Contacting the Medium: A Hypertext

I have become fascinated with the word ‘medium’. This single word has become a hypertext. It offers me “MULTIPLE READING PATHS, CHUNKED TEXT and some kind of LINKING MECHANISM”.

The word medium is both a noun and an adjective it seems to envelop a plethora of subtly differing meanings within its six letters. Originating from the Latin word medius, which meant ‘in the middle, between; from the middle’, the noun’s more modern meaning of ‘something which is intermediate between two degrees, amounts, qualities, or classes; a middle state’ first comes to be around the 1580s. The medium means somewhere in between, no extremes.

The online version of the Oxford English Dictionary provides me with thirteen different, interrelated entries for both the adjective and the noun usage of ‘medium’. Of those, six have sub-entries that are marked in an alphabetical fashion going from at least ‘a’ to ‘b’, and at most from ‘a’ to ‘f’. This brings the total amount of entries and sub-entries to twenty-nine. Word usage ranges from ‘rare’ and ‘obsolete’ to the everyday. The everyday usage does not seem to require a specific mention. These are the descriptive parameters within which the word ‘medium’ exists according to the OED.

In the 1876 book A Military Dictionary, Comprising Terms, Scientific and Otherwise, Connected With the Science of War, G. E. Voyle uses ‘medium’ as a description given “to some of the regiments of the British army which are neither heavy nor light”. The medium cavalry was made up of lancers, dragoon guards, and dragoons. As machines came to take a more prominent role in the army, the term ‘medium’ began to be used in reference to pieces of artillery. The First World War saw the division of artillery into heavy, medium and light categories for the first time. Medium artillery consists of guns of greater than 105 mm. calibre but less than 155 mm. and howitzers of greater than 105 mm. calibre up to and including 155 mm. Once again, ‘medium’ is used to describe a category that is in the middle. Marshall McLuhan reflects upon the conformity that mechanization seems to bring. Both the typewriter and the typist have “brought into business a new dimension of the uniform, the homogeneous, and the continuous that has made the typewriter indispensable to every aspect of mechanical industry”. In order for a piece of medium artillery to fire its shells, an army of typists and their medium, the typewriter, is needed; “an army needs more typewriters than medium and light artillery pieces, even in the field, suggesting that the typewriter now fuses the functions of the pen and sword”. 

When ‘medium’ is used in relation to a person it usually conjures up an image of a person who can communicate with the dead. Someone who is able to part the veil and act as a conduit for the spirits of the dead. Starting in the mid-19th century in America, spiritualism soon took over the Western world. It seemed to have started with the phenomena experienced by Margaret and Kate Fox in 1848, which “came to be called ‘the Rochester knockings,’ […] these knockings opened the door onto modern spiritualism. This was a cultural movement devoted to communications between living persons and those who had passed beyond the veil”. However, with such a large following, a mechanization of sorts was soon to follow. On Sunday the first of February 1891, an advertisement appeared in The Pittsburgh Dispatch which read “‘Ouija,’ or the Wonderful Talking Board”. Sold at $1,49 it promised to “always be interesting and frequently invaluable, answering as it does questions concerning the past, present and future with marvellous accuracy”. The market for the Ouija Board arose from a need for quicker communication with the dead. Previous interactions had taken the form of calling out the alphabet and waiting for a knock from the hereafter. As stated by Linda Rodriguez McRobbie “rapid communication with breathing humans at far distances was a possibility—the telegraph had been around for decades—why shouldn’t spirits be as easy to reach?”. What the typewriter did for the automation of writing, so too did the Ouija Board do for the medium. The Kennard Novelty Company were the first to patent and market the Ouija Board and started selling it in 1891. The design was pragmatic but elegant. Its flat board, the ‘yes’ and ‘no’ in their respective corners, ‘goodbye’ at the bottom, and of course the essential planchette with its miniature window to the other side. The name ‘Ouija’ was apparently mediated by the board itself; “Sitting around the table, they asked the board what they should call it; the name “Ouija” came through and, when they asked what that meant, the board replied, ‘Good luck’”. 

From the 1600s onwards the word ‘medium’ was also used to denote a channel of communication. It was a means of expression. Following this, around the 1900s, it came to mean the media (a plural of medium), such as radio, television or newspapers which acted as intermediate agencies. A plurality of media, mass media, are often used as a means of propaganda. Whilst initially used as a relatively neutral term, referring to information that is used to influence a specific audience and further a selective agenda, the Second World War saw the means of propaganda exercised to its most powerful and horrific extreme. Deployed on a massive scale during the years leading up to, and during, the war, propaganda helped form public opinion and shaped large parts of the cultural imagination in favour of the Third Reich. In a way, the Nazi propaganda, and the strict dictates it spread, all started with one simple typewriter. When Adolf Hitler was imprisoned in the Landsberg Prison for the Beer Hall Putsch in 1923, he was given the liberty to write his infamous Mein Kampf. Dictating the book to a fellow inmate called Rudolf Hess, Mein Kampf was written on a Remington Portable Typewriter [No. 1]. In dictating his anti-semitic call for Lebensraum to the typewriter, Hitler might very well have practiced and sharpened his oratory expertise, preparing him for his rise to power after being released. Of course, this is all speculation, but there is something deeply frightening about the image of Hitler pacing up and down, spitting words with anger and fury, whilst the heavy thud-thud-thud of a Remington typewriter echoes through the cell, almost synchronous to the sound of Hitler’s heavy, black, boots. The thuds augur a horrible future, one in which Hitler would dictate to ever greater masses.  


Pauw Vos

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