Back to Medium Theory

Review of Guillaume Soulez, ed., “Le cinéma éclaté. Formes et théorie”, special issue of Cinémas, vol. 29,  1 (2018).

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All modern media are characterized by permanent change and mobility. This fundamental observation concerns all of their aspects: the technological infrastructure of the medium, the social use as well as the experience of the user, and last but not least the actual content of a given medium.

To give some examples of what this involves in the case of cinema, often a privileged example in the field of medium analyses, one can think of the following. The changes in the formal layer of cinema are frequently illustrated by a large series of technological transformations that structure the history of the medium as a chain, not of innovations but of ruptures: changes in projection techniques, changes in camera equipment, changes in the combination of sound and image, etc. The changes in social use and user experience are no less important: watching a movie in a theater is not the same as watching the same movie on television or watching it on the screen of an iPad, not only because of the formal and material changes that come to the fore, but also and more importantly because of the differences in viewing context and viewers’ expectations (in a theater, for instance, not everybody will accept that other viewers are talking aloud during the viewing). Finally, content is a no less crucial aspect of medium change, since there is a huge difference between for example a medium reproducing another medium’s content (this occurs when we watch an already existing movie on television) and the same medium attempting to create its proper content (which can in its turn be reproduced by other media, such as for instance a television series offered for binge-watching in a movie theater, with all kind of fringe activities, almost as a kind of circus experience).

The exceptional mobility of modern media is both exciting and a source of great confusion, if not anxiety. The ceaselessly increasing speed of these change adds a sense of urgency to this situation and it should thus not come as a surprise that modern medium theory is –among many other elements– a thorough attempt to cope with this situation. Roughly speaking, one might currently distinguish four major ways of addressing these problems. These approaches and the solutions they offer, which I will immediately present in more detail, cannot be arranged in a chronological order (although it is of course perfectly possible to historicize each of them) and in quite some cases they are combined in medium research (which does not mean that all of them and certainly not all of their aspects are mutually compatible).

First of all, there is the very radical attempt to supersede medium change and diversity by the introduction of a paradigm shift in medium studies: the shift from medium to post-medium, which tends to involve the eventual merger of all media in one new supermedium, usually defined in digital terms and outlining totally new questions that focus on the political dimensions of medium theory.

Second, there is the historical approach of medium changes, which generally takes two directions: on the one hand, Bolter and Grusin’s remediation theory (which builds upon certain aspects of the pioneering work by Marshall McLuhan); on the other hand, media archeology (often inspired by Foucault).

A third approach is that of media essentialism, which has been recently updated by the success of the notion of “expanded media”, allowing a very pragmatic take on the combination of what a medium “is” and what it can be “on top of that” (by the way, the title of the special issue of Cinémas under review is a direct critique of this approach, since it replaces the almost stereotypical syntagma of “expanded cinema” by that of “shattered cinema”).

Transmediality can be seen as a fourth (and certainly neither last nor least) of these answers. It is an answer that dramatically emphasizes the openness and mobility of media, while systematically analyzing media structures and products in the perspective of media networks (transmediality is probably the approach that can most easily be combined with other theories, hence its strategic position in the global field of medium theory).

In spite of the great theoretical and analytical insights produced and discussed in recent medium theory, there remains however a certain number of major issues, which continue to handicap all research in the field. One may think here of questions such as:

  • 1) the terminological labyrinth of medium theory and medium studies,
  • 2) the lack of a shared theoretical framework (which does not signify the lack of a Grand Theory, but the lack of a fruitful dialogue between the various approaches, which more than once tend to focus on their own specificity),
  • 3) the problematic relationship between theory and practice, as shown by the fact that certain theories only work with a certain corpus and not with other ones (a Foucault-based reading of the “archive” for instance will inevitably struggle with the presence of non-written documents such as sounds and images),
  • 4) the very refusal of theory (which some discard as no longer relevant or useful).

The essays gathered in this special issue of Cinémas are a direct reply to this suspicion and their common effort to shed new light on the notion of medium as well as the many facets of medium change in the field of cinema can be seen as a profound commitment to the raison d’être of theory in medium studies.

In this context, two major notions come to the fore: first that of “medium”, of course, and here the attempt of Souliez and the other contributors will be to bring some clarity in the very definition and terminology of what we call a medium; second that of “dispositif” (sometimes translated as “apparatus”, in the technical-theoretical meaning the word given to the word in the field of film studies), which can be circumscribed as a way of clustering technology, use as well as user’s experience and content in a single, but always shifting structure. However, both the notion of medium and that of dispositif often fall prey to a double problem: that of essentialism and that of teleology. In the case of cinema, the problem of essentialism is demonstrated for instance by the countless polemics on what cinema “is” and even more on what it is “not” (film historians know very well that from the very beginning certain innovations have been condemned in terms of “the end of cinema”, the case of sound cinema, a “betrayal” of the visual “essence” of cinema being a good example of this). Concerning the problem of teleology, more precisely of some of its underlying techno-determinist axioms, similar remarks apply: cinema is often seen as the progressive disclosure of the “possibilities” of the medium, each new form or technology “adding” something to a previous, more “primitive” stage of the medium.

The articles gathered by Guillaume Souliez (Université Paris-3) are a remarkable and inspiring initiative to solve some of these problems, without having the pretention to provide answers to all questions. The introduction and five essays that compose the thematic cluster mainly tackle four different issues.

The article by Laurent Jullier (Université de Lorraine and Paris-3) focuses on terminological and epistemological questions. It presents a very detailed overview of the ways in which medium theory has tried to define and distinguish the two major dimensions of a medium, which are its formal and technological aspects and its social and cultural aspects. The close-reading of the many pitfalls and difficulties encountered by nearly all theories encourages Jullier to foreground a user-based approach of the notion of medium, which he proposes to reframe in light of the different attitudes users can take towards a medium. While recognizing the difficulties involved in all attempts to radically separate both, Jullier maintains the heuristic value of a focus on these differences, which allows him to produce a taxonomy of practices, the user having a (varying) degree of agency and empowerment in her or his contact with media and media works.

A second approach is offered by the contributions of Frank Kessler (University of Utrecht) and Oliver Asselin (Université de Montréal), who represent the more historical stance towards these issues. Kessler, a key film historian specialized in the so-called “early cinema”, convincingly demonstrates that the notion of dispositif cannot be reduced to the still relatively hegemonic definition proposed by Jean-Louis Baudry in the 1970s (a definition heavily depending on the theatrical infrastructure of that period as well as the prestige of Lacanian psychoanalysis in a certain type of heavy theoretical film theory and therefore much less general and universal than often claimed). Instead, he close-reads the large variety of the practices of “watching movies” in the early twentieth-century, in order to make a plea for a radically contextualized reading of the “dispositif”. Asselin’s forward-looking and almost futurist vision of “neuronal” cinema based on the uses of special glasses, contact lenses, and implants, can be read as a complement to Kessler’s archeology, since it contributes to a further fine-tuning and contextual differentiation of the notion of dispositif.

The joint publication by André Gaudreault (Université de Montréal) and Philippe Marion (UCLouvain) tackles the very heart of medium theory questions. It is a new step in their work on medium history, as exemplified for instance in their last book The End of Cinema?, and it foregrounds once again, but with great clarity, their key concept of “cultural series”, which is their way establish bridges between media forms, contents and uses and thus part of their larger attempt to build a less linear and radically non-teleological history of cinema. A cultural series as defined by Gaudreault and Marion is not an empirical fact (in that sense, it is neither a dispositif nor a cultural practice), but a heuristic tool that helps medium theoreticians to create if not to invent  inter- and transmedial links capable of revealing new and different takes on medium history.

In their article, their starting point is the intriguing mix of cinema with other media (television, for instance, and nowadays video and digital media), which raises unsolvable questions to all those who stick to a traditional vision of cinema as illustrated for example by Baudry’s well-known and still largely accepted apparatus theory. Yet instead of seeing what happens to cinema when it is shown on television or on a computer screen or what happens when cinema seems to stop being cinema and starts projecting the live version of an opera, Gaudreault and Marion propose a different historical and genealogical hypothesis. Referring to the “belinograph” (an early twentieth-century forerunner of the telex, allowing the electronic transmission of pictures), they suggest a cultural series bringing together the medium of cinema and the various ways of technologically decomposing and reassembling images. From that point of view, showing movies on television or displaying them on screen is part of a larger “belinographic” history, of which film itself can also be a part.

From a broader point of view, the notion of cultural series proves an important contribution to the theoretical toolkit of film and medium studies: a comparison with for instance the medium theory by Lev Manovich (whose views on digital culture as a continuation of Soviet montage by other means seem to go into similar directions, although in a much more speculative way) and the fundamental redefinition of film as the combination of projection techniques and moving images (this was the paradigm shift of cinema after the rediscovery of early cinema, which put an end to the conception of cinema as visual narrative) will certainly prove highly stimulating.

The essay by Guillaume Soulez has a double scope. On the one hand, it focuses on the terminological and theoretical questions of the notion of dispositif, the central role of which is clearly highlighted. On the other hand, it also proposes a rereading of Pierre Schaeffer, an artist and theoretician whose work is mainly related to the field of sound media, more specifically of “concrete music”, but whose writings for television contain fundamental ideas for the elaboration of a renewed dispositif theory in particular and medium theory in general. From Schaeffer, Soulez is mainly borrowing a fundamental claim on the genesis of new media.

First of all, Schaeffer rejects the idea that media function outside a certain dispositif, which organizes the way in which media forms and formats are used and above all experienced.  In other words, he adopts a strongly user-based take on the dispositif, which is never a clustering of forms and practices initiated by a new environment, but a new media use that has to cope with already existing dispositifs and practices which unavoidably inflect the way in which a new dispositif is being appropriated (by producers as well as consumers, both being users of a medium).

In this regard, it is to vital to stress that the dispositif ceases to be a structure or a mechanism in order to become a process with in principle five different stages:

  • • step 1 is a kind of “zero” position where the new dispositif is merely used to retransmit already existing material (this is what happens when a movie is shown on television, after its theatrical release);
  • • step 2 is that of the search for a new and original use of the medium (this is what happens when television starts creating tv-movies, no longer meant for theatrical release);
  • • step 3 is the time of experimentation and the attempt to explore the medium as a device for totally original and medium-specific works (in the case of television, this happens when the medium does not only appropriates other media formats, for instance movies, but starts invent formats that do not exist in other media –but which these media can of course reappropriate in their turn: film can for instance play with “typical” television formats and aesthetics);
  • • step 4 is the institutionalization of the new medium as a independent dispositif (that is a dispositif whose rules are no longer defined in relationship with previous media);
  • • and finally step 5, which has to do with the social and political presence and impact of the medium (in modern societies, television has become part of the so-called “fourth power” (next to the trias politica model of the legislating, the executive, and the judicial branches of power).

As this brief recapitulation makes clear, Souliez also admits Schaeffer’s non-canonical positioning of the experimental use of a medium not as an initial but as an intermediary stage in this process. Unlike many theoreticians and historians who depart from an experimental phase that is then progressively softened and adapted in order to become socially accepted as well as commercially viable, eventually finding its way and place in the existing mediascape, Schaeffer defends the idea that experimentation always follows use, not vice versa.

The combination of these elements (a user-based approach of media, a radically temporal reading of their dispositifs and a  renewed interpretation of the role and place of “research and innovation”) enables a more fine-grained analysis of the life of media, both in themselves and in the larger context of a mediascape. And this is actually what all the essays in this special issue of Cinémas try to achieve: they all go back to some fundamentals of medium theory in order to provide us with more powerful and more nuanced instruments to make sense of the moving target of medium history.

Authors: Jan Baetens & Domingo Sánchez-Mesa