Space means “denoting time or duration” and “area or extension” (Oxford English Dictionary). Media are often credited with the annihilation of space in both of these senses through their collapse of time/duration and compression of distance (Harvey 1989). Yet, media also constitute and produce space, symbolically and materially. Media are fundamentally disorienting and orienting—dislodging us, helping us navigate, and producing space simultaneously.
The possibility to transcend time/space was an early promise of mass media. Newspapers emerged amid the desire to bridge distances to bring news from colonies to ensure the success of the imperial mission (Warner 1990). Television too promised a “window to the world,” providing increasingly suburbanized audiences what Raymond Williams (1974) called “mobile privatization,” or the ability to both travel and stay put. Today, we are enjoined to view the Internet, mobile phones, and social media as creating a global world of interconnectedness, where our place-based affiliations matter little compared to our capacity to bridge distances and differences through interconnectivity.
This sensibility of media as space collapsing echoes Walter Benjamin’s influential The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (1936/2008). Benjamin contends that mass reproduction divorces art from its situatedness in a particular space and time, losing its “aura,” or uniqueness and permanence. In contrast to his Frankfurt School counterparts who were more skeptical of mass culture, Benjamin saw the loss of aura as a democratizing possibility. Mechanical reproduction would enable art to travel, change, and be politicized and freed from elitist traditions of ownership tied to spaces of origin.
Benjamin, unfortunately, did not foresee the role that copyright law would play in regulating this travel and how media’s space-collapsing mobilities bump up against territorializations that reinscribe place and time to establish ownership. For instance, Aaron Swartz— who used digital media’s space-compressing capabilities to share scholarly research beyond the hallowed walls of academia—might have been heralded by Benjamin for unhinging art from its elitist institutions, since access to academic research requires institutional privileges that most individuals cannot afford. Despite the medium’s capability for peer-to-peer sharing, Swartz faced up to fifty years in prison and a million-dollar million fine for these actions (Gould 2014).
Swartz’s case demonstrates how ownership laws are utilized to reinstate hierarchies of bodies and spaces through governing information access and distribution. Media culture thus does not so much collapse space as it reorganizes it, producing new sensibilities of space by creating new geographies, mobilities, and identities (Appadurai 1990). But the capacity for media to reshape geography and mobility is not the result of inherent technical properties of the medium. Instead, these capacities are the result of culturally and historically specific motivations. Television, for example, emerged within a conjuncture marked by the production of social needs that constructed space compression as socially expedient. Within the contours of liberal capitalism and suburbanization, broadcasting served the interests of new institutions of capital, lending, and consumption centered on the home and the subsequent rise of new forms of social organization (Williams 1974).
Although television served the interests of postwar liberalism and consumer capitalism, its space-compressing possibilities also facilitated collective unrest and resistance. For example, broadcast images of police brutality against black citizens are credited with helping fuel whites’ investments in the civil rights movement in the 1960s, as many visually witnessed the plight of the black body in America for the first time. Likewise, today, space compression serves the interests of global capital, as digital media help to connect global transnational corporations and facilitate the flow of capital across borders, as well as new social movements that utilize digital and social media to facilitate collective social unrest and to agitate against oppressive forces, including those of global capital.
But media are also bound up with the production of space in a materialist sense. Suburbanization, the isolation of the urban core through the highway system, and the electrical infrastructures that made broadcasting possible are central to understanding the rise of television. And the production of new material infrastructures, such as railways, arcades, and department stores, give way to new media forms, as Anne Friedberg (1993) argued with regard to how new experiences in city space at the turn of the century gave way to early conceptions of film.
The study of media space, however, has been largely concerned with media’s representation of space, or more aptly, place. Place is defined by its relationship to a local articulation, marked by its history and specificity in a moment in time (Massey 1994). Constituting a cultural encounter (Morley and Robins 1995), media create new geographies through the travel of images that bring new sensibilities, identities, and ideas from distant places. But representations are also mediated by our situatedness in the places we consume, use, and produce media images. Spaces of media consumption take on a new texture in an era of digital and social media, convergence, and interactivity in which media consumption appears ubiquitous and mobile, where individuals are invited to produce fluid and cosmopolitan senses of identity not bound to a particular place. Even industries of media production, often theorized within a political economic framework that assumes their centralization in place (e.g., Hollywood), are no longer clearly locatable. From the proliferation of media capitals (Curtin 2003) to the ubiquity of producer/consumer (or produser) spaces and the ever presence of location-based media (media that track or invite you to identify your location), contemporary media production practices reorganize spaces and places of everyday life into potential sites of mediation (Morgan Parmett 2014).
Considering media and space as co-constitutive highlights how media are put to work by a variety of social forces to govern everyday spaces in historically and culturally specific ways that can both reinforce and challenge gendered, raced, classed, and sexualized norms. For example, highlighting the significance of early film in instructing audiences on how to adjust to changing gender norms during industrialization and urbanization, Lauren Rabinovitz (1998) demonstrates how film spaces were as important as film content in defining new sensibilities of public and private space that hinged on the production of new gendered norms and identities. Likewise, feminist television scholars Lynn Spigel (1992) and Anna McCarthy (2001) show that television governs uses of domestic and public space, again not just through content, but also through its use in a particular space and context that constitutes and directs the flow and movement of gendered, raced, and classed bodies. Whereas Spigel considers the spatialization of television in domestic spheres to argue that television was a site for working out struggles and anxieties over postwar gender norms in the suburban home, McCarthy considers television in the public sphere, like the pub or airport, where the television’s placement governs social practices in site-specific ways. In these senses, media work as a technology for governing through the production, organizing, and disciplining of space. Cameras and screens, for example, guide the appropriate uses of a particular place, biopolitically producing bodies and behaviors or disciplining and excluding those that contradict “appropriate” uses. Likewise, we are encouraged to use media technologies to reorganize our bodily space in terms of calorie counts or steps per minute to produce our bodies as “healthy” and “fit.”
These examples suggest that theorizing media space pushes critical media studies in a non-media-centric direction (Moores 2012), focused on practices rather than objects. Media are more than technologies, systems of production, texts, or audiences, and are instead part of a broader matrix and set of contextual relations. It is in understanding social, political, cultural, and economic life in this broader sense that media space research offers the most promise for critical media studies.