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Spring 2008

| v.04 n.01|

New Media, Old Media, Inter-Media, Trans-Media: A Historic Perspective

  • Anna Brzyski
  • Associate Professor, University of Kentucky, Lexington
  • anna.brzyski@uky.edu

New vocabulary emerges at the fault lines of cultural practice. In art discourse, the subtle and not so subtle tectonic shifts in the conceptual and ideological environment give rise to new terms that mark and respond to tensions hidden under the surface.  New terms are therefore never indexical, or rather they do not merely identify what is already ‘there.’ On the contrary, they have a power to instigate and channel cultural production by giving phenomena particular shape. In other words, they not only describe but also proscribe behavior, strategies, and  ways of talking and thinking about art. By gathering together disparate  bits and pieces of practice and discourse, they also render them visible as new taxonomic units, stimulating production of new discourse and eventually of new terms, whose relationship to each other and to the system that contains them is rarely free of ambiguity. 

This semiotic process can be seen in the relatively recent proliferation of terms intended to identify and classify works produced within the scope of photography, digital media, performance, installation, and other non–traditional art forms. Since the 1990s, the vocabulary describing those types of art practice has gone through several permutations reflecting rapid development and institutionalization of the field. The oldest and the most established term within this set, new media, has played until recently a role of a catch-all label. However, since the turn of the millennium, it has been joined by two new terms: intermedia, a new ‘old’ term, originally coined in the mid 1960s by one of the leading artists of Fluxus, Dick Higgins, now rediscovered and embraced by the second and third generations of new media theorists and practitioners, and transmedia, a term without direct precedent in art but with plenty of company elsewhere. 

Because my primary goal is to draw attention to this upsurge in vocabulary and, in particular, to consider its relationship to one of the key terms of modernism, namely the concept of the medium as such, I will not be dealing with actual art practice of the new, inter-, or trans-media.  Rather, I am concerned with the ways in which that practice has been classified and discussed.  I am also fully aware of the preliminary character of my observations. Nonetheless, I hope that they will offer a way of approaching the problem that will stimulate further discussion. This is particularly important since art vocabulary does not emerge in a linguistic vacuum nor are its foundational assumptions endemic to the art world. For instance, in the case of the new, inter-, trans-media, there is an intriguing parallel between the art terms and two other, seemingly unrelated sets of terms: national, international, and transnational on the one hand, and disciplinary, interdisciplinary, and transdisciplinary on the other. In all three cases the development of the terminology followed the same chronological trajectory. It is also worth noting that the final trans- terms appeared in all three cases at approximately the same time, namely within the last five years. It is likely given the underlying logic of the shared prefixes, inter- and especially trans-, that in all those cases the shift in the vocabulary away from the root (medium, nation, discipline) may be more than a simply reflection of the emergence of new forms of social or cultural practice. I would like to suggest that it is an expression of a widely shared (if not necessarily articulated) desire to finally move beyond the basic conceptual categories of the modern episteme.

Although modernism was proclaimed dead in the 1980s, its core concepts and vocabulary have not gone away. They may be somewhat tarnished and periodically subjected to critical reassessment, but they remain with us, informing and structuring how we think about the world. This is true within and outside the academia. While theories of globalism have thrown into question the status of nation-states, on the level of ‘practice’ nationalism is arguably as rampant today is it were at the turn of the nineteenth century. There is nothing theoretical about cleansing carried out in the name of ethnic and national purity. Similarly, the growth of new fields of study (cultural, gender, visual, media, and so on) that at one point seemed to challenge the hegemony of the old disciplines may in the end be no more than a new phase in disciplinary proliferation. After all, each one of those new fields is rapidly acquiring the trappings of disciplinarity — its own professional cadres, jargon, academic infrastructure, degrees, conferences, journals, publishers, and so forth.

In art discourse, one of the most basic modernist concepts, that of a medium, has not gone away either. It not only continues to inform how art is taught, discussed, produced, and valued, but also how the so-called post-media art practice is conceptualized. Both those committed to the old media and the new media, as well as those interested in working between or escaping beyond the notion of the medium continue treating media as concrete, empirical phenomena (with different properties, characteristics, rules, histories, etc.), instead of dealing with different techniques and methods for art making as nothing more than means to an end. Indeed, few would consider the possibility that the term medium describes a conceptual category with a particular history, affiliate set of assumptions, performing a particular function in the cultural system that has structured understanding of art and art practice for large segments of the art world.

This way of approaching the problem of the media-vocabulary requires a fundamental shift of perspective — not to a different position within the conceptual system, but to a location outside of it that allows for inspection of the system as a system. The shifting of the position within the system does no more than reinforce ideological function of the basic terms, which are never questioned as concepts, even if the practice they identify and represent is subjected to a critique. I am by no means alone in voicing such heretical views. More than a decade ago, Bruno Latour questioned in a similar spirit the epistemological status of modernity in his book We Have Never been Modern.(1) At approximately the same time, Jean Baudriallard has subjected the idea of historic development to an analogous analysis in The Illusion of the End.(2) I am simply raising similar possibilities in the art context.(3) Is it possible that the notion of the medium is a figment of our cultural imagination just as the concept of the modern and the idea of linear history appear to be?  If so, what are the potential consequences of such state of affairs for the discussion of new, inter- and trans-media? In order to begin addressing those questions, one must look beyond the immediate past to the period that developed the core concepts of the modern episteme, namely to the Enlightenment.  

The idea that different forms of representation operate according to different principles and posses different, unique properties is generally associated with formalism and, therefore, with modernism. Although this way of thinking about art became popular in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries,(4) its foundations were laid two hundred years earlier, in the early eighteenth century within the newly constituted field of aesthetics. One of the first projects facing this new branch of philosophy was to devise a taxonomic system for classifying and differentiating various types of cultural production.(5) The initial battles in that war were fought over what things were and where they fit, with the main question being whether visual arts belonged with the so-called liberal arts or applied arts together with various forms of craft. By the mid eighteenth century that issue was settled not just in theory but in practice with the ascendency of art academies, development of the first public art museums, and the advent of the public art exhibitions. Sculpture and, in particular, painting were classified as fine rather than applied or decorative arts and grouped together with music and poetry. Interestingly, this development coincided with the first articulations of the doctrine of disinterest and the idea of the autonomy of art. 

The major new problem facing art theorists was whether the field of fine arts thus constituted should be further subdivision and if so, what were to be the principles on which the new system of divisions would be based. German philosopher, dramatist, and critic Gotthold Lessing made a major contribution in this area by arguing in his landmark essay Laocoön: An Essay on the Limits of Painting and Poetry (1766) against the ancient wisdom of interpreting and justifying art in terms provided by poetry. Insisting that the visual aesthetic forms were inherently distinct from the verbal ones, Lessing maintained that they should therefore develop modes of expression proper to themselves, instead of borrowing those of literature. Likewise they had to be interpreted in a manner that acknowledged their unique character and properties. A decade later another German philosopher, essayist and art critic, Johann Gottfried Herder not only affirmed Lessing’s distinction between visual and verbal, but introduced further refinements into the system. Arguing that different forms of art related to different senses, Herder insisted that they therefore possessed different properties and obeyed fundamentally different laws. Painting and sculpture were not only distinct from literature and music but also from each other.(6) Whereas painting was related to sight and as such dealt primarily with surface, color and image, sculpture was informed by the sense of touch and therefore dealt primarily with form and volume. The issues of color, image, and surface were simply not central to its character as a distinct art form or medium.(7)

Even though Lessing did not distinguish between sculpture and painting, his discussion of the visual and verbal arts did provide a strong foundation for the argument against the literary/theatrical influence in visual arts that has been the cornerstone of formalist interpretation of art media ever since. Herder simply shored up and expanded that injunction by providing the conceptual basis for a system used to classify  various media according to their essential character. The ‘natural’ difference between media, traced by Herder to the inherent differences between the senses and ultimately to different forms of cognition, set up a strong argument for maintaining media purity, or to put it a different way, for avoiding hybridization or mongrelization of the various art forms.(8)

Those key eighteenth century ideas, developed and refined during the nineteenth century, informed the assumptions of the early twentieth century modernist spokesmen such as Clive Bell. They were ultimately the source of Bell’s notorious tirade against “descriptive” paintings, which, according to the critic, provided information, appealed to sentiment, and offered anecdotes but lacked “significant form” and therefore fail to meet the criteria necessary for acknowledging a painted image as a work of Art.(9) Forty years later, the American art critic Clement Greenberg invoked similar ideas in his essay “American Type” Painting (1955), which articulated a formalist theory of medium-based development of art.(10) Writing shortly after the disaster of the Second World War, in a new era of American ascendency and optimism, Greenberg proclaimed,

It seems to be a law of modernism-thus one that applies to almost all art that remains truly alive in our time-that the conventions not essential to the viability of a medium be discarded as soon as they are recognized. This process of self-purification appears to have come to a halt in literature simply because the latter has fewer conventions to eliminate before arriving at those essential to it. In music, the same process, if not halted, seems to have slowed down because it is already so advanced…[only] Painting continues, then, to work out its modernism with unchecked momentum because it still has a relatively long way to go before being reduced to its viable essence.(11)

The painting Greenberg had in mind was the ‘advanced’ American painting he championed, namely abstract expressionism.

In 1961, Greenberg’s essay, originally produced to declare superiority of the New York School, was re-published as part of his collection of essays, Art and Culture. Although it was ostensibly about abstract expressionism, its claims were now used to demonstrate necessary superiority of a different art movement, namely of color field painting.(12) However, in this new context, the commandment to maintain and refine formal purity of each medium appeared against the background of growing popularity of impure and theatrical forms of art practice from pop, assemblage, installation, minimalism, and land art to conceptual art, happening, and performance. It is not surprising given this dynamic, that four years later, in 1965, Dick Higgins, an active member of Fluxus, would coined the term intermedia to describe works that not only rejected but actively worked against such restrictions. In an explicit challenge to Greenbergian style formalism, Higgins drew an analogy between classes and media, arguing that the dawning of what he saw as a classless society called for a different understanding of art practice, one that did not divide art along rigid categories or looked to the ideal of ‘purity.’ Rejecting the notion of media specificity, he instead embraced the ideal of hybridity epitomized by the multisensory and multimedia experience of happening.(13)

Ironically, despite its prescience, Higgins’ concept of intermedia did not take hold in the 1960s, even though by the end of the decade its vision of a multimedia, hybrid art practice was attracting a growing number of artists and even encouraging some to develop institutional structures. In 1968, for instance, Elain Summers founded Experimental Intermedia in New York and began organizing intermedia events. The same year, Hans Breder created the Intermedia Program at the University of Iowa’s School of Art and began training a new cadre of practitioners. Yet, as a term intermedia remained to a large extent a private or semi-private art expression, confined to a very small circle of users. It did not enter the mainstream art vocabulary in a significant way until the mid 1990s, when it was rediscovered in the wake of a growing dissatisfaction with the notion of new media. As with the re-deployment of Greenberg’s essays in 1961, the term intermedia encountered in the mid 1990s a very different context from the one that was originally referenced by its author in the mid 1960s. It was an environment no longer dominated by the old media of painting and sculpture, but increasingly by the new, electronically and digitally based ones. 

It should be noted that the emergence of new media as a new term of art discourse took place in close proximity to the “death of painting” debates of the 1980s and 1990s.(14) In other words, among other considerations, it also reflected a very ‘modern’ desire to keep history (and culture) marching on. On the most fundamental level, the urge to identify some media as ‘new’ presumes existence of the ‘old’ media. What defines old as old is either age and longevity or obsolescence. Interestingly, this was not the first time that the idea of the succession of media was proposed. In 1687, Charles Perrault, best known today as the author of fairy tales, made an important contribution to the so-called debate of the Ancients and the Moderns by insisting that even though the Ancients have accomplished a great deal, the Moderns not only were not inferior to them, but have surpassed them in a number of ways. One of the areas in which the Moderns excelled was painting. According to Perrault, sculpture, the oldest and the simplest form of art, was perfected in antiquity. However, painting, which existed at the height of classical antiquity only in its most primitive form as mimetic illustration, attained its greatest technical and conceptual development only since the Renaissance. Naturally, Perault did not refer to painting as a new medium, but his discussion leaves little doubt that that is precisely what he had in mind. Within the logic of his argument, sculpture was not only ancient, it had been superseded by an upstart art form.

I would like to suggest that despite obvious contextual differences, the impulse to identify some forms of practice as new media in the 1980s and 1990s shared a great deal with Perault’s interest in identifying painting as the paradigmatically modern art form. The term new media emerged at the moment when the theorists of postmodernism were not only challenging modernism, but announcing its end. Among that contingent of art writers, there was a palpable desire to consign painting, a paradigmatically modern medium, to the past and the lingering reactionary present of modernism and to identify the post-modern not just with different ways of picturing, but with different modes of representation. The term new media responded to those demands. It announced  the inherent ‘newness’ or recentness of the new art forms and proclaimed  their necessary and inherent superiority. While the old media could only represent the new ‘postmodern’ reality in old forms, the new media claimed not only to represent, but to embody the new, to be inherently ‘in and of the present.’ In other words, their unique legitimacy rested in their ability to erase the distinction between content and form, or to use McLuhan terminology to function as a pure message.(15)

Of course there is a wrinkle in this story, one that has to do with the double meaning of the term media raised by McLuhan and other media theorists. While sculpture, painting, photography, etc., were understood as different media within the art context, outside, in the ‘real world,’ the term media referred to forms of mass communication, i.e., print, radio, and television.  McLuhan’s 1964 book Understanding Media was not about art  media (though the author did address art in a limited and rather conventional way), but about those and other forms of mass communication. The distinction between those two ways of understanding media blurred considerably when semiotics and media studies began interpreting art practice as communicative practice and when new electronic and digital media were appropriated by artists as vehicles for production of artworks. The emergent term new media reflected this blurring. It encompassed both the art media-based understanding of art practice developed within modernist art discourse as well as media-based understanding of communication proposed by McLuhan and others. It is worth noting that McLuhan’s effort to distinguish between different media types (even while arguing about their nested quality) had the effect of emphasizing the formal properties that distinguished print media from radio from television from film, etc. Similarly, the idea of the medium as message was readily compatible with modernism, if its terms were understood to mean that the form (of the medium) was its message or simply that the form was the message. That is one more reason why the term new media did not challenge the understanding of art practice as medium-based endeavor; it simply inscribed new forms of art production within the conceptual system predicated on the notion of the formal autonomy of different art forms.

Even when McLuhan’s text, read widely by art practitioners and theorists, seemed to create a potential space for the critique of the old media, it did so within a framework of a dialectic understanding of media relationships, which perpetuated rather than questioned the media-centered system. For instance, McLuhan wrote,

The hybrid or the meeting of two media is a moment of truth and revelation from which new form is born. For the parallel between two media holds us on the frontiers between forms that snap us out of the Narcissus-narcosis. The moment of the meeting of media is a moment of freedom and release from the ordinary trance and numbness imposed by them on our senses.(16)

This fragment clearly advocates hybridization, proposing that the synthesis of the old media results in the creation of the new ones. Yet it does not critique the system of media or argue for its abolition. We can assume that in time the new will become old and the old, once again, will be synthesized into ever newer forms. Likewise, even though the space between media is posited as the space of awareness, freedom, and possibility, it is still a space between, a space that would not exist were it not for the presence of the terms that defined it as a space.

Consequently, this conception of cultural practice takes for granted that media exist. Communication and dissemination of meanings takes place through them. If the medium is the message, there can be no message without a medium. Consequently, any new means of communication have to be classified as media. This idea bears a strong affinity to Higgins’s original notion of intermedia proposed only a year after the publication of McLuhan’s book. In both cases, the ideal of hybridity presumes existence of media that could and should be hybridized. It would be meaningless without those points of reference.

It is on that level, that the term inter-media overlaps with the terms inter-national and inter-disciplinary. In each case, the inter prefix signals the fact that the outcome is not only an exception to the norm of medial, national, or disciplinary practice, but that it requires the existence of media, nations, and disciplines in order to be meaningful. In other words, to enter the inter- relationship, one must exist in a universe comprised of nations, disciplines and media. It is a relationship of border closings, hybrid products, impurity, mixing, borrowing, impinging, and trespassing. However, all those transgressions and infractions would be rendered hollow if the national, disciplinary, or media territories did not exist, had no borders, or laid no claims to autonomy. After all, transgression within a homogenous system, one that is not internally differentiated into units, is impossible; it can only take place within a heterogeneous system made of distinct taxa (nations, disciplines, media) where border crossings have real consequences. The results of such transgressions are always appraised; they are either seen as negative or positive depending on one’s attitude towards the system as such. If the injunction to maintain taxonomic purity is seen as a precept reflecting the natural order of things, hybridization becomes synonymous with adulteration, miscegenation, degeneration or betrayal; if, on the other hand, hybridity is seen in positive development, it becomes a code term for regeneration, vitality, progress, universalism, communication, etc. The second option becomes particularly attractive in the context of a dialectic understanding of history and historic development, which assumes that progress takes place through the process of synthesis. Within the dialectic logic, a hybrid outcome of a synthesis is never inferior to its constituent parts.

This aspect of the inter- relationship has a bearing on the meaning and function of the trans-terms. The dialectic process of negotiation between the thesis and anti-thesis moves the outcome to a new plane, beyond or trans either of those terms. But it also introduces a new dimension into the understanding of the dialectic process. To move into the trans- situation is to move beyond the dialectic. If inter-relationship posits engagement between terms (nations, disciplines, media), then trans-relationship creates a vision of transcendence of the system, a utopian state of disengagement that nonetheless affirms the system as real. The disengagement on the plane of transcendence is posited as a new ideal and, in the same move, engagement is confirmed as the normal behavior that must be altered. The notion of trans-nationalism, trans-disciplinarity, or trans-media clearly envisions such a state of grace and freedom, unhampered by the restrictions of the system that, nonetheless, always looms large on the horizon. Here as with the inter-terms, in order to transcend one  must have something to rise above. Without the referents of nation, discipline or medium, there can be no trans-nationality, trans-disciplinarity, or trans-mediality.  

On a more prosaic level, the term transmedia also has a much narrower and less ideologically loaded meaning. It refers to transmedia storytelling or development of a narrative product across a variety of media platforms. Henry Jenkins has used the Matrix phenomenon as the example of a transmedia product in his book Convergence Culture.(17) In relation to art practice, the meaning of transmedia is yet to be fully articulated or defined, even though there are already programs from which one can receive a degree in transmedia (Hogeschol Sint-Lukas, Brussels), and Departments of Transmedia, which nevertheless offer degrees in Fine Arts (Syracuse University). And herein lays the crux of the problem; the current vocabulary rub against the reality of professional art practice, the recruitment, retention and graduation of employable art professionals, the need to develop a reputation for the purposes of tenure and promotion. The art departments forced to compete among themselves for the best and the brightest and to justify their relevance to skeptical administrators are under constant pressure to identify their competitive edge. They are pushed to innovate, or at least to keep up, while also being held accountable for the prospects of their graduates. In the end, though everyone may be interested in inter- and trans-media, we still make hires within the modern taxonomic system of the old and new media types.

That system (conceptual and institutional) simply is not keeping pace with the reality of art practice, which increasingly operates outside any of the old or new boxes, with a rather pragmatic approach predicated on the idea of appropriate tools and technologies understood as means rather than ends in themselves.  While such practice may resist modernist assumptions, the system that participates in conceptualizing and institutionalizing that practice rarely does. The modernism of that system defines as much a way of doing as a way of thinking; it is a modular system for organizing information and for defining professional competence. The basic units of that system (discipline, nation or medium) allow for seamless management and interpretation of information. They orient how knowledge is produced and how legitimacy is defined. The authority is always negotiated in reference to the system: within it, on the intra or inter level, or outside of it but in reference to it, within the assumed plane of transcendence that nevertheless requires the media ground in order to claim its own super-iority.  

The triad of terms based on the concept of the nation, the oldest term among those I have discussed here, may be offering a glimpse into the future of the other two clusters. After all, there is a fourth term in play today I have not mentioned. That term is global. What is significant about the terms global and globalism is that as terms they are no longer tied to the term chain by the implicit reference to the basic root unit. The amount of discussion about the merits and dangers of globalism, its potential and peril, demonstrate more than anything else the mounting anxiety in face of a possibility of a radically altered world order. Whether that conceptual new world order is an emergent reality, a figment of discourse, or perhaps something else entirely that we have not yet come to terms with, is not entirely clear, especially since the processes of what we term globalization are taking place simultaneously with those of nationalism.  Yet, something is clearly happening, something that cannot be adequately accommodated by either internationalism or transnationalism. The term global, should be seen in this context not so much as a descriptor but as a symptom of tension between the old regime of nation-states and the economic, cultural, political and social forces that have been grating  against its grain. Seen from this perspective, the term transnational was perhaps no more than a last gasp of the old way of thinking.

If there are lessons to be learned here, perhaps the most important insight that can be gained is not that the appearance of the term transmedia suggests a bankruptcy of the system of classification predicated on the notion of a medium, but rather that much of the current art practice, which in the most fundamental way seems to reject the notion of medium-specificity and competence, is well ahead of the vocabulary. The reality of that practice is already creating a new professional environment and as such will require a new vocabulary to describe its logic.  There will be a term eventually that will acknowledge that fact and move outside the box created by the idea of the media. What that new term will be I do not know. However, I am quite certain that it will be introduced very shortly, if it isn’t already circulating on the web.

 

Footnotes

1. Bruno Latour, We Have Never Been Modern, trans. Catherine Porter (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1993).

2. Jean Baudrillard, The Illusion of the End (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1994).

3. See Brzyski, "Art Ethics: Thomas Kinkade and Contemporary Art." In Thomas Kinkade. The Artist in the Mall, edited by Alexis Boylan (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008, forthcoming), and “Policing the Borders between Art and Kitsch,” in Kitsch, edited by Monica Kjellman-Chapin ( New Castle, UK: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, forthcoming).

4. See Richard Woodfield, ed., Framing Formalism: Riegl's Work, Critical Voices in Art, Theory and Culture (Amsterdam: Gordon and Breach Publishing Group, 2001).

5. For the discussion of the development of the system of arts see Paul Oskar Kristeller, "The Modern System of the Arts: A Study in the History of Aesthetics, Part 1," Journal of the History of Ideas 12, no. 4 (1951): 496-527; and "The Modern System of the Arts: A Study in the History of Aesthetics, Part 2," Journal of the History of Ideas 13, no. 1 (1952): 17-46.

6. See Johann Gottfried Herder, Sculpture: Some Observations on Shape and Form from Pygmalion's Creative Dream, ed. Jason Gaiger (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002); and “Critical Forests, or Reflections on the Arts and Sciences of the Beautiful: Fourth Gove, On Riedel’s Theory of the Beaux Arts,” in Selected Writings on Aesthetics, trans. Gregory Moore (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006), 177-290.

7. Herder, ”Critical Forests: Fourth Grove,” 207 and 210.

8. It should be noted that similar logic underpinned contemporary discussion of race and ethnic purity by philosophers and naturalists, such as Johann Blumenbach, Immanuel Kant, Carolus Linnaeus, Count de Buffon, Georges Louis Leclerc and scores of others.

9. Clive Bell, Art (London: Chatto and Windus, 1914), in particular 16-20.

10. See Clement Greenberg, “’American-Type’ Painting” (1955,1958) in Art and Culture: Critical Essays (Boston: Beacon Press, 1961), 208-229.

11. Clement Greenberg, “’American-Type” Painting,” in Art and Culture: Critical Essays (Boston: Beacon Press, 1961), 208-209.

12. See for instance Michael Fried's indictment of minimalism in "Art and Objecthood," Artforum International 5 (June 1967), 12-23.

13. Ironically, in identifying all contemporary painting, including pop, as “pure” and therefore dead, “boring and irrelevant,” and identifying intermedia work as the real art of now, Higgins fell back on the modernist paradigm he tried to suplant. See Dick Higgins with an Appendix by Hannah Higgins, “Synesthesia and Itersenses: Intermedia” (1965), http://www.ubu.com/papers/higgins_intermedia.html (accessed on 1/12/08). Originally published in Something Else Newsletter 1, no. 1 (Something Else Press 1965).

14. See Robert Storr et al., “Thick and Thin [Round table discussion],” Artforum International 41, no. 8 (April 2003): 174-179, 238, 240-241, 244.

15. Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (New York: Signet Books, 1964), 23-35.

16. Ibid. 63.

17. Henry Jenkins, Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide (New York: New York University Press, 2006).