“The task confronting contemporary man is to live with the hidden ground of his activities as our literate predecessors lived with the figure minus ground.”1
Sociology is a product of modern society. By concentrating on issues of community, authority, status, the sacred, and alienation, it records and analyzes the uncertainties that have afflicted social order throughout society’s transition from stratification to functional differentiation.2 Its critical attention has focused especially on matters of power, social inequality, exploitation, and imperialism. With the help of concepts such as activity, norms, roles, groups, interaction, organization, systems, and networks, sociologists have developed theoretical foundations for observing the issues involved with the transition between various forms of societal differentiation and for identifying the problem of the social, a problem that remains the same both before and after any such transitions have taken place. Overarching ideas such as solidarity (Emile Durkheim), imitation (Gabriel Tarde), rationalization (Max Weber), or reciprocity (Georg Simmel) have allowed classical sociologists to make the societal dichotomy of order and disorder fruitful for theoretical and empirical investigations.
The discovery of media can be regarded as one of sociology’s crowning achievements. No other phenomenon sheds a brighter light on the turbulent nature of modern society. Moreover, there has hardly been another concept within the field that has yielded more theoretical and empirical promise. At the same time, possibly no concept has been better suited to free sociology from the restrictions of examining the transition from traditional to modern society in order to focus on phenomena that allow it to treat even modern society in historical terms, that is, to assign modern society a beginning and an end.
My first aim below will be to revisit Talcott Parsons’s discovery of media and to elucidate his understanding of the concept. My second concern will be to show how Niklas Luhmann refined Parsons’s concept and supplemented it with his ideas of symbolically generalized communication media, dissemination media, and mass media. With such ideas, and with his engagement with the works of Fritz Heider and Marshall McLuhan, Luhmann was able to place the concept of media on theoretically and empirically firmer ground. My final section will draw upon one of Luhmann’s cultural-theoretical hypotheses to propose a panoramic notion of media archaeology that allows us to observe various societal phenomena as the result of engaging with the dissemination media of communication....