Comparative Media Studies

I’d like to address the topic of Comparative Media Studies, a field N. Katherine Hayles introduces early in her 2012 book How We Think and that she revisits periodically throughout the progression of her arguments in the book.

Hayles draws on a variety of examples where Comparative Media Studies (CMS from here on) is integrated into a collegiate seminar, with varying outcomes and implications (8).  Hayles advocates CMS as a means understand and critique complex problems, as alternate strategies that, depending on circumstances, can provide new avenues for creativity, resourcefulness and ingenuity that we did not have access to with methods limited to print technologies.  If we are to accept this argument, we encounter a gap between scholars who readily engage new medias and those who hesitate to do so, or who do so in an ineffective manner.  Hayles asserts CMS as a bridge between traditional print-based scholarship fields (she references periodizations such as eighteenth century prose,   race and gender studies, post-colonial inquiries, etc) and new medias that may open up new realms of scholarship.  For example, I would argue the Assassin’s Creed franchise might occupy a similar cultural position as Robinson Crusoe in a certain lens, as fictions reflecting the values, assumptions and relations of a specific group of people. A project looking at post-colonial politics of a video game might benefit from screen recordings, sound clips, screenshots, interface examples, etc. similar to how presentations on 1920’s American culture might reference/include jazz recordings. Video scholarship is obviously a strong and growing type of criticism, but I don’t know if always carries the same institutional prestige as the published, peer-reviewed print essay.   We’re being irresponsible as scholars if we limit ourselves to the affordances of one medium, are we not?

An interdisciplinary approach affords the most flexibility, the fewest limitations and the most room for invention.  The merging of medias into a cohesive project follows the logic of Hayles’ call for a move from “content orientation of problem orientation,” more commonly found in the Digital Humanities.  She provides many benefits of this scholarship mode, such as increased collaboration, blending of skills and backgrounds, theory/practice convergences and, perhaps most convincingly, a simple plea for the “productive work of making.”  She carries these ideas forward with references to similar fields like platform studies, critical code studies, procedural rhetoric examinations and “cultural analysis” that draws insight from large datasets and databases (8).

I found ch.4 of Hayles’ to be the most stimulating, though I grew frustrated with the direction of the chapter, which introduced incredibly productive ideas (technical elements/individuals/ensembles, extended cognition, technological unconscious, neuroscience as it interacts with free-will, rewriting of neural pathways by media interfaces, the impact media saturation might have on a child’s mind…) but then generally oriented them toward an argument of temporalities, which was interesting but not exceedingly so.  She states:

“Nigel Thrift (2005) argues that contemporary technical infrastructures, especially networked and programmable machines, are catalyzing a shift in the technological unconscious, that is, the actions, expectations, and anticipations that have become so habitual they are “automatized,” sinking below conscious awareness while still being integrated into bodily routines carried on without conscious awareness” (96).

How has this changed the writing process? Hayles spends some time examining how the telegraph changed communication practices and even the concept of the human in the 19th century. Nietzsche famously commented on the impact the typewriter had on his writing, which had previously been limited to hand-writing. I’m wondering- how has the “backspace” option altered the print essay? What about flipping between web pages, the instant accessibility of data (Google searches). How do they impact an individual’s conception of language, an individual’s attention span, their working memory?  Hayles points to faster image processing and more complicated narrative structures as two possible outcomes, along with the hyper reading discussed in ch. 3, but there are surely more.  Let’s speculate- an increased desire to share (such as on social media platforms); a reconfiguration of relationship and companionship dynamics (instead of talking about a problem, posting about it on Facebook); an increased ability to juggle multiple information streams; an increased likelihood to instantly dismiss something without thinking about it (such as a pop-up ad); new objects of sentimentality (becoming attached to a Neopet or Pokemon); an increased exposure to foreign ideas.  How has memory, which Proust tells us is a deeply unconscious act, been changed by social media? What about memory as a rhetorical canon of persuasion, argumentation, communication? What about Google Earth, the interface Hayles mentions in ch. 6, altering our sense of place, space, even our sense of direction, size and our relationship to foreignness?

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