Media Theory

Using Media Theory to Appeal to Students With Different Learning Styles

Image Credit: Mario Tama for "Lens Blog" New York Times

“Were all instructors to realize that the quality of mental process, not the production of correct answers, is the measure of educative growth something hardly less than a revolution in teaching would be worked.”

― John Dewey, Democracy and Education

By Sarah Sussman

Perhaps like many of my students, it was my art and photography classes that taught me how to close read. How does one draw a chain link fence?  Slowly creating each gray line allowed me to think about the fence abstractly. Trying to photograph that same fence from different vantage points similarly changed the whole look of the fence, reinforcing that fences could be metaphors; that photos were constructed and had meaning. The time and attention to detail that art requires pairs naturally well with the kind of microcosmic thinking that close reading and analysis calls for. As instructors, we frequently bank on this dual power that visual media has: to make lessons memorable, and to help students to think about problems more abstractly.

Walter Benjamin on photography and film

The cover of Benjamin's collection of essays, Illuminations

To wrap up our semester on viz., our staff showcases new static content we've added to our "teaching" and "visual theory" sections.  Below is my discussion of Walter Benjamin's canonical essay on photography, film, and the politics of mass media, "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction."  Each day this week, we'll feature a new piece of static content on our blog.  We hope instructors, students, and persons interested in visual rhetoric will browse our archives (linked in the top bar) and find useful material for research, pedagogy, and all forms of intellectual inquiry.

Benjamin, Walter. "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction." Trans. Harry Zohn. Illuminations. 1955. Ed. Hannah Arendt. Reprint ed. New York: Schocken Books, 1986. 217–52. 

By Laura Thain

In this seminal essay, originally published in French in 1936, Benjamin outlines shifts in the way art produces meaning after the advent of the photograph.  His essay takes places in fifteen parts, which explore how film is physically produced, how that production influences the way that audiences interact with film, and how those audiences reconcile film with their pre-existing value structures and beliefs.  Benjamin ultimately suggests a method of reading photography and film that accounts for both their material production and how that material production supersedes or alters prior methods of criticism.  Central to critical practice in the age of mechanical reproduction is the establishment of critical distance between audience and media form, so that the audience can resist pure enjoyment and instead ask how photography and film can help us see differently, even as they attempts to perfectly replicate the way we already perceive the world.  Writing from Paris, Benjamin, a Jewish German expatriate disturbed by the rise of Hitler and the Third Reich, explores the political implications of new, mechanized art forms in a rapidly-changing 20th century.

Remediation, New Media, and “Lorem Ipsum" as Censorship of Transparency

A screenshot of a command prompt window running a script that produces "lorem ipsum" text.

Image Credit: Per Erik Strandberg

“Lorem ipsum” has been recognized by publishers and graphic designers throughout the 20th century as the industry standard text by which to mock up text layout, thanks to a small UK company called Letraset, which mass-manufactured dry transferrable lettering from the 1960s to the 1990s.  With the advent of digital media and desktop publishing, the first two words of the ubiquitous sequence have become recognizable to the population at large.  It appears in markup templates almost universally across publishing platforms.  Templates in word processing, presentation software, and web design all bear the mark of their print forbearers. Thus, lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, a scrambled copy of an excerpt from Cicero’s De finibus bonorum et malorum (“of the ends of good and evil”) has entered into popular discourse as a recognizable placeholder, as Wikipedia says, “used to demonstrate the graphics elements of a document or visual presentation…by removing the distraction of meaningful content.”

This post would like to explore lorem ipsum as an ideological concept in both print and digital media.  In part, this exploration will question what it means to view text itself as visual rhetoric.  How can text draw attention to or defer attention from itself as a visual object?  How can conventions of representation make text, like lorem ipsum, disappear?  Might we view such disappearance as a sort of censorship?  If so, how can we describe the internal logic of such censorship as an ideological trend in the digital age?

Tribalization of the Global Village: Marshall McLuhan, Orientalism, and Technocultural Panic

Video Credit:

Media pundits rarely take on the pervasive Orientalist discourse that makes up Marshall McLuhan’s legacy as “prophet of the media.” Orientalist discourses are central to McLuhan’s theory of media, but these are difficult to read for two reasons. First, McLuhan’s Orientalism brazenly adopts metaphors and analogies that most well-educated people today either critique or avoid. In addition to this discomfort, McLuhan’s discourse reinforces his personal ties with radically primitivist (/racist) moderns such as Ezra Pound and Wyndham Lewis. Second, his Orientalism is difficult because it emerges out of self-consciously esoteric literary contexts (he was hired as an English professor and not a media theorist). In the video above (1968), McLuhan and Mailer describe two versions of cultural contact (see above 15.30–22.00 min) between “East” and “West.” One cannot rule out satire in McLuhan’s “Orientalism,” given that his account of electric “Western” man inhabiting “all points” (19.38–19.50 min.) is also his exact definition of the “auditory” and “tactile” realm of what he calls “oriental field theory.” In The Gutenberg Galaxy (1962), he writes: “The modern physicist is at home with oriental field theory.” His famous book Understanding Media (1964) equates this existential field with the “tribal drum” of an electric “West” in an age of the “global village.”


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