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.

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