Constructing Media Theory

The Keywords of Media Theory began life as an assignment in the course Theories of Media, taught by W. J. T. Mitchell at the University of Chicago. The course sought to explore the concept of media and mediation in very broad terms, looking not only at modern technical media and mass media, but at the very idea of a medium as a means of communication, a set of institutional practices, and a "habitat" in which images proliferate and take on a "life of their own." As a result of this goal, the course dealt as much with ancient as with modern media, with writing, sculpture, and painting as well as television and virtual reality. In methodology, the course drew from media studies, cinema and film, art history, and literature, but its goal was to establish connections between these fields that would allow for a theory-driven, comparative approach to the study of media and their history.

The Keywords assignment was designed to enable this goal by establishing a group of terms that the class could use to bridge their own interdisciplinary backgrounds. Thus, it would serve as a base for the pursuit of an interdisciplinary, theoretical, and historical study of mediums, media, and mediation—both a jumping-off point and a place to return to when discussions became too ethereal. Above all, though, we have hoped to provide a sense of the fluctuation of these terms, their differing connotations, contingent valences, and multiple meanings. The resulting resource offers a rare opportunity to document the collective learning accomplished by the course over a period of several years.

Within the course, keywords essays are considered a major resource. Used alongside other readings, these essays are constantly referenced, and students often cite them in their own work. The students learn from each other, demystifying the aura of the media theory avatars they are reading. The recursivity of learning among students is mirrored by the recursivity of the online interface. A tiled interface provides a picture of the entire field of terms in debate, no one term emphasized over another. Like tiles, these terms are our building blocks, and the interface is extendable like the technique of tiling (one term after another). The format disrupts traditional alphabetical listings, based on the model of the index, by providing a visual form that does not separate the alphabet spatially. Within the essays, keywords are hotlinked within the body of the essay as well as by a quicklinks menu. These hotlinked terms lead the reader from one essay to the next in a crawling network of terms.

Raymond Williams' essay "From Medium to Social Practice" has served as our touchstone, based on its differentiation between a materialist conception of medium and medium as social practice, and the implication of historical transformation from one to the other. Our keywords are the language that does the work of transformation—every term evokes both materialist usages and issues of social practice. We can employ these terms as bridges between the two sides of media, material technique and social practice, and in doing so, we can see these conceptions that Williams offsets as two sides of the same coin, tendencies we must always account for and fruitful avenues of investigation.

We have come a long way from our print models, from Raymond Williams' Keywords (1976) to Formless: A User's Guide, by Rosalind Krauss and Yve-Alain Bois (1997). The online form of the project, in allowing us to teach and publish with new media, has proven an exciting pedagogical arena. In relation to our subject, media theory, it has prompted us to think about the interface as a mediating element, whether it is the tiled interface presented here for the Keywords Glossary, or the form of books themselves as in the case of our printed forbears. The project has offered students a rare opportunity to test out the world of publishing, and to consider how academic study gets transformed into textual and visual forms that can teach others. Our students serve not only the academic community at the University of Chicago, where we are developing use of the Keywords Glossary in the Media Aesthetics sequence of the Common Core, but also nationally and internationally. Programs such as Brown, Wisconsin, and Toronto list us as a resource, and the project has forged a community of thinkers. Through language, of course, communities come to agree and disagree, and thus we have enacted our own community formation project for the study of media theory.

W. J. T. Mitchell
Eduardo de Almeida
Rebecca Reynolds
February 2004