【Lexicon Research】Medium-Specificity

Author: X.Y. Huang

The receptions of “medium-specificity” have changed as different film/video theories have developed. The term started to be widely used after Clement Greenberg’s interpretation published in 1940, [1]which is labelled as the standard of modernist aesthetics. “Medium-specificity” refers to the standard of a modernist work, “[I]n principle, to avoid dependence upon any order of experience not given in the most essentially construed nature of its medium. This means, among other things, renouncing illusion and explicitness. The arts are to achieve concreteness, ‘purity,’ by acting solely in terms of their separate and irreducible selves.”[2] Therefore “each art form has its own domain of expression and exploration, and the domain is determined by the nature of the medium through which the objects of a given art form are composed. Often the idea of ‘the nature of the medium’ is thought of in terms of the physical structure of the medium.”[3] Under this definition, an abstract painting is “purer” than a representational painting because it represents the essential material trait of painting: flatness. When applying the idea of “medium-specificity,” the properties of the medium are reduced to formalism.

Under the influence of modernist “medium-specificity,” artists and theorist started to try to find the essence of cinema by proposing different kinds of formal qualities. Although throughout the development of these theories, the content not constrained themselves in the physical trait, the debate is nonetheless within the domain of ontology. For example, structural film makers in the 1960s and 1970s, emphasized the specificity feature of film in its chemical base, the projection of light and the grain of the film etc. [4] On the other hand, in the field of theory, theorists proposed different kinds of essentialism, as an example, realist essentialism: cinema’s essence lies in the relationship between cinematic medium and physical reality, “the referentiality of the indexical”[5] is the essential property of cinema.[6]

However, the qualities claimed by the above-mentioned artists and theorists as essential properties are indeed diverse, it is difficult to argue which essentialism is the ‘real’ essentialism. The ways to solve this problem are either to change the discussion to the “degree” of medium-specificity, to disagree with medium-specificity, or to redefine medium specificity.

The starting point of the challenge to “medium specificity” can be found in Christian Metz’ idea of film as language[7], in which the question became “the degree of specificity.” Film language is a signifying procedure that has its own ways of expression, lighting, camera movement, to name a few.[8] And Metz proposed that cinema is structured by the distinction of specificity codes and non-specificity codes which shared with languages other than the cinema.[9] Therefore, this theory entails that the cinema is in its essence diverse, and crosses boundaries with other mediums.

Later in 1970s-1990s onwards, the notion of “medium specificity” has been challenged through philosophical argumentation by Noël Carroll (1985) and by art critics/ art historical argumentation by Rosalind Krauss (1999) and Raymond Williams (1977). All of them emphasize the definition of artistic medium as a cultural / historical question instead of an ontological one.

Carroll analyzed the argument of “medium-specificity” by divided into ontological domain and normative domain. In the ontological domain, Carroll argued that it is physical or logical impossible to define what kind of specificity exclusively belong to a medium because the traits belonging to one medium are incompatible with each other. For example, the narration of film contradicts montage. On the other hand, in the normative domain, “medium-specificity” offers two requirements for arts: excellent requirement and differentiation requirement. Excellent requirement entails that there is something that each medium does best, and differentiation requirement further orders that each art should do what is distinct from other art. However, Carroll argued that if excellence requirement is of priority, then differentiation requirement is an obstacle for excellence because excellence doesn’t mean that it is distinct. Therefore, if we accept the priority of the excellence requirement, it is more reasonable to disagree with “medium-specificity.”[10] Carroll further proposed that “art is not self-consciously invented, each art arose due to a chain of events that led to its discovery or invention and to its subsequent popularization. The result is a collection of arts […] The arts are not systematic, designed with sharply variegated functions, as the medium-specificity thesis holds. Rather, they are an amalgamation of historically evolved media whose effects often overlap.”[11]

In a similar fashion, Krauss and Williams also focus on the historical and cultural “specificity” of the medium. While Krauss derives her idea in the context of art criticism and therefore redefines medium specificity as “differential specificity” in order to reconcile Clement Greenberg’s medium specificity with the historical arrival of inter-media work that challenge the definition, Raymond Williams traced back to the development of the terminology “medium” in art history and redefining medium as “material social practice” with a focus on the conditions of production.

Krauss argued that a medium as “a set of conventions derived from (but not identical with) the material conditions of a given technical support, conventions out of which to develop a form of expressiveness that can be both projective and mnemonic” [12] “For, in order to sustain artistic practice, a medium must be a supporting structure, generative of a set of conventions, some of which, in assuming the medium itself as their subject, will be wholly ‘specific’ to it, thus producing an experience of their own necessity”[13] By doing so, she eliminated the direct link to physical and formal quality of the medium proposed by Greenberg, and drew our attention to “artistic expression,” and therefore reconciled the material specificity of a medium with the formal diversity of art works.[14] This is a new idea called “differential specificity” that constructed and constrained by historical/ cultural conditions at the same time.

Raymond Williams argued that medium is defined by the social or cultural context they are practiced in and that artworks have come to be understood as contextually embedded products.[15] “(medium) is a ‘material social practice’, not a specifiable essence dictated by some elemental materiality (paint, stone, metal) or by technique or technology. Materials and technologies go into a medium, but so do skills, habits, social spaces, institutions and markets. It is more like the specificity never derived from a singular, elemental essence.”[16]

The historical arrival of the so-called the digital age is also a challenge to “medium-specificity” in itself because the digital medium has the ability to combine all kinds of media.[17] Furthermore, digital film lacks materiality and exists without any referentiality of the indexical,[18] for instance, video is presented on the Internet in a totally non-physical way. The historical arrival of digital video and film directly challenge the ontological inquiry of medium-specificity because digitalization of media interconnects different kinds of medium in terms of non-physical structure.

The concept of “medium-specificity” originated in an ontological inquiry in modernist aesthetics has changed its reception in the ontological domain through the debates between different kinds of essentialism. Later, being defeated within the field of ontology, extended to semiotics (film as language) and to different cultural/ social/ historical study. Now, in the face of digital era, the invalidity of “medium-specificity” in terms of physical structure seems to be defeated naturally.


Annette Kuhn and Guy Westwell. A Dictionary of Film studies (online), Oxford University Press, 2012.

Brian Price. Edited by Robert Kolker. . In: 2012.

Clement Greenberg. from his, Boston: Beacon, 1961.

Clement Greenberg. . In: , July-August 1940.

Emma Bee Bernstein. The University of Chicago Theories of Media, Keywords Glossary medium_specificity, 2004. Available at: http://csmt.uchicago.edu/glossary2004/specificity.htm

J-Hoon Kim. . Oxford University Press on behalf of , 2009.

Mary Ann Doane. . In: 18.1 p. 128–152, 2007.

Noël Carroll. . In:

Vol. 19, №4 (Winter, 1985), pp. 5–20. University of Illinois Press. Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/3332295

Rosalind E. Krauss. . In: , p. 289–305, 1999.

Rosalind E. Krauss. . Thames & Hudson, 2000.

Robert Stam. . Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2000.

Raymond Williams. . New York: Oxford University Press, 1977.

William John Thomas Mitchell. . In: 4.2 p.257–266, 2005.

[1] In Clement Greenberg’s article 1940.

[2] Clement Greenberg 1961, p.139.

[3] Noël Carroll 1985, p. 6.

[4] Mary Ann Doane 2007, p.132.

[5], p.143.

[6] Brian Price 2012, p.13–14.

[7] Robert Stam 2000, p. 120.

[8] Annette Kuhn and Guy Westwell 2012 A Dictionary of Film studies (online), Oxford University Press

[9] Robert Stam 2000, p. 120.

[10] Noël Carroll 1985, p. 12–14.

[11] , p.16–17.

[12] Rosalind E. Krauss 1999, p. 296.

[13] Rosalind E. Krauss 2000, p.26.

[14] Ji-Hoon Kim 2009, p.114.

[15] Emma Bee Bernstein 2004, The University of Chicago , Keywords Glossary. In: Theories of Media (online)

[16] William John Thomas Mitchell 2005, p.260–261.

[17] Robert Stam 2000, p. 319.

[18] Mary Ann Doane 2007, p.143.

Freelance artist and researcher based in Taiwan/ the Netherlands. For work inquiries, please contact at cloudartcritics@gmail.com FB:Floating Clouds

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