Audiovisual Culture and
Interdisciplinary Knowledge

A digital essay by D. N. Rodowick
Program in Film Studies
The University of Rochester

In 1991 I published an essay in Camera Obscura entitled "Reading the Figural" where I developed some concepts for understanding how the nature of representation, signification, and the social organization of human collectivities in time and space were changing with the appearance of new forms of digital communication. When I began writing in the Spring of 1988, the technologies I referred to--for example, digitized video in multimedia publications or electronic publishing on the Internet--were either not commercially available or else were not widely used by people in the humanities. Now they all are. This is an index of the speed of technological change and commercialization that today confronts telecommunications, entertainment, and educational media.

When I wrote "Reading the Figural," philosophical questions were at the heart of the essay. As the televisual and digital arts become more and more a dominant feature of mass culture, how are questions of representation, communication, and knowledge transformed? I admit now to garnishing the edges of these questions with a bit of science fiction. My motivation was to show not only that the televisual and digital arts were worthy of a serious philosophical dialogue, but also, and more importantly, that there were serious social consequences to be addressed.

What I call the audiovisual is an important, and global, aspect of contemporary everyday life which, in developed countries, is being defined as an emergent technology-driven culture. One vision of this culture is presented by the corporations who will profit by marketing its technologies and patterns of consumption. This is represented in the recent ad campaign (Fall 1993) by AT&T which coincided with the highly touted, though ultimately unsuccessful, "supermerger" of Bell Atlantic and Tele-Communications, Inc. (This campaign was augmented with three new spots that began airing in the Spring of 1994.)

Each of these four, thirty second spots stages a technological desire that AT&T promises to fulfill in the near future. Do you want to watch the movie you want, the minute you want? Learn special things from far way places? Pay a toll without slowing down or receive a call on your television set? Would you like to carry your medical history in your wallet? You will! Most of the products displayed are already in development. Others, like AT&T's EO Communicator are already available. More importantly, the scenography of these spots offers a utopian vision of science fiction becoming science fact, as education, entertainment, medicine, communication, and transportation are positively transformed by the technological reorganization of social space.

The dreams appealed to in this technological utopia are apparent. But what forces and relations of power are also emerging? What critical tools will we need to assess this technological culture historically and dialectically, accounting for its potential for domination as well as liberation?

For me there are three fundamental questions we need to ask in order to understand audiovisual culture. Each requires an interdisciplinary response.

  • First, how is the form of the commodity changing along with its determinations of the space and time of the market, and the nature and value of exchange?
  • Second, how is the nature of representation and communication changing with respect to the digital creation, manipulation, and distribution of signs?
  • And finally, how is our experience of collectivity changing in this new audiovisual culture, and how is our collective experience of social time and space restructured by the communicational architecture of audiovisual culture?
Where do we find the critical resources to answer these questions? Are the disciplines and the organization of interdisciplinary study in the university today adequate to the task of formulating a critical definition of contemporary culture? Or do they impose limits on our critical and analytical imagination? These are the questions that concern me today. While I cannot fully work through them in a short essay, I would like to suggest some possible directions for further thought.

For most of us, "audiovisual" connotes sleeping in high school through Coronet films like "Triangles and their Uses" and "Do's and Don'ts of Dating." Alternatively, the term audiovisual culture has a great deal of currency in France today. I draw my frame of reference from that context. It is used equally by intellectuals, government officials, media professionals, and in the popular press. The breadth of its semantic range gives some idea of the kinds of interdisciplinary study it might require.

First, audiovisual culture describes a historical shift: the appearance of a distinct era driven by innovations in telecommunications technology that is promoting the convergence of previously distinct media and forms of data transmission: film, photography, video, and computer imaging on one hand; telephony, broadcasting, and cable on the other.

Second, this shift is economic, represented by agreements negotiated by the European Economic Community that internationalize broadcast regulations as well as encourage the sell-off of public channels to private companies, thus promoting the globalization of markets for audiovisual products.

Third, the audiovisual suggests a shift in the semiotic environment, the way a culture is defined by the signs it produces and the forms of communication it relies on. One consistent theme suggests the overtaking of a culture of the book by one of the multimedia image where the linear form of writing and the act of reading are becoming increasingly graphical and temporal. The digital creation, recording, manipulation, and transmission of signs also drives the semiotic convergence of film, video, computer-imaging and word processing that in turn encourages the intermixing of visual, verbal, written, musical, and acoustic forms.

Fourth, understanding the audiovisual also requires a sociological perspective. Telecommunications is transforming the spatial and temporal parameters of collective experience. A formally organic public space is becoming increasingly fragmented, serialized and dispersed. This suggests that new relations of power are emerging with the global shift in digital communications.

These ideas should be familiar to scholars in the arts and humanities. In North America they are often included among the bewildering variety of issues presented under the heading of "postmodernism" in cultural studies. For the moment, I prefer the more prosaic "audiovisual culture." The idea of postmodernism is central to the definition of cultural studies and one of the ways in which its interdisciplinarity has been defined. Embedded in the term "post-modernism" is, I believe, a contradictory historical consciousness, the recognition of something new without the commensurate ability to imagine contemporary culture as separate from an earlier, modernist culture. A recent cover for the New York Times Sunday Magazine comments humorously on this dilemma. In this image, the Flintstones are shown taken aback by the appearance of George Jetson hailing them by videophone. The idea of postmodernism offers a similar kind of historical shock. Either we stand with the Jetsons in the contemporary without being able to give it a name, or we remain with the Flintstones imagining the future from an infinitely prolonged past.

Thus there is a discomfiting circularity in the term postmodernism, an unconscious repetition of the past and a lack of will to invent the future, that can be symptomatic of a certain kind of interdisciplinary cultural studies. However, if we don't invent the future, AT&T will. We must deal with the fact that history does not end by learning to think historically about the ever-changing society we are in the midst of creating. The task of a contestatory and interdisciplinary cultural criticism, then, is to interrupt this repetition of the past in the present, to dismantle critically whatever concepts impede us from understanding the contemporary, while inventing a new set of critical tools derived from an empirical engagement with the culture in which we live. I use empiricism in Gilles Deleuze's sense of the term. Here empiricism refers neither to the teleological progress of human thought nor to the apprehension of an otherwise secret knowledge residing naturally though silently in the heart of things. Instead the complex and contradictory possibilities for either hegemony, resistance, or contestation are considered as the paradoxical operation of a power that is simultaneously not visible and not hidden. "We only need to know how to read," Deleuze argues, "however difficult it may prove to be. The secret exists only to be betrayed, or to betray itself. Each age articulates perfectly the most cynical element of its politics . . . to the point where transgression has little merit. . . ." Following Michel Foucault, Deleuze's point is that relations of power are perfectly self-evident. Nevertheless, we need to create concepts that can make those relations intelligible.

Where transgression has little merit, critical thinking can mean a lot. If contemporary culture is something distinct, if we are beginning to inhabit a fundamentally new historical epoch, how do we describe it? What concepts or questions will make its impact on everyday life intelligible? Here I would like to confront AT&T's vision of the future with my three questions.

How is the form of the commodity changing along with its determinations of the space and time of the market and the nature and value of exchange?

I think four tendencies can be identified. Audiovisual culture is being defined by the appearance of "soft" as well as hard commodities. The new commodities are losing their physicality and weight. Rather than the manufacture of physical objects like cars and appliances, the new globally managed commodities are data (information and entertainment) and services (largely "convenience" measured as the creation of free time).

Second, the space of the market is becoming increasingly atomized. The age of "don't leave home without it" is encountering the era of "why leave home at all?" To complicate matters, "home" can be an increasingly mobile point or set of points. With television shopping and 800 numbers, the market is no longer a public space in the usual sense, but a private relationship with data and technology where factors of geographical distance are inconsequential. The international information economy is evolving simultaneously on the most global and most personal scales, while commercializing the most intimate forms of electronic communications. The promise of networking the individual to the global is now real.

Third, this phenomena is determined by the the "broadcast" distribution of commodities" rather than their physical distribution. Distribution no longer means shipping film cans to theaters, but rather relaying "product" directly to the home via cable from a central point of transmission.

Fourth, the idea of "free" or measureless time is disappearing. In fact, time is becoming increasing commodified in a number of ways. Commercial broadcasting and telephony are again the innovators here. For example, with pay-per-view, you purchase two hours of access rather than "a" movie. Alternatively, advertisers pay for air time whose value increases or decreases in relation to the number of receiving households that can be statistically measured. (In this respect, the public, or access to a certain idea of the public, is a commodity as well.) Another important point is that the value of access to information or entertainment via cable or telephone lines is determined not by spatial quantity--weight, volume, or number--rather, it is measured by units of time. Alternatively, the value of services is measured by the time they "create." The idea of "free" time as a commodity has a paradoxical status, then, since it assumes that time indeed has a value that is quantifiable and tenderable in a system of exchange.

AT&T also welcomes us to a graphical, multimedia universe, thus introducing my second question. How is the nature of representation and communication changing with respect to the digital creation, manipulation, and distribution of signs? How are the properties of semiotic objects changing? And how may the act of reading change with these global shifts in the semiotic environment? In short, how is the nature of discourse, or what counts as discursive being transformed by audiovisual culture?

The most important phenomenon here is the displacement of analog recording, manipulation, and transmission by the digital. Equivalence in space is no longer the measure of representation. Rather all representational forms (image, writing, sound) are leveled to the algorithmic manipulation of binary code. All space becomes an abstract computational space.

As analog forms of representation disappear, the criterion of resemblance is displaced by similitude. As I argue more fully in "Reading the Figural," the idea of resemblance belongs to the era of representation. In resemblance, meaning derives from the authority of the original, an authenticating model that orders and ranks all the copies that can be derived from it. Alternatively, Foucault defines similitude as an ordering of signs where designation or reference has lost its centrality. In audiovisual culture the distinction between original and copy is losing relevance.

Resemblance is also linked to affirmation. For Foucault, spatial semblance in representation yields meaning, implicitly or explicitly, in the form of a linguistic statement. Similitude changes this structure of reference and signification. It is no longer the image that illustrates and the sentence which comments. Rather visuality and expression become transversal, producing a variety of hybrid forms. The distinction between linguistic and plastic representations, and along with it, the distinction between spatial and temporal arts, is also losing relevance. The border between a plastic space which organizes semblance, and linguistic expression that articulates difference is disappearing. Expression is no longer reserved for linguistic activity which organizes "signs" and therefore meaning across difference; the field of the visible, as the silent representation of things, has become increasingly heterogeneous and complex. Formerly, discourse was considered a linguistic activity; now it is a multimedia activity. Forms of expression and reading can no longer be considered as simply spatial or temporal, or distinguished by simultaneity and succession. Rather, audiovisual culture presents us with mixed, layered, and heterogeneous images unfolding in time.

Finally, given these transformations in the global economy, and in the structure of discourse, how is our image and experience of collectivity changing along with the ordering of social time and space? What image of collective life is proposed by the new communications technologies? In what ways will our new powers to communicate be controlled and commodified? What techniques of documentation and surveillance will emerge with these technologies?

These questions apply not only to discursive phenomena--what appears on our television screens and computer monitors--but also the architectural spaces we inhabit, whether they are physical or intangible. Foucault suggests that we can map or diagram the social architecture of power by asking: how is space divided? how is time ordered? what strategies of ordering bodies in space-time are deployed?

There is indeed an architecture of space and time structured by the transmission of information. For example, what is the social architecture of broadcast communication? What kinds of communicational structures do we inhabit in this new universe of multimedia information?

Broadcast distribution produces a serialization of social space with the household as its minimal unit. With telecommunications these spaces proliferate. Paradoxically, the public becomes a molecular organization of private space, a random distribution of static or moving bodies divided in space but potentially unified in time. Ten years after 1984, it is the distribution cloud, rather than the Panopticon, that best maps the distribution of power in audiovisual culture. This serialization of space implies, on one hand, the elimination of space defined as distance, and on the other, the proliferation of disparate points with no relation to one another save their common link to central points of transmission.

In this manner, communication no longer describes an interpersonal channel as the reciprocity of addresser and addressee in a unified space and time. Rather communication is defined ideally as a temporal reciprocity across disunified or disparate spaces. In actual practice, this form of "interactivity" is often highly mediated, asynchronous, and reified. The power to transmit is undergoing a constant process of economic concentration and centralization, while points of reception proliferate exponentially: the office, the home, the car, the mall, even the beach. While we are promised instantaneous and synchronous communications, nevertheless the ordering of time is most often determined by the center. Sure you can fax at the beach. But this also demonstrates how the widening of access means not more information, but the transformation of leisure time into labor time. In addition, reciprocity is more often defined not by instantaneity, but rather, by managing the temporal delay between receiving a request and responding to it.

Automating this process produces a fading of tactility, a kind of informational disembodiment in the circulation of signs. "Personal information management"--faxing, electronic mail, answering devices--means subtracting the personal from information. Thus the spatio-temporal architecture of telecommunications can be formulated as: molecular proliferation of points of consumption; relaying of points to the center; control time by managing asynchrony, or the delay between message and response.

With broadcast distribution, the "public space" of communication is also becoming indistinguishable from a "market space." Again, broadcasting was the historical innovator. An old cliché still rings true: television does not sell products to people, it sells a market to advertisers. The question then becomes: how to determine the exchange value of the public? Considering the public as a commodity deprives the body politic of agency by converting it into a virtual--and therefore quantifiable, measurable, and numerically manipulable--space of consumption. The strategies of those who market and those who govern are becoming indistinguishable. Both rely on the same statistical and demographic models to define and differentiate target consumers, correlating them numerically with given units of time, while defining "public opinion" through polls and random sampling. In this respect, one of the most interesting debates occurring today is whether the Internet, now a public and relatively free space of electronic communication, will be commodified as the "information superhighway." By the same token, one of the most interesting questions now confronting us involves the definition of what Howard Rheingold calls "virtual communities" on the net. Will these communities have free or commercialized access to information? That is, will information continue to become a commodity regulated by a system of exchange?

The point of mapping out the techniques of power and procedures of expression in audiovisual culture is to make clearer the possibilities of critique and strategies of contestation. The question remains, then, what can interdisciplinarity contribute to a critical understanding of contemporary audiovisual culture?

There is a deep risk in fearing that the penetration of society by audiovisual culture will be total and complete, and that the appearance of new strategies of surveillance are inevitable and unchallengeable. The history of technology has shown repeatedly that this is never the case. An interdisciplinary cultural criticism needs to be attentive to nuances in the consumption and use of these new technologies, both for good and ill, and alert to the possibilities for creatively subverting it and turning it to more democratic ends. I would like to conclude by suggesting several ways of looking at how the appearance of an audiovisual culture is still open to political and intellectual challenge and redirection.

One important thing to consider is Murphy's law: technology fails, and the probability of technology failing increases relative to its complexity. Thus the use of technology always requires specialized knowledge. On one hand, this will surely slow the advance of the audiovisual market. On the other, we should be critically alert to how new class divisions will emerge on the basis of technological knowledge. Furthermore, what is true of the complexity of technology is equally true of the complexity of economic organizations and the juridical apparatuses that accompany it. The failure of Bell Atlantic's merger with TCI presents an important object lesson. Late capitalism is no less replete with structural contradictions than industrial capitalism. In this respect, I hope we can look forward to more critical, historical analyses of the international political economy of audiovisual culture.

In addition, successful commodification requires the prior existence or creation of a compelling desire or need. This is the whole point of the AT&T ads, as well as the current media obsession with multimedia computing. The historical situation is still very fluid and inchoate. Not only will a great many of these products fail to attract a market, but there is also time for the public to redefine how these technologies will be used, indeed to redefine what a "public" will mean in an audiovisual culture. Both old and new forms of political action, legislation, and lobbying should be brought to bear here. An interesting example of what can be done is represented in the efforts of the Electronic Frontier Foundation to protect the Internet from commercialization. Once time and access to information are commodified, all of the power imbalances, class inequities, and forms of alienation typical of capitalism will appear as well. This is yet another area where critical study of the political economy of audiovisual culture is urgent.

Finally, there is a corollary to Murphy's law that provides an instructive counterweight to fears of technological domination. For every new strategy of power that emerges, there also always emerges a countervailing culture of subversion. There has already been some interest, both in the popular press and in cultural studies, in examining the counterculture of computing wherein the structure of digital arts and communications is subject to what the Situationists called cultural détournement. Culture jammers, guerrilla media, cyberpunk culture, hackers, phone phreaks all provide rich material for examining creative possibilities for resisting, redesigning, and critiquing audiovisual culture.

The moral here is that only dialectical thinking will allow us to create new ways of mapping the functioning of power and strategies of resistance. AT&T presents us with the two sides of utopia--the dream of the individual's absolute control over information is also the nightmare of total surveillance and the reification of private experience. These technologies serve to define, regulate, observe and document human collectivities. But they also allow access to more information and new possibilities of communication. Only a cross-disciplinary critical thinking can map the relations of power and strategies of resistance emerging in audiovisual culture.


Deleuze, Gilles. Foucault. Trans. Sean Hand. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1988.

Rheingold, Howard. The Virtual Community: Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier. Reading: Addison-Wesley, 1993.

Rodowick, D. N. "Reading the Figural." Camera Obscura 24 (1991): 10-45.


These ideas began with an invitation from Kate Nesbitt to speak at a panel on Interdisciplinarity and the Arts at the University of Virginia. I also benefited from the comments and critiques of Douglas Crimp and his students in the 1993 graduate Colloquium on Visual and Cultural Studies at the University of Rochester, and from discussions with Jennifer Wicke, Richard Sennett, and the members of New York University's Committee on Theory and Culture.

While preparing this "digital essay," I received an enormous amount of help, encouragement, and advice from Greg Easley and Lauren Rabinovitz at the University of Iowa. Special thanks go to consultants Jonathan Dick and Sean Singh at the University of Rochester. Amanda Howell provided invaluable technical assitance.

This essay was prepared with the financial support of the Office of the Dean, College of Arts and Science, the University of Rochester, and technical support from the Faculty Computing and Resource Center, Taylor Hall, the University of Rochester.

If you would like to comment on this essay, please email David Rodowick at