Modernism’s Media Theory

David Trotter

Over the last ten years or so, the conversation about modernism has broadened significantly to include wide-ranging enquiries into the development of the major storage and transmission technologies which achieved institutional status as mass media during the first half of the twentieth century: cinema, radio, telephony, television. The focus of research has been on media understood as inherently powerful systems for the distribution of messages and meanings. What happens, however, if we start from the point of view not of the technologies which mediate experience, but of experience itself as a medium? Before 1900 (roughly speaking), a medium was a milieu: William James’s ‘experienceable environment’. If we do start from there, we will have the support of some intriguing recent initiatives in media theory. Media theory has taken to speaking of a ‘mediality’ (an existence in-between, or in the middle of) which includes, but is not restricted to, systems for the distribution of messages and meanings. And not just of recent initiatives, either. Marshall McLuhan’s insistence that all media are bodily ‘extensions’ now seems to some commentators like the culmination of a ‘rising sense’, from the late-eighteenth century onwards, of the absolute centrality of the ‘medial’ dimension of human life.

Work in progress
Middling is meddling. The ‘Anthropozoic’ (precursor term to ‘Anthropocene’) era, was, and is, mediation at its uttermost, possibly catastrophic limit (the first comprehensive climate-change handbook dates from 1865). The argument of Modernism’s Media Theory is that modernist writers, prompted by Anthropozoic intimations, set about inventing a ‘media cosmology’ alert both to the requirements of signal-to-noise ratio in telecommunication, and to the existence of frequencies beyond the spectrum to which the human sensorium is attuned. Cosmological manoeuvre in turn gave rise reflexively to a fascination with the minutiae of communication between one person and another over much shorter distances: behaviour as messaging. What modernism first confronted on our behalf, then, was the phenomenon of the signal; not, as has generally been thought, that of the sign.

Future directions
The research undertaken for this book has drawn heavily on media-environmental studies by Douglas Kahn and John Durham Peters, and on the theory of ‘cultural techniques’ evolved by, among others, Bernhard Siegert, Cornelia Vismann, and Joseph Vogl. There would be scope for exchanges between this rapidly developing theoretical emphasis and a ‘new media history’ derived ultimately from the work of James Carey and Raymond Williams.