Media as Cultural Practice

In the study of culture, we must frequently rely on the translations of others to access knowledge — whether that translation is simply the relating of an experience through the subject and into writing, or the actual labor of explaining cultural practices through one’s own cultural practices. Translation labors to appear untranslated, just as media labors to appear unmediated (read: not remediated). Yet, cultural evolution and technological development both depend heavily on translation in the sense that an “original” is known to exist in some remote and inaccessible realm, yet we deem the medium through which we access it to be an acceptable stand-in. The metaphor of translation-is-media is highly imperfect, but the link between the two, cultural practice, is at the heart of understanding media (and why we frequently misunderstand it).

In Lisa Gitelman’s Always Already New: Media, History and the Data of Culture, media is defined as “socially realized structures of communication, where structures include both technological forms and their associated protocols, and where communication is a cultural practice, a ritualized collocation of different people on the same mental map, sharing or engaged with popular ontologies of representation.” (Gitelman, 7) This definition elucidates how dependent “new” technology’s physical and symbolic development are on previous cultural practices. We see how dependent an object’s use value is on the cultural forces that allowed it to arise, be adopted, and ultimately, remembered.

Acquiring information, as Gitelman points out, is not so much the underlying goal of media, however, it does provide us with a useful starting point to tease out the specifically “cultural” elements of communication and technology. Take, for example, the newspaper. The act of reading “today’s newspaper” is a time-sensitive ritual in which those reading it tend to do so relatively contemporaneously  (and is thus a ritual of collocation).  Though the level of contemporaneousness of this ritual leaves room for a much more ambiguous span of time than, say, watching the 6 o’clock news, the fact that it has a more complex symbolic and ritualistic value points to its existence as being embedded in our “socially realized structures of communication”.  I know that for me the “image” that the newspaper evokes is one with great cultural resonance – and I use “image” very deliberately here, as I experience the phenomenon less as an obvious social reality and more as a kind of nostalgic social imaginary that exists at the breakfast tables of TV families, or in the paper routes of “Leave it to Beaver”-type children. Our cultural imaginaries are tied to conceptions about the past (nostalgia for old technology and the values associated with them) and the future (science fiction’s promise of a more intelligent and technologically advanced human race) that are largely shaped by forces outside of our control. The give and take between “our” technology and us is fluid and difficult to quantify, but above all it undeniably cultural.

Gitelman, Lisa.Always Already New: Media, History and the Data of Culture. (2006) Cambridge, MA: MIT.

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