Monday, 29 March 2010

What Is a Medium? On Material and Non-Material Mediation

A recent discussion I had with my friend Lazy made me think about what constitutes a medium. Since I have previously both discussed comics as a medium rather than a genre ("Comics – A Medium Not a Genre") and different types of genres ("Some Thoughts on Genre"), it actually struck me as somewhat odd that I have not really discussed the concept of medium at all. What is a medium? How do we define it? Needless to say, this is the time and place to make amends for this oversight.

It could be argued that a medium first and foremost is a material condition or means through which information and ideas can be mediated. For instance, the print medium clearly differs from television in terms of the material conditions and means used for mediation of any type of content. However, it would be equally true to say that books differ from magazines or, perhaps to an even larger degree, that celluloid film differs from video tape, both of which differ from digital video. In essence, the latter leaves us with the apparent truth that films reels, VHS tapes and DVDs are clearly different media. Yet all of these media (while obviously influencing it through their respective limitations and possibilities) are all used to mediate the medium of film.

Are you confused yet?

Think of it like this: apart from being a material means to mediate something, any form of mediation also requires a sense of language. In fact, I would argue that language is, perhaps, the most potent medium which human beings have achieved. As such, language itself can be subdivided into various specific languages (e.g. English and Swedish), all of which strongly affect the mediation and may be labelled sub-media for the purposes of our discussion (cf. the notion of sub-genres). Transfer of any (kind of) message or information from one language to another requires translation, just as transfer between different media requires adaptation or re-mediation.

The distinction between adaptation and re-mediation, to my mind, depends on which definition or type of medium we are talking about. I would argue that re-mediation more strongly relates to transfer of information or content from one material means of mediation to another (e.g. the transfer of a film from VHS tape to a DVD), whereas adaptation relates to the transfer or translation from one non-material medium/language to another. Allow me to explain further.

If we return to the visual medium of film (in a general sense, i.e. not just material reels of celluloid film), this medium arguably functions more like a language than a material medium in terms of mediation. It is, above all, non-material just as languages are (while simultaneously, of course, being dependent on material mediation as well), but furthermore, it relies on a kind of audiovisual grammar that, while susceptible of being affected by "proper" language differences (as well as cultural ones), nevertheless goes beyond them in some manner.

Needless to say, perhaps, the media of music, comics and literature (to mention three examples) all rely on similar notions of medium specific grammar governing their forms of mediation. While they (like film) are all inevitably dependent on material means of mediation as well, these respective sets of grammatical rules nevertheless operate across those material media boundaries. It is quite obvious that not every non-material medium can be mediated through all other material media, but the fact that most, if not all, non-material media can be mediated through more than one material medium, quite clearly shows that there are two different types of media and mediation out there: that is, non-material and material media and mediation.

Monday, 22 March 2010

Once More with Verisimilitude

Some time ago now, I posted a piece in here entitled "To Seem or Not to Seem", in which I discussed the concept of verisimilitude. Recently while looking for an article by author Salman Rushdie, I came across Alison Flood's piece "Rushdie attacks Slumdog Millionaire's 'impossible' plot" on the Guardian's on-line books pages and was once more reminded of people's narrow-minded view of and failure to understand this concept.

Flood opens her brief piece on Rushdie's sharp critique of director Danny Boyle's Slumdog Millionairewith the following statement:
You might think that a writer whose own characters have included telepaths and angels would not worry too much about a story's believability, but Salman Rushdie has taken serious issue with the credibility of this year's Oscars sensation Slumdog Millionaire.
The innate stupidity of this sentence makes me wince quite literally. Because obviously the inclusion of fantastical elements such as telepaths and angels need never be sold to the audience, right? Nor, of course, need authors (or directors or artists, etc) dealing which such elements bother with credibility or believability, right?

After all, clearly the potential audiences of such things buy anything coming their way. If they are ready to embrace a fantastical element as part of a fictional reality, clearly they have thrown all logic out the window, stopped caring and suspended all possible kinds of disbelief. I mean, why would anyone invest themselves in any way in something obviously not real, right? Something like, say, fiction.

Tuesday, 16 March 2010

Freedom of Speech and Responsibility for Speech

Apropos of the death threats against Swedish artist Lars Vilks and his controversial Roundabout Dog, the debate on the Freedom of Speech is once more at the front and centre. As well it should be, I hasten to add. Clearly Freedom of Speech must be absolute in the sense that neither violence nor death can be seen as appropriate responses to any form of utterance, no matter if it is offensive to some parties. After all, there is no way to ever insure that nobody will ever take offence or feel violated by something.

However, all that having been said, I find the current debate troublesome and am reminded of a few years ago, when the Gothenburg Book Fair had Freedom of Speech and Freedom of Print as a general theme. I attended a few of the theme related panel debates and seminars that year and was quite appalled by the level of the discussion; simply because it lacked any kind of nuance. Moderators more or less consistently pushed the debate into a monochromatic perspective, a simple for or against. Some panel members (like religious scholar Mattias Gardell) admittedly tried (heroically) to bring some depth to the debate, but were metaphorically shot down quite swiftly by the moderators. For or against, in absolute terms, was all that was of interest.

Those debates made me wonder why debates were needed at all. After all, I dare say that nobody, and I do mean nobody (neither on the panels nor in the audience), thought that any kind of utterance (artistic or otherwise) warrants a death threat or any other form of violent response. Nor do I think there were any strong voices in favour of censorship present.

As a brief aside, I might add that I find censorship problematic at best, since it removes the option for people to respond to an actual utterance and leaves them condemning something in the second degree, based only on someone else's analysis and opinion.

However, the main problem with the black and white, absolute approach is that it denies the possibility of an ongoing debate on how we use the freedom of speech. As stated already, I do not favour censorship, but I also strongly oppose the notion that we must do something just because we have a right or freedom to do it. I find it strange that so many of the advocates of Freedom of Speech (and I would actually count myself as an advocate of it, in all honesty) seem unwilling to grant the same freedom and rights to their opponents. I find it weird because while violence is not an appropriate response, this by no means signals that any kind of critical verbal (or visual, musical, etc) response should be stricken down as if an act of violence, or even as if condoning such an act. The Freedom of Speech does not merely apply to being offensive (as it were), but also to verbally question and critique acts that are found offensive. In fact, I would argue that such an ongoing debate is both needed and healthy.

Furthermore, as civilisation has evolved, mankind has given itself various rights and freedoms. Most of these, however, do come with responsibility. This notion responsibility (legal, moral or otherwise) often seems to be forgotten or conveniently glossed over by the use of a black and white debate in absolute terms.

Nobel Prize Laureate Orhan Pamuk participated on one of the panel debates and voiced an opinion, which quite frankly scared me. Granted that Pamuk comes from a local history filled with oppression, power abuse and censorship, where the official "truth" often covers up actual truths (one needs only consider the genocide of the Armenians), but when asked whether authors should participate in the debate on what one should be allowable to say, he quickly said no and very naïvely added that the role of the Author is to find the Truth and say it.

Once more, I blame it on the Romantics (cf. a previous post of mine). Pamuk's view of the Author (with a capital A) corresponds well with the Romantics' view of the Author/Poet/Artist, from which we have admittedly not yet made ourselves free. This conception of the Author is ideological, to some degrees metaphysical and most certainly Romantic. By in some sense giving the Author reign over the dominion of Truth (also, notably, with capital letter), by privileging his/her point of view and voice over others, however, another problem is created.

Pamuk's view of the Author simply does not function pragmatically. And we know it. We are aware that there are several writers and authors out there who use their voices and their medium like good little demagogues, denying the Truth and inventing new ones as it suits their agenda. The simple capitalisation of the letter A (in turning author to Author) is not enough to avoid the issue. If anything, it problematises the issue further, because if there are authors and writers who act in opposition to the Pamuk's notion of the Author's quest, would it not be in the interest of the Author and that ideal to debate those very issues? If the Author's utterance does not, in and of itself, signify Truth, and if that is an ideal to which you yourself hold, would not the abuse of that ideal, the privileged position and the utterance itself, not to mention Truth, instil righteous fury in you? Would that not make you want to be a part of the debate?

At the end of the day, it is not about Freedom of Speech being absolute or not (it should be, in fact must be); it is not even about never offending anyone or violating someone's beliefs. At the end of the day, it is about responsibility. We need an ongoing debate which acknowledges that we are responsible for our utterances (legally, morally, etc) and that having the right to do something does not necessarily mean that doing it is right.

Sunday, 14 March 2010

Brief Mea Culpas and Some Recommended Reading

So, obviously, in February, I broke my mission statement of weekly updates with only two posts and March has admittedly had a slow start to add to that injury. Thus I would like to offer my mea culpas on that and swiftly move along.

Earlier this week, I read through some of the blog posts I had not yet had a chance to read over at Zaki's Corner (a blog which I heartily recommend) and came across a recommendation to read a blog post by Greg Burgas over at Comic Book Resources. The post in question, entitled "The Political Leanings of Superhero Comics ... Revealed!", is an interesting take on usably defining the political terms "conservative" and "radical" (and to some extent, at least, also "liberal") and through those definitions look at the politics of superhero comics, both in terms of content and form.

Burgas somewhat lengthy analysis is well worth reading and his arguments are convincing. Instead of me waxing on about it, I recommend you use the link and check it out for yourselves.