Cultures of Mediatization

November 29, 2012

Raymond Williams described “culture” as “one of the two or three most complicated words in the English language”. I wonder how he would have managed “mediatization”. I have a sense that he would have been less than enthused - a sentiment I tend to agree with. Verby nouns make me nervous. “Mediatization” is one of them. It is a Frankenstein’s monster of a word, with the bolts, blood and stitching of language left visible, dripping and decaying.

This Franken-word is the focus of Andreas Hepp’s Cultures of Mediatization. Translated from a German edition published by Springer, Polity has brought to anglophone readers the knot of ideas and abstractions that attends words such as “culture”, “communication” and “media”.

Hepp has offered a book of definitions, and most of the seven chapters undertake foundation analytical work. He remains interested in the confluence of contemporary media cultures. Indeed, confluence is the wrong description. He would prefer “translation”. He argues: “I would in this book like to show that media cultures are those cultures whose primary resources are mediated by technological means of communication, and in this process are ‘moulded’ in various ways that must be carefully specified.”

The language of this extract is representative of the book. The density is not surprising. One of the challenges for researchers who attempt to define neologisms and abstractions is that their sentences exhibit writerly Tourette’s syndrome. Repetition and intellectual stutters dominate the prose. It is part of the Raymond Williams problem. Words such as “culture”, “communication”, “media” and “technology” are so complex that using one term to define the others results in the intellectual equivalent of a rugby scrum. A definition may emerge from the bloodied bodies, mud and sweat, but it will carry scratches and damage.

More worrying, this book is dated by the use of words such as “cyberculture”, “cyborgs” and “cyberpunks”. While there is attention paid to the Frankfurt School (again) and the medium theory of Harold Innis and Marshall McLuhan, the participatory nature of the read-write web is neglected. Certainly there is attention in chapter 3 to theories of mediation, building into a definition of mediatisation, which is described as “the process in which these diverse types of media communication are established in varying contextual fields and the degree to which these fields are saturated with such types”. But once more, the challenge emerges in the echo chamber of definitions between “media”, “culture” and “communication”. At his most reverberant, Hepp confirms that “media culture are [sic] the cultures of mediatization, which becomes concrete in certain mediatized worlds”.

The concern for students and their teachers is how far such definitions advance research in the new humanities. But significantly, the best work in the book emerges in the second half, as a by-product of discussions about communication networks.

Hepp’s explorations of trans-localism, territorialisation and deterritorialisation are the highlights of the book. He shows their function in understanding new modes of connectivity in a way that is more subtle and intricate than permitted by fist-pumping phrases such as “globalised media”. The jolting and uneven media flow of ideas through a supposedly global communications infrastructure has resulted in what Hepp usefully describes as “deterritorialized communications”. This concept can find strong applications in the creative industries literature, but it can also add great subtlety to the more evangelical edges of new-media scholarship.

Raymond Williams was right. The question is whether there is much value - cultural value - in continuing to play pinball with words such as “culture”, “communication” and “media”. They may provide an occasional thrilling PING! when they hit each other, but soon the game is over. The abstractions remain.

Cultures of Mediatization

By Andreas Hepp. Polity, 180pp, £50.00 and £15.99. ISBN 9780745662268 and 625. Published 5 October 2012

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