When establishing a cohesive framework within which to understand media, Marshall McLuhan famously posited that the content of every medium is yet another medium, and the method of "Mediatic Etymology" builds upon his mechanism of remediation offering a speculative tool with which one might classify the communicative properties of emerging content within a larger spectrum of cultural heritage and theorize the existence of earlier or dead media.
At the core of the project is the assumption that if one locates content which remediates that which was not previously classified as a medium, the processes of obsolescence and retrieval at work in remediation force us to reconsider the medium from which that content descends.
In contrast to the media archaeology practices pioneered by Friedrich Kittler and others, mediatic etymology does not begin with an extinct material artifact whose origins might illuminate informatic paradigms excluded from the present moment. It rather begins with the content of a living medium, seeking to locate the medium from which content descends in an attempt to admit the informatic possiblity of the present.
Just as linguistic etymology seeks to establish when and how words entered into language and how meaning has transformed over time, mediatic etymology seeks to establish the ways in which cultural practices entered into a mediated state, and how the mediums that have housed the remains of these practices have transformed them over time.
One need only to examine the graphic user interfaces of computer operating systems to indentify content which has origins in objects and processes which had previously been denied formal expressive qualities. The desktop, the folder, the file, and copy & paste functions remediate processes from contemporary office culture, yet in the process, their functionality in a computing environment forces us to re-examine the expressive potential of the objects to which they refer.
The desk, for example, offers a surface upon which reading and paperwork can occur, and like the shelf and the library is a logical extension of a print culture that is coexistensive with the remediation of print in graphic digital form. Yet if we examine the expressive potential of the desk knowing the written word’s origin in speech, we are forced to acknowledge how the desk enables multiple sights of reading and paperwork to be viewed/written upon at the same time, effectively housing a dialogue between multiple voices and modes of communication which reach us by way of paper. In this way, one might speculatively consider the GUI desktop’s origins to lie in the shared communal dialogues of oral cultures, and posit an etymological origin in common spaces that housed discourse well before the voice could be extended across space and time through writing.
In this sense, mediatic etymology is an attempt to retrieve the expressive qualities of actions and objects that have historically augmented meaning and generated practices which inform and enrich the expressive capacities of the media in which they presently reside. It seeks to trace content's transformative mechanism of appropriation and enables us to examine behavioral systems, and the environment that housed them, as earlier (but not necessarily obsolete) media, and that such earlier media provide insights into a story of the concentration and distillation of culture into the symbolic content of later media which house cultural remains.
In contrast to conventional media archaeology, mediatic etymology places less emphasis on extinct media cultures and rather seeks to situate content within a greater continuum of the remediation processes. This process requires a thorough re-examination of the relationship of medium to message, as well as that of means to ends because it admits the possibility of communicative processes from artifacts with no symbolic layer distinct from their materiality - a pure means - (see Iris) as well enigmatic messages that lack any material supports and can be housed across multiple media - a pure ends - (see Furies and note William S. Burroughs' claim that language is a virus).
It remains to be seen whether McLuhan's classification of all media as extensions of man will hold up to scrutiny in this etymological context, yet that is precisely why such a project might offer new insights into the origins of communicative paradigms and the process of Retrieval McLuhan posited in his later attempts to articulate the "Laws of Media."
Question to explore: Is remediation the mediatic equivalent of the linguistic metaphor?
For further reading see:
McLuhan, H. Marshall, Understanding Media
McLuhan, H. Marshall, The Laws of Media