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Configurations 10.1 (2002) 1-10

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Media—Models, Memories, and Metaphors

Geoffrey Winthrop-Young
University of British Columbia

Michael Wutz
Weber State University

More on media? Another collection? Why? The simple answer is that some matters become clearer by heightened exposure, but media do not. While it is now impossible to hide from a term that only a few decades ago hardly made it into respectable encyclopedias, its inflated use has escalated into growing obscurity. Try to answer the question: What are media? Artificial storage and communication tools, technological systems, metaphors with knobs and dials, prostheses of the human body, evolutionary achievements that render the improbable probable? Do academic distinctions such as media studies, media ecology, media theory (as opposed to "medium theory"), media science, media discourse analysis, mediasphere, mediascape—not to mention mediology or mediatrics—presuppose one and the same thing? Medium or media were a great deal easier to define in their bygone, low-profile days when, depending on the specialization of the observer, they had something to do with either grammar, numbers, or listening to dead celebrities. Such is the conceptual fuzziness that it has even become impossible to define what is not a medium, since it appears that anything or anybody can be one.

We could, no doubt, move from substances to relations and have "medium" and "media"—whose relationship to each other may be more complex than simply singular to plural 1 —refer not to things or [End Page 1] systems but to a way of interacting with our environment by using certain items. A conveniently vague approach, to be sure, but many would object to certain presuppositions that are anything but vague: anthropocentrism, instrumentalism, a subject/object split in the shape of us versus the environment. Besides—to anticipate Ursula Heise's contribution to this volume—what is an environment? What is implied, what future decisions are pre- or proscribed by the choice of this particular term that comes with its own history and bias? The fact of the matter is that "media theory"—in the widest, most ecumenical sense of the word—has become a playground of intellectual exploits which invites the redeployment of countless approaches that originated elsewhere. Every ism under the sun has come to play with media. With this in mind, our first editorial act was one of conceptual surrender: We were neither willing nor able to define in any satisfactory way or fashion the term that features most prominently in our title, but, given that the discussion is fed precisely by this lack of definitional consensus, wewere comforted by the assurances of Niklas Luhmann (an unlikely choice, otherwise, for comfort) that people, and academics in particular, never really communicate in such a way as to produce mutual understanding and transparency. Rather, they irritate one another, rubbing against each other like eager black boxes, hoping that the friction will produce some semblance of whiteness. 2 Sometimes it does.

Nonetheless, we did organize the collection along certain issues and approaches that will be presented by way of this introduction. Like many other related efforts, this volume grew out of the fascinated and uneasy contemplation of the media shift we are currently undergoing; and (once again, like many other observers) we believe that in order to illuminate some of the issues involved, it is helpful to juxtapose our situation with a more or less comparable historical precedent: the rise of print. This is, admittedly, a traditional and overused analogy, and it cannot address those qualities of the computer that do not have a historical precedent and that may indeed render the very terms "media" and "media theory" inadequate. 3 But taking our cue from the work of one of our contributors, Michael Giesecke, on the rise of typography, we believe that by focusing not on specific issues or hardware qualities but on an ensemble of factors [End Page 2] it is possible to gain some new insights and to derive, by way of generalization, the guidelines that act as the anchoring points for this volume.

Of the many early attempts to make...


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