulfills the stereotype of male reservation and assuredness, as he is the calmer, quieter one in the relationship but also the tougher one as he plays sports and ignores the nagging with stride, dignity, and power of will. Because of the presence of these over-simplified gender stereotypes, this PSA, as Critical Theorists would argue, is a tool for reinforcing the gendered power relations in a male-dominated society.

With this type of discursive analysis of the PSA that Critical Theory allows, there is no discussion of the further socio-cultural function and dimension that the PSA, like the media of dystopian literature, mediates. In order to bridge the insight that Critical Theory brings about the PSA with what Mediologists are interested in, I would address a question Bourdieu would ask: What is not being said i.e. what is rendered invisible? The PSA’s overt message warns the audience that smokeless tobacco is harmful and discourages its consumption. However, there is no mention (1) of its harms to health and well-being; (2) of reasons why chewing tobacco is ‘pesky’ except for the broad assumptions of what it can do e.g. ‘make your heart pump’, ‘give you a boost’, and ‘slow you down’; and (3) how exactly ‘it’ll slow you down’. This PSA thus relies on the presupposition that the target audience already knows the addictive nature of smoke-less tobacco and the cons that accompany it to the extent that they would be compelled to believe in the hyperbole that once one starts to consume it, one would not be able to ‘not live without [snuff]!’. While smokeless tobacco is very addictive, the PSA seems to only focus on this aspect of tobacco and not the actual damage that snuff can have on one’s health i.e. loss of teeth, throat cancer, jaw surgery, etc. The gravity of using smokeless tobacco is thus reduced to that of only a ‘pesky addiction’ that will ‘only slow you down’, akin to an annoying ex-girlfriend.

Furthermore, there is absolutely no use of commands or strong language telling the audience what to do or how to deal with smokeless tobacco. Why the lack of gravity in the tone of the PSA? It could be to avoid sounding patronizing or too obtrusive to individual behavior as such a tone would more likely cause the audience to reject the message (Hall 1980; Corner 1996). Having a more light-hearted, less judgmental tone allows the PSA message to not only more likely be accepted by the audience, but also to give the audience a sense that they possess freedom and choice in the matter of smokeless tobacco. In other words, the agency of the audience is not threatened at all overtly by this PSA. For 29 seconds however, if one is a woman, she has no choice in this PSA but to refer to the drug as her own gender boxed into a one-dimensional, simple, crude, buffoon of a character that possesses the merits of a legal drug and only in reference to a man (O’Shaughnessy and O’Shaughnessy 2004; Eco 1984). If one is a straight male, he has no choice but to use his negative relationship experiences with women as a cultural reference to be enabled to read the message of the PSA (snuff=addiction=woman) regardless of whether he agrees with or accepts the messaging (Eco 1984). If one is an inexperienced straight male or gay/lesbian/transgendered, they would be forced to use their knowledge of social norms of male and female straight intimate relationships in order to understand the messaging of the PSA (Eco 1984).

This reliance of the PSA on male, hetero-normative norms used as a tool to conceptualize and understand the link between snuff and one’s health along with the use of broad generalizations and unsound arguments shows that this PSA has a covert message of normalizing certain gender/sexuality roles and identity reinforcement i.e. social control. This shows that the producers have a very male, hetero-normative worldview that is the only truth and must be part of the mechanism that educates those that watch AFN. This ‘mere’ education socializes Department of Defense (DoD) personnel into embodying appropriate attitudes and values that accept the authority of the DoD elite and legitimize their power (Paletz et. al. 1977). Such gender/sexuality reinforcement masked in what is perceived to be freedom of choice, is a way of allowing the DoD administration to legitimize its power. The DoD is a military-based, top-down bureaucracy, in which personal freedoms are sacrificed (despite US liberal democratic values) and following orders from those higher-ranked are top priority and vital to the mechanics and technocratic nature of the DoD (AFRTS 2009; AFN 2011). This is symbolic power in that by having the semblance of freedom in an American culture that honors democracy and in a military that supposedly protects and propagates ‘freedom’ is vital to the not-so-democratic way in which the DoD bureaucracy militarily operates so that it is not seen for what it lacks, i.e. freedom, and is accepted as the status quo (Bourdieu 1991; Paletz et. al. 1977). Social control is thus a cultural function that is mediated by this PSA.


This essay explored the relationship between Mediologist Theory and Critical Theory by bridging them with the Bourdieusian concept of symbolic power. In order to explore this heuristic potential, this essay aimed to de-blackbox Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and A Public Service Announcement from the American Forces Network. In the former, sex, welfare, and labor are the tools of domination characterized by Critical Theory’s technological agency. But in order to realize the more profound reason why this is so, the cultural institutions are identified and analyzed a la Mediology via symbolic power. In the latter case study, Critical Theorists would argue that the male dominance in the PSA is indicative of gendered power relations and that the PSA is given the agency to propagate this message. In order to go beyond just the discursive dimension and delve into the socio-cultural function, Mediology is used, via symbolic power, to view the PSA as a mediator. When symbolic power is used as a bridge between Critical Theory and Mediology, these case studies showed how this combinatorial theoretical framework could be utilized on vastly different medias to analyze and discuss how cultural functions are mediated. This has ramifications for both Critical Theorists and Mediologists that want to further develop their epistemology and conceptual frameworks, and evolve heuristically, so that they may do justice to their complex subjects of inquiry that involve the greater human symbolic faculty.


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Digital Stories and Adaptation: A Case Study with Game of Thrones

by Jen Lennon

An age-old tale, filled with lessons, caution, and morals. Intrigue, mixed with backstabbing, romance, mystery, treachery, and brutal violence. Historical references mixed with complete fantasy and imagination. When it comes to consuming a story that encompasses all of these qualities, does it matter which way a person consumes it? As new technology and media continue to build off of what was built earlier and offers new ways for consumption, what does it mean to consume a story in a new or different fashion? Does linearity matter? Does it matter what the original creator intended? What about remakes or remixes? And maybe most importantly, does the meaning change depending on how it is consumed?

The short answer, is yes. Probably. There are many theories that contest that medium makes a difference, as does even the interface or the specific software or the device itself. The consumption is a full experience, and that can’t really be ignored. But the specific case of the story above, which is Game of Thrones and the focus of this study, is actually an adaptation. The television show itself is based on a series of novels by George R.R. Martin entitled A Song of Fire and Ice. The story is an epic fantasy, firmly rooted in the fantasy genre, but also has the feel of historical fiction. Martin drew from inspiration from the English War of Roses time period in the 15th century as well as fantasy stalwarts like Tolkien. There’s a lot to unpack within Game of Thrones. Between all of the different genres and symbol systems, the dialogic implications of the series are extensive. It’s been a series of books, a television series, but there’s also a wiki devoted to the fans and online community, some novellas, and tons of references in other cultural materials. How a viewer would understand Game of Thrones encompasses a lot of media theories. But another important component is how it is physically consumed. The story is on multiple mediums now, and those mediums are available through different kinds of devices. Looking at Game of Thrones from a mediology perspective arises many questions.

The Medium and Transparency

When it comes to the idea of the medium, Marshall McLuhan has a lot of opinions. His overarching point is that the medium is the message, something that can be tough to grasp at face value. He also talks a lot about hot mediums versus cold mediums. Hot mediums are those that invite little audience participation: reading, film, radio. Cool mediums require the audience to become more involved. McLuhan considers television to be a cool medium. In the case of Game of Thrones, he’s actually not that far off. The viewers have become part of the universe; there is an enormous legion of fans that devote time to interacting with the story online or in person. His conception of medium also lends itself to adaptations like this one. “The effect of the medium is made strong and intense just because it is given another medium as ‘content’. The content of a movie is a novel or a play or an opera. The effect of the movie form is not related to its program content. The ‘content’ of writing or print is speech, but the reader is almost entirely unaware either of print or of speech” (McLuhan). If this is the case, then the television medium is sort of overtaking the original novels during mediation. Though the original ‘content’ for the show literally does come from a novel, the viewer is unaware of that fact while he watches. That is, unless someone told him.

Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin talked a lot about transparency and mediation in ways that echoed this idea. In mediation, transparency is the ultimate goal. We don’t want to feel the effects of the medium that we’re consuming; we just want to experience the story. They talk about how a lot of Jane Austen’s novels have been adapted for the screen, and while most are historically accurate and very faithful to the original novels, “they do not contain any overt reference to the novels on which they are based; they certainly do not acknowledge that they are adaptations. Acknowledging the novel in the film would disrupt the continuity and the illusion of immediacy that Austen’s readers expect, for they want to view the film in the same seamless way in which they read the novels. The content has been borrowed, but the medium has not been appropriated or quoted” (Bolter and Grusin). This idea is even assuming that the viewer is aware of the original iteration of the story. In some cases, people come to adaptations without any knowledge of the previous plot. I actually recently watched the new Les Miserables movie and embarrassingly enough had no real knowledge of the plot except that it was vaguely French revolutionary. I have no idea how accurate that adaptation was, or if the characters were being played well. All I know is that it was extremely depressing. But so many people were so excited about it that I assumed I was missing something from the original source that made it so beloved. Though, how many people have actually read the original book? Published in 1862 by Victor Hugo, it’s a classic novel. But I never had to read it for school and never felt the urge to pick it up otherwise. It would have been more likely for me to have seen it on Broadway – a place where many people most likely interacted with the story line for the first time. The movie is actually much more a remake of the Broadway interpretation as it incorporates the singing and dancing. Bolter and Grusin sum it up this way, “with reuse comes a necessary redefinition, but there may be no conscious interplay between media. The interplay happens, if at all, only for the reader or viewer who happens to know both version and can compare them” (45). The idea of different audiences is significant when it comes to adaptation and remakes. In the case of Game of Thrones, there are legions of fans who are book readers and television watchers, who incessantly compare the two online. But there are also those new to the stories that are learning it all from just the television show. If you go to any recap or article about the show, there is almost always a disclaimer just before the comments asking for book readers to not spoil it for those who are new. A popular entertainment website, The AV Club has an entire section called the TV Club which features essays and recaps of certain television shows. For Game of Thrones, they write two pieces each week: one for “experts” and one for “newbies”. Even still, as I read the “newbies” posts, commenters who have read the books love to come to our posts when something really big happens. They want to see our reaction. They’re reliving those big, shocking moments through the audience that is experiencing it for the first time.

(Wired’s recaps allow readers to choose the redacted versions if they haven’t read the books.)

Utilizing the Advantages of Digital Mediums

For those big moments, it’s curious whether one medium is more effective than other for certain stories. As digital technology has become more prevalent, older mediums are trying to utilize some of those new capabilities. With CGI, green screens, and computer editing, film and television can make things happen that couldn’t have worked 50 years ago. And as the technology continues to get better, those scenes just look more and more real. This has especially been useful to action-adventure types of film. In Game of Thrones, there is plenty of room for digital interaction. For one, there are dragons. There is also a mythically large wall in the far North (filmed in Iceland) that could only be created on a computer. There are white walkers, which are creepy zombie-like creatures, which I think we’re all hoping don’t exist in real life and were created with CGI. But this is something that can be uniquely capitalized within the structure of television. When reading a fantasy novel, the imagination is left to conjure all of these grand images by itself. The medium of television allows for that imagery to come to life. Bolter and Grusin say, “In the logic of hypermediacy, the artist (or multimedia programmer or web designer) strives to make the viewer acknowledge the medium as a medium and to delight in that acknowledgement” (41-42). There are a couple of scenes that actually inspired the creators of the television show to want to take on this story for this medium. A giant battle scene in the second season takes up an entire episode and shows their feeling that certain aspects of this story would be perfect for this specific medium and could come to life in a way that wasn’t possible otherwise. Film would have been too limited of scope where multiple story lines would have had to be cut out. A series where all of the characters could continue to be explored was the best way to do justice to the story.

In the sense that a certain medium may be particularly well-suited for a certain story, there are also things that tend to be changed to match that new medium. So since television was a natural fit for the Game of Thrones story, the visual nature of the show was helpful. As was the ability to be able to see characters over and over again, helping to reinforce who’s who – a difficult task at times with Game of Thrones. But of course, compromises have to be made. The novels are extremely long and not everything can fit into the constraints of the 10 one-hour episodes. Also, the books feature point of view (POV) characters, where certain characters will narrate certain chapters. This allows readers to get some of the internal monologue that isn’t available in the television format. The creators of the television show have decided to treat the entire story as source material, and while they stay pretty close to utilizing a book per season format, all of that is ending in the current third season because the third book, A Storm of Swords is much longer than the first two novels. The creators have talked about how certain smaller plot lines from books maybe be shuffled around to fit in where it best suits the story for the TV show. They are also working with George R.R. Martin to know what’s coming in the next two books so they don’t do anything that would inhibit that from making sense in the future when they’re published and will need to be adapted. Creator D.B. Weiss has said about one of the characters, Robb Stark, “Well, it’s interesting. It’s one of the places where novels diverge pretty drastically from television. Robb is absent from the second book, but he’s not absent. He’s not a point-of-view character [in the novels, Martin rotates around a series of “point-of-view” characters; in the second book, Robb is not one of those POV characters]. He’s basically not “on-screen” in the book, but in a way, he is on-screen because in the novel, Robb is mentioned as are stories about something that Robb did. [So Robb and his deeds are present and important, but] a story that is being told about a person is words coming out of somebody’s mouth for three, four, five minutes in a way that’s just not tenable on television” (Ryan). He goes on to explain that the actor who plays Robb Stark, Richard Madden, has also become one of the fan favorites and is magnetic on screen so they wanted to be sure to include in him the action because it was better for the television show. There are other examples of entire scenes taking place where there isn’t a POV character from the novels present, which means that it didn’t happen in the books. These scenes were added to give some background to some of larger characters on the television show, and typically are regarded pretty highly by fans of the book, as well, as they see it as sort of a “deleted” scene from the book.  Another part of the books that needed to be adjusted for the television medium were some of the issues surrounding sex. Martin has said on multiple occasions that he wanted it to be realistic of the “historical” time period that’s portrayed in the novels where class structures were harsh and women weren’t treated fairly. Sex is used as a form of power often in the story, but that’s not necessarily something people would want to see on TV – or would be considered by any of the top networks. HBO is known for being edgier and for allowing sexual situations to be grittier on their shows, but age was an issue. Martin said, “So, everyone is aged up I think. It was probably most crucial with Dany, who begins as a 13-year-old in the books. But, you have the whole issue of sexual activity on behalf of a 13-year-old, which was accepted in the Middle Ages, which I was using as my model. Many high born women, particularly noble women, were married at 13 or even younger. But it’s not so accepted in today’s society and we didn’t want to get into that whole bag of worms” (Poniewozik). He also mentioned that in any sort of screen adaptation that certain characters would need to be prioritized as having “arcs” where other smaller plot lines might fall by the wayside due to basic time constraints. He continued, “I mean, I’ve been a screenwriter myself. You have to go into a big book like this and you have to say, well, what’s the arc? Who’s the major character? Well focus on him and/or her and we’ll follow that major character through and we’ll pare away all these secondary characters and secondary stories and then we’ll get a movie out of it. Not only didn’t I want that done, but I didn’t think it could be done because in the early books, I’m deliberately disguising who the major characters are. I thought, well, it might work better as a TV series, but we’d run up to huge problems with the network censors with all the sex and the violence and that is much more graphic than anything is on television” (Poniewozik).

Genre, Dialogism and the Cultural Encyclopedia of GoT

The idea of the historical fiction aspect of Game of Thrones is interesting because it’s mostly marketed as a fantasy series. As with any major story or franchise today there is a major marketing engine behind it, which will ultimately have an effect on the expectations of consumers. Game of Thrones is a series that mixes up a lot of different symbol making systems and structures, and plays with genre in a way that’s definitely been done before, but probably not this realistically. Martin was intrigued with the idea of historical fiction, but not in the fact that the ending is already known. As with television shows like The Americans, which is set in the 1980s Cold War, the viewers are aware that within 10 years, all of the issues this show is centralized on will have been solved. When one watches Titanic, hopefully he isn’t expecting the boat to make it to New York. In the case of a mixed genre of history with fantasy, some of those models can be tweaked to allow for more suspense. Martin explains, “And then you’d read the historical fiction which was much grittier and more realistic and really give you a sense of what it was like to live in castles or to be in a battle with swords and things like that. And I said what I want to do is combine some of the realism of historical fiction with some of the appeal of fantasy, the magic and the wonder that the best fantasy has. As much as I love historical fiction, my problem with historical fiction is that you always know what’s going to happen. You know, if you’re reading about the War of the Roses, say, you know that the little princes are not going to come out of that tower. Fantasy, of course, doesn’t have that constraint. You can still have that driving force, which I think is one of the things that people read books for, what’s gonna happen next? I love this character, but god, is he gonna live, is he gonna die? I wanted that kind of suspense” (Poniewozik).

With so many different story lines going on in the plot – they have a constantly updated map in the opening theme song to help keep the audience up to date – there are plenty of examples of things being pulled from Eco’s idea of the cultural encyclopedia. The mixing of two well-known genres immediately culls assumed notions from the audience. Right from the beginning, the audience needs to understand these two genres to see how they might work with each other. As Bahktin talked about a cultural artifact having a past, present, and future, Game of Thrones looks toward the past within the show itself while instilling modern ideas. The audience is pulling from knowledge of the time period, while also utilizing the ideas of these genres. As Bahktin explains, any sort of communication has each person’s past associated with it. Everything presupposes previous iterations and anticipates a future; everything is part of a working model. Shows like this that rely so heavily on genres that have already been established and are nodding toward common TV tropes and devices, require this kind of dialogism. The audience needs to be on board. And the more they can pull from their own cultural encyclopedia, the more meaningful the show will be.

Technical Capabilities

For Martin, one of the hardest parts of the adaptation was not what one might expect. He explained, “And I was anxious that I would even remember how to write a teleplay. I mean, it’s been more than a decade since I’ve done one. But it turned out to be fine. I wasn’t changing much, I was just moving it from one medium to another medium and making cuts and trims, which I did plenty of in my Hollywood days. Actually, the hardest adjustment was me getting used to the new computer software” (Poniewozik).

Moving from the story itself to the means with which it is viewed adds another layer to the viewing experience of an adaptation like Game of Thrones. Bolter and Grusin said, “Filmmakers routinely spend tens of millions of dollars to film on location or to recreate period costumes and places in order to make their viewers fell as if they were ‘really’ there”. Remediation begs for transparency. The viewer doesn’t want to feel that the story is being consumed in any specific way, they just want the story. Yet behind the scenes, the technology is working to try to make that experience real. The experience of watching television is itself a blackboxed activity where people might not be considering what’s going on behind the scenes to mediate that experience. Bolter and Grusin say, “Digital visual media can best be understood through the ways in which they honor, rival, and revise linear-perspective painting, photography, film, television, and print. No medium today, and certainly no single media event, seems to do its cultural work in isolation from other media, any more than it works in isolation from other social and economic forces”. Watching a television show means interacting with various mediums that came before it. The story itself comes from a written novel, which according to McLuhan is originally conceived of from thoughts through speech through to the written word. “The movie, by sheer speeding up the mechanical, carried us from the world of sequence and connections into the world of creative configuration and structure. The message of the movie medium is that of transition from lineal connections to configurations.” (McLuhan). And going even further behind the scenes, television works with the ideas of photography, but has the human agency of a director or editor who is deciding how a viewer interprets or sees things from a certain perspective. “The production of computer animation seems to be automatic, yet the viewing can be interactive, although the interaction may be as simple as the capacity to change one’s point of view. In painting and photography, the user’s point of view was fixed. In film and television, the point of view was set in motion, but it was the director or editor who controlled the movement” (Bolter and Grusin). The effects of moving imagery go all the way back to elementary mathematics, much in the same way that photography does. “Digital graphics extends the tradition of the Albertian window. It creates images in perspective, but it applies to perspective the rigor of contemporary linear algebra and projective geometry. Computer-generated projective images are mathematically perfect…Renaissance perspective was never perfect in this sense, not only because of hand methods, but also because the artists often manipulated the perspective for dramatic or allegorical effect (of course, digital graphic perspective can be distorted too, but even these distortions are generated mathematically.)” (Bolter and Grouisn). The immediacy of television depends on hypermediacy in this school of thinking. In order to create the live-action motion that we see on television, the physical work of actors and live action is combined with computer graphics and editing to make it look seamless. The story is mediated through multiple lenses: the physical, with light and mathematics, through computer graphics and interfaces. “Digital graphic images are the work of humans, whose agency, however, is often deferred so far from the act of drawing that it seems to disappear” (Bolter and Grusin). Film theorist Tom Gunning argued that the logic of transparency works for filmgoers, or you could argue television watchers, because they obviously know that they are watching something on screen. They chose to watch it that way. But though the audience knows that what they are watching isn’t technically “real”, they “marvel at the discrepancy between what they knew and what their eyes told them” (Bolter and Grusin). It is such an interesting concept to imagine that an audience can choose how it consumes a story, but in certain ways feels those effects in a much more viscerally “real” way than in other forms. Does reading become less real because it’s “viewed” within our own imaginations?

The Digital Experience and the Blackbox

“Computer graphics experts, computer users and the vast audiences for popular film and television continue to assume that unmediated presentation is the ultimate goal of visual representation and to believe that technological progress toward that goal is being made. When interactivity is combined with automaticity and the five-hundred-year-old perspective method, the result is one account of mediation that millions of viewers today find compelling” (Bolter and Grusin). The audience knows what it is doing. There’s a physical interaction with television much in the same way that there is with a book. In order to access the story, one has to find a remote control and press a button to turn the television on. From that point, there are multiple experiences to go through before getting to the story itself – and all of these things factor into the experience and the way the story is perceived. There are television networks and the choice of which to watch; in the case of Game of Thrones it’s the heady HBO experience. Commercials are fewer on HBO, but there are trailers for their other shows while you wait for the one you want to start. This all takes away from the transparency of the experience. “The digital medium wants to erase itself, so that the viewer stands in the same relationship to the content as she would if she were confronting the original medium. Ideally, there should be no difference between the experience of seeing a painting in person and on the computer screen, but this is never so. The computer always intervenes and makes it presence felt in some way” (Bolter and Grusin).

The idea of interacting with a medium is especially evident in the different devices that television shows can now utilize for viewing. In the case of a story like Game of Thrones where there are so many different methods for consumption for any aspect of the story, as well, the computer has offered many options. At any given time, one can pull up the show online, via Netflix for older seasons or from HBO Go for the current season. In a separate tab could be the Kindle application with one of the books. In yet another tab could be the Game of Thrones wiki with a wealth of information on all of the characters, seasons, books, symbols, or even fake languages featured on the show. In another tab could be a Tumblr devoted to Justin Bieber as King Joffrey. Finally, the AV Club’s recaps or Grantland’s podcasts could round out a full browser experience full of Game of Thrones. This amount of mediation makes a couple of things apparent. This windowed viewing of a piece of culture shows the medium in a way that most things don’t do to this extent. Within one of the recaps, one could click on a link that then literally erases the online written material and replaces it with a video of the show. This is impossible in any other format besides the web. By toggling between all of these different forms of media, it becomes clear that the story is being mediated. This is what Bolter and Grusin would call the “hyperconscious recognition or acknowledgment of the medium” (38). There is very little transparency in this kind of experience, and makes it clearer why McLuhan would consider the medium to be the message in and of itself. HBO GO has a ton of information for each of HBO’s show; it’s basically a portal to whatever show one could want. For Game of Thrones, there are full episodes, along with biographies of each character, recaps, clips for upcoming episodes, and interviews with actors and the writers. This has the idea of “confronting the user with the problem of multiple representation and challenging her to consider why one medium might offer a more appropriate representation than another” (Bolter and Grusin) Even if one is just choosing to watch the current episode, by pressing the necessary menu buttons to get to that point, the medium has become a part of the experience.

Cultural History: What Happens to the Books?

So with all of this talk about how television might have been a useful medium for this particular story to utilize, what about the original source? What happens to the original medium when stories start to get adapted for current technology? Bourdieu talked about the idea of “high culture” and television tends to not fall into that category in the same way that literature does. As pop art was snubbed in the beginning for being too appealing for the masses and less highbrow, television seems to fall into that category compared to literature and film. But times are changing on that front. With the advent of cable networks and beloved television shows that delved into harder hitting topics like The Wire, The Sopranos, or Mad Men does, television is becoming more respected. But in the case of adaptations with Game of Thrones, does it mean people will read the books? Do the books just become source material for the show the longer that time moves on and technology continues to improve?

One of the most interesting parts of adaptations to me is to see if the original meaning was effectively mediated through a new medium. Film as described by E.H. Gombrich is “the most radical attempt to stamp out ambiguity and to enforce one reading of the picture – that of a man-made construction, a colored canvas.” This is such an interesting concept. By adapting a series of novels to television, the end result is a specific vision of the world the story created. I would guess that everyone has experienced watching an adaptation of a book they really loved only to have a character look completely different from what they had in their head. It’s disjointing. D.B. Weiss explained, “It’s much easier to flip back in a book than it is to flip back in a television show. It’s easier now than it used to be, but it’s still not a natural way of experiencing a TV show [to constantly go back and re-orient yourself in the story], whereas that is a natural way of experiencing a book.” That is definitely the case, especially with Game of Thrones. There are a ton of reasons why a television show can almost help viewers understand the story better – even if those viewers had already read the book. But is the same story being transmitted? George R.R. Martin sums it up:

“People ask me, is it what you imagined, and my answer is, no, not really. I have very strong visual pictures in my head about what they look like. And unless you’ve read my mind, that would be very hard for someone to get that.

But what they’ve done is good.”





Works Cited and References

Eco, Umberto. “Metaphor, Dictionary, and Encyclopedia.” New Literary History: 15:2 (1984): 255-71.

Hudson, Laura, and Erik Henriksen. “Recap: The Ultimate Burn on This Week’s Game of Thrones.” Wired. N.p., 22 Apr 2013. Web. 1 May. 2013. <>.

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

Marshall McLuhan, “The Medium is the Message,” (Excerpts from Understanding Media, The Extensions of Man, Part I, 2nd Edition; originally published, 1964).

Miller, Laura. “TV and the novel: A match made in heaven.”Salon. N.p., 11 Dec 2011. Web. 1 May. 2013. <>.

Poniewozik, James . “George R. R. Martin Interview, Part 1: Game of Thrones, from Book to TV.” Time. N.p., 15 Apr 2011. Web. 1 May. 2013. <>.

Ryan, Maureen. “‘Game of Thrones’ Producer On Season 2 Book Differences, Fan Feedback And What’s To Come.” Huffington Post. N.p., 08 Apr 2012. Web. 1 May. 2013.


MOOC: A University Learning Experience without the Degree

Yiran Sun


In recent years, there has been a media frenzy about massive open online courses, or better known as MOOCs. Up to the point when this is written, there has been 4,460 items about MOOC with Google news search, and 11,100,000 items in the general search. Although earlier open education resources like the MIT OpenCourseWave project have received much attention in its time, it is no comparison with this wave of MOOCs. This is partly because the online publishing system has progressed much since 2002, but also because the new MOOCs are more similar to a traditional classroom experience than the mere sharing of course materials. Many discussions were made around the MOOCs and online education in general, but at this point, no conclusion has been made or settled. While a lot can be said about MOOCs such as its role in culture transmission and how communication models work or do not work on the platforms, one thing that attracted my attention is that despite their close resemblance to university courses and that the majority of them are provided by the top institutions, few schools would accept a MOOC certificate as university credit, and none intends to transfer the MOOC platforms into degree programs. Here I want to explore the reasons behind this reluctance with credentials, first by looking at the differences between a MOOC experience and an on-campus one, and then by discussing the symbolic values that a college degree mediates and its meaning to both the university and the society. Continue reading

“American Folk Music and the Humming Hybrids”

“American Folk Music and the Humming Hybrids”
Elizabeth-Burton Jones

Can you define FOLK?:

“Folk” is a word with many definitions. You can be folk. You can sing folk. You can be a part of folk life. Folk can be described as a way of life for a traditional culture. A street performer’s music could be classified as folk music. Country music, jazz music, and bluegrass music can all be categorized as some extension of folk music. Needless to say, diversity is great.

The genre of folk, often finds itself oozing into other genres. This creates a lack of a concise definition. Without a clear definition, the folk culture can become lost and become even more detached from the “real meaning”.

This article will attempt to find the definition of folk, particularly with regards to American Folk Music. The article will do so by a survey and an interview. After all of the information is gathered and briefly processed, then the article will mold a conclusion via semiotics, cultural transmission, the cultural encyclopedia, the history of American Folk Music, and current Marketing strategies and further research. 

The Musical Experiment:

The Method:

In order to find out the recipe of American Folk Music and in order to see if there is a clear and concise definition of American Folk Music, I decided to interview a professional folklorist. The purpose of the interview is to find out what American Folk Music really is. Is it concise? In actuality nothing is purely concise, but by having a clear definition of American Folk Music, will create a better understanding of American folk Music’s place in the giant world of music. After the interview, I created a brief survey for a diverse group to complete. The purpose of this survey was to find out what people think about folk music. I wanted to demonstrate the idea of the cultural encyclopedia and find out if there is any consistency within the brand of American Folk Music and it’s relation to “folk”. After the results are compiled, I should have a better understanding with regards to what people assume American Folk Music is and the reality of American Folk Music.   

The Interview:

I interviewed Nancy Groce, Ph.D. who is the Senior Folklife Specialist at the American Folklife Center at the U.S. Library of Congress.

The Interview Questions were:

Can we define folk?
What’s the major difference between folk life and folk music? Is there a difference?
What’s the general history of folk music?
Are there hints of folk music in every genre?
Does the use of “low tech” or stereotypically less sophisticated instruments and technologies classify folk music as a “lower” art?
What are the Lomax recordings?
Because folk music is so diverse, does the diversity muddle the understanding of the definition?
Is there a concrete definition for “folk music”?
Does a “utopian” view of folk music hinder a greater understanding of “folk music”?
Additional comments?

The Video:

The video was truly monumental in the organization of this study. By talking to Dr. Groce, I was able to find out which areas were important with regards to my study and which areas should be for the future.

The Survey:

I asked a diverse group to share their opinions about folk music. I asked about the general concept of folk music to see if any one would classify a type of folk music. I sent a questionnaire to multiple people from diverse backgrounds and from varied chapters in the cultural encyclopedia.

The Survey Questions:

1. What do you think of when you envision “folk music”?
2. What do you think of when you hear this song?
3. How would you classify this song?
4. Does folk music have a stereotype?
5. When thinking about American Folk Music, do you think that the music is over produced?

Also, I asked if the participants could include their name and where they are from at the top of their response. 


I sent an e-mail questionnaire to multiple people using different formats (e-mail and Facebook). Six people responded to the survey. The people were from various states and various fields of study. Two people were from Ohio and one person was from Louisiana, South Carolina, Kentucky, and one person was from Great Britain. Each person had a different level of musical knowledge. One person that completed the survey was a professional musician. Another person that took the survey admitted that she had little musical exposure. The use of a diverse crowd yields itself to a diverse group of answers.

Here are the responses:

What do you think of when you envision “folk music”?

1. Kelsey S.

“I think of original music by a group of people that is specific to that group and usually representative of their culture.”

Emily H.
South Carolina

“When I think of folk music, I think of a couple things. I think about older folk music from artists like Emmylou Harris and Dolly Parton from back in the 70s. I also associate folk music with more contemporary acts such as Iron and Wine. I often associate folk music with bluegrass and country.”

Ashley Brooke T. (B.)

“Music for the people, songs expressing emotions felt by the common ‘folk.’”

Chris C.

“When I think of folk music I think mountain people dancing around with moon shine.”

Margaret S.

“Folk music … I think of older music.”

Tanvi P.
Great Britain

“Folk music for me is something which is traditional and original to a particular tribe, community, county or district. It is composed of customs and traditions and it is not dictated by commercialisation. Folk music can either be only instrumental or it is composed of distinct verbal use. It is passed on through generations through oral transmission.” 

2. What do you think of when you hear this song?

Many participants said that the music sounded very traditional. Some of the participants mentioned that it sounded like a struggling group others mentioned that it sounded like a church hymn. But, the main reaction was that he music sounded like country music. Each response revolved around struggle and not around sophistication.
3. How would you classify this song?

Emily H. mentioned that: “When I hear that song, I think of very old, traditional style folk music…like how folk music originally started. To me, the style of the song is meant to tell a story and invoke a strong emotional connection to the story being told.”

Overall, this is how it broke down:

4. Does folk music have a stereotype?

Two participants mentioned that it has the stereotype of being “uneducated” and “poorly written”. One participant mentioned that it has “distinct qualities to it”.

Emily H. mentioned that: “I wouldn’t say that folk music has a stereotype because the genre can be conveyed in so many different ways. The variety of folk artists are so diverse and unique.”

Ashley Brooke T. (she is a very experienced singer) mentioned: “I think it had a sort of hayseed stereotype and maybe does still hold that feeling for some groups. Now though just about every singer-songwriter is considered folk..” 

5. When thinking about American Folk Music, do you think that the music is over produced?

Kelsey S. of Kentucky said, “I think it is. If America’s folk music is considered to be country, it’s definitely over produced. As much as I like Taylor Swift and other “country” artists, the genre had changed a lot from the early days.”

Emily H. of South Carolina said, “I would have to ask what is meant by “overproduced”. I could see that word to mean different things. Does that mean that it is made too frequently-like there is an over saturation of folk artists or does that mean that the music itself is of low quality or is not uniquely identifiable/creative?”

Ashley Brooke Toussant (Bigler) of Ohio said, “When thinking about American Folk Music, do you think that the music is over produced? Not at all. When I hear folk, I think the opposite. More simple, capturing the essence of the LIVE performance.”

Chris C. from Ohio said: “I do not think it is overproduced.”

Maragret S. from Louisiana said, “No American folk music definitely isn’t overproduced.”

Tanvi P. from Great Britain said, “no I personally don’t think the music is overproduced.”


After looking at the data from the interviews and surveys, it is quite evident that not everyone is on the same page. Only two people addressed the difference between folk music and American Folk Music. The two people that addressed the difference were the people with the most exposure to American Folk Music (Nancy Groce, Phd. and Ashley Brooke Toussant (Bigler)).To explore the meaning behind the data, it is important to look at semiotics, dialogism, cultural transmission, the cultural encyclopedia, and marketing.


To address semiotics, there is a central definition that will be used. According to Posner,
“The English word ‘semiotics’ (Greek sēmiōtiké epistémē) designates the science…of signs…Signs are objects that convey something – a message …; they presuppose someone who understands them – an interpreter. The processes in which signs and interpreters are involved are called ‘sign processes’ (“semioses”; see Morris 1938, Deely 1990: 32, and Koch 1998: 707-718)” (Posner 1).

The “science” of signs is usually scattered when it comes to American Folk Music. It takes a true folk expert to help everyone get through the “milieu” of folk music.

According to Mieke Bal semiotics is:
“The field, discipline and perspective of semiotics study the meaning and implications of that characteristic of the human species. The field of semiotics is characterized by interests in a set of questions like: what sign-systems do we have, what types of signs are operative, how do they function, what is their effect?” (Bal 4). 

With this working definition, we can properly assess the information that was gathered about Folk Music. To answer the question about the folk sign-system, this is complex because the small sample of people that I surveyed did not have a concise answer. No one came up with one clear sign that signifies folk music. However, the tension is released by the question of the signs that are “operative”. If we are to take the “signs are operative” to mean the signs that are being displayed within folk music (if we twist the definition of the words that Bal uses and make them about folk and confusion) then we can aggregate the signs.

For illustration, the participants in the survey mentioned that folk could have the stereotype of being “uneducated” and “moonshine” driven. Other participants mentioned that folk music can be scattered and another participant mentioned the “hayseed” genre. The Folklorist mentioned that folk music is very diverse. With these answers we can start to compartmentalize the genre of folk music to discover that each working stereotype can have a “function” that satiates each stereotypical group. For instance, it is not wrong to say that some folk music pleases people from the 1960’s political movements. It is also not wrong to say that folk music satisfies many people of different economic levels. However, with all of the definitions the “effect” could take a wrong turn when it comes to preserving a historical genre because the genre is not clear. But, maybe music doesn’t have to be defined maybe music is meant to be blurred.

However, when it comes to readily defining “folk” music, is it is extremely difficult to do so. It is not easy to define “folk” and specifically American Folk Music by the codes and meanings. For instance,“… when we think of signs that nobody has designed as signs. When we look out of the window in the morning and the sun is bright, we take that as a sign: ‘good weather.’ We do not yet experience the good weather; we do not yet feel the actual warmth, but we know we can expect it and dress accordingly or the day. The sun is not in itself a sign. It becomes one for the person looking out of the window, seeing it and drawing conclusions from it” (Bal 9). 

This is not true for American Folk Music. The seemingly ubiquitous nature of American Folk Music makes it very hard to look and listen to a track of music and directly classify it with “American” Folk Music instead of jazz music or traditional cultural folk music. It is easier to classify the music as country or jazz or gospel music. But, when it comes down to actually defining something as “American Folk” it appears that we must initially peel away all of the layers of the vocals, the instruments, and the lyrics. Once all of that is gone then folk can be found.

By peeling through the layers, we must find out the different codes for the different sections of folk music. “A code consists of a set of signifiers, a set of signifieds, and a set of rules which determine the relation of these to each other(see Nöth 1990: 206-220). A code is either innate, such as the genetic code, is learned in interaction with the social environment, as is the case with many behavioral codes, or may be created through an explicit decision by one or more individual(s)” (Posner 4). But the question remains, does folk music actually have a set form of codes? Marketing wise, the codes might be forced, by adding a form of style to the outfit. But, by listening to a song, there is a muddled version of folk. This is exemplified by the survey. Before the participants listened to the song, I asked that they solely listen to the song and that they do not make assumptions by the picture on the video. Even so, there was not a universal answer found by the codes of the voice, the stress of the notes, and the grit in the music. The song did not clearly signify American Folk Music from the South. Instead, the music sent codes of gospel and general folk (one person said American Folk. The difference is the specific genre of folk and not the general universe of folk, which could include folklore and folk life).

By testing the sensory modality, the participants made it clear that if we strip away the pictures and visual effects it is much harder to classify folk music. “Thus, a pop music concert simultaneously utilizes the sensory modality of the eye and the ear, the contact matter of air, the technical apparatus of spotlights and projection screens as well as musical instruments, …and tonal music. This special constellation of media predisposes it for an emotionally-laden, generally understandable message, which can provide every individual in a large audience with a feeling of belonging” (Posner 8). 

However, this “feeling of belonging” is often muddled when it comes to the realm of American Folk Music. It is muddled because the location is not certain. Does a person belong with the counter-culture, the people in the group singing by the fire, or with the new band at the Grammy’s?

Therefore, does the lack of belonging suggest that folk music does not have a culture? Posner gives an interesting definition of culture that can help discover if American Folk Music is a part of a culture.“A culture makes available to each member of the respective society the experiences of his or her contemporaries and predecessors, so that these can be repeated and improved on, if they were positive, or so that they can be avoided, if they were negative. Culture, then, does for the society what memory does for the individual (see). It is a collective mechanism for the storage of information. Collective information storage is dependent on individuals who generate information by having experiences. It would be impossible without communication, since the original experience can only be transmitted when the one who experienced it takes on the role of the sender. It would be impossible without codes, for if all communication utilized only uncoded messages, the original experience would be passed on only from the sender to his or her addressees and from them to their addressees in turn; for individuals not present as addressees in such a chain of communication, the relevant experience would be inaccessible” (Posner 28-29). With this information, we can assume that folk music does have a culture, but a limited culture. The culture is passed down from person to person and the culture is communicated. But, the access to the culture is limited by the amount of people that have access to the information.

Folk and all of its extensions have a society that preserves its image from the past. This is the Library of congress. But the question is how does the average listener of folk music assess that culture? Well, the Library of Congress started an initiative a long time ago to preserve the folk life and folk music cultures. This project is called the Global Jukebox.

This is a wonderful way to give access to the masses.

In sum, semiotics is a wonderful lens in which we can take the evidence from the interviews and surveys to find out what the answers really mean. We can dig deeper into the answers from the survey. Through semiotics, it is apparent that the definition of the culture of American Folk Music is very scattered and that it has a different meaning for everyone that listens to it. This allows for a particular freedom of interpretation. Through semiotics, the “freedom” is an area that should be addressed because it is muddling the definition of the music (with regards to having a set definition for the American Folk Music genre). Semiotics helps the listeners interpret the meaning and another way to examine the effectiveness of the culture’s message to the masses would be the way it communicates.

Cultural Transmission:
Communication is integral when it comes to finding the meaning of any area of study. It is imperative that we have a textbook definition and a free form definition so we can actually observe how the message is communicated. When we are talking about communicating we are mentioning the distribution to the masses. Debray mentions that “Commonly understood, ‘communicating’ is simply making familiar, making known” (Debray 1).  Now that the meaning of American Folk Music has been assessed as fundamentally blended, it is appropriate to discover why the music is blurred and why people have vast yet similar definitions. To demolish the confusion, lets take a closer look at communication (Debray 3).  

Through communication, we can find the answers, but through transmission we can find the evidence. “If communication transports essentially through space, transmission essentially transports through time” (Debray 3). Many things change over time. It is life. But the one thing that remains, are many hints of the culture that can lead to hints about the future.

To look at the history over a span of time for any given culture, it is important to address the transmission.  Debray says that: “The content of the message is guided by the requisites of its deliverance, as is the organ by its function. Through measurably temporal, transmission does have a geography. Its advancement occupies space, but it conducts its crossings and bids for influence in order to make inroads toward permanence, to make history (the pervasive desire to pervade time by turning any means it can to account)” (Debray 4). American Folk Music has indubitably left a mark and made various historical efforts. However, these efforts seem to be unrelated to the culture of the genre as whole.

Transmission can be thought of as the knowledge that is given. For instance, Debray mentions that,  “Journalists communicate; professors transmit. (The difference is that between news and knowledge.)” (Debray 6). The knowledge will hopefully stick with the message for a long period of time and help define the message. Knowledge has more “staying power”.

But it seems as though American Folk Music is missing the crucial transmission points. To spell out the transmission points, it is important that to break down the definition of transmission.  “The prefix trans-: comes down most decisively to this particle that encapsulates the marching past, burden, and adventure of so many mediations” (Debray 7). To encapsulate the past of folk music there are a few artists throughout history that have made waves in the ocean of music (1960’s artist). But it seems as though each artist that encapsulates a time period is different from the other. This is not rare.

For instance, if we look at the history of Presidents of the United States of America, we can notice that not all of the President’s believed in the same principles, not all of the President’s were of the same party, but in the end the President of the United States still had a guide, a set structure that they had to follow. Now, the President’s have (had) many guides, one could argue that the Constitution was a guide for the President’s but this guide shifts every now and then and can be amended. Yet, no matter the number of amendments, the heart of the document stands true. Another example could be the Declaration of Independence. Many things have changed throughout the years, but even so the unalienable rights of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” have remained the same.

The three unalienable rights and the shifting throughout history provides a nice example of how history can be a chain filled with people that have different ways of thinking and drastically different principles, but at the end of the day these chains are still linked. Also, with regards to the President’s no matter how different each President may be they are still under the title of President of the United States. This is a transmissible characteristic that we are missing in folk music. We are missing the connection.

Yes, throughout the years there are many artists that have characterized American Folk Music. But, if we compare these artists, do they follow a linear progression? Linear progressions are not always easy to maintain because of the space and time, but at the heart of their music, is there a node of “American Folk”? Is there a “pluckable” note?

That’s where the confusion lies. The transmission of the message of American Folk Music is varied and scattered. However, through transmission, there are ways to remedy the confusion.  “Transmitting means organizing” (Debray 15). Therefore, there have been ways to organize different genres by category (jazz, country, gospel). But while organizing American Folk Music, it seems to be difficult to actually separate the culmination of all genres.

Therefore, is American Folk Music milieu? To answer this question we can look at Debray’s quote about milieu and the black box. “Mediology is devoted to medium and median bodies, to everything that acts as milieu or middle ground in the black box of meaning’s production, between an input and an output” (Debray 7). No, American Folk Music is not the milieu, rather it is the initial information. By thinking of American Folk Music as the initial musical information, then we can propose that all of the current genres are the milieu and the future of music lies outside of the black box of music.             

Therefore, if we propose that Folk Music as a whole, is the initial form of music, and if we recognize that within the realm of American Music, that American Folk Music has been integral (with the evolution of various genres of music), then we could say that everything that is current and every musical approach spawns from Folk Music. However, this is contingent on the cultural memory of the person ranking Folk Music.

Cultural memory deals with the subjects that are properly curated and preserved. If certain memories are not passed on to the future, then the essence of the origin could be lost. Debray mentions that a message that is not properly preserved disappears. “…Communication is the message’s sine qua non, while the community of messengers is that by which the choice of an inheritance is possible. The message that does not find an institutional housing will go up in smoke or be drained off as so much background noise by the ambient environment of cultural life. Perpetuating meaning assigns an institution the dual mission of archival and pedagogical conservation” (Debray 10-11). The conservation part of American Folk Music, is greatly taking part in the Library of Congress (Global Jukebox) and other places that devote themselves or a section of their master skills to the world of American Folk Music.

Therefore, the Library of Congress serves as the main source of transmission for the American Folk Music world. “At the material level, to transmit is to inform the inorganic by manufacturing consultable store of externalized memory through available technologies for inscribing, conserving, inventorying, and distributing the recorded traces of cultural expression” (Debray 11-12). Through the library and other resources, we can gather more and more information about American Folk Music.

Even with all of the information, the biggest confusion lies within the past and the present. “Our objects hold fast to their historical context while our works can escape from them” (Debray 53).  Therefore, this is to say  (within the American Folk Music world) that we can organize all of the past actions, but the past actions are being transformed into present actions and then they will lend themselves to future actions. The present actions “our works” are leaving the past and trying to re-define the meaning of American Folk Music. By searching and reconstructing the meaning, we are losing our original meaning and creating a meaning from the past that does not live on to the present.

But regardless of the shuffle between past and present, there is something to always remember, everything is connected. To find the state of American Folk Music in the chain of history, it is necessary to address dialogism. Dialogue/Dialogic/Dialogism: Every level of expression from live conversational dialog to complex cultural expression in other genres and art works is an ongoing chain or network of statements and responses, repetitions and quotations, in which new statements presuppose earlier statements and anticipate future responses” (Irvine).

The “ongoing chain” explains the transmission cycle and how the different artists are displayed. For instance, before, it was put into question if American Folk Music was too diluted by other forms of art. But, if we look at American Folk Music through the lens of dialogism, we can find out that the history is still connected with this chain, no matter how different the artist or the music genre. They are still connected.

This connection can link to the space that it is located in history. Bakhtin mentions that, “[a] ‘word’ is therefore always already embedded in a history of expressions by others in a chain of ongoing cultural and political moments.” (Irvine) Therefore, if the music is already drenched with historical content, then American Folk Music does not seem so detached from music.

Since a lot of the results from the surveys and the interview used the word, “traditional” to describe Folk Music (not everyone identified folk music with the American twist) it is easy to also link the tradition of the music to the past, which can be cyclical.

“No tradition has come about without being an invention or recirculation of expressive marks and gestures. No movement of ideas has occurred that did not imply the corresponding movement of human bodies, whether pilgrims, merchants, settlers, soldiers, or ambassadors” (Debray 2).

Therefore, American Folk Music is a part of the chain of music and also a response to music in general. That would create a new wrinkle in the assessment of Folk Music.

However, the accessibility to the observance of the placement of the chain depends on individual knowledge. Each person is from a different mind frame and has varied access to the information. 

Cultural Encyclopedia:

With all of this information, it is important to realize that all of the signs and meanings are different for each person. “The meaning of signs is different according to the social groups we belong to” (Bal 6). With the survey group, everyone was relatively from the same social group, the only difference is the depth of the cultural encyclopedia. For instance, one participant is a singer. She has many of her own CD’s and singles. On the other end of the spectrum, we had one participant that didn’t really know that much about music. Another participant interned for the Kennedy Center and had a lot of information about music and culture. All of the participants were all on different chapters of the cultural encyclopedia.

The diversity of the group helped to demonstrate that everyone addresses the information in a different way. “Why do some people ‘get’ meanings and others don’t? Some people will be more competent than others in using the codes and accessing the encyclopedia than others, but everyone in a culture will understand how to use the codes or draw on knowledge that they don’t know from the relevant cultural encyclopedia. Since all meaning and symbolic systems are intersubjective, collective, and public, there is no such thing as ‘hidden meaning.’ There can be only as-yet, unaccessed, relevant parts of a cultural encyclopedia with the learnable relevant codes and knowledge nodes that anyone can apply” (Irvine 14). This is exemplified through my survey. Some participants automatically assumed that country music was folk music. One participant classified the folk music as American Folk Music. The answers were very telling of everyone’s position in the cultural encyclopedia. Therefore, this proves the notion of the cultural encyclopedia. Some people have read volumes and are more entrenched in the knowledge while others are entrenched in other information.

But the important aspect is to understand each other. With American Folk Music, it seems as though people are all on different pages of the encyclopedia and have different ideas to what folk is (let alone what American Folk Music is). Therefore, the solution would be to create a neutral stance.“Neutral dictionary meanings of the words of a language ensure their common features and guarantee that all speakers of a given language will understand one another, but the use of words in live speech communication is always individual and contextual in nature (p.88)” (Bakhtin).The important aspect is to understand one another. Not everyone has to know the definition of complex examples of American Folk Music, but everyone should be able to understand each other and have a working understanding of the genre.

With regards to the cultural encyclopedia, it seems as though American Folk Music has become like an “inside joke”. Some people get it and other don’t some people know the structure and other don’t. The reason, as with all reason, is the access to the information. The access to this information is muddled through access to cultural memory. “All of our individual expressions necessarily assume and embed the expressions of others, either in an immediate context (like conversation) or in cultural genres that unfold in a larger environment, both contemporary (during our own time) and an inherited cultural memory (a cultural encyclopedia)” (Irvine 6). This access to the cultural encyclopedia echoes all other information about the muddled definitions of the American Folk Music genre.

However, if the information is already a hybrid, if the information is already “embedded” into each conversation and each note, then the information should be slightly understood. This should create an equal playing field for the cultural encyclopedia and it should make the encyclopedia more accessible or at least more inclusive and less about the “inside joke” aspect. “When we become socialized into our language community (and available subcultures), the dialogic base is always already there, in place before we begin a new expression, which will always be a response to conversations already going on in an accrued dialogic cultural encyclopedia” (Irvine 13). If this statement is to be true, then we should already have some connection to the link of American Folk Music. This connection does not have to be a distant connection it could be an immediate connection via today’s popular music.

 Some History:

In today’s popular music there seems to be a strand of “American Folk Music”. There are codes that are being used to distinguish these mechanisms. For instance, in the survey, one participant mentioned that folk music had a “moonshine” appeal. This appeal can lead to a plethora of images. Yet, each image is subject to interpretation. For instance, when some people think about a “moonshine” appeal, they can tend to think about people around a camp fire hanging out in the hill country having a wonderful time enjoying friendship and singing songs. The point is that there tends to be a new shift to the “moonshine” and group sing appeal of folk music. This is being marketed to the masses assuming that the masses are not culturally remembering the significance of American Folk Music in the 1960’s.

The current generation is being marketed certain images of American Folk Music because for the most part the younger people have no tangible recollection of the 1960s or they were not at prime protests etc. (they weren’t born yet). Therefore, the marketing groups are marketing to a population that does not, for the most part, have a personal cultural memory of the other events of American Folk Music.

Therefore, certain markets are overselling this idea of “group song” and campfires. This notion of telling stories and being with groups of people is not that far off of the general friendly aspect of folk music, but it is only exposing certain information and making certain parts of history accessible to the next generations with regards to their cultural memory.

The traditional aspect of folk is split up in many groups. Culture wise some cultures have very pure relations of their culture they include traditional garb they produce traditional values and have traditional ways. In some communities these folk and traditional cultural foundations are displayed at cultural festivals. The folk garments and dance moves allude to the “old country” and staying true to their roots. Without delving into to too much of what this means, we can at least use this as an examples of how cultural communities can provide these cultures with their own memories. With regards to American Folk Music, there isn’t a set way to be reminded of the ways of the past, because it is often assumed that American Folk Music is so blurred.

Therefore, this creates an easy marketing strategy. Some marketing companies are marketing certain signals, however, the signals are not connected to the original meaning. For instance, for the most part, mass-produced American Folk Music has lost its political dissidence.

In the 1960’s the meaning of folk music was synonymous with protesting and the counter-culture. “The notion of an alternative culture is a far cry from just popularizing a musical genre in an existent culture. Interest in folk music did not numerically affect an entire generation. Folkniks were by-and-large politically reformist, believing in the possibility of social change” (Lund and Denisoff 405). However, today’s bands that are signifying popular trends from the evolution of the folk counter-culture are doing so without the meaning original meaning from the cultural memory.

For instance, historically, folk music embodied the “people”. “…After World War II the ‘people’s artists’ trend was interdicted by the advent of the McCarthy era and the application of the media blacklist to folk-styled singers, such as Pete Seeger and the Weavers. As members of People’s Artists, Inc. were being summoned to testify before Congressional subcommittees, an artistic and literary fad which explored the traditional ‘road’ concepts of the American experience came into existence in the bohemian communities of several large metropolises. This movement was called the Beat Generation, or by journalists such as Herb Caen, ‘beatniks.’ The beats proclaimed disaffiliation from American society and its institutions” (Lund and Denisoff 395). Today’s popular counter-culture artists are not fully associated with the American Folk Music realm. The counter-culture artists of today can be seen as going back in time, but not the genre. Also, the counter artists are in various genres and not just in the realm of Folk Music anymore.

To demystify the notion that folk music is only to the moonshine culture and the overproduced, we have the New Lost City Ramblers. “The first performing group in the urban ‘folk’ scene to specialize in material of traditional rural origin was the New Lost City Ramblers.19 They were organized in 1958 by Mike Seeger, youngest son of the famous ethnomusicologist Charles Seeger; John Cohen, Yale-educated photographer; and Tom Paley, a New York mathematician and photographer” (Lund and Denisoff 400).

The fact that the people were replicating the music of the South is very interesting. The article by Lund and Denisoff provides more historical examples and provides more of an explanation for the said cultural shift. However for the purpose of this paper, it is important to note that some of the “urban folk” artists were educated. This is important because today’s generation is given the sign that the folk music community deals with “low technological instruments” and is more of a “moonshine” culture. However, this goes back to how far along we are in the cultural encyclopedia.

Another point about our detachment is the cutting and pasting of the culture. At first many recordings (like the Lomax Recordings) were thought of as being authentic. “… records of the twenties and thirties were genuine folk songs of a far greater authenticity than anything heard at the early urban ‘folk-festivals’” (Lund and Denisoff 399). In today’s time, these works are still authentic works. But, the chain of Folk Music does not end there. The chain continued to link with other genres of music, which can still be considered authentic in relation to the connection in the “chain”.

The New Lost City Ramblers played fiddles, mandolins, guitars, and banjos in careful imitation of the early Southern recording artists, always crediting the origins of each song” (Lund and Denisoff 399-400)

Too add more genres to the mix we have the bluegrass genre. The bluegrass genre of music started to blend with the folk music of the time. This blending created another genre of folk music. “Aside from ‘old timey’ music, another form of rural, traditionally derived music came to the attention … namely, bluegrass. Bluegrass music was a type of commercial country music which appeared during the 1940s. It was a reaction against electrification and the cowboy image which by then permeated the country music industry… Its sound was dominated by the five-string banjo, especially as played by Earl Scruggs. The first college bluegrass concert, the Osborne Brothers at Oberlin College, was a smashing success… Home-grown bluegrass groups were organized at colleges and bohemian enclaves in the North and West” (Lund and Denisoff 400).

There are many depictions of what the definition of Bluegrass is. Similarly to our place in the cultural encyclopedia, bluegrass can be thought as a collection of many different strands depending on the person. Nevertheless, folk music blended in with bluegrass and created another genre. Another genre of folk music could be seen as the college angst folk culture. “At many universities, notably Harvard and Yale, the folk subculture became completely enraptured with bluegrass. Yale’s Grey Sky Boys, Harvard’s Charles River Valley Boys, and Greenwich Village’s Greenbriar Boys …. The most successful southern-authentic bluegrass band, Flatt and Scruggs and the Foggy Mountain Boys, were double-billed with Joan Baez at Carnegie Hall in 1963” (Lund and Denisoff 400).

College folk groups are a hybrid of the hybrid in that they are a product of folk music and bluegrass. College folk groups are still very prominent. “The campus bluegrass revival is, of course, over on a large scale, but vestiges of it still survive” (Lund and Denisoff 401). However, today, these vestiges are more hybrids of hybrids in that they have moved from being counter-culture to becoming mainstream. It is like a forced counter-culture that is guided by signs and signals void of the original meaning.

“The popularity of Johnny Cash, and now Merle Haggard, among the “counter culture” can be traced back to some of the attitudes prominent in the folk music revival” (Lund and Denisoff 403).

Today, the college folk scene is a hybrid of a hybrid, and the genre placement is still hard to decipher.

With each performance on college campuses and each strumming of the guitar on mainstream radio stations there is a message.
Everything is a message…from natural to social stimuli or from signals to signs—but these messages do not necessarily constitute an inheritance. Legacies are never the effect of pure chance. Similarly, there are communication machines but not transmission machines…” (Debray 5).

This goes back to the distinction between communication and transmission. Even though these “revivals” are popular and they are hybrids of the authentic American Folk Music, they are still transmitted in a different way than they are communicated. Each branch and hybrid of American Folk Music communicates a message. This message can be related or not related. It is like a branch of a tree. However, the strength of the branch comes from transmission. For, all of the hybrids and clones of the musical style can be great, but they have no relevance if they do not pass on knowledge or time. For instance, the branches or genres could communicate specific ideals, but not have lasting power. They cannot grow. But the base of the branch always goes back to the strongest part, the tree and the roots of folk music.


With regards to marketing, the groups that are popular and classified as folk musicians “represent our ideas or cultural stereotypes about that past” (Jameson 118). In some cases these artists are over-produced meaning made to appear to fit one stereotype. This is carried out through signified styles: “signifier—a material object, the sound of a word, the script of a text—and a signified, the meaning of that material word or material text. The third component would be the so-called ‘referent,’ the ‘real’ object in the; real’ world to which the sign refers—he real cat as opposed to the concept of a cat or the sound ‘cat’” (Jameson 119).

The “signified” object could be the folk music and it could be displayed by having people dress in certain ways. If the marketing groups are trying to create a folk appeal, they could draw on the stereotype of being counter-culture, therefore they could dress the artist in clothes that are counter-culture. If they are going for the folk stereotype of “group sing alongs” they could construct a group of people to sing with the artist. This group would try to encapsulate the stereotype as well.

However, with all of the ideas of transmission and communication, the longevity is at risk, it is important that the groups preserve some form of information, even if it is a hybrid of a hybrid. “Culture, as a mechanism for organizing and preserving information in the consciousness of the community, raises the specific problem of longevity. It has two aspects: (1) the longevity of the texts of the collective memory and (2) the longevity of the code of the collective memory. In certain cases these two aspects may not be directly related to one another. Thus, for example, superstitions can be seen as elements of a text of an old culture whose code is lost; that is, as a case where the text outlives the code” (Lotman, Uspensky, and Mihaychuk 214-215).  

Only time can tell if the hybrid forms of the hybrids will live on and erase the authentic definition of American Folk Music.

In some cases this hyper constructed folk reality can be very interesting and controversial. But a positive aspect is that no matter how constructed or detached from meaning the subject is, it furthers the brand. It makes the culture live on even if it is not in the intended way. “We transmit meanings so that the things we live, believe, and think do not perish with us” (Debray 3). 

Therefore, the transmitted American Folk Music image, no matter how detached goes on to be changed and changed and changed throughout time, will continue to stay relevant because of the hybridization.

More Examples:


After all of the survey materials were collected and the interview with Dr. Groce was finally edited, it seems as though this study has made an initial action toward the meaning of American Folk Music. Through questions of semiotics, definitions of cultural transmission and communication, historical events, and current marketing endeavors the data leads to the conclusion that this is the initial step to finding more meaning to defining American Folk Music. This study exemplified ideas that everyone has their own place in the cultural encyclopedia and the study exemplified that the definition of American Folk Music is clear when the person has an in-depth perspective aided by the cultural encyclopedia. Regardless, of the place in the cultural encyclopedia, it doesn’t mean that one cannot fully enjoy the music that is presented. From this study, the takeaway should be that folk music is a tree with many branches that have many buds (genres). Each bud holds the promise for a new genre of music, each bud tries to withhold the winter and grow with the tree. Therefore, American Folk Music, is in a way an extension of various genre connections.


Further questions:

If: “Human beings communicate; more rarely do they transmit lasting meanings.” how can that be applied to the Folk Music genre (Debray 4)?

Foundation wise. If folk music is essentially the foundation of folk music, how then can folk music be labeled as a lower art? Is it intentional? With the information about the educated artists, does the stereotype reign true?

Global Jukebox, is it still functioning?

Recent popularity of folk music at the Grammy’s will that cause a shift in folk music?

Is Indie Music American Folk Music?

Are mashups and acoustic songs and versions considered folk?

Works Cited:

Bal, Mieke. On Meaning-Making: Essays in Semiotics. Sonoma, CA: Polebridge, 1994. Print.


Danesi, Marcel. “Semiotics of Media and Culture,” excerpt from Paul Cobley, ed. The Routledge Companion to Semiotics. New York, NY: Routledge, 2009, 135-149.

Debray, Régis. “From Chaps. 1-2; from Chap. 7, “Ways of Doing.”” Transmitting Culture. Trans. Eric Rauth. New York: Columbia UP, 2000. N. pag. Print.

Debray, Régis. “What is Mediology?” Le Monde Diplomatique, Aug., 1999. Trans. Martin Irvine.

Debray, Régis. “Media Manifestos”, pp. 1-40; 69-79; 97-107; Tables, 171-174.

Grayson, Lee. “10 Best Female Folk Singers.” Made Man. Break Media, 2011. Web. <>.

Irvine, Martin.  ” The Grammar of Meaning Making and Meaning Systems: The Human Symbolic Faculty, Semiosis, and Cybersemiotics.” <>.

Irvine, Martin. “Mikhail Bakhtin: Main Theories Dialogism, Polyphony, Heteroglossia, Open Interpretation A Student’s Guide by Martin Irvine Georgetown University.” Bakhtin: Main Theories. Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License, 2013. Web. Mar. 2013. <>.

Jameson, Frederic. (1983). “Postmodernism and Consumer Society.” In Foster,

The anti-aesthetic: Essays in postmodern culture. Bay Press, pp.111-125.

Lotman, Yu. M., B. A. Uspensky, and George Mihaychuk. “On the Semiotic Mechanism of Culture.” New Literary History Soviet Semiotics and Criticism: An Anthology 9.2 (1978): 211-32. J Stor. Web. Mar. 2013. <>.

Lund, Jens, and R. Serge Denisoff. “The Folk Music Revival and the Counter Culture: Contributions and Contradictions.” Journal of American Folklore 84.334 (1971): 394-405. J Stor. Web. 4 May 2013. <>.

Posner, Roland. “Basic Tasks of Cultural Semiotics“. Excerpt from Gloria Withalm and Josef Wallmannsberger, eds., Signs of Power — Power of Signs. Essays in Honor of Jeff Bernard. Vienna: INST, 2004, p. 56-89.

Ruehl, Kim. “Celebrating African-Americans in Folk Music.” Music., n.d. Web. <>.

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

“The Declaration of Independence.” The Declaration of Independence: The Want, Will, and Hopes of the People. Independence Hall Association, 4 July 1995. Web. <>.

Torop, Peeter. “Semiosphere and/as the research object of semiotics of culture,” Sign Systems Studies, 33/1, 2005. [On Lotman’s theory of the semiosphere.]


Navigating Remediation and Presence: An Analysis of Live Stream Video Technology

By: Sara Levine

Live stream video technology is now a fairly popular media artefact that has been re-purposed by organizations, institutions, and individuals in order to broadcast various live events. Most recently, for example, Hulu gave visitors the option to watch The White House Correspondents Dinner as it occurred in real time. Hulu published it as a playable video afterwards, but for a few intervening hours viewers were able to tune in to the event as it occurred. The attraction of live stream video seems to be its “liveness”. Viewers are not actually present at the event, but the promise of live stream video is that viewers are going to have a similar experience to those who are sitting in the room with President Obama. This “liveness” quality seems to be derived from a remediation of broadcast television and the illusion of presence.

So, how does it work?

Live stream video requires an on-site computer setup that is able to compress, encode, and stream the content in real time. Alternately, this technology can be outsourced to companies who will do this technical work. The video content is uploaded through a designated “media server” that is given instructions from the web server to send out data to specific recipients. Streaming video does not use the typical protocols such as FTP or TCP. Instead, streaming technology relies on protocols that facilitate the movement of data in real time. These include real-time transfer protocol, real-time streaming protocol, and real-time transport control protocol. They are also necessary for providing an extra layer of protection so that the servers are not overloaded with traffic (“How Streaming Video and Audio Work”).

The sender-to-recipient interaction seems reminiscent of the Shannon-Weaver Model of communication (otherwise known as the “transmission model”). The video is transmitted over a live stream to the recipient through the internet where noise from interrupted connections and other errors may occur. In his article about video programming on the internet, John Meisel provides a diagram that breaks down the communication between sender and recipient (Meisel 55). This diagram indicates that the production process may not be as straightforward as sending data across servers and protocols. The content must go through broadband service providers twice before arriving at its destination. Furthermore, Meisel writes that “streaming live video is more demanding in bandwidth requirements (Meisel 54).”

Meisel analyzes this production process from an economic perspective as well. He points out that “a specific economic concern from a competition perspective is whether these broadband network companies will discriminate against application providers…that are creating video networks (Meisel 61).” In other words, broadband network companies may block access to their competitors’ content. In regards to live stream video, there are several different players that could be caught up in the production process. Hulu was probably given permission to film and stream the White House Correspondents Dinner. C-SPAN was also streaming the event, and so there may have been competition over viewers. Additionally, it is unclear as to whether these companies use their own streaming services or outsource to another company. Viewers also had the option of visiting websites that are unaffiliated with TV companies, such as Competition seems centered around whose stream is passed around the most, and perhaps which institution is providing the best quality video stream of the event.

Live Stream Video Functions to Consider

This technology is available to anyone who has a computer and a robust broadband connection. Consequently, there are a variety of institutions and individuals who are using this media artefact in order to broadcast content. However, there are certain functions that remain the same for everyone. The first is the remediation of live broadcast television, and the second is the concept of presence. Both of these are used differently by various institutions (which will be discussed later with specific examples), but they also seem to be deeply embedded within this medium.

Live Broadcast Television Remediated Through Live Stream Video

The concept of “live” production was introduced with radio programming. In “Live from Cyberspace,” Philip Auslander writes that the first use of the term “live” “comes from the BBC Yearbook for 1934 (Auslander 17).” Radio listeners were not able to identify the sources for the sounds they were hearing. Consequently, there was no way to tell if the broadcast content was live or recorded unless the announcer made the distinction (Auslander 17). Auslander posits that the term “live” came into being precisely because of this confusion between live and recorded radio broadcasts. This notion of live broadcasted content continued on into the mid-20th century with live television. It could be argued that live video streaming over the Internet is simply another iteration of live broadcast content.

Remediation is described by multiple theorists to be a process through which new media is born. According to Lev Manovich, it is “the mix between older cultural conventions for data representation, access and manipulation and newer conventions of data representation, access and manipulation (Manovich 13).” Manovich alternately calls remediated media “meta-media” or “post-media (Manovich 21).” If live stream video content can be considered “meta-media”, then its content might be a combination of more familiar broadcast elements and newer forms of Internet technology. However, sending data over the web was not invented with live stream video content; live stream video technology is re-using these elements. Bolter and Grusin write that “…streaming video…cannot merely improve what the Web offered before but must “reinvent” the Web…What is new about new media is therefore also old and familiar: that they promise the new by remediating what has gone before (Bolter and Grusin 270).”

Live stream video’s remediation of live broadcast content has created economic tensions. Bolter and Grusin posit that “it is a struggle to determine whether broadcast television or the Internet will dominate the American and world markets (Bolter and Grusin 48).” Video streaming providers such as Netflix and Amazon are producing their own content, but there might be another aspect of video streaming that puts the Internet in such a contentious position with broadcast television. That aspect seems to be an increase in the adoption of live stream video technology. TV audiences have the option to choose a different medium for watching live content.

The first live stream video was “a coffee pot in the Trojan Room of Cambridge University to an intranetwork of computer scientists” in 1991, according to J. Macgregor Wise (Wise 425). Once live streaming video became more widespread and accessible, the popularity of webcams seemed to increase dramatically. Anyone with a decent computer and broadband connection would be able to distribute live content to millions of others. Each user has their own audience, and can produce videos in real time for their audience to “tune in” to. Juhlin, Engstrom, and Reponen make the point that “there remains a challenge for the designers of these services to develop the concept in order to support people’s appropriation and thereby democratize a medium which up to now has been entirely in the hands of well-trained professional TV-producers (Juhlin, Engstrom, Reponen 42).” Millions of users can set up webcams to record extremely long stretches of time that Wise refers to as “longue durée (Wise 427).” Viewers can catch small chunks of “longue durée” and return to them at any time. This differs from broadcast television producers, who may use live stream technology to produce content that is separated by the beginning and end of an event.

Whether a single webcam continuously recording a litter of puppies or CNN coverage of a celebrity funeral, the live stream video content draws in viewers who want to watch this content happen live. These viewers are not physically present during the taping, but watching the broadcast content seems to satisfy this desire for presence.

Illusion of presence

When a viewer opens up a live video stream, she or he is watching the content from the point of view of the camera. In a study titled “Amateur Vision and Recreational Orientation: Creating Live Video Together”, Engstrom, Perry, and Juhlin call this process “mediated looking (Engstrom, Perry, Juhlin 652).” They write that “camera users act as proxy viewers on behalf of…the eventual viewer of broadcast content (Engstrom, Perry, Juhlin 652).” It is through this act of “mediated looking” that viewers feel the pull between being present within the broadcast content and sitting in front of their computer screens. This also describes the concept of “telepresence” as described by Wise. Wise echoes others in his belief that this feeling is not particularly strong in the case of live stream videos. It might be considered “low telepresence” or “popular telepresence (Wise 428)”. Therefore, it seems that viewers are not completely taken in by the illusion of presence.

Mark Duffett wrote in “Imagined Memories” about Paul McCartney’s “Webcast from the Cavern” as a major event in live stream technology. He posed the question that if the consumers of this webcast know that they cannot interact with other viewers watching the event or Paul McCartney, then “Why did they accept that Webcast-ing could reproduce liveness (Duffett 312)?” Duffett then makes the connection between reproduction of liveness with Benjamin’s concept of aura (Duffett 315). It is important to note that while Benjamin discussed loss of aura in terms of mechanical reproduction, he came to the conclusion that technologies such as photography and film had in fact divorced themselves from the concepts of ritual and aura. Instead, these works became “designed for reproducibility (Benjamin 256).” In the case of Paul McCartney’s Webcast, Duffett posits that McCartney’s event’s aura of liveness was reduced to a mere “marketing technique (Duffett 314).” In other words, the live stream video content was reproduced with the intent of redistribution in real time. The liveness of the content is then repurposed through this reproductive medium as a way to reach out to a wider audience. Does the online audience have a clearer view of McCartney than those present? Are there close-ups to his face? The streaming video provides a different experience of presence than the physically present audience because of its reproductive function.

Bolter and Grusin write that “the digital medium wants to erase itself…there should be no difference between the experience of seeing a painting in person and on the computer screen, but this is never so (Bolter and Grusin 45).” They call this concept “hypermediacy.” Hypermediacy implies that the medium should not be noticeable (Bolter and Grusin 6), but Bolter and Grusin point out that “technology still contains many ruptures: slow frame rates, jagged graphics, bright colors, bland lighting, and system crashes (Bolter and Grusin 22).” This concept is true for live stream video content as well. Producers of this content want the reproduction of liveness to occur as smoothly as possible, but there may be a certain amount of time lag for weak broadband connections and other disruptions that make the medium more visible to a viewer. The concepts of presence and liveness are especially vulnerable to these disruptions, and would most likely have a negative effect on the viewer’s experience.

On a final note about presence, Baudrillard wrote that “..the confusion of the medium and the message is the first great formula of this new era. There is no longer a medium in the literal sense: it is now intangible, diffused, and diffracted in the real…(Baudrillard 22).” While other thinkers (such as Benjamin) wrote about alienation in regards to video content, Baudrillard is commenting on a new era of diffusion. He attributes this newer concept to McLuhan, and goes on to posit that the medium cannot easily be separated out from the reality it captures. The borderlines between the concept of presence, the remediated broadcast function, the video screen display, and the actual content being recorded blur together in a live stream video. Viewers are experiencing liveness through this tangled form of hyperreality, and producers are using that remediated liveness as part of their intended message to the audience. These concepts can be explored more concretely through several specific case studies.

Case Studies

Live stream video technology can and has been used in a multitude of ways and by millions of different people. These case studies explore only a small percentage of the types of live stream videos on the internet. The first case study looks at how large institutions involved in news media use live stream video technology. The second case study is a discussion of Marina Abramović’s “The Artist is Present” exhibit at MoMA in 2010. The final case study analyzes live stream video on a smaller scale.

News Media

Paul Sagan wrote an article in 2010 called “The Internet & the future of news,” in which he provided numerous statistics about the growing number of people viewing online broadcast content. During President Obama’s inauguration in 2009, for example, “the Akami global content delivery network served more than seven million simultaneous streams…a number that rivals the audience for many televised cable channels (Sagan 122).” It seems that news media institutions rely on the remediation of live broadcast television in order to capture this audience.

There seems to be a remediation loop between broadcast television and the networks’ websites that host live stream video content. Bolter and Grusin used CNN’s website and televised newscasts as a specific example of this feedback between the two forms of media. “The CNN site is hypermediated…yet the web site borrows its sense of immediacy from the televised CNN newscasts. At the same time televised newscasts are coming to resemble web pages in their hypermediacy (Bolter and Grusin 9).” ABC News has seen similar changes, as demonstrated in the following images:

The first image is from a 1981 broadcast of the Royal Wedding, the second image is from the 2011 broadcast of the Royal Wedding, and the third image is taken from the ABC.Go webpage.

The website does seem to borrow from the immediacy and liveness of broadcast television, especially with two columns that point out “latest headlines” and “this just in…”. However, the contrast between the first two images indicate that broadcast television has been influenced by the internet in terms of formatting. The 2011 broadcast has a headline – “The Royal Wedding” – as well as a Twitter icon on the bottom of the screen. It could be argued that there has been a remediation of remediation at work over the past few years. In other words, the webpage became formatted to support the immediacy of news coverage, and then live news coverage in turn became formatted to support the immediacy of the webpage. So, how does live stream video fit into all of this?

Here is an image of ABC’s live stream coverage of President Obama’s Commencement Address at Ohio State University:

The formatting of the live stream video seems very similar to broadcast television. There is the headline on the bottom and the word “live” appears multiple times around the screen. Additionally, there is another window on the right side that gives viewers the option to read comments about the video. The multiple windows and columns layout seems reminiscent of the ABC webpage. All of these multiple remediations and reproductions of layouts seem to support Benjamin’s concept of creating reproducible media. ABC probably does not care much about the loss of “liveness” in live streaming an event like the President’s commencement address. The creation of this content was produced with the intention of reproduction. It can be embedded anywhere, watched on phones or tablets, and significantly expands ABC’s audience.

Many who are watching live news coverage are familiar with the feeling of watching live content without physically being in the same space as the camera crew. In the Ohio State University Commencement Speech, viewers watching the online coverage know that they are not having the same experience as those who are attending the ceremony. Online viewers are watching what seems to be a continuous close-up shot of President Obama, and are therefore developing a different memory of the event than those who were sitting in the crowd and watching him from afar. Most viewers are used to this type of live event coverage. ABC is simply remediating this coverage for the internet. However, live broadcasts of events occurring overseas may warp viewers’ senses of presence.

Bolter and Grusin wrote about news coverage during Princess Diana’s funeral. The funeral occurred in the middle of the night for most American viewers. Consequently, videotaped footage from the funeral appeared on one screen, and live footage of Princess Diana’s body being carried to its final resting place appeared in another window alongside the funeral. “This crowding together of images,” they wrote, “the insistence that everything that technology can present must be presented at one time – this is the logic of hypermediacy (Bolter and Grusin 269).” It was important for the news media to show both videos side-by-side because immediacy demanded that viewers be able to watch what they missed without neglecting the ongoing proceedings. This might have distorted viewers’ perspectives on the content of the videos because displaying multiple windows invites comparison. During the Royal Wedding in 1981, the broadcast replayed footage from earlier in the day and also displayed “live” footage of Buckingham Palace at night. This emphasizes the time difference, and also allows the news media to edit the footage in a way that fits the message that they would like to communicate to their viewers.

The Royal Wedding in 2011, however, was broadcast live both through live stream video technology and on television. This meant that coverage started at 4am EST or earlier. Many Americans woke up very early to watch the wedding live, and also threw parties to celebrate the event as it happened (“Americans Wake Early to Watch Royal Wedding”). This contrasts with the other two events because Americans might have felt an enhanced sense of presence by having to wake up early to watch the wedding. The camera angles and close-ups all continue to indicate that Americans are not actually present at the wedding, but the time zone difference may have increased the telepresence involved in watching the wedding live.

Marina Abramović

In 2010, David Hart – Media Producer for the Museum of Modern Art in New York – wrote on the official MoMA blog that “when the Marina Abramović exhibition was starting to come together, the staff in all the departments here struggled with how best to communicate the ideas in the exhibition online – since so much of the point of performance art has to do with being in a location, in a moment in time (“Live-Streaming Marina Abramović: Crazy or Brave?”).” The decision was made to stream the exhibition online, and Abramović’s work became available to anyone with access to a decent Internet connection. There were a variety of reactions to the live stream video of the exhibition, and many of these reactions were related to the significance of performance art. It seems that the live stream video coverage of the piece became a tool for MoMA to package and market performance art rather than, as David Hart wrote, “a great way to engage with art (“Live-Streaming Marina Abramović: Crazy or Brave?”)”.

The viewers who visited the MoMA website and spent time watching the live video might have experienced the performance art piece very differently than those who were at the museum during that time. Claudine Isé reviewed the exhibition on a blog post for the website Bad at Sports and asked: “What’s the purpose of streaming a performance – one which purportedly explores what it means to ‘be present’ in this particular historical moment – for the benefit of anonymous internet users who can engage with it only by staring at their computer screens for a few seconds at a time (“MoMA’s Live Streaming Marina-Cam Invites Everyone to Be Present”). In fact, the Los Angeles Times reported that the live stream needed to be refreshed “periodically (“I See You: Marina Abramović live video-feed performance at MoMA”)”. Consequently, the viewers’ feelings of presence might have been considerably reduced through the medium of the live stream.

Performance art seems to challenge this idea of presence because of its finite duration. The other artworks in MoMA are present at all times, but a performance art piece is fleeting in comparison. The viewers in the gallery are aware of this, especially when they are sitting in front of the artist as part of the exhibit. However, viewers outside of MoMA are experiencing the performance through the streaming video medium. They are not present with the artist, and are viewing the performance from whatever angle the camera operator has chosen for the shot. They do not have as much agency in their experience of the piece as those in the gallery do. Additionally, they must refresh the feed of the performance if they want to continue watching. It could be argued, therefore, that the extremely low telepresence of this live stream has all but eliminated the aura of live performance art. If Marina intended for this performance to be recorded, then this live stream video could be considered a reproduction designed for reproduction. However, the decision was made by MoMA, who had their own ideas about how and why the performance should be distributed.

“I can’t imagine anyone watching for more than a minute or two,” Claudine Isé wrote, “which makes the Marina-cam little more than an online advertisement for the show itself (“MoMA’s Live Streaming Marina-Cam Invites Everyone to Be Present”).” Isé seemed to be questioning MoMA’s motives for broadcasting the performance using the “Marina-Cam.” If it was essentially a marketing strategy for the museum, then the museum’s attempts to distance themselves from the economics of the art world had been compromised. Pierre Bourdieu wrote about this concept of “disavowal (Bourdieu 261).” He explained that anything relating to monetary value is shunned because the art’s value is supposedly related to something beyond money. This “disavowal” can lead to events such as Marina Abramović’s “The Artist is Present” exhibition, which may hold a significant amount of “symbolic capital (Bourdieu 262).” Symbolic capital functions as a sort of credit towards prestige in the art world, and usually results in some monetary profit (Bourdieu 262). Marina’s exhibition held a great deal of symbolic capital because of her fame in the performance art field. The monetary profits made by the museum may not have been openly discussed because the experience should be considered priceless. However, the remediation of this experience through a live broadcast seems to bring economic value back into the picture and reduce the symbolic value of the piece. Amelia Jones attended the exhibit and wrote an article about the concept of “presence” in regards to Marina Abramović’s decision to reproduce some of her previous works at MoMA. Jones wrote that “…market pressure inspires the range of methods that have been developed to ‘document’ the work and/or its re-enactments and thus to secure the work in its place in the markets of objects and histories (Jones 20).” Part of increasing the economic value of this exhibition involves treating it the same as any other exhibition, which involves a certain amount of sensationalist marketing in order to attract attention. One of the strategies MoMA used was to rely on the broadcast television function of the live video feed to promote the exhibit. Viewers were treated to “live” coverage of the exhibit in hopes that this would attract attention to MoMA.

The live stream video of Marina Abramović’s “The Artist is Present” may have had a significant impact on the way the art piece was received by the general public. The aura of the performance was almost entirely replaced by the video’s function as reproducible and remediated content. MoMA used these functions of presence and remediation in order to market and distribute the performance.

“Draw Friends”

“Draw Friends” is a live internet show. Several cartoonists enter into a Google+ Hangout that is then recorded onto a live stream YouTube video. The cartoonists usually spend some time chatting with each other directly to camera, but most of the show is devoted to watching them draw after they turn on the “screenshare” function of Google+ Hangout. The host, Terence, will occasionally call out various themes or characters for the cartoonists to draw. However, the majority of the drawings derive from conversations the cartoonists are engaged in or projects that they may be working on at the time of the broadcast. Additionally, there is a comments window for viewers to communicate with the cartoonists, ask questions, and make drawing requests. After the broadcast, the video is archived on YouTube and the cartoonists post their drawings from the episode onto their blogs.

This online live show seems to be a remediation of broadcast television. There is a host for the show and a cast of characters who participate in activities as dictated by the host. Additionally, viewers are encouraged to tune in to the live taping as an audience in order to interact with the cartoonists. It seems as though the creators behind “Draw Friends” rely on the remediation of the broadcast television show in order to organize the more familiar aspects of live stream video. The concept of the show is somewhat similar to Bob Ross’ show on PBS, in which the content of the show was devoted to his artistic process. Both Bob Ross’ show and “Draw Friends” possess a certain amount of “longue durée.” These long stretches of time in which the artist is drawing may be filled with conversation, or it may be completely silent. Viewers can walk away from the video and return to it at a later time to catch another segment of the process. The remediation of broadcast television situates the live video chat as a show, and is organized to mimic the television format.

However, Bob Ross’ show was not broadcast live and there was no interaction between Bob Ross and his audience. The “liveness” aspect of “Draw Friends” is grounded in the interaction function of the broadcast. Viewers do not feel like they are in the room with the cartoonists, but instead are encouraged to feel as if they are participating in the Google+ Hangout in real time. Their questions and suggestions change the direction of the show as it is being recorded. Additionally, the title “Draw Friends” indicate that the audience is welcomed into the group of cartoonists. In this case, presence is not linked with a physical location. Instead, it is associated with another live medium: the video chat.

The “screenshare” function is an example of Benjamin’s discussion of the ways in which the close-up revolutionized the way people saw the world around them. Benjamin wrote that “…just as enlargement not merely clarifies what we see indistinctly ‘in any case,’ but brings to light entirely new structures of matter, slow motion not only reveals familiar aspects of movements, but discloses quite unknown aspects within them (Benjamin 266).” The camera angle on Bob Ross’ show usually cycled between a close-up of his movements over the canvas and a wide shot of Ross standing in front of his easel. However, the “screenshare” function that the cartoonists use eliminates the artist from the shot. Instead, viewers watch the cursor move across the screen and sketch each drawing. They are presented with the viewpoint of the artist rather than standing behind or next to the artist. This may affect the way in which viewers perceive art and cartooning. Perhaps the elimination of the cartoonist results in an objectification of the artwork because the human aspect of the drawing went unnoticed. On the other hand, this extreme close-up of the digital canvas may have revealed gestures and techniques that viewers may not have picked up on from any other angle.


The three case studies indicate the ways in which live stream video technology’s remediation function and alteration of the concept of presence have had an effect on the consumption of different media forms. News media are using live stream video technology to further enhance the hypermediacy experience. Live event coverage is now remediated on the internet alongside all of the other media artefacts people use to get their news. Consequently, this demand for immediate “liveness” may have affected the concept of “presence,” as evidenced by the example of the 2011 Royal Wedding. The art world has also been affected by live stream video technology. There is a difference between viewing art on a screen instead of in person, which visitors to websites like the Google Art Project may attest to. Similarly, performance art is perceived differently through the lens of a live internet broadcast. The ability to distribute this content to a wider audience is attractive to museums, but the unique characteristics of the art piece may have been lost in the process. Finally, live stream video has opened up new channels for individuals and small independent organizations to broadcast content. These videos can be short segments, internet shows, or they can be continuous rolling footage. These small scale live videos also capture moments that people may not have noticed. It remains to be seen whether live stream video technology will have a lasting effect on large scale communication networks, but for now its short-term effects are becoming more noticeable with every passing year.

Further Studies for Consideration

Here are a couple of related areas of discussion:

1. How can the producer’s perspective be further analyzed? How do they interact with the interface for live stream video technology software?

2. There are a large number of websites that allow illegal live stream video of television shows. These live stream hyperlinks are usually passed around social networks to people who cannot access a television show because they live outside of the show’s country. What are the implications of this illegal activity?

Works Cited

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Baudrillard, Jean, and Sheila Faria. Glaser. Simulacra and Simulation. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, 1994. Print.

Benjamin, Walter, Howard Eiland, and Michael William. Jennings. Walter Benjamin Selected Writings. Vol. 4. Cambridge, MA: Belknap of Harvard UP, 2003. Print.

Bolter, J. David, and Richard A. Grusin. Remediation: Understanding New Media. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 1999. Print.

Bourdieu, Pierre, and Richard Nice. “The Production of Belief: Contribution to an Economy of Symbolic Goods.” Media Culture Society (1980): 261-93. SAGE. Web.

Duffett, Mark. “Imagined Memories Webcasting as a “live’ Technology and the Case of Little Big Gig.” Information, Communication & Society 6.3 (2003): 307-25. Google Scholar. Web.

Engstrom, Arvid, Mark Perry, and Oskar Juhlin. “Amateur Vision and Recreational Orientation: Creating Live Video Together.” CSCW (2012): n. pag. Google Scholar. Web.

Gurevitch, M., S. Coleman, and J. G. Blumler. “Political Communication –Old and New Media Relationships.” The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 625.1 (2009): 164-81. JSTOR. Web.

Hart, David. “Live-Streaming Marina Abramović: Crazy or Brave?” Web log post. Inside/Out. MoMA, 15 Mar. 2010. Web. <>.

Isé, Claudine. “MoMA’s Live Streaming Marina-Cam Invites Everyone to Be Present.” Web log post. Bad At Sports. N.p., 22 Mar. 2010. Web. <>.

Jones, Amelia. ““The Artist Is Present”: Artistic Re-enactments and the Impossibility of Presence.” TDR/The Drama Review 55.1 (2011): 16-45. Google Scholar. Web.

Juhlin, Oskar, Arvid Engstrom, and Erika Reponen. “Mobile Broadcasting – The Whats and Hows of Live Video as a Social Medium.” MobileHCI’10 (2010): n. pag. Google Scholar. Web.

Knight, Christopher. “I See You: Marina Abramović Live Video-feed Performance at MOMA.” Web log post. Culture Monster. Los Angeles Times, 15 Mar. 2010. Web. <>.

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The Bourdieunomics of Target and Collaborative Marketing

In the past few years, discount retail stores have been expanding marketing practices beyond traditional barriers by partnering with higher-end brands in a series of capsule collections. Target is the best-known retail giant in mastering these kinds of partnerships, having collaborated with up and coming designers like Jason Wu and Prabal Gurung, as well as established brands like Isaac Mizrahi and Missoni, the latter of which was the retailer’s most successful venture. Each of these collections not only drove sales, but also made Target stand apart from similar, low-price retailers. In contrast to the clothing sold at Wal-Mart or K-Mart, which propelled a strictly budget conscious sentiment, Target managed to feed off some of the prestige associated with fashion brands outside of its industrial scope. In doing so, Target set the tone for how products that would have otherwise been regarded as low-end, could increase their value with semiotic and cultural associations of a higher quality label.

That said, not every Target partnership has been outstandingly successful. The failure of the 2012 Target/Neiman Marcus holiday collaboration inherently proposed the idea that collaborative marketing may have a cultural capital threshold that cannot always translate to the masses, especially if the terms set by branding semiotics are not carried out in the ultimate product. This begs the question of what factors into the creation of this threshold, and how can it be strategically adhered to in successful collaborations.

This essay will use Target as a case study in attempting to hone in on the cultural capital of the most and least successful marketing partnerships, while identifying whether or not one brand theoretically benefits more than the other whenever these partnerships are established. Ultimately, this essay will demonstrate how although collaborative marketing works to the benefit of the lower-end collaborator, it will consistently perpetuate the status quo of cultural capital in the marketplace, and in some cases exacerbate that difference when the partnerships fail to produce the desired economic outcome.

The Semiotics of Branding According to Barthes

In most cases, branding comes across as a natural association of a certain meaning between a physical object and some kind of idea that the consumer finds relatable enough to want to actually purchase that object. The latter of the two heavily depends on semiotics to forge this type of association for the consumer, since products rarely have obvious labels describing their symbolic intentions. When applied to retail items, this relationship between the physical object and its implied meaning becomes more complex, since the product can be manipulated to mean a variety of things depending on who wears it and in what situation they do so. However, the essence of how clothing demonstrates this type of semiotic representation carries across all designers and retailers alike.

As discussed by Barthes, what “[people] grasp is not at all one term after the other, but the correlation which unites them: there are, therefore, the signifier, and the signified and the sign, which is the associative total of the first two terms.” (Barthes, 111)  In this sense, the brand is the signifier and the clothes are the signified; combined they create a sign which can be communicated to the rest of the public, regardless of the specifics of the company from which that brand is derived. That said, in the context of this discussion, it is equally important to note that Barthes also describes that an individual’s understanding of the sign depends on there being “no latency of the concept in relation to the form.” (Barthes, 120) In application to Target’s retail products, this distinction could mean that the product must obviously signify its use and relationship to the brand. Without this obvious relationship, it can be inferred that a consumer may have difficulty relating to the product and would therefore be less willing to go through with the purchase. For example, Target can sell versions of Missoni scarves based on the fact that consumers have an expectation that the scarves will have the distinctive Missoni chevron pattern incorporated onto the physical product, thereby signifying association to the original brand and its established prestige.

Graham Allen’s take on Barthes further develops these applications of the sign, and its implications to the fashion industry especially in relation to the fashion cycle necessitating particular behavior from customers. According to Allen, fashion “passes real garments through a series of structures until it finally meets the public with a meaning, a sign.” (Allen, 40) In other words, the meaning created in fashion objects is knowingly created to communicate a particular message to their eventual purchaser. This message is most obviously communicated through the brand name of the retail objects, and with enough repetition those objects can be expected to consistently communicate a specific type of sign every time they are put out into the marketplace. Again, we can relate this notion back to Target’s well-known success with the Missoni line since.

To maintain the difference between the high-end version of Missoni products and the Target versions of the products, Target chose to maintain the Missoni chevron pattern on all of its products as a way to signify their belonging to the Missoni line. However, the products passed through “structures” to further focus those original signs to the Target shopper by way of color schemes and inclusion of products that Missoni does not produce on the higher-end retail platform. This type of uniquely forged repetition created a relevant structure that is meaningful to the Target shopper in a way that actual Missoni products may not be able to create.

Missoni Brand Scarf
as sold on

This type of expectation for a “newer” version of something that already carries a type of significance, is what Allen attributes to allowing fashion “to speed up consumption, to lock people (women in the main) into an annual system which can generate consumption through a vocabulary of interchangeable, layered and repeatable functions.” After all, it isn’t as though a completely new fashion item is introduced to the marketplace every season– shirts, pants, dresses, skirts and the like remain as they are— but rather, every seasonal collection produces a varied form of an already existing, already signified object. This assertion is why large companies like Target can partner with new designers every season with the promise of providing consumers with something they (technically) do not already own, therefore driving consumption for the latest in fashion.  

Furthermore, it must be noted that the portrayal of fashion in a semiotic sense results in a varied perspective, as demonstrated in Barthes’ chains of combinations and equivalences. In this sense, fashion items can be combined with a myriad of imagery to equate a type of sentiment for the consumer, or rather allow “the various levels or codes of the fashion system, …[to] work by turning signifieds into signifiers for new signifieds.”

Missoni for Target Scarf
as shown on Being Zhenya, a fashion blog

From the retail branding perspective, when this constant updating of the chain of significance reaches a consumer, it becomes responsible for adding a new factor into the retailer’s existing product brand. In Target’s case, the seasonal partnerships with high-end brands lead consumers to expect higher-quality products from Target, and allow them to equate better quality with the retailer as opposed to its competition.

Target’s Cultural Capital Conundrum According to Bourdieu

Despite the many cases of well-executed branding semiotics Target has put in place throughout its various partnerships, the economic capital of branding begs the question of why consumers value these products in the first place. While it is true that fashion semiotics inherently drive a consumerist mentality; there is nothing that directly forces consumers to want to put more value on one type of brand over another. As a whole, the field of marketing is largely based on turning semiotic meaning into tangible capital, and branding serves as a way to transition these immaterial sentiments into actual profits for a particular company or companies. In the case of retail collaborations like those of Target, combinatorial branding bridges the differences between the two independent companies in order to create a unique form of cultural capital associated with the resulting product.

Pierre Bourdieu provides an extensive context as to how value can be derived from things that are seemingly invaluable and intangible by noting, “priceless things have their price and the extreme difficulty of converting certain practices … into money is only due to the fact that this conversion is refused in the very intention that produces them.” (Bourdieu, 2) In simpler terms, Bourdieu is saying that the embodiment of certain behaviors leads to economic value, so the semiotics of a particular product and the impression it has on the consumer will create a value system that transcends tangibility.

Bourdieu goes on to break down this type of capital into cultural, economic, and social capital; of which social capital seems to be most appropriate to discuss in relation to Target’s retail practices. According to Bourdieu, social capital functions in accordance to people’s desire to belong to a certain group. Once admitted to the group, the group will then grant its members “the backing of collectivity- owned capital, a ‘credential’ which entitles them to credit, in the various senses of the word.” (Bourdieu, 9) Pairing this notion with the previously discussed benefits of ever-evolving fashion signifiers it is possible to apply social capital to types of brands. Some brands, like Missoni, have a well-established prestige surrounding their products, while other brands, like Target, are less highly regarded in the scope of fashion. Despite this, people who are interested in using fashion as a means of social capital will strive to gain membership into a more highly regarded group of – for lack of a better word – fashionistas.  That said, they may not necessarily be able to economically afford purchasing products from those brands, and therefore membership would be unattainable.

When applied to Target’s retail branding strategies, it could be said that Target derives success from providing these types of consumers with higher-valued credentials under created and attainable circumstances. While the average woman may not be able to spend hundreds of dollars on one Missoni scarf, she can spend less than a fraction of that on a Missoni for Target scarf. Additionally, by purchasing this scarf as opposed to a non-branded scarf or another non-label article of clothing, the consumer can claim membership into a subcategory of the group in which she (or he) strives to be included, because she would be demonstrating to the outside world that she knows the value of the significance of the established brand.

Furthermore, by outwardly communicating the knowledge of the importance of a particular brand, the consumer is demonstrating how “social capital is never completely independent of [cultural and economic capital] because the exchanges instituting mutual acknowledgement presuppose the reacknowlegement of a minimum of objective homogeneity.” (Bourdieu, 11) Given Target’s dependence on high-end brands having already established themselves according to cultural and economic standards as being better regarded than Target itself, Target is not independently creating the consumer’s desire to belong to a more valuable social group by way of their purchases. Target therefore requires the difference between its products and high-end products to continue to exist in order to be able to foster an appeal to its customers. Without the pre-existing difference between Missoni and Target, or Target and a myriad of other upscale brands, Target would not be able to sell the partnered versions of products by branding them as being better than regular low priced products.

It may seem intuitive to believe that Target is doing itself a disservice by depending on the prestige of others, rather than improving its own prestige. However, this is not the case since the creation of a group of consumers who have aspirations that are more expensive than what they can realistically afford, can actually strengthen the divides between various forms of retail social capital. This divide thereby solidifies both Target’s and the higher-end brands’ consumer bases.

As mentioned by Bourdieu, social capital lends itself to being “endlessly reproduced…through the exchange (of gifts, words…etc.), which presupposes and produces mutual knowledge and recognition.” (Bourdieu, 9) In terms of Target’s partnerships, groups of consumers recognize the value in the brands – the high-end consumers will value authenticity, while low-end consumers will value the association to authenticity, which establishes a greater social relationship between products, thereby adding to the social capital of each brand.

Various Products from the Missoni for Target line

Ultimately, the establishment of this relationship is what translates into sales and brand empowerment on both ends of the retail spectrum. Bourdieu describes social capital as being able to accrue “from a relationship is that much greater to the extent that the person who is the object of it is richly endowed with capital…the possessors of an inherited social capital, symbolized by a great name, are able to transform all circumstantial relationships into lasting connections.” (Bourdieu, 9) When applied to retail entities, this assertion highlights why the relationships between Target and its high-end partners works so well; the highly regarded brands, like Missoni, do not have to sacrifice their established reputations or the physical properties of their products, but are still able to self-promote their names through the popularity of the possessors of “inherited social capital” from the sales of Target versions of their products.

In summation, both Target and its partners benefit from propelling consumer desire for belonging to either an unattainable group, or maintaining membership of an existing group. Target customers will inherit social capital from wearing affordable versions of expensive brands, while customers of those expensive brands will maintain social capital by wearing the products that originated the Target customers’ desire to belong to unattainable social membership.

Defining the Success of Social Capital in Practice

As mentioned throughout this discussion, Target’s partnership with Missoni has been an outstanding success story in terms of demonstrating how marketing can work across established brands to benefit multiple companies at once. Customers lined up outside of stores in the early hours of the morning, products were sold out nationwide, Target’s website crashed and some of the most popular items were later sold on eBay to collectors for more than their original value.

This type of success is widely attributable to consumers’ semiotic understanding of the Missoni brand, as well as its established social capital incorporation. To fully understand the implementation and success of these intangible concepts to the larger brands, it is necessary to directly apply them to physical objects. In the case of the Target Missoni partnership, there is no better example than the Target version of the Missoni scarf, which visibly incorporates the original brand’s style into its pattern and overall properties.

In the 1950s, Milan-based fashion designers Rosita and Ottavio Missoni created a line of ready-to-wear knitwear that soon became well known for its colorful zigzags design. The thinly shaped prints would often incorporate as many as 40 colors into one cohesive garment design, and eventually came to represent the entire Missoni brand. The original Missoni patterns typically used thin chevron lines of threads in various color combinations to create an eye-catching outcome; the Target versions of these scarves tweaked the pattern to be recognizable enough without completely replicating the high-end versions.

Missoni print scarf via

As seen above, the original Missoni prints would use thinner patterns to make the otherwise busy print more subtle and wearable. Additionally, while the colors used in this print were often from various color families, the subtleness of the pattern made the colors seem more cohesive. According to Yuri Lotman’s assessment of cultural longevity, this pattern would leave a lasting, culturally semiotic impression the marketplace. As discussed by Lotman, “the texts considered most valuable are those of a maximum longevity from the point of view and according to the standard of the culture in question,” (Lotman, 215) which when translated to fashion, makes MIssoni a valuable partner for Target since its design text has an established longevity.

That said, Lotman also specifies that the hierarchy of value can also “correspond to the hierarchy of materials upon which the text are affixed and to the hierarchy of places and the means of their preservation.” (Lotman, 216) In relation to fashion items, this distinction highlights how despite Target’s inheritance of the Missoni semiotic value, the hierarchy of the products is maintained in places since the materials and design used in creating the high-end version of the scarf would still be noticeably different than the low-end versions created for the Target partnership.

For example, in the Target collection, the chevron patterns are visibly exaggerated in terms of the known qualities of the original Missoni print. The stripes are much more jarring to the eye and combine opposing color combinations that bring attention to the pattern itself, rather than to the product as a whole in order to make the semiotic association to Missoni visible to the consumer. In relation to social capital, the customer who strives to achieve membership into the group of people who can wear Missoni prints regularly, but can’t afford to purchase the original version, this print lends enough noticeable social capital to be seen as pseudo-fashion forward by others who are of the same mentality, while still keeping with in the budget of that group. On the other hand, members of the group who do wear the original Missoni prints, maintain their social capital by wearing items that do not look like the Target version and can implicitly claim to be unattainable, thereby keeping Target’s consumers constantly striving to achieve that which they cannot attain. This association of lasting cultural value, semiotics and translation to social capital are the underlying sources for why these marketing partnerships work.

exaggerate Missoni print on Target sweater

As a further example, we can refer to a similar partnership between low-cost fashion retailer H&M and the esteemed fashion brand, Versace. Similar to the Target/Missoni line, H&M and Versace aimed to bring high-end fashion to consumers who were striving to possess membership into an elite group, but were financially unable to gain admittance. Like the Target line, H&M utilized exaggerations of existing Versace design concepts, which included an emphasized use of bright colors, studs, and Grecian-inspired imagery, and can be seen in a more refined manner on original Versace designs. In doing so, H&M’s products were reminiscent of the semiotics of the existing Versace brand, but were bringing attention to the inherited properties previously established by Versace, as opposed to the esteemed quality and uniqueness of the products themselves. Again, as with Missoni and Target, the success of the H&M collaboration with Versace depended on established brand longevity to create interest in the low-end consumer base. Since both the Versace name and the brand were well known, the collection had results similar to those of Target, causing consumer pandemonium.

examples from the H&M Versace line

Based on this kind of consumer demand and popularity, it is easy to see how the low-to-high-end marketing partnership trend can gain traction. However, it is still necessary to demonstrate that the transition from highly regarded products to mass-produced replicas of those products can be beneficial to both types of brands. After all, it is very possible to follow the intuition that brands coming from polar opposite ends of the price and quality spectrum would do better if they kept their identities separate from one another.

When applying these marketing trends with Randal Johnson’s discussions on the topic of the structure and functioning of the field of restricted production, the fact remains that the high-end version of the product will maintain esteem over a more widely available version of that product. Johnson asserts that the “autonomy of a field of restricted production can be measured by its power to define its own criteria for the production and evaluation of its products.” Additionally, this kind of autonomy “implies translation of all external determinations in conformity with its own principles of functioning.” (Johnson, 126)

As applied to the partnership between Target and Missoni (and any other similar marketing partnership), this reasserts the existing hierarchy between the brands since the high-end brand is not only sought after by the low-end brand for its implementation of defined brand criteria, but in doing so, also conforms to the high-end brand’s function. In other words, the success of Target’s Missoni line depended on Target agreeing to use Missoni’s existing standards for original Missoni products, as well as Target’s adherence to those visible standards. This is why the chevron pattern was exaggerated as the dominating design factor in Target’s Missoni products, rather than some lesser-known aspect of Missoni’s designs. Additionally, the function of Missoni as a fashion label lends popularity to the Target versions of the Missoni fashion items. This is why the most successful versions of these partnerships include items the higher-end brand is already known to produce.

Straying from the functions established by the scarcer brand results in failed marketing strategies, which Target experienced in its partnership with Neiman Marcus for the 2012 holiday line. In the Neiman Marcus collaboration, designers simply lent their names to the items sold at both Target and Neiman Marcus, thereby confusing the two brands and their products and straying from the functions of items they were known to typically produce. High-end fashion brands like Alice + Olivia were selling bicycles, and couture designers like Oscar de la Renta and Diane von Furstenberg were lending their brand to dog food bowls and yoga mats, rather than gowns and wrap dresses. Clearly, customers who strive to be seen as members of a group who can afford to wear these labels, would want items that function the same way, rather than items that simply say the designers name with no relation to the items that signify their higher cultural importance.

Alice + Olivia for Target Bike

The failure of this partnership clearly demonstrated that although collaborations between scarcer and mass-produced brands can be successful, the scarce, high-end brand ultimately has power over how those items will be received due to its existing social capital. 


It is possible to concur that although these trendy marketing strategies can enhance the consumer appeal of both brands involved, as well as each of the brands individual semiotic identity, it is equally important to note the intricacy of this relationship. The products created out of these partnerships must adhere to consumers’ existing knowledge of what each brand is capable of producing, so that the membership pertaining to the consumers of those products is not lost to both onlookers as well as other members of the group. Additionally, this marketing partnership must be weary of establishing a visible, semiotic connection to the originating brand in order to make the partnership valuable to consumers. With these specifications in mind, it is possible to understand how regardless of where fashion originates, it is an ongoing reinvention of planned visuals that consumers use to create a personal identity, even if this identity is created unconsciously.

Works Cited and Consulted:

Allen, Graham. Roland Barthes (Routledge Critical Thinkers Series), on Semiology. New York: Routledge, 2003, 33-53.

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

The Forms of Capital.” [Original version, 1983; English trans., P. Bourdieu, “The Forms of Capital,” in John G. Richardson, editor, Handbook of Theory and Research for the Sociology of Education (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1986), 242-258.]

Johnson, Randal. The Field of Cultural Production, ed. (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1993), 1-25, 29-40, 75-111, 112-141

Yuri Lotman, “On the Semiotic Mechanism of Culture“. New Literary History, Vol. 9, No. 2, Soviet Semiotics and Criticism: An Anthology (Winter, 1978), pp. 211-232. The Johns Hopkins University Press

Gunnar Lind Haase Svendsen, “On the Wealth of Nations: Bourdieuconomics and Social Capital,” Theory and Society, Vol. 32, No. 5/6, (Dec., 2003), pp. 607-631.

Visuals Referenced in Order of Use:

1. Jason Wu for Target:

2. Missoni Scarf via

3. Missoni for Target Scarf:

4. Missoni for Target Products:

5. Missoni scarf print:

6. Missoni for Target sweater:

7. Versace for H&M:

8. Alice + Olivia for Target bicycle:

9. The Devil Wears Prada, 2006. clip via

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.


A Failed Media Revolution


The Arab Spring’s winds of change reached Syria in March of 2011, bringing with them a strong will for freedom. For decades, Syrians have been deprived of their freedoms and basic human rights, including freedom of expression. The people have revolted to demand those rights back, and to end an era of dictatorship, oppression, and injustice.

The Syrian uprising – like the previous Arab uprisings – has been largely fueled, influenced, and driven forward by the force of the Internet and social media. The Syrian case in particular has seen a significant revolution in the use and utilization of such communication technologies. This was motivated by the strong will Syrians felt to speak out the realities of what was going on and debunk the lies and manipulations of state-owned television. As philosopher and linguist Noam Chomsky states, mass media is a tool of propaganda in the hands of governments who “manufacture consent” through media, filter out whatever opposes their views, and frame issues according to their benefit. This has been the case in Syria for decades, where the government heavily regulated all media sources and denied people from rights to freedom of press and freedom of speech. To make matters worse, when the revolution was sparked, the regime prevented all foreign media from entering the country, and limited coverage to its official state-owned media.

Nevertheless, the presence of new media technologies in today’s world, and namely social media, has given today’s Syrians a golden opportunity and boundless power to show the world the truth and express their uncensored views, opinions. Over the span of two years, Syrians, who were for decades afraid to speak out in the simplest of forms, have created a very rich online media presence. A large volume of material that includes photographs, graphics, videos, music, e-magazines, animations, comics, and other forms, has filled Syrian cyber space.

Some History

In February of 1982, Hafez Al-Assad, who was president at the time, ordered troops to besiege the city of Hama and commit wide massacres in order to quell an uprising started by the Muslim Brotherhood, a political party that opposed Assad’s Baathist government. As a result of this crackdown, and according to Amnesty International, 10,000 – 25,000 people were killed, the vast majority civilians. The Syrian Human Rights Committee claims the number to have possibly reached 40,000 people. At the time, there was no Internet, no mobile phones, and very minimum media capabilities. Those events passed by and were forgotten by the world. They hardly have any documentation or records available.

Slidehow of images from the 1982 Hama Massacre

Bashar Al-Assad’s crackdown against the revolution today is very similar to what his father Hafez has done in the 80s. A major difference is, that in 1982, a single opposing political party in a single city carried out the uprising. The current revolution, however, is an uprising of the people across the entire country.

At the early stages of the current revolution, elders and people who witnessed what happened in 1982 were very critical, and did not believe a revolution would succeed in overthrowing the government. Many even opposed it, in fear of repetition of the dreadful, bloody outcome in 1982. However, this was not the case for younger generations. Many of them, when warned and reminded about what happened in Hama, would respond saying something along the lines of “we didn’t have good media then! This time, we have the Internet and we are showing the world what is happening in real time. People will be able to see us the truth and will support us.”

Unfortunately, this has not been the case. The rich, large volume, and high-quality content Syrians created to communicate their revolution’s events and aspirations seems to have failed in influencing global audiences, and has not been much of game changer when it comes to gaining global opinion and support. Many people in the West still do not know what is going on, some haven’t even heard of Syria altogether. The Washington Post very recently published an article titled “Half of Americans can’t identify Syria on a map”, after over two years of ongoing revolt and conflict in Syria. Interestingly, the article compares this with finding with another statistic: 80 percent of Americans correctly identified the Twitter logo. This proves that most Americans are acquainted with and are using social media, and yet many of them are not well informed on Syria. So why does this divide exist? And why hasn’t Syria gone viral beyond Syrians or Arabs despite the huge volume of news and information constantly being fed to the social media websites by Syrian activists?

This essay will explore different examples of some outstanding media content and campaigns created by Syrians, and will de-black box and analyze them based on communications theories, such as Latour and Callon’s Actor Network Theory and Danesi’s semiotics theory to understand why they have not been effective in making an influence on a global scale. It will also look and compare those examples with an example of a hugely successful promotional campaign “Kony 2012”, which promoted a very similar cause to the Syrian one, and which has become the most viral video in social media history.. Conclusions will be drawn from this comparison to understand why this particular campaign has succeeded and what it can teach Syrian activists so they can improve their social media outreach and let the voice of their cause reach global audiences.

Actor-Network Theory

Although social media is a very modern communication medium, it is nothing but a reconfiguration of older and previous forms of communication rather than being “new” or replacing preexisting systems. Thus, it follows the same communication theories of all forms of media. Understanding this is crucial in order to be able to fully utilize its potential and build powerful messages to be carried through it.

By looking at Bruno Latour and Michel Callon’s Actor-Network Theory, it is recognized that there is much more to the success of any media than just the quality of its content. Some material may appear to be very powerful in terms of production quality, but when used or applied does not show results as it is expected. This is because media is not a neutral force, and it cannot be viewed a single entity – but is rather a dynamic processes and a complex network of players, or nodes – social, economic, technological, and ideological, and others. Consequently, the significance and power of media does not only lie within the content itself, but rather the connections and networks between all those nodes and their positions within the network. The more well arranged and strong such connections are, the more powerful media is. It can be observed that Syrians have focused much more on the quality of the content itself, and have – to a large extent – neglected the significance of the relationships and networks that allow such content to exist in the first place. Factors like language, culture, social norms, and so on have not been well considered in most productions made by Syrians. This has resulted in keeping Syrian media networks to connect with Syrians only, isolating them from external, global networks and thus the rest of the global population. Agency in those productions is limited to be to and from Syrians, distributed only among Syrians, and thus failing to influence anyone outside this network.

This video is a compilation of the works of Wissam Al Jazairy, a Syrian graphics designer and digital painter who gained fame during the revolution through work he shares through his Facebook page. He is probably the best known revolution graphics designer. His work is compelling and beautiful, and captures highlight moments and events of the revolution, turning them into visual masterpieces. However, the reach of his work has been largely limited to a Syrian-only audience. This is mainly because of his  heavy dependance on messages and visualizations derived from Syrian cultural to create his work. Also, his influence is detailed, current events that only Syrians tend to follow, and thus only they can understand the coded messages in those paintings.

Semiotic Theory & Language & Culture Barriers

Marcel Danesi has put forward a theory that states that any form of media content consists of codes that carry the information meant to be transmitted, and such codes are defined by three that features that are necessary to make the media powerful in working and delivering those codes. Those features are representationality, interpretability, and contextualization. For media content to reach global audiences, it should represent something that is appreciated and understandable by global audiences. A common feature seen in the content created by Syrians is their assumption that everyone is familiar with Syrian history, politics, and the country’s situation, when in fact, global audiences and audiences who take freedom and human rights fore granted (Western audiences in particular) do not know such knowledge nor do they understand it, and at most times they cannot envision what concepts like dictatorships, crackdowns, or a government killing its own people are, without them being explained to them clearly beforehand. Additionally, heavy dependence on Syrian culture in creating those codes creates is a barrier that limits understanding. Therefore, the codes in Syrian’s messages represent ideas that are not easily understandable by global audiences.

Secondly, and this is the most obvious factor concerned with interpretability – the lack of a common language between sender and receiver automatically cancels the interpretability component, since non-Arabs cannot understand Arabic, the language used in creating most of this media content. Finally, in regards to contextualization, and vey much like the issue with the representationality component, messages coded in the media content cannot be understood by global audiences without having proper context, or being given background information on the issues being addressed. Many messages appear to be lacking context to people who are unfamiliar with the culture or historical backgrounds Syria. 

This is an episode from the YouTube animation series “People’s Palace” produced by the YouTube channel “Wikisham” which ridicules regime officials in a satirical way. Even though English captions are provided, the story of the series builds upon the assumption that that the viewer is familiar with who the characters are and the nature of events in Syria.  Since this is not the case except for Syrian audiences, it is hard to see such a series go viral globally.

 Another example:





 Sequential art and comics from the Facebook page “Comic4Syria” uses English to tell stories of the revolution and the regime crackdown. However, even though the language barrier is gone, people who do not have background information on Syria and the are not familiar with the main story, history, culture, and nature of events do not fully understand the message or significance of the story.

A Comparison to Kony2012

Kony2012 is a short film that was released on March 5th 2012. It was produced by the NGO Invisible Children, and aimed at creating awareness and action among the general global public to support the fighting and capturing of International Criminal Court fugitive, Joseph Kony, the rebel group LRA leader, who kidnapped and recruited children as soldiers into his rebel army, used girls as sex slaves, and killed innocent people in Uganda. He is responsible for killing 100,000, abducting 70,000, and forcing more than two million people out of their homes to seek refuge in four neighboring countries. This cause is very similar to the Syrian cause in many ways. It is a cause for human rights and the combat of oppression and injustices inflicted by a dictator, and it is a cause that is related to a remote area of the world nobody knows much about and which has a culture very different from American or popular culture.

The video and its campaign were a huge success. It was ranked by TIME as the most viral video of all time. It got over 100 million views, 3.5 million support pledges, and leaded to getting the US senate and House of Representatives to both sign resolutions to continue US involvement in the efforts to capture Joseph Kony.

So how did this film manage to capture so much global attention and support? There are a number of reasons that are can be concluded when de-black boxing the film content and drawing an analysis based on Latour/Callon and Danesi’s theories. The Actor-Network theory is utilized in that the film has an abundance of nodes strongly connecting different aspects together – cultural, political, psychological, technological, economic, and social. This allowed the film to create a strong connection with both American audiences and global audiences as well. There is a strong presence and utilization of American culture, which has been made into an influential global culture thanks to globalization, which is in turn facilitated by American cultural products such as Hollywood movies, television shows, pop music, and others. The film begins with cuts of scenes from popular viral videos, and is narrated by an American speaker, who is the filmmaker and one of the main characters of the film. He introduces his family – a standard American family who viewers can easily relate with. The filmmaker introduces his baby son who acts as a signifier and a symbol of hope and continuation of life. We see this child as he grows up and lives the story throughout the movie to strengthen this signified notion of hope all along the film.

The film also utilizes celebrity endorsement, and shows that global celebrities, such as Oprah, George Clooney, and several others have backed up the campaign and promoted it. Those figures are regarded as very influential and trusted sources in society, and their endorsements can be thought of as one of the most powerful components in the campaign.

The story slowly shifts from being the story of a typical, happy American family, into the story of their friend, a Ugandan boy that has suffered so much misery, pain, and loss due to Kony’s crimes. The notion of “friendship” here acts as a connecter, and creates a powerful relationship that empowers the message and connects the “nodes” of American culture and Ugandan politics together. If Jacob was just a random person in Uganda, with no clear connection to the American family characters the film starts with, this strong connection would have been lost and the film’s message would have been greatly weakened. Additionally, having the focus on Jacob, a single person’s story, rather than talking in general about the situation in Uganda, creates an even stronger connection between the viewer and the message. He is a person, just like us, with hopes, fears, dreams and emotions. It is easier for audiences to relate and be touched by a personal story rather than a general one. Jacob is shown in several moving shots, creating an emotional connection and a strong sense of apathy within the viewer. It is interesting to note that, some graphic and gruesome images are used, but only shown for a split second – long enough to shock the viewer and grab their attention without repelling them and making them lose will to continue the film.

Also, the use of distinct characters who tell the story and express support, including the expert – the main prosecutor of Kony’s case – and the filmmaker’s child, Gavin, allows for further connections to be built to accommodate a wider range of audiences. People who are intellectual, educated, and professional would be drawn in by the information portrayed by the prosecutor, while the child is effective in impacting everyone else, including young children and the uneducated. Those two characters can also be seen to communicate to audiences at two levels, the intellectual level as seen with the expert, and the emotional level as seen with the child.

Moreover, powerful visualizations that illustrate statistics of the campaign are very effective in a sense that they turn abstract concepts, or numbers, into concrete, real life meanings. An example of this is the shot where Jacob, the main Ugandan character of the film, is shown, and the shot is then pulled out to show him situated among a huge mass of people who are just like him, victims of Kony atrocities. If the film just simply mentioned that there have been 100,000 victims, and stated it as a plain number, it would have passed by without sticking into viewers’ minds as effectively as having it visualized.

The film communicates solutions as clear actions normal people and youth are doing to defeat Kony. Upon seeing those actions being done in such a simple manner and by people just like them, viewers are highly likely to take action, and they have. The film highly stresses on the concept of unity, and pushes forward the message of all humanity being a single body that suffers and prospers together. It opens the eyes of the viewer to the powers of communications tools that people have at their disposal in today’s world, and which has allowed power standards to be shifted from central governments to the people. It talks about people being able to “see” each other and thus care and protect each other.

A Syrian Attempt to Replicate Kony2012

Syrian activists have produced a video titled “Assad2012” in an attempt to draw global attention and support towards the Syrian cause the way Kony2012 has drawn attention to the Invisible Children cause. Unfortunately, the result was not as desired and the film did not go viral as the producers had wished.

Firstly, this film lacks the professionalism, originality, and high production quality that was seen in Kony2012. It is merely a mash-up of already existing productions, news reports, and YouTube videos, put together to tell the story of the Arab Spring and the Syrian uprising in particular. The main weakness in this film is in that it appears to be more like a passive documentary talking about history, rather than an active piece of moving, shocking stories and information that motivates the viewer to act in response as the case was in Kony2012. It does not clearly suggest action like Kony2012. More importantly, it has not utilized any network forces and lacks social or cultural relationships that would attract global audiences.

The Bright Side – A Notable Success Example

The small town of Kafranbel in Northern Syria has gained stardom during the revolution for its outstanding banners and political cartoons used in protest. Its has perhaps been the source of the Syrian revolution’s most successful and powerful media.  In particular, one recent banner, has gained huge popularity that surpassed expectations. It has over 17,000 shares from its original source

 This banner is powerful in that it brings together two contrasting cultures, those of the US and Syria. It uses proper English wording that would be appreciated by the American viewer, and removes the barriers made by differences in place, culture, social class, and language by creating a strong relationship and connection using the notion of shared suffering . This relationship is what gives it its power.

This banner was the topic of a few online articles in the US: 

 Foreign Policy

USA Today


It has even generated a response back, all the way from Boston.


Conclusion & Recommendations

Drawing from those examples, and If Syrians wish to influence global public opinion on their cause, they need to keep in mind the cultural divide between their country and the rest of the world, and the lack of basic knowledge on the country and region in general. Such a a divide needs to be addressed in order to give media a strong outreach.

  • Use of more English: English media content on social media websites is very limited, and as a result limits the reach of the Syrian story to English speaking and global audiences.
  • The focus on use of relationships more so than content- and the creation of cultural and historic elements that show  other similar events famous in human history, such as the French Revolution, the Holocaust, etc. 
  • Messages need to be made simpler and more basic, and should not assume that everyone who will understand it the way a Syrian would. When creating media, activists should assume that the audience does not know anything about Syria. There should be more emphasis on the history and geography of the country in order to familiarize it with the audience.
  • Creation of creative and simplified web resources, such as a news networks in English that report top daily news from Syria. One form could be the creation of a visual timeline that highlights game-changing events in Syria. Once a project like this is established and reached to public, it could help create initial awareness necessary for viewers to understand other materials, and could be used as a reference. The image on the top-right uses English and successfully utilizes cultural/religious icons leading to strong relationships between elements, yet a viewer who is not informed with the background story about the use of chemical weapons in Syria would not be able to understand it fully or appreciate its message. This is a very important step, especially in light of the large lack of awareness on Syria altogether.



Unpack Media Interfaces: The Interaction Between Interface and Our Mind & Its Complexity

With a desire to enter the web product design field in my future career, I was especially interested in our discussion of the media interface in two weeks ago. Galloway made an ambitious argument about the effect of interface: he does not view the interface a stable object, but a multiplicity of processes; he does not want to study interface as a “thing”, but a technique of mediation or interaction.

When I open a book discussing the new media interface we access everyday, it mostly tells the narrow sense of the interface, for example the picture below asks us to focus on different product design steps including design presentation, user data collection, model test, and interface feedback. These points appear to be practical but superficial to me, since the relationship between the software and ideology, the complexity behind this design process is rarely being explored. Why the interface of Google homepage stays nearly the same across so many years? I believe the answer is much complicated than “because it’s clean and simple”. What does it mean when “Photoshop” becomes a verb? In my essay, I want to discover how interface shapes our cognition and ideology, and in turn how our understanding of the world decides the way that new media interface is designed. Lev Manovich might call this the “poetics” of interface.

Now for me the biggest problem is to find several certain cases as the entry of my topic, otherwise it will get too broad. And I need to get my ideas more into shape so that I can make a clear point of view.

(Screen Capture from

Reading Notes:

An interface is not something that appears before you but rather is a gateway that opens up and allows passage to some place beyond.  —- Galloway, P30

An interface, for Galloway, is “not a thing”; it is “always an effect” — a technique of mediation or interaction. The conceptual move here departs from the object-centered approach taken by critics such as McLuhan, for whom media objects are technological extensions of the human body…    — Patrick Jagoda

An interface, Galloway argues, is not a stable object; it is a multiplicity of processes. In other words, an interface is not merely a laptop LCD or a television screen. It is not the Windows 8 operating system or Mac OS X. It is not a hypermediated heads-up display of the contemporary videogame with its myriad forms of information …   — Patrick Jagoda

Affordances are the allowable actions specified by the environment coupled with the properties of the organism. In distributed cognition, affordances can be considered as distributed representations extended across the environment and the organism.  —- Zhang, Jiajie, P337


Important Concepts:



Meaning making



Distributed Cognition


New Media


Product Design


Resources that give me inspiration and help me explore this topic:

Alexander GallowayThe Interface Effect (Cambridge, UK; Malden, MA: Polity, 2012). Excerpt from Chapter 1, “The Unworkable Interface.”

Patrick Jagoda, “The Next Level: Alexander R. Galloway’s ‘The Interface Effect’.” LA Review of Books, 1.25.2013.

Lev ManovichSoftware Takes Command (ebook version, 2008), excerpt, attend especially to the section on “Cultural Software”.

Andy ClarkSupersizing the Mind: Embodiment, Action, and Cognitive Extension (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, USA, 2008), excerpts

Living with Complexity Donald A. Norman

Don’t make me think: A Common Sense Approach to Web Usability, Steve Krug

Zhang, Jiajie, and Vimla L. Patel. “Distributed Cognition, Representation, and Affordance.” Pragmatics & Cognition 14, no. 2 (July 2006): 333-341.

Google Art Project and its role in the Artworld

Google Art Project

Google Art Project: a dizzying accumulation of artworks, reproduced with the kind of precision, high contrast and impeccable resolution capable of thrilling the technophile and a tech-skeptic alike. Every time I visit the site, I find a new favorite work, one that is particularly marvelous when I have zoomed as deep as I can. Today, I am made breathless by a corner of the work, Virgin and Child, from 1520, by Lucas Cranach the Elder. This is a corner I would likely never have noticed if I were looking at the real painting hanging in the Pushkin Museum in Moscow. I have zoomed in not on the faces of the Virgin and Child, but on a background detail, the tendrils of the grape vine that twist and curl off the end of a trellis behind the figures.  In this zoom, the trellis, obviously prefiguring the cross, is a meticulous buildup of wavering brown and grey lines. The edges of each gray-green grape leaf are jagged and sharp like knives. I can clearly picture a tiny paintbrush in Cranach’s hand and the way his arm muscles must have tensed to paint each stroke with that kind of precision. But in truth, what I love the most about this zoomed-in view, is how well I can see the cracks, worn over nearly five centuries, that turn this oil-on-wood panel into a mosaic of tiny pieces. Critics discussing the Google Art Project have argued that while the Project shows artworks with great detail, it disconnects us from the their “aura.”[1] I am not sure what defines “aura”[2] for these critics, but to me, the way Google Art Project allows us to see the marks of time on the surface of the Cranach painting, better than we could in front of the painting live, imbues it with another kind of aura, an aura that supports and furthers our already-established reverence for art.

On the Zoomed-in detail of Lucas Cranach “Virgin and Child,” the cracks of age are visible

In Contrast, here is the reproduction of “Virgin and Child” as it appears on the Pushkin Museum Website

As explained by Bolter and Grusin, digital interfaces like Google Art Project, progress along two conflicting logics: the logic of hypermediacy, and the logic of transparent immediacy. According to the logic of transparent immediacy, the medium that is most effective is the one that erases itself. According to the logic of hypermediacy, in contrast, what is valued and admired is the multimedia interface, an interface that is a fragmented, heterogeneous collage of links and functions. We both want to look at a medium, and for this hypermediacy is the most effective, and through a medium, unimpeded, at its content, and for this transparent immediacy is the best logic.[3] Furthermore, remediation is the defining characteristic of digital new media.  New media is “the representation of one medium in another.”[4] If, as Bolter and Grusin argue, the competing logics of immediacy and hypermediacy, in addition to the trait of remediation are the defining characteristics of digital new media, than Google Art Project is its poster child.  Google Art Project is a highly layered remediation, representing museums representing art works, a medium representing a medium.  It is also both hypermediated –with dozens of possible links to click on each page, and obsessed with achieving immediacy –both the “museum view” and the incredible zoom capabilities of Google Art Project attest to this.

Google Art Project was launched in January 2011, in cooperation with 17 museums in the United States and Europe.  Today, it partners with over 230 museums from 40 countries around the world, and features over 30,000 artworks.[5] More museums are signing on every day. With the kind of user-friendly interface we have come to expect from Google, a visitor can browse for hours, scrolling through the artwork by institution, by artist, or even by user-generated galleries. In sum, the Google Art Project is becoming an important player in the Artworld, and one that it is high time for scholars to assess critically. This is the task I take on in this essay. Three central questions frame my thinking. First, how does meaning-making work on Google Art Project? More specifically, how much is this meaning-making a continuation of the ways we have already been trained through Artworld institutions to understand art, and how much doe Google Art Project bring new variables into the system? In particular, does Google Art Project mediate symbolic capital in a way that promotes or devalues the museum function? In answer to these questions I argue that Google Art Project does not, and cannot revolutionize the way we understand art. No single new technology can have that much influence on a well established social system. While technology has a role to play in cultural change, social functions are far more important divers of cultural configurations. Observing the content of the site as it is today, it is clear that Google Art Project does not break down as much as continue to promote the hierarchies and cultural capital that have long been upheld by the Artworld.

Nonetheless, Google Art Project does show some potential to shift the Artworld functions in small ways. The Project, undoubtedly part of the Artworld, is also a node in two other networks: the Google brand name network, and the web/cultural interface network.  In its position at the center of these interlinking networks, Google Art Project runs into conflicting purposes.  In particular, the Web/cultural interface network functions as a general equalizer, which contradicts the hierarchy-building function of the Artworld.  It is in negotiating these frictional functions, that Google Art Project breaks away a tiny bit from the limits of the Artword to create a space of meaning-making slightly different from other, older, Artworld spaces.Already, I have stumbled upon a half dozen examples of art works and art institutions included in the project that destabilize, rather than enforce a rigid high-art distinction. Furthermore, the project is still in its infancy. As I have observed it over the course of even a few months, the trend in its development is undeniably a development towards a more democratic, more inclusive, and broader, definition of art.

In attempting to articulate how art and museums have functioned before Google Art Project, I borrow the ideas of a number of different philosophers, cultural theorists, and media scholars. In particular, the writing of Pierre Bourdieu, and his ideas about symbolic capital are informative in understanding the Artworld and Google Art Project’s developing role.

Creating Value in the Artworld: Bourdieu’s Theory of Symbolic Capital

The purpose of “the Artworld,” is to maintain the cultural category of art.[6] This idea was articulated early by Arthur Danto, and later developed further by Bourdieu.  This insight recognizes that what makes something art is not an inherent property in the art object, but is determined and reinforced by a complex social process.  Institutions like schools, museums, art galleries, and art auction houses, as well as roles like curators, art historians, and art collectors are all part of the Artworld, and play their (often invisible and/or unconscious) parts in the process of maintaining the cultural category of art. The museum’s function is to confer prestige, authority, memory, validation and a cumulative art historical narrative on the works of high art.  In this way, a museum is less a container for artifacts, and more a mediator of the museum function. Since it was founded in 2011, and more and more as it expands its reach, Google Art Project is another player in this game, largely following the rules of the museum function.

As Bourdieu explains, the Artworld runs on an economy of cultural capital. Capital means more than just money, in fact, the mercantile exchange of money for goods is just one case among many kinds of exchange of capital. This is central to Bourdieu’s concept, because “it is impossible to account for the structure and functioning of the social world unless one reintroduces capital in all its forms and not solely in the one form recognized by economic theory.”[7] So if capital is more than just money, what is it?  For Bourdieu, capital comes in three basic guises: economic capital (the most easily convertible to money), social capital (largely reducible to social connections) and cultural capital.[8] Cultural capital itself can take one of three forms: Embodied, objectified, institutionalized. These three forms are to be found, respectively in people, in cultural objects and technologies, and in broader social institutions.  All three of these play a role in the economy of the Artworld.  Embodied capital requires personal investment and is nearly impossible to transfer from one person to another.  This is the kind of capital art historians build up when they put in hours into studying and writing about art. Institutionalized capital, on the other hand, is codified in a complex system.  It is “sanctioned by legally guaranteed qualifications, formally independent of the person of their bearer.”[9] Bourdieu’s central example of institutional capital is the university degree, however any socially sanctioned institutions –including museums – can bestow institutional capital on an object or person, “as if by collective magic,”[10] instantly making the consecrated object or person more valuable. Embodied cultural capital has to constantly work to prove itself, and can be lost with injury to the bearer. Institutional cultural capital, once achieved, is far more stable.

There are two important aspects that make Bourdieu’s insights into capital so profound.  First, all the types of capital are fungible –they all can be converted into monetary gains in the long run.  Second, and particularly relevant to the functioning of the Artworld, cultural capital is routinely disavowed and misrecognized. The Artworld functions by pretending not to be about capital, when in fact, nearly everything it does is done for the purpose of long term profit. Bourdieu insists that we understand how “economic capital is at the root of all the other types of capital… and these transformed, disguised forms of economic capital, never entirely reproducible to that definition, produce their most specific effects only to the extent that they conceal (not least from their possessors) the fact that economic capital is at their root.”[11] Participants in the Artworld, and members of society outside of it, collectively misrecognize where value comes from in the Artworld, as well as the central importance of capital in the museum function. This misrecognized capital, Bourdieu terms “symbolic capital.”[12] Common wisdom holds that the value of a work of art comes from something in the creative act of the artist.  In fact, it is the museum professional or art businessperson who “consecrates” the work and gives it its value.  The museum professional however, has to believe, or at least pretend, that the value comes from properties of the artwork itself, because that is the logic of symbolic capital. Now the question is where does the museum professional get the authority to dictate value? Bourdieu answers this by re-embedding the museum professional in the broader system of the Artworld, insisting that, “his ‘authority’ itself… only exists in the relationship with the field of production as a whole.”[13] In other words, art acquires value from the whole smooth functioning of the Artworld.

Even though Google Art Project does not (yet?) include the collections of two of the most important museums of the western world The Louvre, and The Vatican Museum, its accumulation of museum partners is impressive, and with few exceptions reinforces hierarchies that predate it.  Contrary to much of the rhetoric about the Art Project, (contrary to rhetoric about global internet projects generally), the whole world does not share evenly in Google’s efforts.  The majority of the 230 institutions represented are in the countries of Europe and North America, probably because these countries already have the most developed museum sectors.  Only one museum from the entire continent of Africa is represented (the Iziko National Gallery in South Africa.) This is not to condemn Google alone; choices about which museums to include are almost always made based on practicality, and rely on preexisting structures because these allow the project to develop much more quickly.[14] Regardless, in fundamental ways, Google Art Project is not a radical break from established museums.

The overall structure of Google Art Project’s interface is organized to both mimic and promote the museum. Each artwork you click on to examine links easily to the museum collection that artwork happens to come from.  In fact, on the main screen for each art work, the other artworks from that particular museum collection that are digitized on Google Art Project run in a scrollable line across the bottom of the screen.  In almost all cases, you can click to a “street view” to bring you to a virtual tour of the museum space itself.  Via this interface, you can scroll around the museum, see which works are hanging next to which other works, where benches for visitors have been placed; you can even move virtually through hallways into the next museum gallery. This is not the only way Google Art Project could have organized itself.  It could have instead prioritized linkages between artworks and the original locations or eras they were produced, for example.  In that case, the page for Cranach’s Virgin and Child would be accompanied by a scrollable row of other works produced in 16th century Germany, rather than a row of other works that can be found at the Pushkin Museum.  This is only one of the many, more or less logical ways Google Art Project could have, but did not, choose to organize the artworks in its collection. Choosing to organize the artworks around already established museum collections, as Google Art Project does, is not only practical, it also gives Google Art Project legitimacy. By complying with the general structure of the Artworld system, the Project is rewarded by gaining credibility as a relevant player.

Google Art Project is totally free for users and presents itself as a project for the public good. The Project is a subsidiary of Google Cultural Institute, whose mission is “building tools to preserve and promote culture online.”[15] In other words, Google Art Project presents itself as an institution devoid of economic motivation. In truth, Google is one of the most successful companies in the world, built largely on the cultural capital of its reputation.  In the long run, this cultural capital converts to economic gain.  The Google Art Project feeds into the Google image in a way that is ultimately hugely monetarily valuable to the company, even as the role of money is obscured in their rhetoric.

When looked at through the lens of Bourdieu’s symbolic capital, it is clear that Google Art Project does not so much make new meaning as piggy-back on the structure for meaning making already present in the Artworld.  However, while this is by-and-large an accurate characterization, there are a number of other theoretical models we can use to try to understand the Google Art Project, and they lead us to slightly different insights.

Reproductions, Affordances and the Code of the “Real”

James Gibson coined the term “affordances” in 1977, and this concept has since then been an indispensable framework for thinking about the advantages and disadvantages involved in a particular technology.  Gibson’s defined affordances as: “all action possibilities latent in the environment.”[16] When we borrow Gibson’s concept to understand media technologies, such as Google Art Project, we can see that the website contains certain “affordances;” in other words it supports certain actions but not others. In particular Google Art Project, like most digital media, affords the untrained visitor greater remixing and editing capabilities than its analog “equivalent,” the museum.  Visitors to Google Art Project can take advantage of this affordance when they create their own galleries and play at being curator. Furthermore, to return to my previously described example, the zoom function afforded me a clear look at the cracks covering the Cranach painting, and thus a more visceral sense of the nearly 500 years the painting has experienced since its creation. On the other hand, digitization “looses” three-dimensional materiality of the artwork that is better perceived in a museum. Thinking in terms of affordances suggests that Google Art Project is, at least not completely, just aping museums in its functioning –it cannot. Because they are technologically different, the two media, museums and websites, have inherently different strengths and weaknesses.

Although she does not use the metaphor, affordances relates to the argument put forth by Kim Beil, in “Seeing Syntax: Google Art Project and the Twenty-First-Century Period Eye,” one of the only academic articles as yet to theorize about the cultural implications of Google Art Project. Beil’s main argument is that all reproductions are not created equal, and studying the qualities in a reproduction that we value in any particular historic moment can tell scholars a lot about the way our culture finds meaning in art. Reproductions, do not just iconically show their subject, like invisible windows, rather they also act as an index of the era and context in which they were made.[17] Beil explains that the high resolution, zoom-able, high contrast and interactive reproductions in Google Art project are not “natural” or “real” or “better than the real thing,” as both the project creators, and users have described them. Their being described this way indicates however that we value the particular, specific qualities that they possess more fully than other reproductions. The affordances that Google Art Project technologies give are extreme brightness, high contrast, and sharpness. Beil says that “critics describe these features, which allow us to examine reproduced artworks at an almost microscopic range and simulate the dimensionality of the object’s surface, as part of Art Project’s ‘reality effect,’ but in actuality, these processes vary significantly from our real-life encounters with works of art.”[18] These images are not “real” as much as they mimic our experience with other digital images, experiences we are trained to value through constant computer use. In other words, Google Art Project uses technologies particularly suited for promoting our contemporary code of the hyperreal.  Articulated originally by cultural theorist Jean Baudrillard, the theory of the hyperreal recognizes that so often for society, the mediated world is more interesting than the real world.[19]  We call it augmented, or enhanced reality. In our culture, certain things, certain reproductions, are coded as “real,” or “hyperreal.” The zoomable reproductions on Google Art Project are coded this way. It is just one code among thousands, but culturally, we privilege it. The fact that “the real” is no less mediated than any other form, is what Beil is articulating in her thoughts about types of reproductions. The code has a history, and has meant different things throughout that history. Since the spread of photography in the mid-19th century, the code of “the real” has been tied to a photographic-look, and the particular affordances of photography.  Today, we are in a post-photograph age, and the code of “the real” has shifted to emphasize those qualities that are better achieved by computer images.  Beil’s insights remind us that Google Art Project is not just opening up access to artworks for everyone around the world, as popular discourse seems to indicate, nor is it merely reinforcing the museum function, as a Bourdieu-ian analysis suggests, rather it is mediating and changing those artworks.

This insight takes us one step further than Bourdieu, because it acknowledges the fact that cultures, codes, and institutional functions do change.  They change slowly, not by revolutions, but by baby-steps.  New technologies do not cause these changes, so much as the particular affordances of a technology nudge our ways of seeing and interacting with culture into new directions.  We see this in the example of the Cranach painting, and the way I can focus on the marks of time on its surface when I study it on the Google Art Project.  This is but one of a number of examples of the small ways in which our interactions with Google Art Project are nudging us to notice new things about art.

Yuri Lotman, founder of the discipline “cultural semiotics,” was interested in understanding how and why cultures change.  He argued that the purpose of culture is to transmit memory, and the function of remixing, reframing and resignifying is to keep memory alive and relevant in each new era.[20] Google Art Projects remixes, reframes and resignifies older works of art and museum institutions.  In doing this, it keeps them alive and relevant for our 21st century expectations.

The Future of Google Art Project

America Magazine reports that, thanks to Google Art Project, “a child in some remote corner of the earth, who may never set foot in any art museum or have occasion to peruse an expensive art book, can examine masterpieces from around the world amassed over centuries.”[21] Another article states that Google Art Project “is the ultimate application of the forum mindset: Not only do individuals get to interact directly with art, they also are able to manipulate it. Art is no longer something dissected only by snooty art historians we all find insufferable… it’s a layman’s conversation point.”[22] Both these quotes highlight the way Google Art Project is envisioned by its fans as revolutionary.  In particular, these quotes seem to suggest that Google Art Project is democratizing the traditionally snobby, classist Artworld into something able to affect even the untrained and unprivileged every-day man and woman. Using Bourdieu’s insights about symbolic capital, we can recognize that this great democratic revolution in art is an exaggeration; in fact Google Art Project largely maintains and even reinforces the Artworld structures.  However, Google Art Project does have certain affordances give it the potential to be part of some sort of cultural change.

Google Art Project is still in its prototype stages.  We cannot draw too many conclusions about its ultimate size and shape only by the content that is up on the site already, since Google is adding new things daily.  We can only notice trends and follow them to logical hypotheses about the role Google Art Project may play for our culture in the coming years. There have been some hints in these trends that Google Art Project is indeed trying to make art more democratic.

Photographs and reproductions are what cultural theorist Roland Barthes termed floating signifiers; in other words, out of context, they can suggest any of hundreds of possible meanings to a viewer. Anchoring is the process that ties them to a particular meaning. For Barthes, anchoring often took place in the relationship between image and caption.[23] In Google Art Project, where captions play a subordinate role (you have to click on a further link in order to get a caption) anchoring occurs mostly in the way the Project contextualizes of these reproduction as high art, setting each reproduction in line with other objects of high art. By largely reinforcing Artworld hierarchies, Google Art Project has established its credibility as a consecrator of institutional capital; now it is in a position to make small changes, and consecrate works not normally seen as high art. There are a number of examples of less well known and less valued objects in the Google Art Project.  By including some unusual collections among the more expected ones, using its institutional and technological capabilities to bestow value on these works, Google Art Project anchors these collections to the high art world. One example is the inclusion of the folk objects from the puppet theater collection in the small regional museum in eastern Germany, the Museum for Sachsen Folk Art. With or without its inclusion in Google Art Project, few people would deny that objects such as this toy chandelier show incredible craft and skill on the part of the maker. But because such objects are not part of the unified art history narrative do not fit well in the story of art’s development toward modernism and beyond, they have rarely been conceived of as “high art.” On Google Art Project, they are photographed with a clear, white-cube aesthetic and are zoom-able just like any of the other artworks. This contextualizes them, newly, as high art. Another, even more dramatic example is the inclusion of a collection called “Sao Paolo Street Art.” This is not even a museum collection, but a collection of 189 images of graffiti from around the city of Sao Paolo, Brazil.  There is very little textual information about this particular collection, either why Google Art Project chose to include it, or what makes street art in Sao Paolo particularly noteworthy.  While not exactly revolutionary, both the puppet theater collection from Saxony, and the street art collection from Brazil are indications of the direction that Google Art Project is developing toward. Even though today the project is overwhelmingly dominated by a role call of greatest hits of art history, and partnerships with western museums of traditional high art, the small number of unexpected collections on the site is growing.

from the Puppet Theater Collection of the Museum for Saxen Folk Art

Sao Paolo Street Art

Bourdieu has noted that pop art, and other art movements that seemed to gain their raison d’etre from trying to break the illusions are what Bourdieu calls “ritual sacrilege” and are always swallowed to become part of the system. Critiques or mockeries of the artworld “are immediately converted into artistic ‘acts,’ recorded as such, and thus consecrated and celebrated by the makers of taste.”[24] But maybe we should not discount these artist interventions as meaningless.  Since April 2012, the Art Gallery of Ontario has been a partner with Google Art Project. While their collection includes much that fits with the traditional oil-on-canvas-type artworks most common in Google Art Project, the collection also includes the very interesting, contemporary ouvre by artist Jon Rafman titled Brand New Paint Job. Putnam’s work is one of the first artist responses to Google Art Project.  He uses images accessible on Google Art Project and appropriates them to create intricate virtual settings. As one anonymous user has written in his/her gallery on Google Art Project, “Rafman’s series, Brand New Paint Job, the collection of artworks at the center of the exhibition, straddle the line between artistic sacrilege and homage.”[25] As James Putnam points out in his book Art/Artifact, the Artworld functions not just in the direction of museums conferring value on artworks, but throughout history, “artists exert an equally powerful influence on museums.”[26] His book traces the history of artistic interventions into museum display practices.  Important interventions have sparked dialogue, and arguably changed the Artworld. Rafman’s “intervention” is the first of what we can only expect will be many art projects inspired be and reacting to the particular structure and meaning of Google Art Project. It suggests the potential for Google Art Project to be a resource for artists and a spark for dialog.

Rafman Brand New Paint Job ECarr Masterbedroom

Back in the 1950s, André Malraux envisioned a “Musée Imaginaire,” a world of art accessible to people far more easily and cheaply than ever before. With improvements in photographic technology, Malraux saw this imaginary museum as an imminent possibility. In photographic reproductions of artworks, we loose a sense of scale, context, three-dimensionality and geographic specificity.  Malraux recognized how all these losses are also a gain: by compressing them all into a single format, photographs equalize the value of artworks.[27] Malraux was an idealist.  The artworld has remained largely elitist and driven by symbolic capital in the decades since he wrote, despite photographic technology.  Digital technology and the Google Art Project will not create a revolution either.  Nonetheless, they are part of a larger, slower trend toward a broader, more democratic and contestable definition of art.

[1] Burgin “Goggling over Google’s Art Project”

[2] “Aura” as it relates to art, is a term that has been notoriously vague and overused since Walter Benjamin made it popular by stating that technological reproduction of a work of art –he was speaking specifically of photography and film in the 1930s, distances us from an artworks “aura,” decontextualizing it, and removing from the ritual context it was always associated with in previous centuries.

[3] Bolter and Grusin 21-41

[4] ibid 45


[6] Irvine “The Museum System”

[7] Bourdieu “Forms of Capital” 242

[8] ibid 243

[9] ibid 248

[10] ibid 248

[11] ibid 252

[12] Bourdieu “The Production of Belief” 262

[13] ibid 264

[14] An important preexisting structure that Google Art Project cannot directly break with is copyright law.  The majority of the works on the Project come from before the 1920s because these run into fewer copyright entanglements.  Also, Google Art Project gets around the complications of liability by requiring museum partners to take all responsibility for remaining within copyright rules.


[16] Wikipedia article on James Gibson

[17] Gittelman 5

[18] Beil 25-26

[19] Baudrillard

[20] Lotman 214

[21] America Press “Googling a Masterpiece”

[22] Burgin

[23] Barthes 112

[24] Bourdieu “The Production of Belief” 266


[26] Putnam 7

[27] Malraux 9-12


Works Cited:

America Press “Googling a Masterpiece” 2012.

Barthes, Roland Mythologies, trans. Annette Lavers New York: The Noonday Press 1957.

Baudrillard, Jean Simulacra and Simulation trans. Sheila Faria Glaser. Michigan Press 1981.

Beil, Kim “Seeing Syntax: Google Art Project and the Twenty-First Century Period Eye,” Afterimage 40:4 (Jan/Feb 2013), 22-27

Benjamin, Walter “Das Kunstwerk im Zeitalter seiner technischen Reproduzierbarkeit

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

Bourdieu, Pierre Forms of Capital trans. Richard Nice. Göttigen: Otto Schartz & Co. 1983.

Bourdieu, Pierre and Richard Nice “The Production of Belief: Contribution to an economy of symbolic goods” Media, Culture and Society 2 (1980), 261-293.

Burgin, Leah “Goggling over Google’s Art Project” The Michigan Daily February 6, 2011.

Danto, Arthur “The Art World” The Journal of Philosophy 61:19 (1964) 571-584.

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

Irvine, Martin: “The Museum System: Themes, Questions and Issues for Art Museums Today”

Lotman, Yuri “On the Semiotic Mechanism of Culture” New Literary History 9:2 (Winter 1978) 211-232.

Putnam, James Art and Artifact: The Museum as Medium New York: Thames and Hudson, 2001.

Malraux, André Museum Without Walls trans. Stuart Gilbert and Francis Price. New York: Doubleday and Company Inc. 1967.