Love and scandal are the best sweeteners of tea. —Henry Fielding

08 May 2011

The Medium

I should probably write a post about what a crazyperson I am (one of my dear friends outlined for me yesterday how I have been crossing some serious lines of crazy lately) but, well, this blog is not a confession booth and you, dear reader, are probably not a Catholic priest, so: no confessions of a crazyperson today.

Actually, what I want to talk about today is something else my friend and I discussed last night: media.

Now, my friend and I were talking about politics, as we often do, and the way that the twenty-four-hour news cycle pushes us from one story to the next. One minute all anyone is talking about is the president's birth certificate. Was he really born in the U.S.? I mean, he's black! He's probably not from 'round these parts. And then the next minute it's Osama bin Laden all day and all night. What was he doing in that residence? Why didn't we tell the Pakistani government we were in the country? Who knew what and when? Why didn't President Bush catch him in 2003?

My friend then was blaming people for forgetting about what they think are important news stories quickly and moving on to new topics. "I mean, who do we blame for this?" he asked me: "the media?"

Stop right there. I said. Who are these media and how can we blame them for things?

Then today I was looking at the Calls for Papers for a conference I will probably be attending in Montréal in November and there happened to be a call on "Economies of Mediated Performance." Now, I already object a little to this frame. I am not quite sure performance can be mediated. It is media that perform. That's what media do. Right? It's possible that I understand this incorrectly, so I'll table it for the moment.

Further in the call, the conveners offer that "From tele-present skype exchanges to enscreened corporeal action, from performances of protest to bio-art performance, media is interwoven into the fabric of contemporary performance economies." Media IS?

Mediation, surely, is interwoven into "the fabric of contemporary performance economies." Fine. But media is a plural word; it is the plural, in fact, of the word medium. And so the idea that media is is a rather impossible notion grammatically.

There is a larger problem here, though, at least to my mind, and it is one that exceeds a mere (if you wish to call it that) gripe with these conveners' incorrect grammar. The problem I see here is the vagueness of this term. It is this generality that I objected to with my friend and his blaming of the (big, bad) media for the short attention spans of the U.S. citizenry. To refer to media as though they are responsible for things is to turn our attention to the wrong thing. Or, rather – and actually I think this is the far more pernicious tendency we all have when discussing media – to speak of media is to give up, to pretend as though we have no control and to pretend that we, the receivers of information, are only passive creatures, doomed and cursed forever to be fed information from a superpower of information who filters and sanitizes "the real" before giving us the news in a more palatable and condensed format.

But media (and this is why knowing that the word is plural is important) are different. Media work in different ways and we interact with them in different ways. Television news is different on the television than it is when I watch it on my desktop computer via YouTube because a friend recommended the video to me. Those two modes of watching, those two methods of interacting with media are, in fact, vastly different from one another. And to use a blanket term like media and then transform the plurality of practices that term covers into a singular term that is effaces some really important variations.

Instead of talking about media, it seems to me that we need to be talking about specific patterns that media use, specific modes of interacting with media, specific styles, techniques, and technologies that various media employ in order to feed us information. It is only when we become specific about how these media work that we will be able to change how we interact with them. It is only when we stop being general about media, stop treating them as though they all work in the same way, that we can recognize that there is no giant behemoth called "the media" that is out to brainwash us, but that, rather, there are numerous, diverse, and diffuse mediated connections between ourselves and the information we consume. It is these connections that instruct us about our daily lives and connect us with the world around us, and we need to examine these connections critically and individually. There can be no critique of "the media" at large.