Future Heads in Media Studies

The October issue of PMLA, the official publication of the Modern Language Association, was among my favorite reads of the year. The special issue on “Literary Criticism for the Twenty-First Century,” however, has held top-of-the-coffee-table status for three strong months now.  One of the reasons why, aside from the general quality of the scholarship,  is what Jonathan Culler calls in the introductory essay “a motif of return.” One of my major research areas is the function of nostalgia–the much-maligned practice of mournfully looking backward that, in my work, I argue can be utilized for diverse and overlapping purposes. Far from being ahistorical, I argue elsewhere, nostalgia tells us about our affective relationships, which are always historical relationships.

It’s perhaps natural that literary studies would get a little nostalgic. Literature and literary scholarship are fascinated with the past. The discipline itself is derived from the tradition of the scribes charged with cataloging the history of their society. Consider its titanic figures–Homer, Shakespeare, Balzac, Hegel, Marx, Twain, Dickinson, Ellison — even literary studies after the age of critical theory has found itself ever drawn to the past. This is, of course, a great strength. One of literary studies’ primary functions is to retain, reexamine, and recontextualize the culture of past societies, and it utilizes its past to think through problems of the present. Retrospection does not equal regression, and many of the best works of criticism, critical theory, and literary analysis have profited from looking back over past historical developments (Foucault’s The Birth of the Clinic), past texts (Fiedler’s “Come Back to the Raft Ag’in, Huck Honey!”) or past figures (Holly Jackson’s work on Emma Dunham Kelley) . As such, the motif of return that Culler notes in his introduction comes as no real surprise.

But, I found myself wondering while reading the issue, what about media studies? For all of literary studies’ interest in its past, looking backward is much more taboo in the realm of media studies. A special issue of Screen or Cinema Journal subtitled “The Future of Media Studies” would, I’d wager, feature much less retrospection.  Whether it is the discussion on social media networks, panels at the recent Society for Cinema and Media Studies convention, or job listings for new professorships, the emphasis in media studies certainly does not seem to lay in silent cinema, the industrial history of radio, or music archivists, but rather sexy fields like new media and digital humanities. This is, after all, the same attitude that has allows so much of film and television history to go unarchived, and reflected in something so basic as the Facebook News Feed or Twitter Stream, which updates constantly but allows little easy access to past records.

So how might we think about “the future of media studies”? Frankly, I’m not sure. David Gauntlett has issued a brave attempt here, though I think the 1.0 vs 2.0 dichotomy is one that breaks down under close scrutiny, and truly, one can hardly consider 2.0 to represent “the future” when it actually more closely approximates “the present” or perhaps even “the 1990s” (and, as one of the 1990s primary advocates, I say that without malice).

As with most interesting questions, one of the primary challenges to considering what the future of media studies will be, is that there are multiple angles at which to approach the phrase itself. In the rest of this post, I’ll try to think through three of them.

The Future of Media Studies

What will “media” look like in the next twenty years? Bigger, probably. More interactive, maybe not. More powerful, profitable, and all-encompassing, almost assuredly. The dual trends of concentration (all anyone wanted to talk about in 2002) and convergence (all anyone wanted to talk about in 2008) will likely continue, and the overall trend of audience fragmentation will likely continue, as well (As long as it brings us more Portlandia, then as Mitch Hedberg said, “I’m for it!”). As a result it’s hard to imagine any discrete canon of media texts, media companies, or media figures that could be arranged into any coherent canon. How would one even begin to write a textbook on the media landscape of 2011? Conglomerate by conglomerate? Media Property by Property? Partnership by partnership? The mind boggles just thinking of it. The one thing that seems clear is that media scholars, practitioners and professionals will not be able to limit their training to a particular medium. Instead, media will increasingly demand capabilities and literacies across technological, industrial, and institutional borders that once were much less permeable. No longer can you only study fashion or train to be a film director–you’ll need to understand how to cultivate online audiences, and navigate the intersections of fashion with economics, sound, and international relations. Everybody has to do everything. As such (and I believe we’re seeing more of this already), the boundaries between “film people,” “TV people,” “New Media people” will continue to fade–and I say this as a sometimes-advocate of disciplinarity.

The Future of Media Studies

Media studies is obsessed with the future. Indeed, from Walter Benjamin on, scholarship in media studies has been far more concerned with the future than the past–whether that future is one of revolutionary promise or of certain ruin. This emphasis on the future is, I’d imagine, part of what drew me towards the discipline–it is dynamic, constantly evolving or adapting itself to new technological, industrial, and aesthetic developments. At the same time, I can’t help thinking that privileging “the future” allows certain questions to go unanswered, or opportunities to go unaddressed.  Instead of speculating on what might happen with this or that audience behavior, or this or that technological shift,this or that industrial change. I wonder if Media Studies would be better served from at least reflexively accounting for its tendency to play the “what if” game. 

The Future of Media Studies

The same goes for my students in “Introduction to Media Studies,” the first course in the Media and Communication major at my university. These students are, in many ways, “the future of media studies,” but they do themselves no favors by anxiously waiting for something new to happen. With IndyMedia, Audacity, Final Cut, WordPress, and the like, there is no reason students should need to wait for graduation before entering their field of choice. The same goes for scholarship–resources like Flow, Bad Subjects, PopMatters, or In Medias Res are not out of reach for undergraduates, and can be a part of their present starting today.

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About michaelddwyer

Assistant Professor of Media and Communication at Arcadia University, specializing in film, media studies, and cultural studies. View all posts by michaelddwyer

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