In Defense of Catch-Alls

I had planned on blogging on a different topic this week, but yesterday’s reading, specifically New Media Old Media: A History and Theory Reader (2006, edited by Wendy Hui Kyong Chun and Thomas Keenan), presented a really interesting connection to a number of fields and concepts that I work with. In the introduction to the reader, Chun unpacks the etymology of the term “new media,” and reveals how it came to its current usage. New media refers to a wide variety of media objects, ranging from hypertext fiction to software studies to video games, and at times applying the term new media to all of them seems too reductive to describe such variety. Chun comments on this and a number of other limitations with the term, claiming that it is not accommodating:

“it portrayed other media as old or dead; it converged rather than multiplied; it did not efface itself in favor of a happy if redundant plurality” (1).

Add to this the problem of the “new” part of the phrase—how long are we going to call video games “new” media?—and it seems there are more issues with the term than benefits. One of the only unifying descriptions it offers, at least at first glance, is the general effects that new media has: “It was fluid, individualized connectivity, a medium to distribute control and freedom” (1). Consider how easily that description could apply to language itself!

Yet I argue, as Chun does later in her introduction, that the benefit of a term like “new media” is not in establishing a discrete set of objects for study, or a unified methodology, or a single theory that guides the whole enterprise. New media is something of a catch-all for its many objects, methodologies, and theories, and while that frustrates projects of definition, it also presents a rich, living, evolving toolbox for the study of media broadly construed. New media brings together a plethora of differing perspectives based on the relative closeness of their interests—it is not that they share the same objects, etc., but rather that they have some relationship to each other. They exist in the same constellation, or on the same “map” of new media studies, even if there’s a lot of ground between them (4). There’s a lot to be gained if the places on that map are in dialogue with each other, trading concepts and perspectives that build up their projects, often in unexpected ways. And, as our current political moment makes abundantly clear, there’s a lot to be lost by a sort of intellectual isolationism, looking only to a specific object, methodology, or theory while ignoring the wide-ranging relations that they have.

Of course one also needs specificity in order to have clarity and understanding. If our terms are too amorphous and fuzzy, then we can never get a conceptual grip on the things we study. This is where a catch-all like new media needs further contextualization and historicization, but one can readily see that in the field’s subdivisions—in the case of New Media Old Media, new media archaeology and new media cultural critique (4). The term new media has many referents, but it is not so difficult to identify which one is in question at a given moment.

A number of other fields and concepts enjoy the same benefits and limitations of catch-all status, such as Digital Humanities, electronic literature, and game studies. Indeed, it seems that any field title is something of a catch-all. However in each case I think we can see the same process sketched out above. A blanket term brings together a lot of meaning, but also demands further inquiry and context. For example, last week was the Global Digital Humanities Symposium at MSU, and afterward my colleague, Laura McGrath, tweeted the following:

“I find the label “DH” to be empty/meaningless, but also utilitarian.”

There’s an interesting dynamic at play here, where something that encompasses everything means nothing. Where meaning becomes overloaded and loses all meaning. So I share Laura’s frustration—I often joke that studying games makes me a digital humanist simply because games are often digital. But I also see the “utilitarian” aspect of the term. DH, like new media, brings together many scholars from many areas around a set of interests and questions—what does it mean to do humanities in a digital age? How does one make meaning with digital tools and objects? What can the humanities do to critique and foster newer and better uses for the digital? “Digital” is doing a lot of work here, and its apparent emptiness reflects how it creates a space for work–for generating meaning. I think there is a lot of work to be done, and where there’s a lot of work, one needs plenty of hands. So let’s use our catch-alls, all the while maintaining a critical eye to what they mean, what they include, and what they exclude.

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