The intensification of technological practices that characterized the transition from the twentieth to the twenty-first century has lead to rethink the concept of medium from a multidisciplinary perspective. The singular term ‘medium’ and the plural term ‘media’ respectively indicate artistic devices (from painting to music) and the set of practices of communication, from printing to the internet. Today, the proliferation and the contamination between such devices and new practices brings to the need of outlining a renewed theoretical framework within which to place the reflection on the medium.
Contemporary theory of the media finds one of its cornerstones in the thesis that Walter Benjamin exposes in The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. For Benjamin, the medium is the mode in which perception is historically organized. Perception, in fact, is not only influenced by a natural but also by a historical point of view, and then by the development of technological devices. Being an analysis of the status of the contemporary art work, Benjamin’s thesis opens to crucial issues for the following mediological reflection that will have many representatives in the twentieth century, from Kittler to McLuhan, as well as to those authors who questioned the status of specific media such as László Moholy-Nagy, Vertov and Eisenstein.
The Medium as the Externalization of Human Sensitivity. Benjamin’s conception of the medium as an organizer of perception was followed and deepened by McLuhan in one of the texts that mostly marked communication studies in the second half of the twentieth century: Understanding Media. The Extensions of Man. McLuhan argues that the medium is an extension of the human being, a prosthesis which produces changes and new proportions in the relations between humanity with itself and with its own senses – in the relation between the subject, the others and the surrounding environment. The media, McLuhan suggests, are active metaphors, i.e. they are devices of procession and translation of experience into new forms of that specific experience. As much as the spoken word, which is the first form of technology, so the rail or printing are essentially human extensions that alter the relationship of interdependence between people and their senses. This operation of outsourcing of human sensibility generates every time different relationships between the subject and its own prosthesis, from which it originates the famous distinction that the Canadian scholar makes between ‘hot media’, which entail a lesser human participation, and ‘cold media’, which instead entail a greater participation or interactivity. Such distinction occurred at a time when the use of optical prosthesis in daily life became ongoing. But, in this perspective, where do ‘low definition’ images produced by today’s many agile tools of filming ‘integrated’ in our daily life (such as telephones, etc.) fit in? A contemporary theory of the media should therefore take into account this aspect of the outsourcing of sensitivity by investigating the relationship between media and the reconfiguration of human sensitivity. Perspectives to be followed may be different: we have Kittler’s type of hardware theory, where the technical specificity of the device is investigated; or Stiegler’s kind of phenomenology, or even Clark’s type of cognitivism. In this realm, the media constitute the specific technical equipment thanks to which the interaction between human beings and their environment can occur.
The films and the authors who have explicitly (i.e. in their content) or implicitly (through the emergence of a ‘reflexive’ instance in the image, which also becomes a volumetrical world, as in 3D) thematized such aspects have been many: from the great European authors (Wenders, Herzog) to films like James Cameron's Avatar, as well as to experiments on the net made by authors such as David Lynch or Claire Simon – experimenters of low fi forms of images.
The Medium as a Device of Remediation. At the end of the twentieth century, J.D. Bolter and R. Grusin provided a new effective definition of the medium: the medium is what remediates another media format. The two authors moved from the thesis that media should be investigated not separately but starting from their relationships with each other. The concept of remediation is thus useful to indicate the work of revision and updating that a medium makes of another medium, so that it can remediates whenever possible the limits or defects of the previous format. The concept of remediation has paved the way for what could be considered a contemporary theory of the media, in which we find many authors as Jenkins – who has mainly investigated the relationship between old and new media starting from the concept of convergence –, Manovich – who through the concepts of modularity and interactivity has defined the specificity of contemporary media in contrast to those from the past –, or even Galloway – who has performed a similar operation using the concept of interface. Starting from the principle of a necessary relation between different media, a new field of study called media archaeology has originated, in which a non-linear conception of time and history has been put at the service of the analysis of past devices in order to generate a deeper knowledge and understanding of those contemporary. Perhaps, an unsurpassed example of such practice is Brian De Palma’s Redacted, which is the result of operations of convergence between different media formats, or even the work of filmic remediation put forward by Marco Bellocchio on the television archive. Or again, the result of convergence emerges in the shifts from the filmic medium to forms external to the cinema, for example in the operations of cinematic- and video- installations that authors like Frammartino, Farocki, Gitai, Ackerman and many others have developed over the years.
New Media Environments and Cinema. What happens to the artistic media in the context of such technical and cultural revolution? The film is definitely a privileged perspective from which to investigate technical changes affecting the contemporary. Not only because the film stands at the origin of such medial and industrial revolution whose effects are still present today, but also because cinema is more directly affected by the changes that occur to the production and reproduction of images. How does cinema respond to the relocation of the filmic experience that happens through what Jenkins would call spreadable media? How does the reproducibility of the image is contaminated with the interactivity of new media? While cinema is changing, at the same time it reflects upon such change. Thanks to one of its characteristic features, namely self-reflexivity, the cinematic medium – which has often questioned its own status during its history – remediates, presents and pre-mediates media formats of the future. This has happened many times from Citizen Kane on, which is the first example of cinematic remediation and premediation.
Because of its history and of the specific modes of fruition it has developed from the moment of its birth, cinema also represents the privileged object from which to observe the emergence of new experiences of audio-visual spectatorship (just think of Ferreri’s Nitrato d’argento), as Casetti highlighted in his latest research. The film theatre, which is a prototype of a media environment (cinema intended as a complex experience, both cinematic and filmic, only exists if there is a place capable of containing it), is still the end of a comparison which in many cases is responsible for the understanding of new environments, where phenomena of convergence, remediation, relocation of different media formats can be observed: this is what happens, for example, at least in two episodes of Chacun son cinéma (2007) directed by Nanni Moretti and Atom Egoyan, which are real tributes to the movie theatre. At the same time though, the movie theatre is also an abandoned and invisible place in the face of new dynamics of the gaze and desire (as in Canyon by Paul Schrader).
The medium as What Mediates. The medium is not only the means for something but also what mediates and intermediates, the place in which perception and experience come to life. The medium then can be also understood through its open-ended character: a univocal plan that represents an undetermined but real condition (a virtual condition, as Deleuze would call it) that makes things be. Young Benjamin’s remarks on the colour are clear in this regard, when he argues that a ‘clear colour, without passages, which also plays with countless shades’ is a ‘medium, the pure accident devoid of any substance, varied and monochrome, a colourful bridge of Infinity. One by means of fantasy’. The medium, that which intermediates, is then the real beginning subtracted to the idea of origin, of arché, of foundation. The medium is what intermediates, what returns the bodies to their differentiation, to their variance. In modern cinema, through the production of differences and variances between images, as well as between images and sounds (from Godard to Duras, Syberberg, Straub), the film hence reflexively emerges as the explicit place of intermediation.