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Steven Maras explores skilling, interdisciplinarity and capital M media in Communications and Media Studies

Steven Maras teaches in the Humanities at the University of Western Sydney, Hawkesbury. This article draws from a larger work on the philosophy of communications to be published in the journal Continuum.

A series of recent articles in the Higher Education Supplement of The Australian have once again raised the problem of skilling in Communications and Media, and its status in an academic context. Behind the ‘boom’ rhetoric surrounding the growth of Communications and Media in this country, and despite at least 20 years of debate about theory and practice, what we can call ‘the skilling problem’ calls for attention as insistently as ever—especially in the area of digital media.

By way of definition, the skilling problem has to do with instilling competency in students, in particular ‘media’ and ‘communications’ skills, however they may be defined.The definition of skills is a central issue. As a media educator, for example, a key aspect of my job is troubleshooting. This involves working in computer labs with minimal technical assistance, surrounded by students working at different ‘speeds’.

If things are going well, students are undemanding. If the technology is playing up, I can expect numerous calls for help. With tricky problems, ‘help’ involves assuming control of the computer, and rectifying the situation as soon as possible. At this point, the student usually steps back from the machine, or has a break. Recently, however, my assumptions about this scene were challenged when a student commented, “That looks like a really useful skill.” While troubleshooting is part of my own stock of tools as a teacher, crucial to assisting students, I had not considered using these moments to bring troubleshooting into the curriculum.

Anxiety about the skilling problem raises important questions about the definition of skilling, and the links between Communications, other areas of arts practice, and Humanities thinking. Particular modes of skilling can place these links in jeopardy, especially through segmentation of the production process. There is a tendency to think about skilling in Communications as an activity with its own unique set of procedures, concepts and truths, following its own industrial imperative, and with few links to other media or arts contexts. This tendency can in turn feed into an idea of Communications as something that stands detached from other kinds of artistic, technical and theoretical practice.

There are perhaps traces of this phenomenon in the name change of the Sydney Intermedia Network to dLux media/arts. One of the arguments supplied for the change was that developments in communications had given ‘network’ a different meaning (eg a mobile phone network). The assertion of media/arts in the new name can be read as a gesture against a particular image of communications. Similarly, as a Humanities academic it is worrying to watch Communications become detached from the (media) arts, or the Humanities, and connected instead to, say, electronic commerce, or information systems.

Yet, what if one of the causes of this detachment was the skilling problem, and its baggage? What if skilling happened differently? The experience of helping establish a Communications degree at the University of Western Sydney (Hawkesbury) caused me to question the development of Communications, and the parameters laid down for training in that area.

Disciplinarity, transdisciplinarity and ‘non-academic’ disciplines

Rather than succumb to the education-industry dichotomy—the struggle between ‘professional training and critical studies’ that typifies many Communications programs—it is possible to displace these dualities by examining the disciplining effects of institutions (including our own), industry, and the professions. According to this view, ‘the industry’ is a gathering of disciplines, formed in a broader disciplinary field, that should be approached in the spirit of transdisciplinarity. A practical example of this approach relates to what are sometimes known as ‘production subjects’: the problem of how to situate video and multimedia subjects in relation to one another is not simply a problem of connecting two practical areas, but of recognising the disciplinarity of these areas, and of negotiating their passage through the academic domain.

The question of the disciplinary status of traditionally ‘non-academic’ media production subjects is often elided in the university, particularly when coupled to notions of training for industry. It is one thing to construct inter-disciplinarity in the academic domain, but how does inter-disciplinarity apply to a traditionally ‘non-academic’ discipline like video? Production subjects represent an existing and long term disciplinary problem internal to many Communications programs, usually expressed in terms of a chasm between ‘production’ and ‘analysis’ (eg the divide between media production and screen studies).

But clearly what we’ve designated as non-academic disciplines can be rigorous in an academic sense. Production subjects can, in liaison with others, trace a complex interaction between audio-visual literacy, practice, the digital, genre, words and bodies, in a theoretically informed way. Production subjects need not be about setting up video and multimedia as discrete domains, but exploring the in-between of these disciplines. Two subjects I have been involved with are worth mentioning here.

A subject such as Multimedia Communication can become a lens through which the ambitions of multimedia can be examined, as well as a vehicle for questioning different models of communication. A subject like Transdisciplinary Video can take up the problem of disciplinarity by questioning video as an essential entity, and instead seeing it as being marked by and within a range of other disciplines (Broadcasting, Cinema, Sound, the Digital, Painting). Both subjects, along with others, can collaborate in an extended conception of multi-and mixed media communication that disturbs the conventional segregations between different media. This approach would go beyond the usual deterministic exploration of the ‘impact’ of technological change, or ‘digital media’.

I would suggest that accepted categories such as the ‘capital M Media’ are themselves part of the problem. New practices have brought into question the way in which the category ‘Media’ gathers together a field and flattens out a diverse ensemble of practices. Today, we can no longer be certain about what we mean by media even if increased reporting of the media by the media masks this uncertainty to some extent.

Non-linear digital editing provides an example of the ambiguity of media. In the Media 100 digital editing system, media relates to the partitioning of the supplementary hard drives necessary to deal with large video files. (Thus a 17 gigabyte drive is partitioned into 4 x 4 GB media plus one other.) This is very different from conventional understandings of media as a channel, and marks an interpenetration of artistic and technical ideas.

This use of media gives rise to new understandings of the term. Media is referred to as a block, in a broader process of construction. In a different sense, media is seen as a material you work with (or allocate) to achieve an effect.

The tendency to use the plural form ‘media’ to designate a singularity emerges, in my view, out of a digital understanding of forms, where digital files can be articulated in a range of formats for presentation.There is sense in this use of the plural, in that it highlights the way media is being redefined as a multiplicity. But this conception runs at odds to capital M media, with its relation to a homogenising mass. This makes the conventional understanding of media problematic in ways that strike at the core of Media Studies.

Philosophy/conceptual practice

Implicit in the idea that traditionally non-academic disciplines can be accommodated within interdisciplinarity is an affirmation of different forms of conceptual practice—that is, an acknowledgement of diversity on the level of conceptual practice.

What is referred to as ‘transdisciplinarity’ has to do with the interaction and interference between different disciplines and conceptual practices. It is worth elaborating on this idea of conceptual practice in more depth. In Deleuze and Guattari’s What is Philosophy? (Columbia University Press, 1994), philosophy is defined as the creation of concepts. In Deleuze’s Cinema 2 (University of Minnesota Press, 1989), theory is something that is made. It “is itself a practice, just as much as its object”, and so cannot be assumed to be “pre-existent, ready-made in a prefabricated sky.”

Deleuze and Guattari grant philosophy an exclusive right to concept creation. Nevertheless, as Paul Patton argues in an article in the Oxford Literary Review (18:1-2, 1996), this does not mean that it is metaphysically pre-eminent or epistemologically privileged in regards to other activities—Art, Science, Cinema. For example, in relation to the cinema, Deleuze suggests that while the practice of cinema has to do with images and signs, the elaboration and articulation of that practice by filmmakers and critics involves a theoretical work—a conceptual work specific to cinema. While this practice may not be philosophy, it is without question a conceptual practice.

A valuable aspect of Deleuze’s writing on the cinema is the way he defines the significance of this conceptual practice for philosophy. “So there is always a time, a midday-midnight, when we must no longer ask ourselves, ‘what is cinema?’, but ‘what is philosophy?’” Deleuze’s work enables a questioning of philosophy’s ownership of conceptual practice.

As Patton points out, the creation of concepts does not simply mean the creation of novel or new concepts. It also means the creation of untimely concepts, acting against our time, or acting on our time. Transposed into the space of Communications, the notion of conceptual practice allows us to interfere in the way Communications imagines itself as a discipline of ideas. Deleuze and Guattari themselves take up the abuse of “the idea” by “the disciplines of communication.”

More specifically in the media arts, their approach facilitates a questioning of the status of conceptual work in the production of programs and works. Most media handbooks provide an extremely circumscribed account of the role of ideas in the production process. Following a ‘25 words or less’ model, ideas are subjugated to a brief phase in the pre-production stage of a project. “You should be able to write the main concept down in a few sentences, sometimes in just one.” (Mollison, Producing Videos, Allen and Unwin, 1997)

In a context in which a mentality of manufacture has marginalised the concept and ideas—even while bemoaning their absence—the notion of conceptual practice provides tools with which to contest our definitions of production, composition and assembly. In particular, it can help in questioning the usual segmentation of conception and execution typical of manufacture, and now entrenched in our ‘normal’ modes of media skilling.

Steven Maras teaches in the Humanities at the University of Western Sydney, Hawkesbury. This article draws from a larger work on the philosophy of communications to be published in the journal Continuum.

RealTime issue #26 Aug-Sept 1998 pg. 13

© Steven Maras; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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