Intermediality refers to the interconnectedness of modern media of communication. As means of expression and exchange, the different media depend on and refer to each other, both explicitly and implicitly; they interact as elements of particular communicative strategies; and they are constituents of a wider cultural environment.
Three conceptions of intermediality may be identified in communication research, deriving from three notions of what is a medium. First, and most concretely, intermediality is the combination and adaptation of separate material vehicles of representation and reproduction, sometimes called multimedia, as exemplified by soundand-slide shows or by the audio and video channels of television. Second, the term denotes communication through several sensory modalities at once, for instance, music and moving images. Third, intermediality concerns the interrelations between media as institutions in society, as addressed in technological and economic terms such as convergence and conglomeration.
As a term and an explicit theoretical concept, intermediality has perhaps been most widely used in reference to multiple modalities of experience, as examined in aesthetic and other humanistic traditions of communication research. Crediting an 1812 use of “intermedium” by the British poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, in 1965 Dick Higgins reintroduced “intermedia” to art theory in the context of the Fluxus movement (Higgins 2001). In accordance with an avant-garde orientation, the intermedia terminology has been employed to stress the innovative or transgressive potential of artworks that articulate their message in the interstices of two media forms. In comparison, mixed media suggests a more neutral, instrumental combination, whereas Gesamtkunstwerk, attributed to the composer Richard Wagner, holds out the promise of reintegrating, originally, the theater, music, and visual arts of ancient Greek drama. In media studies, an aesthetic focus on intermedia relations has been placed in historical perspective by research on how a given medium “remediates” other media (Bolter & Grusin, 1999).
The interrelations between media as material vehicles of social interaction have been explored, to a degree, in empirical media history, even if single-media histories may still be more common than broad-based cultural histories centered in the media. Instead, the differences, similarities, and complementarities between historically shifting media have been the focus of so-called medium theory since the foundational work by Harold Innis and Marshall McLuhan (Meyrowitz 1994). This tradition seeks to account for the distinctive characteristics of various media, simultaneously as physical resources, sources of psychological experience, and means of social organization across space and time, including the interplay between face-to-face and technologically mediated communication.
As institutions, the modern media are evidently interrelated, both with each other and with other key social entities. The news media, arguably, make up a fourth estate and a common forum of debate regarding other institutions of power; entertainment media provide packages of content, rather than single messages, as illustrated by feature films that become television series, books, and computer games. Just as media texts enter into a cultural web of intertextuality, the media can be said to jointly constitute a social infrastructure of intermediality.
The various “inter” structures of media are currently being reshaped as part of an open-ended process of digitization. What used to be understood as separate media – at least in terms of their technological bases – might, in the future, be produced, distributed, and consumed as one (inter)medium. Current forms of hypertext and hypermedia (Nelson 1965) indicate how the interrelations between texts and media may increasingly constitute explicit and operational means of navigation, rather than being primarily matters of audience interpretation and use. At the institutional level, however, the jury is still out on the wider tendencies towards a convergence or divergence of media in terms of their technological development and social applications (Gordon 2003). Also, the potential combination and interchangeability of different sensory modalities in various forms of technologically mediated communication are unresolved.
While it has become almost common sense to think of society as a mediated network of information and communication – an information (Porat 1977), control (Beniger 1986), or network (Castells 1996) society – the specific status of the “media” category remains in question. Historical developments continue to challenge theoretical systematics. The 1960s witnessed the coming of a general media concept as well as early considerations about intermedia relations. Digitization represents an opportunity for research to revisit past, present, and future definitions of media.
- Beniger, J. (1986). The control revolution. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
- Bolter, J. D., & Grusin, R. (1999). Remediation: Understanding new media. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
- Castells, M. (1996). The rise of the network society. Oxford: Blackwell.
- Gordon, R. (2003). Convergence defined. At www.ojr.org/ojr/business/1068686368.php, accessed January 10, 2007.
- Higgins, D. (2001). Intermedia. Leonardo, 34(1), 49 –54.
- Meyrowitz, J. (1994). Medium theory. In D. Crowley & D. Mitchell (eds.), Communication theory today. Cambridge: Polity Press.
- Nelson, T. H. (1965). Complex information processing: A file structure for the complex, the changing and the indeterminate. In ACM/CSC-ER: Proceedings of the 1965 20th national conference, Cleveland, OH. New York: ACM Press.
- Porat, M. (1977). The information economy: Definition and measurement, Office of Telecommunications special publication 77–12, US Department of Commerce. Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office.
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