(DH) The Medium and the Message: An Introduction to Media Theory

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In the digital age, the term “media” has become all but synonymous with forms of mass communication like social media and the news media. But, as the field of media theory explores, media forms have always encompassed far more than these. Since the dawn of homo sapiens, media of all different kinds––tools, elements, inventions, bodies, voices, technologies, creations––have shaped how human beings live; understand themselves; relate to one another; interface with the world around them; and formulate identities, whether personal, racial, religious, gendered, political, or national. Throughout the epochs, media have dreamed of (and sometimes succeeded in) conquering the bounds of space and time. In this course, we will traverse diverse landscapes of media objects, technologies, and infrastructures to consider fundamental questions about the human condition: Who are we, and what are we doing here? How do the things we use to preserve, express, enhance, and define ourselves end up shaping the ways that we think and behave, at both personal and societal levels? How do the designs of media objects and technologies actively shape their functions? To what extent is media history a story of the quest for love and the desire to overcome death?

The readings for each week comprise one or more critical theoretical texts written by a media theorist(s), exploring a key conceptual media model or idea. These are paired with short literary texts, mostly short stories or poems, that help to develop insight into the week’s intellectual concepts.

Learning Objectives

  • Discuss the form, function, and socio-cultural impacts of diverse media objects, technologies, and innovations. Discussion topics will include media technology’s capacity to traverse space and time; its functions of storage, processing, and transmission; its relation to the environment; its tendency to shape how users think as well as how they behave.
  • Identify investigative questions surrounding media forms and technologies from various historical, geographical, cultural, and social contexts. These media forms will cover key innovations throughout human history, such as the prehistoric use of fire; the emergence of written records; the invention of clocks, mirrors, the printing press, telephone, radio, and photography; the origins of computer science and the era of generative AI.
  • Compare, contrast, and evaluate varied thinkers’ arguments and theoretical models concerning the ways that media forms influence human behaviors, ideologies, and societies.
  • Develop and effectively communicate original interpretative arguments, in both written and oral format, about how media work and how they shape the communities that utilize them.
  • DH minor students will apply digital methods to formulate original arguments in humanities studies. They will also use critical thinking and analysis skills to investigate the social effects and implications of digital media, cultures, and technologies. In doing so, DH students will integrate computational methods with humanities concepts and materials to create analyses that draw on both disciplines.

Measurable Outcomes

  • During class, participation in large-group discussion, in-class activities, small-group work, and mini in-class presentations focusing on skills of textual and critical analysis and oral communication.
  • A midterm paper (3 pages) consisting of a “media object meditation.” The paper will construct a case study of a specific example of a media technology or invention, chosen by the student. This case study must implement concepts and critical thinking skills from class to formulate an argument about how the selected media technology’s formal design ultimately structures and determines its function.
  • A final paper (5 pages) that identifies a research question centered around one of the course texts (either a media theory text or a literary text). The paper will formulate an original written argument in response to the research question. The paper will utilize sources curated via library research; integrate and build on the published work of other researchers to construct an original argument; and deliver the argument with strong organization and evidence.
  • For Digital Humanities (DH) minor students, the final paper should conduct a digital-related project that either 1) investigates an aspect of the digital, as a form of technology, or as an era of media; or 2) applies DH analysis methods (such as, but not limited to, natural language processing, NER, topic modelling, network analysis) to the study of media forms, cultures, and technologies. Alternatively, DH minor students who opt to pursue a standard, non-digital final paper must include a digital element as part of their final presentation, as detailed below.
  • A final presentation that defines and evaluates a media technology (distinct from the midterm paper), media theory concept, or media theory model. The presentation must include the use of supplementary materials (slides, images, clips, infographics, visualizations, or handouts). DH students who choose to write a non-digital final paper must include a digital element in this final presentation, either by focusing on a form or aspect of digital media or by applying DH methods to curate datasets and visualizations for the purposes of their case study.

Course Requirement

Assessment Percentage
WEC – Class Participation 15
WEC – Paper 1 30
WEC – Paper 2 30
WEC – Final Presentation 25

Weekly Schedule

Week 1: Phaedrus and Socrates (What are Media?)

Human beings are, and have always been, surrounded by media of all kinds. But what exactly are media? How do we identify them; how do we define them? This session will introduce the subject context and course structure, and begin conceptualizing media through Plato’s famous dialogue. Key concepts: Media as pharmakons (both drug and medicine); media enable unprecedented possibilities regarding presence and absence; communication, the longing for communion with other entities, lies at the heart of media functions; media history fundamentally comprises desires to find love and circumvent death.

Week 2: Fire and Sea (Back to Basics)

We start with fire––one of the most basic, elemental, yet powerful embodiments of human relations with media objects. How can something so vital be so destructive? How does the presence and potential of fire configure human societies? Why is fire such a potent force for the imagination? (Think how many fire metaphors, songs, poems, and idioms there are!) Similarly, the element of water: What if the sea, rather than land, were our predominant medium? Why is a watery environment generally so alien to human modi operandi? Key concepts: Media are extensions of capability that often, ironically, render us dependent; media are environment-specific; media require management systems; media tend to become invisible.

Week 3: Clocks, Bells, Calendars (Time-keeping, Community, Infrastructures)

Time-keeping mechanisms are some of the oldest means of solidifying community. How do clocks, bells, and calendars––all time-keeping devices in their own right––enable forms of communal synchronization not otherwise possible? Key concepts: Media allow for the structuring of communal identity; the determination and structuring of time goes hand in hand with authority; media not only influence the way we act, but furthermore the way we think.

Week 4: Space, Time, Power (Fundamental Media Questions)

Having now considered various media forms, objects, and substances, this week we tackle some seminal––and challenging!––theoretical foundations, as formulated by some of media theory’s key thinkers. Key concepts: According to McLuhan, “The medium is the message”; media are “pure information”; Winkler’s hedgehog/hare principle (media can be categorized according to models of storage/transmission: consuming space to overcome time, vs. consuming time to overcome space). Sofia’s media models: Media capabilities and functions are fundamentally tied to forms of technology; technology is, in turn, fundamentally enmeshed with societal constructs (e.g. the value we place on different technologies subliminally reflects gender norms and expectations).

Week 5: Mirrors (Doppelgangers)  

This week we mobilize our media concepts so far via the mirror object, one of the most fascinating yet creepiest inventions in existence. Why are mirrors so unsettling and uncanny? What ensues from the ability to see your own reflection? Key concepts: Media enable the creation of doubled bodies; media facilitate the possibility of perceiving ourselves from external perspectives, thereby affecting how we make sense of our own identities; media tend to become invisible, as do their processes of changing our interactions (Narcissus/narcosis); the visual fragmentation of a mirror image (into self and other) also fosters psychological fracturings of self-perception and identity (again, media affect the way we think, not just the way we behave); in the digital age, mirrors offer metaphors for self-fragmentations via social media and other kinds of self-multiplying and doppelgangers.

Week 6: Writing, Part I (Mirroring the Self, Doubled Bodies, Mother of All Media)

Last week we considered doubled bodies through mirror media. Writing, too, is a form of proliferating new selves and presences. Writing has become so prevalent a tool in most cultures that we take it for granted; but, like fire, writing irrevocably altered the face of human civilizations. What are the affordances, contingencies, and hidden implications of having the written record as a predominant means of preservation? Is writing the mother of all media? How does the existence of writing facilitate power? Key concepts: Apply Winkler’s hedgehog-and-hare media model to writing; writing as a medium enables a) unprecedented forms of storage capacity, and b) exertion of control over time and space; media always favour some groups of people at the expense of others.

Week 7: Recess week

Week 8: Writing, Part II (Externalizing Memory, Imagining Communities, The Gutenberg Galaxy)

Media theorists love to think big. What happens when we consider writing as a medium on broader scales, geographically and historically? Key concepts: The invention of the printing press, by increasing the efficacy of multiplying textual copies––think Winkler’s hare principle––a) explosively democratized reading materials, and b) connected people across vast networks of time and space in a “global village” for the first time (McLuhan’s so-called “Gutenberg Galaxy”; think precursor to the internet). Anderson’s media models: Media oscillate between dreams of simultaneity across time, vs. simultaneity across space; media forms and systems structure the imaginary constructs of our communal identities, whether dynastic, religious, or national.

Week 9: Photography & Image (Writing with Light)

The nineteenth century saw the rise of world-changing inventions for storing and transmitting information: photography, phonography, telegraphy. Photography introduces a revolutionary way of recording images––writing not with pen and pencil, but with the chemical processing of light. Key concepts: Time-axis manipulation; distinctions between recording in the “real” vs.  the “symbolic”; new media are accompanied by huge hype. McLuhan’s media models: “Hot” and “cool” media; the content of a new medium is always an older medium. Kittler’s media models: Temporality in sound- and image-recording.

Week 10: Sound, Part I––Radio, Telephone (Sound Transmission)

While photography introduced new ways of recording images, phonography pioneered ground-breaking ways of recording soundwaves. Photography is light-writing; phonography is sound-writing, allowing voices without bodies to transcend time and space. Key concepts: Voices travelling without bodies results in profoundly weird disturbances to processes of perception; enhanced capabilities in transmission come along with unforeseen and opposing potentials for eavesdropping, unintended interceptions, and communication leakages (again, media are leaky; media require management systems––every action has an equal and polar reaction). Media models: Review McLuhan and Kittler.

Week 11: Sound, Part II––Phonography, Tape (Sound Recording)

We continue considering sound media. Key concepts: Rendering voices independent of bodily sources results in all kinds of possibilities for preservation, re-embodiment, imagination, manipulation, and re-distribution (again, media are pharmakons…); media allow us to live in the past, often at the expense of the present or future; sound media facilitate fragmentations of self and of the body; media dependencies mess with our processing capacities; media affect us not only mentally and psychologically but also physically; humans often cannot foresee media’s consequences and trajectories (McLuhan’s characterization of media as independent forces in shaping societies; Edison’s vision of the phonograph; the military origins of the internet).

Week 12: Computers & Generative AI (Can Machines Think?)

This week we consider machine intelligence in conversation with one of computer science’s founding figures: Alan Turing. Why are there so many metaphors in computer science? Is the Turing test about whether machines think, or about how humans think? How do we understand, and approach, media that are governed by non-human intelligence? Key concepts: The imitation game; gendering in the Turing test; AI as a reflection of human desires, created in man’s image; media often dream of nonliteral, non-biological ways of procreating the self––think AI (brainchild of human minds), Frankenstein, doubled selves.

Week 13: Student Presentations (Where Do We Go From Here?)  

This week is devoted to student presentations. We will also reflect on what students have learned in the course via Ken Liu’s short science-fiction story.


Melissa Tu