Deutsche Version

Alexander Kolerus

Problems of Media Analysis – Designing an Interpretative Model

Abstract: As technological manifestations of communicative structures increase, the information age has given unprecedented relevance to the evaluation and possible revision of conventional interpretative strategies. As various concepts and models of communication interlace in complicated combinations in new media, the claim to universal validity hitherto held by some theories is replaced by a loosely organized methodological co-operation that will change and regroup with each new object it is used to analyze.

When humans try to access the external world, some kind of interpretation is always involved. To perceive or recognize an “objective” reality is always to reference preceding interpretations, whether they be our own, temporary ones, or else those of others, more or less rigidly stored in culture’s schemes and conventions. Man’s knowledge has its place in an interplay of constructions which are often confused with the real, objective presence of the external world. This confusion happens most easily in the case of those constructions that we might call “universally valid”, or “universally accepted”. The danger of identifying convention with reality grows greatest at this point.

Each individual construction in any form of perception is based, to a considerable extent, on the point of view of its constructor, on the perspective taken by the observer in his attempts to grasp the world around him. Since a complete and universally set grasp of the objective world is unattainable, we have to recognize that each form of perception is determined by certain criteria. The observer uses such criteria – consciously or otherwise – and bases his subsequent construction on their conditions. Most of all, they limit which areas of perception the construction might and will cover, except in those cases in which a change or modification of perspective takes place. Whatever fails to be included in perception, imagination will accommodate as the observer adds constructions. Thus every observer is also at once an interpreter and a constructor.

In the light of these thoughts, the problem of arriving at a properly justified interpretation might seem impossible to solve. Once we grant that the perceptive apparatus of humans is unable to access objective reality directly, both because of its biological determinants as well as its cognitive operations, we seem to have robbed any serious, intersubjectively provable interpretation of its Archimedic point. This should also strip it from any semblance of scholarly or scientific adequacy. The only way out would be to find a way to do without that Archimedic point, i.e. to confess that we can only work with objects that are constantly changing all around us. This is true for socio-culturally modified conventions and schemes of perception as well as for the semantic value of signs and not least for the perceptive apparatus of each recipient. The foremost vantage points for our interpretative devices are: perspective, convention and the resulting ‘convention-scape’, the ‘pool of conventions’ for each recipient.

These considerations show that we can no longer avoid a complete and thorough criticism of our traditional interpretative models; we must examine what basic questions they afford.

Niklas Luhmann has refused the traditional communicative model of addresser, message and addressee and its accompanying metaphor of transmission or transferral in favour of a model of structural coupling: There is no message transmitted from one subject to another. What is communicated does not leave the addresser to move on to the addressee, as the addresser does not loose it. Instead, communication takes place as various self-referential systems connect or bump into each other and thus experience a mutual deformation. In this way, an impulse taken from another system is processed within a stimulated system by means of that system’s internal mechanisms, resulting in a system-specific motion. There is not transference, but at most an “imprint” on the system’s surface, displacing the whole inner workings of that system and inciting a sequence within. An impulse from the stimulating system will prompt the stimulated system to show some “co-ordinated behaviour” (1) – not unlike the string on a guitar that is struck and incites another string on another guitar by its own vibrations.

For our purpose, we will focus on Luhmann’s distinction of medium and form. The medium, a mass of loosely interlaced elements, allows a certain range for the coupling of those elements in each instance. The form generated in the course of this coupling is no more than one possible connection of a selection of such elements. For instance, take any common personal computer. A virtual user interface, as seen in any number of programs or operation systems, presents a choice of options for the user: Instructions, commands, buttons and so on. The program thus connects certain elements or faculties of the computer and condenses them into a virtual user interface; but that interface will never cover all the functions and possibilities of the computer or offer them to the user. That level of unconditional choice is only available to the programmer, if at all. The “normal” user generally lacks access to the level of the medium “in itself”. She will work with medial forms, i.e. user interfaces; she will operate on the level of a medium “of the second order”. The user is thus always in danger of identifying the medium with its medial form, the same effect that we have described for the confusion of reality and convention. Like convention, medial form will never include the totality of its sustaining basis.

All these considerations allow us to draw the following conclusions concerning the procedure of an effective media analysis:

There is no use at all in focusing only on the semantics in such analyses, i.e. in focusing on the “contents” or the “message” of the medium as is traditionally done. Such a procedure might, at best, make sense if we combine it with other focal points and examine the semantic functions that happen on the level of the medial form from the vantage point of these other focal points, for “the proper effects of media are not found on the level of its semantics.” (2)

On the other hand, it is clear that the only access we have to a medium will have to be through that medial form. For each medium is only constituted in the course of its communicative use. That communicative use, however, happens at the level of the form.

For media analysis, then, there is no choice but to begin with the level of the medial form. “Media cannot be described […] independently of the forms in which they impress themselves, or the components of which they consist.” (3) But the medial form only realizes one part or one area of the medium in rendering it visible for the user or the standard observer. It is no more than the proverbial tip of the iceberg. If we focus our analysis only on the semantic contents of that single region, we will only be able to examine its “semantic innards”, never voyaging outside its confines. The analytic access to the medium, on the other hand, goes through the structure, through the effective structures realized in its medial form. I believe that these considerations sufficiently justify turning towards a structuralist approach. Our next question then must be how that approach can be modified and to which components of the medial form it might best be applied so that it will yield a perspective on the level of the medium.

Most of all, structuralism emphasizes the criteria of scientific research. It strives to move as far away as possible from (subjectively proven) interpretation and towards (intersubjectively/objectively proven) analysis. But this fact should not be hastily interpreted as a symptom of that classical method which operates on the grounds of the least sufficient hypothesis. I am mainly speaking of the theoretical work of Michael Titzmann. (4) His thoughts on the cultural paradigm could be further differentiated by means of Lenk’s elucidations on the application of schemes. (5) In such an approach, we would attempt to trace the semantic structures determined in the text, to unearth the founding “structure of meanings” and to reconstruct it. But we don’t intend such data of meaning to be viewed as irreversibly anchored within a text, or as inseparably fused with the text. Instead, we should understand the semantic structure as a “system of blank places” that can be filled in various ways, depending on cultural backgrounds and recipients’ characteristics.

If humans organize their life in adherence to given models of behaviour, if everything we do is, in a way, some kind of imitation, the analysis of semantic structures will find its main problems to be in researching those given patterns and conventions. The convention, scheme, “semantic consensus”, cultural paradigm, or whatever else we might call it, serves as a substitute for reality in the sense that penetrating to an absolutely objective truth or reality is impossible due to the closed perceptive apparatus we humans possess. That apparatus works by means of self-reference. Each perception must basically be considered as radically subjective, albeit adhering to given models, to those semantic paradigms, which are in turn, and if not exclusively, then at least to a very great extent, made available in media (taken in the broadest sense of the word). Humans invent such apparatus to store data, which they then proceed to use for their constructions. The construction is thus outsourced, and in that process, it becomes somewhat static. The imaginative consciousness of the living subject retains its dynamics, it is subjected to constant change, constant modification by the likewise dynamic background of subjective experiences. Background and construction keep changing and mutually depend on one another. The background functions as the basis for the process of construction; in turn, the resulting construction restructures the sequence of receiving and processing experience.

For now, I will adopt the following, no doubt over-stated hypothesis: Everything that humans do is citation. Humans can only think, see, incorporate and make use of that which is given; true innovation does not exist. Humans cannot but influence each other, each one impressing his “private” construction on the other by the example of his own behaviour, or life. In the age of mass media, the question of greatest interest must now be whether this mutual influence is still taking place primarily between individual humans, or whether such constructs in the form of life models are now mostly set by media. Everything that media transmit and contain is marked by the extreme size of the areas it covers. What individual human could rival the enormous amount of information presented by the apparatus of TV? Would it even be possible to develop cultural formations if humans would trust only themselves and the medial equipment offered by their own bodies? The fact that political forms of organization only became possible after writing had been invented seems to indicate that it would not. Media organize our lives. It is only by media that life constructs are turned into conventions. It is only by media that cultural entities on the level of world views, such as religions, nations, ideologies, corporations or cults, become possible. Media generate the consensus which defines such units, which sustains it and by means of which it works.

A life construct stored in media is not concrete, it resembles a skeletal structure which comes to life only once a subject instantiates it (Lenk). Thus media demonstrate schematic life constructs, to be “actualized or “concretized” only by the recipient. Content analysis, then, does not deal with the problem of demonstrating how a “text” is anchored in the reality of the external world, but rather it must examine the scheme stored in the medium and compare it with the cultural scheme present in the cultural background in each case. The main thing then is to review the schemes, and to determine to what extent they are simulated, used and stylized by their media. The task of a structuralist text analysis in this context would be to examine what semantics the “text” entices recipients to activate, depending on the schemes inscribed in it as well as on the cultural background. What scheme is offered? To which scheme from the cultural background does it correspond? And finally: What are the usual semantics of this scheme and to what extent are aspects of the semantics suggested by the mere use of that scheme? Such an approach could, for instance, prove useful in analyzing advertisements. The effect of recognition is guaranteed in these cases by a life that is constructed, consciously stylized, and turned into cliché.

If we start with an examination of medial forms in terms of schemes and their semantics, a structuralist approach along the lines of Titzmann’s designs could be enhanced and continued in two ways:

1. Concerning the recipient, by examining effective structures (>Reception Theory): As a first step, we would examine the semantics of a medial form by means of one concrete example. A second step would look at the structuring element, i.e. the basic scheme sustaining the semantics. Finally, we would trace the continuation of that structure in the direction of the recipient.

2. Concerning media: Again first examining the semantics, we could trace the continuation of that structure in the direction of the level of the medium.

The relation of medial form and medium should be viewed similarly to that of recipient and medial form. Marshall McLuhan understands any medium to be an “extension” of human faculties, i.e. an artificial extension of our senses among other things. This image implies the existence of a turning point or a border closed towards either side, marking the place where human perceptive apparatus and artificial medium meet. In the channels opened by the medium, we would thus find a negative imprint of the user’s perceptive tendencies. Think of the artificial medium as a medial form of the second order, which selects components from the medial form of the first order ( = the recipient) and couples these components with a further increased rigidity. The artificial medium will never incorporate the totality of the perceptive tendencies of the recipient in the negative imprint. The process of rigid coupling thus works in either direction: From (constructed) reality to recipient as well as from recipient to constructed reality. This relation, as fantastic as it might sound at first, is especially apt to explain the mutual feedback effect between society and media which McLuhan has so stubbornly insisted on and which forms such an important basis for his thoughts. McLuhan reiterates his description of this phenomenon indefatigably, but fails to come up with a plausible explanation in the end. The question of how it is possible that it is not only us who modify, restructure, in a certain sense even construct media, but that media do the same to us, remains unanswered in his work. Considering Luhmann’s principle of rigidity, we might offer the following answer: It is possible for media to change us only if we exchange places with media to a certain degree, that is, if the medium can act in a somewhat similar manner to the recipient. Of course artificial media are not alive, they can never first incite any innovation on their own. But we help them to do so by constantly running into them and bumping into them and rubbing off on them. The dynamic starts with us. In this sense, it is us who lend media the ability to affect and change us by reflecting our own energy back unto us. Suddenly, we have become the medium, and the medium, now turned into a kind of “cyber-recipient”, informs us. The concept of “media ethic” takes on a whole new meaning. If I run against a wall and blacken my eye, I will hardly consider suing the wall.

A perceived object turns a number of possible perspectives towards the observer by being present in some selected areas of perception. If we take the artificial medium as a negative imprint of a certain selection of components of man’s perceptive apparatus, a first and important part of any analysis must be to determine which basic perceptive faculties of man a given medium supports. Then we must discern which actualizing operations the recipient undertakes in a given area of his perception. That area of perception again appears as a loosely coupled set of events according to Luhmann’s principles. From this set, the recipient selects components to combine in rigid coupling. The distinction of medium and form is thus accompanied by an interlacing of perspectives turned towards the recipient. The looser the coupling of a medium in its set of events, the bigger or the less distinct would be the average view offered by the perspectives that are opened on its level. So each perspective first contains subordinated perspectives, which partially actualize the area of perception opened by the first perspective, as they focus on specific regions of that area. But at the same time, each perspective is also part of a group which is in turn subsumed under a superordinated perspective. In analysis, however, each perspective can only be “reconstructed” from the view it covers, so the examination of the access system has to start with the object that generates it or opens it. That it is impossible to know the perspective “in itself” shows once more that media analysis has no choice but to start with the “content”, i.e. with the visible medial form in each case, and then proceed by drawing conclusions about the sustaining medium. Without “content”, without a perceived object or visible view, there is no perspective. “The mediality of a medium is unobservable.” (6)

Humans inform artificial media by actualizing a select few of their perceptive faculties by means of technology and thus “elongating” or “extending” one or more of their senses with the help of the medium. Thus man couples an area from the event set (which lies within his complete perceptive competence) with increased rigidity in the medium. He does so by endowing the medium with the ability to present certain perspectives. In the course of using the medium that was thus created, the recipient only stresses those perceptive competences that are supported by the perspective system of the medium. In this way, the medium “selects” a number of sensory competences on the recipient’s part. These selected competences are “trained” by usage, while the areas not supported by the medium lie waste and are subjected to a sort of atrophy.

Consider the development of mass media since the invention of the printing press. It is remarkable that the metaphors of communication increasingly manifest themselves in the form of technological constructions, that is, on a level of concrete liveability. Communicative models and structures are increasingly manifested in the realization of technological media. In this, they are quite literally placed in the middle of our lives. Meanwhile, the concepts of technological media undergo increasing refinement and differentiation. While the classical photo-lens still traces the functionality of the human eye, digital technology is beginning to replace it both in terms of recording as well as reproduction. The “interlacing” of medial levels that I have mentioned several times obviously manifests itself in technological concepts such as the telephone, TV, computer, and so on. Of course, it would take some much more detailed research to demonstrate a general tendency towards this direction and plausibly prove that that is what’s going on. But at the very least we cannot deny that the increasingly concrete manifestation of communicative procedural forms in technological media offers a hitherto unknown opportunity to review and possibly adjust some of our traditional, theoretical models of communication.



1. „koordinierten Verhaltensweise“ – cf. Norbert Bolz: Am Ende der Gutenberg-Galaxis. Die neuen Kommunikationsverhältnisse. Munich 1995, p. 40. (zurück)

2. “die eigentlichen Effekte der Medien liegen nicht auf dem Niveau ihrer Semantik.” – Ibid., p. 49. (zurück)

3. Ibid., p. 45. (zurück)

4. Michael Titzmann: Strukturale Textanalyse. Theorie und Praxis der Interpretation. Munich 1993. (zurück)

5. Cf. Hans Hans: Interpretationskonstrukte. Zur Kritik der interpretatorischen Vernunft. Frankfurt 1993, pp. 85 ongoing. (zurück)

6. “Die Medialität eines Mediums ist unbeobachtbar.” – Bolz op. cit., p. 45. (zurück)

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