E-Papers >Cultura Media



Lucia Santaella-Braga

São Paulo Catholic University




Culture is a difficult concept. The difficulty in defining culture does not result from a paucity of definitions but rather from an excess of definitions, as Roland Posner has shown in his paper that raises the bold question "What is Culture?" (1989). All fields of the humanities, from philosophy to the social sciences, and from philology to anthropology in particular, have developed their own definitions of culture. In each of these fields, the concept of culture has been adapted according to the disciplinary frontiers appropriate to the particular area of research.

For the purpose of this paper, I have chosen a definition of culture which seems especially appropriate for the point of view I want to adopt here. My approach is the one of semiotics.

Actually, there are many theories of culture based on an implicitly semiotic foundation. For example, this is the case wherever culture is defined in terms of symbolic systems and of social conventions. However, in the social sciences, the study of culture aims at understanding the human agents of the cultural processes. In semiotics, by contrast, the focus is on the way how cultural systems are being processed and put to use for the purpose of communication.

Often, culture has been defined as a means to an end --- a means for the understanding of humans in the multiplicity of their realizations. For the semiotician, by contrast, the processes of sign use and communication are an end in themselves. Semioticians want to investigate how the most diverse sign processes are created, codified, how they are used, and how they function from the point of view of communication and culture. In this perspective, the agents of semiotic processes, whether humans, non-humans, animals, plants, and even machines are not the main subject of study, but they are one of the integrative elements of the sign processes.

Semioticians have defined culture as a complex text which aims at communicative effects. Thus, the communicative function is so essential to culture that culture and communication become quasi-synonyms. According to Umberto Eco (1974: 10), cultural phenomena can only function culturally because they are communicative phenomena at the same time. Any cultural object may become a semiotic phenomenon. The laws of communication are the laws of culture. Culture can be entirely investigated from a semiotic perspective.




The semantic scope of the word culture is extremely broad, and we find a large number of attributes associated with it. For example, we speak of a universal culture, a national culture, a well-developed culture, or an underdeveloped culture, We speak of the Greek and Roman cultures, of rural or political culture, the culture of the century, etc. Last, but not least, we can also speak of media culture.

If culture is inseparable from communication, the inseparability of culture and communication is even more apparent in the case of the media, since the media are, of course, means of communication. As we have seen, semiotics does not consider culture apart from communication. Furthermore, semiotics also shows that the processes of communication in the media are cultural activities which create their own sign processes and specific codifying systems, thus producing effects of perception and reception as well as forms of social behavior which are characteristic only of the media. On these premises, semiotics is bound to perform a fundamental role in the study of the media and of the new forms of cultural production generated by the media.

It is not uncommon to find definitions which dissociate culture from communication and which ignore that the media are able to produce culture. From such perspectives, the expression "media culture" is a contradiction in terms. However, such views result from rather traditional conceptions. Culture is seen as a legacy, a heritage from the past to be preserved for the future. In this view, culture is something noble, cherished by the social elites, and manifested in literature, the arts, theater, classical music, or in art films. On the other hand, there is also a view of culture which emphasizes primarily the role of popular and the so-called alternative cultures. Finally, there is not only this opposition between high or classical, and low or popular culture. Beyond these two domains of culture, there is also mass culture which is criticized by all as the garbagge of undiferentiated messages or the domain of vulgarity and redundancy.

In opposition to this conventional threefold division of the field of culture, I will argue in the following that mass culture cannot be conceived of as a third division of culture because mass culture has brought about deep changes, producing new intersections in both high and popular cultures. In fact, the growing diversity of the means of communication is tending to undermine any division of culture into separate realms. The more the types of media multiply, the more the interaction among the most diverse forms of culture increases. The multiplication of the media tends to accelerate the dynamical interchange between high and popular culture, high and mass culture, popular and mass culture, traditional and modern culture, or modern and postmodern culture.

In fact, the transitions, interchanges, and complementarities among the various media which have generated the phenomenon of intermediality are responsible for the appearance of a mixture of texts and discourses, and thus of sign processes which constitute one of the characteristics of postmodern culture in itself.

With the appearance of informatics and the development of information societies, the acceleration of cultural mixtures has reached its climax in the phenomenon of cyberspace. The current omnipresence of the computer in every domain of private and social life, the development of different types of communicative and cultural processes based on informatics are bound to transform mass culture as profoundly as mass culture produced a revolution in the traditional opposition between high and popular cultures. For this reason, we can say that we are now living in the age of post-mass culture. To discuss the semiotic perspectives of these issues, I will follow the gradual transformation from mass culture to intermediality and from intermediality to cyberspace.




Today, the prototype of mass communication seems to be the medium of the newspaper. However, as Mcquail (1983: 19) points out, the history of the mass media began with the printed book. In its beginnings, the book was merely a technical resource for the reproduction of the same repertoire of texts that had repeatedly been copied in manuscripts. It was only gradually that the new printing technique also led to a change in the contents of books. This happened when political and religious panphlets began to transform the Medieval ideological universe.

Although the book was, in fact, the first mass medium, it was in the newspaper that the cultural features of the mass media began to appear. The first among these features is nonpermanence in opposition to durability, as in the previous forms of culture. A newspaper, as we all know, is made to be read one day and thrown away the next day, and such nonpermanence is also characteristic of other mass media. A film is shown in a theater for a few weeks, only to be substituted by another film. Television programs change every day. Thus, we are confronted with a culture of the ephemeral, the transitory, and of fleetingness. This culture of rapid change is bound to produce nostalgia. We are nostalgic about the films of the fifties, for instance, but not about a novel by Dostoyevski.

Mobility is another feature of the mass media. A given piece of information passes from one medium to the other with some variation in the appearance. We are facing a culture of events in opposition to processes, a culture of discontinuity, of oblivion, of meteoritic apparitions in opposition to the continuity of larger contexts and analytical depth in traditional culture. When absorbed into mass media, anything whatsoever acquires a volatile character and seems to be something that simply appears to disappear. The consequence of the mobility or information transit from one medium to the other is the multiplicity of apparitions of the same information. Information in the mass media is discontinuous, brief, volatile, nonanalytic, but it multiplies itself. This multiplicity is only possible as a result of the next characteristic of mass-media culture, that is, the increasing proliferation of media.

Critics of the industrial culture, such as Adorno and Horckheimer have sufficiently emphasized the negative effects produced by the mercantilism of culture. Following Walter Benjamin's (1975) suggestion, my argument is that mass or industrial culture has nourished inside itself the germs of its own destruction. These germs were in the proliferating tendency of the media that has resulted in the process of intermediality.

It is true that there is a competition among the media: newpapers, magazines, journals, or television channels struggle for the lucrative privilege of capturing their readers and their audience. However, according to Cirino (1974: 214), one of the democratic principles in allowing free access to information is that a great number of points of view should coexist in the same space and at the same time. The greater the number of media and the more differentiated and plural their lines of comprehension and interpretive construction of reality are, the more democratic the media web will be, since the multiplicity of points of view provide the public with choices among diverse interpretations.

The proliferation of the media does not occur only among media of the same kind, but also among different types of media. It is true that the mass media, at first sight, create the impression of competing with each other, for example, newspaper with TV news, TV with radio programs, etc. In reality, however, the media generate a web of complementarities. Each medium, by its own nature, has its specific potentialities and limitations. In the media web, each medium tends to have a function of its own. This is the key to the understanding of intermediality.

Listening to the news on the radio, for example, tends to create the listeners' interest in TV news, since TV promises more detailed reports with live images of the events. In the same manner, the late night news on television leads the viewers to the morning newspaper in search of more analytical and interpretive details. And when the topic really raises the addressee's attention, a weekly magazine will certainly be looked for, where a lengthy "interpretation of the news is able to provide the reader with a deeper insight into the preceding facts, with enlightenments about the events themselves and, above all, with the trustful judgement of an expert" (Haacke 1982: 69).

Another effect produced by the complementarity of the media is apparent when the interest raised within the mass media web goes beyond this web, and the receiver turns to a medium considered as belonging to high culture. How many literary books, for instance, have become best-sellers after being adapted to a film?

As we have seen, the media are interconnected in a network where each medium has its own function. This is the reason why the appearance of a new medium always produces changes in the functions of the existing media. Hence, it is culture in general that is set in motion by intermedialty, since intermediality accelerates the transition among the diverse forms and levels of culture.

There is functional diversity not only among the various media, but also within each particular medium. I would like to define this internal diversity as intramediality. Consider, for example, the plurality of the sections in the newspapers, from the news to the editorials, from the feature pages to the sports section, from the job advertisements to the police reports. The internal diagram of the different departments in any large newspaper publishing house is organized according to the same thematic classification: 1. politics, 2. society, 3. economy, 4. media, 5. art, 6. science, 7. sport, 8. religion, 9. advertising, 10. others (see Haacke 1987: 70). This coexistence of different subjects constitutes the newspaper's structural mosaic, as McLuhan called it.

Television is a further example of the functional diversity and plurality of dimensions within a medium. Before the computer, television used to be the most absorbing of all media, since it can take in any other medium, any other form of culture, from the cinema to the book, from the theater to the musical shows, from concerts to the sports events.




The most fundamental consequence of intramediality is the semiotic complexity of the messages. The media messages are organized in dense intersections of different sign processes and codes. In fact, any medium of the media galaxy is a hybrid sign system, applying a plurality and mixture of codes. Therefore, all media, by their own nature, are intermedia and multimedia. As a consequence, the decodification of the media messages activates different senses and produces psychophysical and cognitive effects of diverse kinds.

The many sign systems responsible for the semiotic complexity of the messages do not result in a mere sum of systems, but they are organized as a semiotic gestalt, which varies from message to message. For example, a certain hierarchy of codes may prevail in a medium, such as the newspaper, where the written verbal language is more central than the visual messages. But there are types of media where the hierarchy of codes is mobile and oscillating. Sometimes, the verbal code predominates, only to be immediatly superseded by images, at other times, there is a balanced distribution of verbal and visual codes in the same medium, as for instance, in many TV programs. The degree of importance of each code and the hierarchical movements of the different codes compose messages that are semiotically diversified. Their main characteristic is not redundancy, but intercode cooperation, and such interaction is effective not only in the configuration of the messages, but also in the effect produced in the receiver.

Once more, the newspaper exemplifies the role of intramediality and intercode cooperation. Newspapers are composed at the intersection of written language, of photographic and graphic signs. The latter develop their efficiency and a semantic potential of their own by variation of size and position on the page. This semantic potential in the display of newspaper graphics actually results from the potential of another sign system, the system of diagramatic signs. The position and display on the page determines the textual meaning almost as significantly as the meaning of its words.

Other examples of intercode cooperation are apparent in film. Eisenstein was one of the first directors to perceive and explore this feature in the making of films. It is well known that films are, first of all, photograms in movement. Furthermore, Eisenstein showed that the movies cannot only provide a semiotic translation of the photographic codes, but also of other visual codes, such as painting. This potential of the film has more recently been explored with splendid results by Peter Greenaway. But Eisenstein also showed that films can recreate the codes of the theater, when he transposed the conventions of the Kabuki theater to his films. His films were even able to organize their syntactical structures according to the montage principle of the Chinese ideogram. Thus, films make use of syncretic sign processes which combine codes such as photography, painting, theater, sound, music, gestures, oral and written language. All these different codes interact, changing their internal hierarchy so that at each moment a different gestalt appears.

Still more hybrid than in the film are the sign processes in television, the most hybrid of all media. From this point of view, it does not matter whether TV messages are trivial, superficial or schematic. Their semiotic complexity is always remarkable. In television, everything happens at the same time. Sounds, words, images are organized in varied and multifaceted appearances according to the syntactical rythm of the cuts, transitions, and switchings which constitute the most peculiar characteristic of sign processes in TV. Referring to these features, Stanley Cavell (1986: 207) has characterized the material basis of television as "a current of simultaneous event reception."

The majority of current media studies are only interested in analyzing the verbal content of the messages. They usually neglect the fact that the semiotic constitution of these messages is essential to the type of reception they are able to produce and ignore the interaction of different senses involved in the reception of the messages as well as the diversity of psychophysical and cognitive effects they are able to produce.

According to Charles Morris (see Nöth 1990), every sign process is organized at three interdependent levels: the syntactical level, the semantical level and the pragmatical level. The syntactical level corresponds to the formal properties of the elements of a system and the rules by means of which structures can be created from them. The second level corresponds to the semantical properties, that is, the relations between the signs and what they represent or mean. The third level comprises the relation that may obtain between the elements of those sign systems, what they mean, and their users. These three levels are certainly also present in the media messages. However, as these messages are structured by diverse codes, the sign relations at the syntactical level are not between signs of the same kind but between signs from different sign systems whose interactions are always mutable. This explains the difficulties of describing unambiguously the semantic level of the media messages since relations of meaning are extremely complex and affect various channels of reception, when several codes are involved. The pragmatic level is no less complex since the assessment of the cognitive effect of a message is more difficult to discern when several perceptive channels are involved.

However, the most recent forms of inter- and intramediality are apparent in those media that originate from the interaction of different media. That interaction was a characteristic of video-text, a media mix of the telephone, teletype, the monitor, and the computer. But video text was just a weak precursor of the media which make use of the most recent transmission technologies, of telecommunication channels such as satellites, fiber optics, and so on. These channels greatly increase the computer's capacity to transform all data, sound, voice, and video information into electronic impulses, thus creating a planetary computerized network of connections responsible for the development of a transnational economy and for the appearance of radically new forms of communication and culture (see Demac 1990: 208).

In the invisible electronic network that has been built around us, "every time we use a telephone, credit card, an electronic teller, or make a supermarket purchase, we are part of a web of computers that are tracking our transactions, tabulating summaries, and communicating with other computers" (Paulsell 1990: 198).

What used to be called mass media, mass communication, and mass culture nowadays coexists with new types of media that can no longer be called mass media. New forms of interactive and multidiretional communication are coming into the fore, and mass communication tends to become a rudimentary stage of what we now call more appropriately media culture or global culture, that is, post-mass culture. The new digital or computational technologies with their overflowing flux of data leads us to consider all the media since the newspaper and until television as traditional media, in opposition to the current dynamic post-mass culture.




Who could have imagined, less than a decade ago, that there would once exist millions of square meters of telephone lines interconnected by the internet, a vast communication labyrinth of educational, governmental, military, and commercial webs linking any part of the world with any other part. Who could have imagined that millions of computers and people with the most diverse characteristics would be linked in more than three dozen countries? Such visions have become reality in computer-mediated communication, a type of communication that takes place between human beings via the instrumentality of computers. This process of communication takes place in an abstract and immaterial space consisting strictly of eletronic impulses and information. To have access to such a universe in which the usual space and time coordinates are nonexistent, it is enough to have a computer terminal, a modem, a telephone number, a pass word, and an e-mail adress. The communicative processes via computer, that are already being studied by linguists and semioticians (Danet 1995: 9; Herring ed. 1996), do not only include interactions between person and person or person and group, but also personal interactions with the computer, when someone can access the most remote data, programs, and data bases in computers. After examining a document through the WWW (World Wide Web) --- a system of connections between digital documents of texts, sound, and graphics accessible without effort from a computer in any part of the world ---one can get in touch via e-mail with the author of this document and begin a dialogue that may last days, months, or even years.

There are two types of dialogue mediated by computer: asynchronous and synchronous ones. In an asynchronous dialogue, e.g., via e-mail, a person writes a message at a moment different from the one in which the receptor will read it, even if the difference in time is very short, taking only minutes or seconds. Group communication is based on the same principle. There are now thousands of groups whose topics of discussion may be classified into: 1. professional, academic, and scientific, 2. recreative, 3. group support.

The synchronous modes of communication via computer enable people to be simultaneously connected in a talk, digiting messages to each other in real time. When the function "talk" is activated, in the operational system "Unix", the communicators can read the messages that one is writing to the other at the exact moment when the messages are being typed, as if the communicators were talking on the telephone. There are several forms of synchronous communication. The most popular is IRC - Internet Relay Chat (see Danet 1995:9).

These new communication processes give rise to a new type of hybrid signs in the intersection of spoken and written discourse, and to new forms of expression, of addressing the other, and, above all, of perceiving the world in its globality. As a result, new modalities of dialogue, or better, multilogue, are being created. What really stimulates and intensifies these new semiotic modes of social interaction is the appearance of radically nonhierarchical and remarkably noncensured forms of access to the most diverse kinds of information. The resulting information flow is globally and immediately available. In such a universe, real space and distance are becoming more and more irrelevant. Both are being substituted by the unpredictable dimensions of interstitial space and time between the real and the virtual.

Multidimensional interactive communication processes take place in a hyperspace perfused with information flows. In opposition to the topological rigidity of any linear model, this space shares the properties of nonlinear systems, such as the ones that can be found in hypermedia and in the statistical self-similarities of fractals (see Kac 1992: 48). In sum: these communication processes give rise to a very special and proliferating type of culture under the name of computer culture.

However, not only the computer is the great star of the telematic webs, but also the telephone, this first and great interactive medium, which, together with the car, the airplane, and the radio, have functioned, since the first half of this century, as a symbol of modern life. Yet what could not have been foreseen in the early times of the telephone, was the extension of its power after the appearance of telecommunication channels. It was even less foreseeable that the telephone, with such amplified powers, would be connected to another unexpected small machine, the personal computer.

While the telephone is extending its potential in the transmission technologies, the personal computer has the capacity to transform any textual, videographic, visual, and sound information into electronic impulses, absorbing them into its internal processing. Furthermore, when the telephone technically incorporated the graphic element, it became possible not only to talk but also to write through the telephone in the form of e-mail, to print through the telephone by means of fax, to produce and record sound through the telephone answering machine, and to record videos via telephone in the form of slow-scan TV or video-phone (see Kac 1992: 55). This arsenal of communication technologies provides the infra-structure that is giving support to the great semiotic, communicative, and cultural mutation which we are facing. As the Italian cultural critic Mario Costa has pointed out, in his book The Technological Sublime (1995), this mutation is producing significant anthropological consequences.

One of the fields where this cultural mutation may be more deeply felt is in the works of art which are especially conceived for the telecommunication media. In the virtual electronic space of telematics, these art forms have recently made their appearance under the name of telepresence. Telepresence is born in the intersection of robotics and telematics. While scientists, on the one hand, investigate telepresence as a pragmatic and operational means of equating robotics with human experience, artists, on the other hand, use telepresence as a way to question the unidirectional structures of communication which exist not only in the fine arts, as in painting or sculpture, but also in the mass media of radio and television.

The Brazilian and US American artist and media critic Eduardo Kac (1993: 52) describes telepresence as a way of expressing aesthetically the cultural changes which result from remote control, remote vision, telekinesics, and the interchange of audiovisual information in real time. Telepresence invites the participants to discover remote worlds invented from perspectives and scales very different from the human ones. As a new communicative experience, it embraces the multimodal nature of collaborative, interactive events in the telecommunication webs which are characteristic of the semiotic exchanges toward the end of the twentieth century.

According to the British internet investigator Roy Ascott (1995), we are living in a culture progressively involved in the complexity of relations and systems, linked to the invisible and immaterial, to the ever-evolving and the evanescent, linked to emergency and apparition. In this culture, the telematic webs have turned into the most privileged means of art. Only in the webs of interactivity can the principles of indeterminacy and uncertainty, of open ends and transition attain their real satisfaction.

Mario Costa (1995: 37, 42) gives a similar interpretation when he says that the new electronic communication technologies, confront us with a radical transformation in the aesthetic field. These technologies also produce new conditions of materiality. More and more, in the course of this century, the arts have lost their power of performing their vital function, dissolving themselves in the consumption of luxury, in economic values, in mere decoration, or entertainment. With the challenge of the new technologies, the arts are once more beginning to assume a powerful meaning by exposing our nervous system to hitherto unknown dimensions, giving expression to the real forces that create our environment and educate us for the time to come.

This new technological order, as many social scientists are calling it, does not only affect the arts and culture in general, but also the sociological, economical, and political environment. In fact, without telematics, the postcapitalism of the global megamarket or the late capitalism of the conglomerate hypercompetition would not be possible (cf. Resende 1994).

In the 1960s, reflecting on radio and television, the two giants of the mass culture of the time, McLuhan anticipated many aspects of globalization in his prognosis that the world was turning into a global village. From the point of view of our present time, it is curious to see that MacLuhan was wrong in one respect, but he was right in another respect that could not have been forseen during his lifetime. Let us begin with his mistaken prognosis.

It is certainly true that the world is becoming a global village, but the agents of this development are not radio and television, as MacLuhan thought. Undoubtedly, media globalization has led to huge economic and infrastructural media conglomerates spreading throughout the continents, combining the control of radio and telecast, press, publishing, phonographic industry, or film production and also dominating the sector of distribution with satellites and cable webs (see Mira 1994: 136). However, in contrast to the dark prophecies about the future of the industrial culture given by the Frankfurt school, we would like to claim with Kevin Robbins that "the growing mobility of the corporations is associated with the possibility of their operational fractioning and subdivision, since the corporations can be situated in different places. In this process, some advantages may be taken from the small variations in the nature of each different place" (as quoted in Mira 1994: 1938). This new characteristic of capitalist production, in fact, combines and articulates tendencies toward globalization as much as toward localism. The consequences of this process for cultural production in the light of localism, regionalism, minorities, or otherness are among the topics that have widely been discussed in the context of the cultural studies of the phenomenon of postmodernity.

From the infrastructural and economic point of view, it is true that the communication systems have now grown into a planetary dimension. On the other hand, the semiotic orientation of the messages produced by these systems tend to be much more inclined toward specialization, diversity, and multiplicity than toward massification and homogeneity, as globalization could have lead us to expect.

In many countries, local radio and television programs have succeeded in attracting much more audience than any imported program. This has led to the proliferation of local radio stations and to the strengthening of smaller national TV networks. Even when the program models are imported, they are preferably adapted to the local taste, thus transforming the original model many times in suprisingly creative ways.

Another important factor is the multiplication of simultaneously accessible TV channels. This development has resulted in a growing specialization and specificity of the programs of each channel. Such multiplication has brought with it the phenomenon of zapping, a new kind of syntax produced by a viewer switching channels again and again through remote control (cf. Machado 1993). The tendency of radio programming toward the segmentation and multiplication of repertoire levels in response to the interests of very different audiences has also become a constant of TV programming. Another important feature of radio programs which has meanwhile been adopted by television is interactivity. A further reason for the increasing plurality of options and specialization in TV has been the cable net. In a country such as the United States, the early cradle of mass culture, cable is now attaining unbelievable numbers of viewers (cf. Ryan 1993: 27-35).

In addition to all these factors, the dramatic price cuts for modern communication technologies have favored enormously the proliferation of small independent video production enterprises that sell their products to big media enterprises. The low prices are also the reason for the appearance of small record studios and domestic film making. Video cassettes and video disks are technologies which have become quite easily available to everybody, as we all know. The video cassette has even brought the movies to every living room. The global growth of this branch of the media industry may be measured by the great number of video rent shops all over the world.

All these factors testify to the error in MacLuhan's prognosis of a global village as an effect of the mass communication media. Counterevidence to his vision is the multiplication of differences, and the increasing specialization in the process of globalization.

Nevertheless, something like a global village has undoubtedly resulted, not from the mass media, but from an entirely new communication network that MacLuhan could not forsee. The global village that has really come into being is the interactive and planetary village emerging from the complex web of interconnected communication systems which embrace the whole world by means of technological and, above all, abstract links among the communicators.

Technological acceleration has become so impressive that it does not allow any conclusive diagnosis. As to the prognosis, interactive TV seems to be the next milestone in the media galaxy. It will permit the connection of television with the computer. Thus, MacLuhan's vision may finally attain its fulfilment. In the complementary interchanges between the local and the global, the world will acquire the dimension of a rizome, as Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guatarri have anticipated, a world of infinite derivations and decentered, transversal connections, a world, in sum, that should be a challenge to the imagination and analytical power of the semioticians.




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