Professor Martin Irvine
Introduction to Media Theory and Digital Culture

iphone image
Hybrid digital media platforms everywhere:
What are the i-devices? Mediations of the digital metamedium

Shepard Fairey's Obama Image and Graphic Design Process:
"Old" media meets digital images, software, and new distribution networks.
Cross-mediation, re-mediation.


What are we talking about when we talk about "media theory" and "visual culture"?

  • What is "doing theory" or "working with theory" in the study of media, culture, communication?
  • Histories of intersecting theories, concepts, discourses in the various disciplines and the public domain:
    • Theory is like embedded software in the social operating system: what you boot is what you get (or not!)
    • Theory is always running in the background, controlling what becomes an object of discussion, analysis, concern, value, interest.
    • Those who say they're not interested in theory or don't have one are only repeating a discourse from an outdated theory.
    • Learning to work with theory is a form of philosophy, a conceptual therapy.
    • As Hegel famously noted, the function of philosphy is to bring to conscious awareness those processes--in thought, history, politics, or any sphere--of which we are usually unaware.


Media as Media System: The Concept of the "Mediasphere"

The inter-related system of technologies, converged forms (writing, text, print, graphics, photography, sound, music, video, film), social and economic relations, cultural conditions, now assumed in the current digital media concentration.

  • What are the components and technologies of our current "mediasphere" (the entire media system)?
    • Media as a system of networked interdependencies: nothing can be understood in isolation from the "mediasphere."
  • The phenomenon of cross-mediation: we experience the content in all the co-existing media technologies (TV, web video, movie, magazine, DVD, iPod).
  • What do we mean by "new media"?
    • Intersecting and convergence of prior and new technologies: the "older" technologies (radio, TV, phone) are so well-adopted, assumed, and domesticated that they don't seem like "technology" anymore.
  • The post-postmodern condition: high and low culture assimilated into the various media platforms. "High art" and popular culture now provide mutual source material with only institutional and industry category boundaries.
  • What is the Internet and Web?
    • Learning the questions to ask: grounds of possibility, intersecting forces in technology, economics, politics/policy, markets, social conditions.
    • What is YouTube? What had to be in place already for YouTube to have taken off and work at the level it does now?
    • What is Facebook? A medium? A convergence platform? An environment?

Marshall McLuhan on "new media"

Paul Miller (DJ Spooky) on remix, cross-cultural media

Toward a Method for Cross-Disciplinary Theory


Engaging with academic disciplinary legacies:

  • Problems of disciplinarity, interdisciplinarity, transdisciplinarity in media studies, cultural studies, communication studies.
    • who owns what pieces of the turf, what authority systems are in place to define what counts as the subject matter, or how to study it, talk about, theorize about it.
  • Legacy of theories and philosophy in many disciplines over the past 50 years [see brief outline in a Theory Map].
  • Enduring problem of methodological and epistemological foundations of all the interdisciplinary studies.
  • Is interdisciplinary work possible? Self-awareness and equal grounding in two of more disciplines among which one can be "inter"?
  • Institutional and professional structure of disciplines: self-replicating systems. Disciplinary apparatus.
  • Disciplines, discursive practices, paradigms, knowledge making: knowledge as action/practice, not a registry of preexisting facts.
  • Intentionalities, agendas, politics, egos, professionalism and competition.
  • Most academic theory in the postmodernist mode maintains an ironic distance from engagement in real-world economics, politics, and business. Is this a sustainable practice?


Media Objects in Semiotic Models and Information Theory

Media objects both

  • signify (have cultural meaning in a network of production and reception)
  • and also convey information not visibly encoded (how and where produced, how transmitted, institutions of meaning, information about demographics of reception and use, economic information)
  • A TV show, a movie, an advertising image, an art work convey a density of information that coexists with the media object but outside the cultural object per se.

Major Theory Traditions presupposed in current discussions and debate:

  • Communication Theory, Communications Studies, Media Studies
  • Semiotics
  • Structuralism and Post-structuralism
  • Theories of discourse and ideology
  • Cultural Studies
  • Popular Culture Studies
  • New Media Studies (post-digital)
  • Visual Culture Studies
  • Mediology

A model for theory synthesis: as .jpg image | Powerpoint slide

Learning to think with network, systems, complexity models

  • Not independent forms of media, but media systems

Review prior models and methodologies:

  • Communication transmission models, semiotics, critical theory
  • Concepts of media, medium, mediation
  • Discursive Paradigms: Models of theory and objects of knowledge (Foucault and Kuhn)
  • Semiotics and Semiology
    • Codes, Decoding and Encoding
    • Intertextuality, Intermediality, Experience, Presupposition
    • Cultural Encyclopedia and semiotic competence
    • Social significance, Valorization, Hierarchization of media types and material forms
    • Critical Theory and Cultural Studies Foundations for the Medium, Artwork, Image, Spectacle, Simulacrum: Benjamin, Debord, and Baudrillard
    • Postmodernism and Cultural Studies
    • Visual Culture and Mediology
    • Visual Arts and Mediology
    • Popular Media and Mediology (film, television, music)

Examples in the Mediasphere


"Reality" TV: the genre

  • What does this genre presuppose?
  • Genre mix, social assumptions, desires, myths, sexual fantasies, voyeurism?
  • "Reality" as performance: reality as one of many representative codes.



iEverything: A medium, platform, marketing device?

  • Technology convergence: What are the conditions of possibility for media convergence?
  • The i devices: Apple and the semiotics of branding (cf. Pattern Recognition)


Institutions as Mediums: Social Mediation

The National Gallery of Art

Museum and cultural institutions as medium: schools, churches, libraries, museums.

Transmission across time distinguished from communication through space.

Institutions, cultural categories, political economy of cultural institutions.


Medium as conveyor of information. Parallel network of information. Cultural categories.


Limits and Functions of Theoretical Discourses

"Whenever I consider a theory, I ask what kind of work does this allow me do do?" --Richard Rorty


What do we mean by "theory" in the disciplines practiced CCT?

  • "Theory" as models and contexts for thinking and analysis, way of proceeding, methods, starting points, presuppositions, philosophical foundations; not "theory" as opposed to "practice" or positions based on opinions.
  • Problematic terms brought together "media + theory" "communication + theory" "art + theory". Assumes we know the content of the field about which we theorize.
  • But we can take the pragmatic view (Rorty) that "theory" is a set of rules and procedures that allow us to do certain kinds of work. What kind of work does a theory allow me to do?
  • Theory as universes of discourses, horizons of expectation, overdetermined practices.
  • Constitution of concepts and objects: words and things (Foucault, Wittgenstein, etc.). What is there to be talked about?
  • Crisis in epistemology: objects of knowledge, constructivism, science vs. social thought, "two-cultures" continually re-enacted.
  • Epistemological commitments and consequences: working in a theory has epistemological consequences. It assumes one knows what the objects of knowledge are.
    • Get to the presuppositions of a theory and see what prior commitments are taken for granted (e.g., Marxism, cultural theory as practiced in humanities departments, social theories of media and communication, political economy and quantitative methods, etc.)
  • Current internal self-criticism of the limitations of monological theory (Marxisms, identity politics theory, "gender, race, class" theory, various schools of feminist theory).
  • Institutionalization of theory and the external complexity of real world systems.
    • No received body of theory generated in the academic world in the past three decades seems adequate for today's world--globalized, mass-mediated, digital, real-time, cross-mediated, competing local cultures.
  • Challenge of interdisciplinarity
    • Each discipline has institutional and personal interests (that is, something material, social, and political is at stake)
    • A discipline is a model of knowledge with its own discourse and ways of dealing with members of the discipline and outsides
    • A discipline is about boundaries and limits, what's outside and inside, how you are authorized to speak about an object of knowledge
    • Being "interdisciplinary" would entail knowing the positions and interests of the disciplines among which you are "inter".


Theory as Discursive Practice

  • Foucault's model of knowledge construction: discourses constitute objects, a process of conceptualization through a type of discourse which constructs objects of knowledge taken as "given."
  • The point of view of "critical theory" is to expose the "constructedness" of many of the objects of our knowledge to see how they are formed, how they are aligned with institutional power, what the consequences are of our systems of conceptualization that work through bodies of discourse.
  • Foucault calls the bodies of discourse that seem unified or have institutional boundaries and rules about who can use them "discursive practices" and "disciplines".
  • A challenge for interdisciplinary or cross-disciplinary work is that discourses with seemingly identical terms that name objects of knowledge (say, "culture," "globalization," or "expression") are not necessarily talking or assuming the same objects or content. Why? Because the content is not generated by the word alone, but by the network of discourse, the discipline or discursive practice as a system, in which the word is embedded.
  • Identical terms on the lexical level may be parts of incommensurate bodies of discourse that construct their objects differently, with different agendas, different presuppositions, and different intellectual commitments on the part of those who practice the discipline.


A Synthesis or Third Way? Using our Theoretical Tool Kit

  • We're at a point where we can work through some metatheoretical bridges between systems of thought.
    • Learn, internalize, accept as having been done prior theoretical work, then move on and don't get stuck in one one methodology or discipline. Look for combinations that allow new things to come into view (what Debray discovered in "mediology".)
  • Earlier semiotics: attempts to define a grammar of meaning based on language as the model for sign systems.
  • Communication and media theory: long tradition, leading to contemporary views from sociological, cultural, and political theory, some integrative, some working through one intellectual tradition.
  • C.S. Peirce: sign systems as ever-unfolding chains of meaning, culture as a system of signs interpreted through other signs.
  • Juri Lotman: culture and the nexus of symbolic relations: semiosphere. A kind of systems and complexity model. Other major contribution: we always experience culture as being incomplete, so we are always adding new expressions, new interpretations, new ways of extending received cultural content into new contexts.
  • Umberto Eco: culture seen as the total transmittable body of codes and symbolic contexts, the cultural encyclopedia of symbolic relationships. A semiotic systems model.
  • Michel Foucault: theory of discourse, discursive practices, as a field of forces linked to social power, a system that constitutes the objects of which it speaks. The theory confines truth claims to the specific discursive formations in which the conditions of truth are first defined. Has been an important model for ideological analysis.
  • Hans Robert Jauss: reception theory. The meaning of any cultural work (in any medium) conforms to its conditions of reception, a group sharing a set of assumptions and expectations about what something can mean. A kind of complexity model.
  • Iser: the repertoire, reader/interpreter's competence in using shared cultural content and codes. An extension of reception theory focusing on individual competence and the conditions for making meaning in a literate society.
  • Theories of "intertextuality," mutual interdependence of other cultural works in the interpretation of any other work. Now to be understood as "intermediality" or "intersemiality"--how meaning is generated in cross-media contexts like our visual culture today.
  • Leads to other theorists' work on the "interpretive community" as a way of describing constructions of meaning and negotiations of meaning at both micro-community and macro-community levels (large demographic groups down to specific communities of reception like popular music fan groups and Internet communities).
  • "Cultural Studies" and the legacy of Marxian theory devoted to questions of social class, race and ethnicity, gender and sexuality, and identities in social systems based on asymmetrical power and consumerist capitalism.
  • Visual Culture Studies: ways of looking at image-mediated and image-dominant world. Merges prior disciplines of cultural studies, media studies, semiotics, art history and art theory.
  • Debray and mediology: media systems and institutional contexts: mediaspheres.
  • The social reception and adoption of new media causes a reconfiguration of the total media system, but not a canceling or replacement of old by the new.
  • The physical forms of media technologies are already culturally pre-encoded in hierarchies of value (e.g., "get it in writing," "its on the Internet," "as seen on TV").
  • The mediasphere (totality of media, technologies, and institutions in a given system) provides the conditions of possibility for communicating since all communication requires a technology and an institutional milieu.
  • A systems and complexity model, but with a circumscribed intellectual genealogy. Can be extended to any area of media and communication.