Leading Discussion on Media Studies Theory

Sep 7, 2023
The agenda tonight is that we can start with a general discussion of modernity, then go to different “great thinkers”[BBC]. Then we will recognize the star of technical determinism, McLuhan. At last, we will return to the point that Mitchel and Hansen want to argue in their paper that changes of media are not “determining our situation” as what Kittler and McLuhan trying to preach [paper], instead, “media are our situation.”[paper]
Cultural Study
Social Media
(still in editing)
Annotation: [citation awaited]


  • Laughey, D. (2007). "Modernity and Medium Theory" in Key Themes in Media Theory. (pp. 30-53). Open University Press.
  • Mitchell, W. J. T., & Hansen, M. B. N. (Eds.). (2010). Introduction. In Critical Terms for Media Studies (pp. vii–xxii). University of Chicago Press.
  • McLuhan, M. (1964/1994). Forward (by Lewis H. Lapham) and chapter 1: "The medium is the message" (pp. 7-21). MIT Press.

In-class Discussion Material

In-class Leading Discussion Outline

Tonight, we are going to touch the greatest traditions of the working classes. Who can tell me what the tradition is? [QA] The answer is to take night classes in the evening!
This is a joke but it also serves as a good starting point for our discussion on how a particular form of modern cultural practice has different meanings to different social classes. Such differences that Richard Hoggart’s tried to understand, to Stuart Hall, particularly by rejecting the “cultural debate” around high culture and low culture, marks a “thorough-going departure”(Hall, 1980) – that is, this attempt by Hoggart marks the beginning of cultural studies. This conflict between low and high culture is not only an academic debate between FR Leavis and Matthew Arnold [cultural study journal] but also a wide-spreading conflict that through the continuously changing relationships between medium and modernity, which is the topic tonight.
The agenda tonight is that we can start with a general discussion of modernity, then go to different “great thinkers”[BBC]. Then we will recognize the star of technical determinism, McLuhan. At last, we will return to the point that Mitchel and Hansen want to argue in their paper that changes of media are not “determining our situation” as what Kittler and McLuhan trying to preach [paper], instead, “media are our situation.”[paper]

I. Modernity

But the biggest question here should be: what is modernity? Any ideas? [QA]
It is an ambiguous question for two reasons. The first reason is that modernity is a comparable concept and can only be understood in a specific temporal background. This temporality is reflected in Laughey’s definition of modernity:
“the social, economic, political and technological developments that have characterized the transition from traditional (pre-modern) to advanced (modern) civilizations.”[]
Similarly, to one of the greatest sociologists, Antony Giddens also argues that:
“Modernity, I propose, is multidimensional on the level of institutions, and each of the elements specified by these various traditions plays some part.” [1st chapter, the consequences of modernity]
We all have different understandings and various experience of modernity. All of them are quite far from “wrong” but in our readings, Modernity can be understood in different characteristics and in three phases listed in the document. One thing we need to notice is that modernism is different from modernity since the former is a specific experimental movement of art and writing.
However, in this process of modernization, theorists in media studies realized that there’s an relationship between modernity and medium. They have different understandings.

II. Harold Innis

To the first medium theorist in the history, Harold Innis believes that “any medium is biased towards its utility either across time or space”. He wrote:
Media that emphasize time are those that are durable in character, such as parchment, clay or stone. The heavy materials are suited to the development of architecture and sculpture. Media that emphasize space are apt to be less durable and light in character, such as papyrus and paper. The latter are suited to wide areas in administration and trade. (Innis 1986: 5)
Therefore, “the medium through which knowledge and information is circulated has more impact on societies than the character or content of that knowledge or information.” This perspective has supports from Walter Ong and Benedict Anderson.

III. Marshall McLuhan

McLuhan’s vital albeit quite controversial theory, will be introduced by Hety.

IV. Benjamin

But to the forth theorist, Walter Benjamin, the process of modernization of medium could be a “transformation of its nature”[], by change the “aura” and democracy. In this book, Benjamin argues that the copying technology of paintings, one the one hand, democratized the values of art by extend it from privileged ownership to public affordability. On the other hand, unfortunately, this change leads to the loss of “aura”, which is defined as “a mystical sense of authenticity that makes them special and extremely sought after.”[] Benjamin intends to argue that existence of art is cohesively related to its ritual function’, while copied paintings are good, we would never forget that the nature of art has been changed.
As an extension to Benjamin’s claims on the consequences of the mass production of art, democracy and the loss of aura, John Berger’s Ways of seeing in 1972 believes this transformation has also changed oil-paintings as ‘spectator-owner’ to ‘spectator-buyer’[]. The unwanted result of such a change is that technology as one of the major forms of modernity is becoming used in a bad way, in contrast to former utopian imagination.

V. The Leavises and the Lynds

Now, the most interesting part is coming. I know you have been tired for a while, so let’s jump into a video on the debate partially led by F.R. Leavis. In this video, I hope you pay attention to how Leavis focuses on the elite culture, and his attitude towards the banal, mass-produced entertainment. [video]
What’s the attitude of Leavis towards another forms of culture? [QA]
Leavises’ arguments are based on the premise of an elite minority culture, which including a small elite group of educated playing as the peak of the human culture, in contrast to the mass. The treat another opposite cultural form on the high-low spectrum, as something stimulating “the cheapest emotional appeals”. Leavis insisted on the superior status of elites, and wrote that
In any period it is upon a very small minority that the discerning appreciation of art and literature depends . . . Upon this minority depends our power of profiting by the finest human experience of the past; they keep alive the subtlest and most perishable parts of tradition. Upon them depend the implicit standards that order the finer living of an age. (F. R. Leavis 1930: 3, 5)
How do you think about the distinction between the high culture and the low culture? [QA]
Another common question here worth attention is what the difference between mass culture and pop culture, any clues? Mass culture and pop culture are often used in an interchangeable way but they do have subtle difference. Mass culture focuses on the production while pop culture refers to that there’s a specific trend of cultural consumption which is popular. More details could be found at ‘The Culture Industry’ by Adorno and Horkheimer’s ‘The Dialectic of Enlightenment.’ While I had to admit that these books are those I haven’t read yet.
While it’s hard to evaluate a moral statement from the minority, although the elite, the dark side of modernity did arise the fear of Americanization. In Robert and Helen Lynd’s work , Middletown, they expressed the fear of the disadvantages of modernity that automobiles, Hollywood films, and so on, had transformed our life [] in an unwanted way. Such concerns are not unique.

VI. Mitchell and Hansen

Starting from Friedrich Kittler’s argument: “media determines our situation” (Gramophone, Film, Typewriter), Mitchell and Hansen defines what “Media Studies” is and attempt to bridge two traditions: empirical and humanities [].
However, I have to say that this is not a thoroughly new perspective. This conflict of the empirical approach of Durkheim, and the interpretive approach dubbed as the Weber’s is one of the most well-known conflict in sociology. To bridge the boundaries, in 1966, which is 44 years before Mitchel and Hansen’s, Perter Berger wrote that:
“.. These two statements are not contradictory. Society does indeed possess objective facticity. And society is indeed built up by activity that expresses subjective meaning. … It is precisely the dual character of society in terms of objective facticity and subjective meaning that makes its ‘reality sui generis’, [which means ‘reality is unique and distinct in its own way’]… [the social construction of reality]
But what Mitchel and Hansen want to present here, is to clarify the importance of “mediality” as a deep concern that formed as a “invention”, which allow us to range across different perspectives of media studies, from aesthetics, to technology, to society, and other possibilities. Apart from the “singular” meaning of media, they also addressed the plural meaning of medium.
An interesting argument the mentioned is about the way they depart McLuhan’s theory from determinism. To McLuhan, body is our primary media and media is the extension of our body. That leads to the mediated nature of media, they wrote that:
We instead start from the premise that media are themselves mediated—constituted, that is, by a three-way set of exchanges among the dimensions of individual subjectivity, collective activity, and technical capability.[]
Mitchell and Hansen propose that McLuhan is not a technological determinist, but a scholar considering it as a dialect. McLuhan’s famous thesis about media as “extensions” of the senses is coupled with a recognition that they are simultaneously “amputations” of the organs they extend.
In conclusion, Michell shift from plural medium as forms of determinism to singular media as an important perspective, then go to the plural meaning of combinations of different perspective. In this vein, they defined “mediation” as a term and finally, they argue that “rather than determining our situation, we might better say that media are our situation”[].

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