Media Taxonomy

I took, as the starting point for this taxonomy, my prevailing interest in the interrelation of image, music, and text. An attempt to reconcile this triad with the notion of cinema ‘types’ (genre seems to loaded a word in this case) was the conducting force for the organization of this particular taxonomy. I tried to choose media that seemed obviously organized around this triad. In terms of parameters, I tried to choose those that seemed to offer the best way of elucidating difference, but also the possibility of convergence. But, as it became apparent from the inception, clear delineation of media (especially an attempt to taxonomize) quite often serves only to blur the lines of distinction – at times to the point of utter despair! I can’t help it – I continue to return to my fascination with the intertitled and subtitled cinema as a locus of an enigmatic relation between image, music, and text.

Initially, the first question this taxonomy seemed to raise is – what exactly is the difference between ‘reading’ as in the instance of a receiver of writing, and ‘viewing’ as in the instance of a receiver of a painting? Is reading indicative of a process of viewing with the mere addition of a component of symbolic signification?

This differentiation between viewing and reading becomes even further confounded when one tries to draw comparisons between the various ‘types’ of cinema. And I would argue that one thing a taxonomy can argue for is that there are indeed different ‘types’ of cinema – in the sense that very different processes of consumption are occurring. Initially it seemed a tough idea to take what initially seem like cinematic genres and trying to call them four different kinds of media. They are tenuous, I am aware, but I feel that working with this uncertainty may bring better understandings to light.

It begins to become apparent that clarifying a distinction between the different types of cinema is quite difficult. To assemble any kind of group of axes or vectors of difference is a task to be explored, specifically with concern for cinematic images in relation to the subtitle and cognitive differences between intertitles and subtitles in terms of the cinematic apparatus and the spectator. Indeed, it seems quite obvious at first consideration that something different is occurring specifically with respect to reception, between silent cinema, intertitled cinema, sound cinema, and subtitled cinema. But the differences seem tenuous here in this taxonomy. And yet very different things are occurring, foremost along the vector of text – that is of reading actual text, as opposed to the strict reception of images, or images and sound, as in the traditional sense of silent and sound cinema respectively. Does this mean we are to think of subtitling text as an image of sorts, riding along in tandem (like some strange subtitled sucker fish!), so violently implanting itself on the once pristine image? Are we to simply accept the interrupting (and interpreting) intertitle as a necessary part of the art of “silent” cinema – a mere injection of transparent description of action and dialogue pre or post image. Despite its interpretive ability, it is an interruption – i.e. a cut in editing specifically and solely for the intertitle, where a cut might otherwise be unnecessary or unwanted if the image could be solely interpretive – it is a break in the image, an intrusion of the text, the sovereignty of the written word imposed on the fleeting image.

Is silent cinema really silent? When viewing/reading a silent film, one does continue to hear the sounds of the audience and the room. If there is accompaniment, one hears music – perhaps sound effects. Is subtitled cinema sound cinema in the traditional sense to one who doesn’t comprehend the speech? Doesn’t language become music here?

If anything, I have come to realize that media taxonomy is invaluable anyone who wishes to understand the complexity of media – and by the same token – the necessity for questioning that complexity. One of the best ways to do this would be to taxonomize, or perhaps begin work on something like the hypercube project. Indeed, from the very moment one must make that first decision in building up a taxonomy of media – even though it will continue to remain inked in mystery, for a brief moment, the whole of the mediated world in all its complexity is illuminated.

George Sabo
Winter 2004