The Messy Multiple Meanings of Medium – Part 2

This is the second post in a series of posts on the meaning of the word medium. It was inspired by Erik Eekhoff’s review of Tim Challies’ The Next Story: Life and Faith after the Digital Explosion.

In the first post, we talked about mediums that stand directly between two people (like a doctor’s stethoscope) and mediums that indirectly transfer things between people (like an artist’s canvas). We also made the basic case that the mediums carry meaning from one person to another. We’ll now turn to two less obvious kinds of mediums that challenge what we mean by the term.

Medium as Environment

When we begin talking about mediums that don’t sit directly between two people (like books, paintings, and cell phones) and saying that mediums themselves have meaning (email vs. hand-written note), we start to make the line between what is and is not a medium a little fuzzy.

This becomes more apparent when we start comparing mediums. For example, think about the difference difference between watching a movie on your phone versus watching it at a theater. Beyond the obvious difference in screen size, one major difference is that instead of listening to a tiny little speaker there are dozens of speakers all around us (remember THX? ). This means that in the case of a movie theater, the medium isn’t just in front of us, it’s also around us. The experience of the movie, then, is partly an environmental experience.

But where should we stop with this? One might say that the smell of popcorn, the plush seats, and the stadium seating arrangement are also part of the “movie going experience,” but should we really call those mediums?

Like a medium, the popcorn is made by people, and like medium, the popcorn has some meaning and significance that gets mediated to us. Yet at some fuzzy point, we need to draw a line and say that the popcorn is less of a medium and more of what is sometimes referred to as a cultural good.

One way of distinguishing between a cultural good and a medium is to say that a cultural good mediates meaning between a community and an individual, whereas a medium tends to function between an individual and another individual. However, this too quickly breaks down when it comes an environment’s mediating power. For example, if I decide to take my wife on a date, the experience of that data will be different depending on whether I take her to a nice restaurant or or a place that doesn’t pass inspection. The restaurant is not literally between her and me, but when I choose one over the other it still mediates something from me to her. Likewise, if I take a shower and dress well, the outcome is likely to be different than if I show up a stinky mess.

My choice of clean clothes might also send her a message and because our clothes are literally between us, we might think of them, too, as a medium. We see this all the way back to Adam and Even, when just after they sinned, clothing seemed to take on a special mediating significance (c.f. Gen 3:7 and Gen. 3:21) between Adam, Eve, and God.

But let’s now turn to another kind of medium that shows up before the Fall.

Language as Medium

When I was writing my book, I asked myself a somewhat strange question: What name should I put on the book?

My full name is John Charles Dickey Dyer, and I wondered if I should have used it as a pen name? It’s certainly memorable, and it’s earned me a few laughs over the years. I also considered going the Lord of Rings route and trying something like J.C.D. Dyer because it’s still memorable, but more formal and less comical. But then I wondered if it was too formal for a popular level book. In the end, I went with “John Dyer” simply because it has better Search Engine placement.

Of course, I’m still the same guy and my book is still the same book regardless of which name I attached to it. But I still had to think through the name because a name is a medium in the sense that it stands between two people. Someone’s first impression of me and my work will in some small way be influenced by how I presented my name.

The power that resides in a name can be found all the way back to the Garden before the Fall when God asked Adam to name the animals. We know this was to find Adam a helper (Gen 2:18), but God also seems interested to find out “see what [Adam] would call them” (Gen. 2:19). Imagine that Adam sees a bird and decides to call it a “bluejay.” No big deal right? Well, it actually is a big deal, because he has just determined that the defining characteristic of that bird is how it looks. If the next bird comes along and he names it “woodpecker” he would have defined the bird according to its action, not its appearance.

These names are not mere neutral tools, objectively transferring bits of information between data terminals. Rather, names, words, and all language, sit between us and a thing, and language mediates certain aspects of the thing to us, shaping what we see and don’t see about a thing.

Summary

The first two kinds of mediums – what I called connection and transference – are fairly straight forward. When we to use terms like mediation to talk about broader ideas like cultural goods or even language, it can help us see things we didn’t see before but it can also introduce confusion as well. In the next post, we’ll look at another application of the concept of mediation, and then offer some concluding thoughts about how we use these terms.

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John Dyer

In my day job, I work at Dallas Theological Seminary, and at night I write Bible software for countries whose leaders could be called "overlords." This one time, I wrote a book about technology and Christian faith. You can find out more about what I'm up to at http://j.hn/.

5 thoughts on “The Messy Multiple Meanings of Medium – Part 2”

  1. Off point: I really need to read McCluhan, not just read about him (have you read “You Know Nothing of My Work?)

    On point: It seems to me that we often end up with either everything is a medium or almost nothing is a medium. It is hard to draw lines because no matter how small, almost everything has some effect. To the movie illustration, my wife has to have popcorn or it is not a trip to the movie. We never got popcorn or drinks at a movie, so we have different expectations going in. Are our prior experiences and current expectations part of the medium? Two people from different areas of the world watch the same movie, both are fluent in the language of the movie, cut the cultural jokes make sense to one, but not the other. So is the joke part of the medium?

    These are honest questions. I really get frustrated with the whole McCluhan idea because it seems like we can never get far enough (because we are not omniscient) to really know all of what is going into the medium, so it almost seems like we should just not try. (Like I said, I probably need to read original sources, not just what people say about him.)

    1. Adam,
      Thanks for your comment!

      I think the old “How do you define a beard?” question is applicable. When you try to define it, it’s hard to draw a line between stubble and a real beard, but in practice almost everyone agrees on who has a beard and who does not. I think the same is true of mediums. These posts highlight the ambiguity that arises when you try to separate a medium from a thing that mediates, but I think we all generally know that a letter is a medium and a table isn’t.

      But your point about being non-omniscient is also particularly applicable. All of this talk of mediums is a good reminder of our finitude.

  2. I did not think of it as a medium when I read it, but I was cleaning up some bad links in an old blog post and ran across a paragraph that I wrote about Thomas Merton’s book Contemplative Prayer.

    Historically the deeper nature of God has been expressed through art and symbols and story and analogy. But because we know the weaknesses of those tools (or the proper users of those tools understand) we are not tempted to mis-use them and create idols of them. But there is a temptation (especially among us Protestants and Evangelicals) to think that because images and art and story are imperfect tools to explain God, they should not be used. But what Merton rightly descerns here is that in the attempt to better explain God through the use of ideas, we fall into the trap of believing that it is possible to fully explain God and we therefore make idols of those ideas in a way similar, if not worse, than what we had intended to prevent with the desire to repress the use of art and story.

    I thought that in context of a discussion about mediums, I thought this was one of the better short discussions of mediums (without ever using the term). I don’t remember where in the book the discussion was and his chapters are just numbered, so that is not helpful.

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