Transjective Media Studies and Reciprocal Determinism

Yep, that’s right — I’m being one of those academics. Engaging in neologisms to make a name for myself. But what I am working through here is an idea for a book project, and I’d love peoples’ comments to help me to do so.

Redefining Media Studies

A medium is a technology for the storage, transmission, sharing, consumption of symbols, information, content, data, meaning. Any medium affects all of us; we may just not be cognizant of it, or we may choose to ignore it as acknowledging it would require more self-reflection than many like. But how it affects us is more complex than we have yet figured out how to measure.

I recently realized why I don’t like media effects or even uses and gratifications approaches of media studies any more: while material objects become actors in a network, they have no agency; instead, they embody social constructs, and by focusing on the object, we obscure the human actions behind it. Obscuring the agents to understand the actors means we never fully appreciate the power dynamics that create and perpetuate the network, or then the peoples who profit from that network.

Technology has no power as “magical objects”; only people do, and we need to remember that. Agents act through technologies; technologies don’t act through people. Any impact due to media, per any uses and effects or other paradigms, is actually due to how the technology is designed as part of an overall system of human actions, both material and symbolic.

Violent media content does not cause violence; it is part of a larger system of human material and symbolic actions that perpetuates violence as an acceptable reaction to suffering. Humans make other humans violent, and then blame the media rather than change themselves. People with power blame the media for the problems they themselves create and maintain through their actions — perpetuating problems that maintain a status quo of themselves in power. But it isn’t just ideologically encoded content that reflects and perpetuates this system.

Technologies are designed with ideologically informed affordances and constraints that serve this same perpetuation purpose, reifying certain power dynamics and relationships over others. Interfaces normalize similarly to content who is considered “good” or “bad” in society. Content and interfaces are designed to privilege some over others, and to have an impact through who uses them, when, where, how, and for what reason.

Simultaneously, it is not simply the fault or praise of content and interface designers for the media’s impact: the consumer/fan/user/audience/public/volk also have power in this network of actors and agents. Their decoding, recoding actions matter in any system’s propagation. And their decoding and recoding likewise exist in systems over which they have more or less agency, from physiological to sociocultural. Everything is connected, and everything is contextual.

Quantitative approaches to map these networks fail if they do not properly account for all the nodes of agency. Qualitative approaches to nuance these contexts and dynamics fail if they don’t account for relations within larger networks and systems.

To truly understand “media uses and effects” we need an approach that simultaneously measures subjective experiences of encoding/decoding/recoding by agents in the network with critical and rhetorical appraisal of the embodied social constructs and power dynamics in media objects which then also requires an accounting of the sense-making of the critics to understand their position within this system of relationships and power dynamics.

Media uses and effects studies need to push against the powers that co-opt research by focusing more on a complex analysis of systems a la critical-cultural media studies, while critical-cultural media studies needs to learn how to expand the sampling of research and develop more public scholarship approaches to research communication a la media uses and effects studies. I argue this with love for both approaches, but what we need are more interdisciplinary, multimethodological approaches that study the complexities of these systems, uncover the power flows inherent to them, and do so in ways that demonstrate patterns to improve media literacy.

Such an approach needs to forego the unnecessary subjective/objective binary that prevents true interdisciplinary work. Maybe this notion of “transjective” from philosophy, theology could help provide a better epistemological footing for such a venture to study not the “media” but the systems and networks of agents, relationships, power dynamics that constitute, and are constituted by, the media.

The universalism of structuralism is rightly disregarded. But we know people do have similarities that connect everyone to one another. Perhaps instead of structuralism we need an agentic theory focusing on the internal/external actions we do than the structure/function of them.

Somehow we have to get beyond a 2D snapshot approach that only focuses on a narrow but “manageable” perspective on the system and instead create a 4D model and simulation that places all actors and agents into relation across time and space. Taking a reciprocal determinist instead of a technological or sociocultural determinist perspective would help with such mapping, because it would mean a more detailed media ecology approach that combines media uses and effects with critical/cultural analyses of media texts, systems, industries, etc.

Why Media Studies?

At the same time, is it controversial to say that — along with the traditional media analyzed in media studies — anything which communicates, or operates as a conduit for meaning, is a medium, thereby also labeling humans and anything humans create as media?

Mediums are often defined as artificial technologies, human-made and capable of archiving and being archived. Humans are not artificial technologies, but they are created through social, cultural, political, and economic forces — that is, by other humans. And humans can archive, although imprecisely, hence the creation of mediums in the first place. Humans, however, cannot be archived, at least not across a vast span of time — hence, again, the reason for media existing.

Other scholars have also been addressing this schism, such as Adam Tyma, who said “I often discuss with my intro to mass comm students that the very language they are using mediates information and knowledge, which manipulates meaning.” Precisely. Human creations mediate, and given the co-constructed nature of objective reality, including material bodies, humans mediate.

Any medium is a language, and any language is a medium. A medium stores symbols that are attached with meaning through experiential learning, education, socialization, or acculturation. Humans developed body language before developing any spoken language. Body language involves symbols enacted through embodied actions, intentionally or unintentionally, to convey symbolic meaning.

Anything humans create can be rhetorically read for the meaning encoded in it. That goes for all the verbal and nonverbal symbols and languages we’ve developed. Humans, then, are simultaneously meaning-making entities as well as communication mediums for the collections of lived experiences and sociocultural conditions in which they are enmeshed. The Human Is the Medium.

Why did we have the main schism in communication studies of interpersonal versus mass? Was is because of how Western liberal arts education involved rhetoric and literature as a discipline for centuries, but mass media emerged almost concurrently with social sciences, and the concern over mass communication (essentially a classist, power concern) arose then too?

It’s like that high-low culture divide helped foster this idea that humans are not mediums, and that neither are plays, books, art, etc. Those were established as under the purview of humanities, and not of concern for social sciences because, by that time, those media were accepted as “good” because the disruption they caused had been handled. Yet, even in the analysis of literary texts, there is the idea of a text being at the center of some interpretive community, with a desire to understand what the author communicates to the reader. German reception studies came put of literary studies. Now, many English departments in the United States house media studies, especially film studies. Immense overlap in what is being done exists, even if tradition separates them, a tradition born in the early 20th century.

Because the electronic mass media, like film, those were new, and those related to the disruptions of the Industrial Revolution, which also involved urbanization, workers’ rights and Marxism, suffragist movements, and, of course, fascism. Higher class folks were worried about lower class folks getting uppity because of the media, and liberals were worried about authoritarianism, so social sciences sought to understand the “power” of these “new” media and mass communication and media studies became a unique focus, informed by sociology and psychology, and challenged by emergent critical and cultural studies. Rhetoric then migrated to critical-cultural to pushback on media effects and the sociological-psychological approach moved into the other form of communication, interpersonal. Beyond that mass/interpersonal binary, comm studies subdivided into specific contexts in which those two types occur (e.g. organizational, health, political, etc).

But more recent social media platforms have led to a reconsidering of this interpersonal and mass binary, again suggesting a transjective approach to media studies. But doesn’t it also then suggest a perspective whereby humans are themselves mediums, through which personal experiences and sociocultural information are transmitted across time and space?

Now, as Nicolle Lamerichs pointed out, part of the schism in communication studies could be due to “boundary work” and different cultural approaches to communication and media studies. As she said, “Over here [Europe] media studies is increasingly opening to data, platform studies, but also materiality, from art to skin. (Fashion, skin, humans are texts/media to me and no one ever minded.) Indeed, American approaches are probably still due to the Chicago School sociological approach, given how quantitative it all is. But knowing that is not the case elsewhere is very helpful for this argument.

Of course, another reason for the distinction between interpersonal and media is the assumption of humans as self-determining agents or subjects whereas media are pre-determined actors or objects.

On the one hand, the argument about how much we are subject versus object is an old one, so that can be taken up elsewhere. The trickier one is non-human medium as subject versus object. From a media uses and effects perspective, or even an actor-network theoretical lens, this subject/object binary appears resolved when the argument is made on the impact the medium, or specific media product, has on the system in which it exists.

If the medium can cause something to happen, doesn’t it then have a modicum of agency, even if its choice on what to be or do was predetermined for it by its Creators? In a complex network of causes and effects, the non-human medium involves both in ways somewhat comparable to humans: humans and non-human both impact other entities in the network and are likewise impacted by other entities. From a transjective perspective focusing on relationships, humans become comparable to non-human media.

The bigger question, for me at least, is so what? What is gained from this transjective perspective? Interpersonal comm theories cannot apply, always, to non-human media, and mass comm theories have the same type of application issue. So why even consider all of this?

One, I think it can help us understand the system of actors/agents better, which would do more for illuminating the power dynamics shaping our reality through both human and non-human media. That understanding is particularly important from a literacy perspective.

Two, I think it would help us expand the scope of media studies to include all human-made texts, which could also further our understanding of how power dynamics shape our relationships to each other as well as the creation and maintenance of “reality.”

Third, I think it could help us bridge the divides built into various disciplines and methodologies that hinder research that can explore the complex systems of our subjective and objective realities — also helping us illuminate power dynamics of the systems on those realities.

Thus, if we can better teach people about the transjective nature of our mediated and nonmediated relationships, then they can hold power accountable.

Media studies is transjective if transjective means focusing on neither the subjective experience nor objective nature exclusively but studying both aspects as well as how they relate to each other. Transjective means transcending the I/Thou binary, it seems. But media studies involves more than just binaries. Transcending subjective/objective helps for interdisciplinary and methodological issues, but understanding the agents/actors in a system constituting/involving media is more than just transcending a binary.

But transjective could still work if the understanding is that the focus is not only on the entities of the system (agents/actors) but also the processes. It’s like Brenda Dervin discussing nouns and verbs in communication studies. Nouns are entities, verbs are processes. So I could study media effects or media uses. These are nouns. Entities in the sense that we study them as such. We study end results because we cannot study the cause-and-effect as it happens (unlike natural sciences, we do not have the tools for such measurements).

Instead I have to measure the residual traces of the process. I measure beliefs, feelings, behaviors, thoughts, etc to understand how a person decodes, recodes media interfaces and content. I cannot directly measure the interaction of the person with the media product. It’s the black box issue of social sciences. I can always get closer with better self-report measures combined with physiological measures, but can I ever completely understand that interaction?

A Transjective Approach?

Well, technically, the subjective/objective binary is an issue in all sciences. Can we ever truly measure objective nature when we can only ever experience it with the limitations of our subjectivity? Of course, the answer to that dilemma is often surround the phenomenon with many people to verify findings through repeated investigations.

In a sense, this approach to fix the objectivity issue is a transjective approach, because it relies on the relationships between discrete entities and subjective experiences, while perhaps not overtly acknowledging how those discrete entities and experiences are embedded in a material and symbolic system (i.e. scientific paradigms) that will shape and inform the subjective experiences. Thus, this approach to objectivity may be no better at understanding objective nature than any measurement designed by humans, used by humans, and understood through human intellectual capabilities. Our understand of objective nature will always be incomplete because of our singular/shared subjective experiences.

Media products exist in objective nature, just as much as humans do. There is something there with which to engage. Any media product is a combination of some technologies (e.g. interface, container, platform, etc) and contents (e.g. modalities, messages, signs, etc). Media products thus contain objective features that will impact how people engage with them (ex. watching a movie in a theater versus smartphone), and those features impact how we experience the media product — although those features are not the only or even most important factor influencing the experience of engaging with the media product.

That experience of engaging exists in a web of factors, both objective and subjective. The process of engaging is impacted by these factors (nouns) and the interactings (verb) of these factors, resulting in the engagings with any media product being a verb/noun (simultaneously an active process and a relational state) and thus transjective as it transcends the I/Thou binary. Engaging is, in essence, the / that connects the I and the Thou through a dialectical process that produces a relationship and a web of relatings. And that is only considering two nodes in the system: media product and individual. But, as previously pondered, such systems cannot be understood with just this specific, narrow focus.

Because the objective nature of any media product extends beyond the entity with which we physically and interpetively interact to include the power dynamics, symbolic encodings, and other relationships in which the media product is embedded and which utilize the media product to propagate, challenge, critique, construct, etc the system. That system, as a social construct, exists as both objective and subjective. Thus, by extension, because of the media product’s relationship to the system, it is simultaneously an objective and subjective entity as well as a process that operates to maintain, examine, critique, etc that system.

In any media engaging, we perceive both the media product’s objective, material form (perhaps very consciously) and it’s subjective, symbolic nature (perhaps unconsciously if it aligns with our own subjective experiences). We may find the material form challenging (ex. learning curve for playing a new game) while having no issues with the symbolic content (ex. accepting level of violence in said game). Again, per Dervin and others, when we encounter difference or gap, when our habits and habits are interrupted, somehow we are disentangled from the system. In those moments we have the chance to innovate. When we are entangled in the system, we experience flow, and we may learn, but the process is more akin to unconscious cultivation.

So what I am thinking of doing is presenting several case studies that utilize this approach to analyze these systems, flows, and the transjective nature of media design, production, and consumption. I think I could combine Dervin’s Sense-Making Methodology (for the consumption part) with critical/cultural analyses to understand the contextual and interpretive factors of specific situations of media engagings. That is, try to understand a person’s reception of a text in the specific moments of engaging with that text, and then to relate those moments of engaging with the intentions of the designers and producers, and to relate those moments and intentions with reflections on larger social, cultural, political, historical, material, and economic conditions.

I could have different case studies to express this approach: novice versus expert engagings with virtual worlds; fan modding of virtual worlds; fractured fandom experiences; gendered media engagings; novice versus expert engagings with professional wrestling; fan fiction and professional wrestling. The book’s goal would be to argue for a more transjective approach to media studies that is interdisciplinary and multimethodological while also using my own studies to show theoretical and methodological applicability and feasibility.

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