Understanding Media

According to Bolter and Grusin, as well as McLuhan, a medium can only be understood in its relation to other mediums. As in poststructuralist and Peircean semiotics, where the meaning of a sign is always made up of other signs, McLuhan remarks that “the ‘content’ of any medium is always another medium” (Understanding Media 3). This applies the concept of infinite semiosis to understanding media. As with words, we can only understand a medium in relation to other mediums, which in turn are only understandable in relation to still other mediums, ad infinitum.

This is what Bolter and Grusin refer to as “remediation,” and it is by no means the result of digitization, but instead a general theory for understanding all media, new and old. It is not only that newer media remediate (and reform) older media; “older media can also remediate newer ones” (55), an example of which might be Tosh.O, a television show (old media) that appropriates youtubes (new media). In this way, various media struggle for cultural, economic, and aesthetic dominance. They conclude, “No medium, it seems, can now function independently and establish its own separate and purified space of cultural meaning” (55).

As a result, it seems clear that we should study each medium in relation to both prior and succeeding mediums. One potential issue is that we continue to use linguistic metalanguages in order to understand all other mediums, thus granting privilege to the medium of language as the key to all other mediums. As McLuhan ends “Myth and Mass Media,” “For our experience with the grammar and syntax of languages can be made available for the direction and control of media old and new” (348). In other words, we can use the same tools of linguistic analysis in order to understand and therefore control other types of media. For instance, we tend not to think of music as having a syntax or grammar, but, like language, music is generative; a musical scale contains only a fixed amount of notes, but with these notes one can create an infinite amount of utterances. Similarly, the arrangement of the notes constitutes something like a syntax. Through such an analysis, we can come to a better understanding of how music (or any medium for that matter) functions, thus enabling us to direct the medium rather than it directing us.

However, does the study of linguistic media retain a higher methodological value for understanding other forms of media—that is, should we apply linguistic principles to the study of non-linguistic media? Does this not reinforce the centrality of linguistics, the same centrality that Bolter and Grusin criticize in relation to contemporary theory (57)? Should we instead strive to create a more inter-medial metalanguage: one that is equally relevant to all mediums?

For now, it appears that the use of linguistic analysis is the most pragmatic, but the development of a post-linguistic metalanguage might be necessary to understand the elements of other mediums that have no linguistic relation.

Bolter, Jay David, and Richard Grusin. Remediation: Understanding New Media. 1st edition. Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 2000. Print.

McLuhan, Marshall. “Myth and Mass Media.” Daedalus 88.2, Myth and Mythmaking (1959): 339-48.  JSTOR. Web. 03 Mar. 2015.

McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill, 1964 (many subsequent printings and editions).