Mediation: Between Material and Message
By Jay Healy
Sound is one of the most essential mediums for the transfer of information between human beings. Apart from visual learning, almost everything that the human brain processes comes from auditory cues. In his article of keywords, Williams focuses on the verb “mediate” and its commitment to acting as the intermediary force between the physical material and the message. Mediation, media and mediate all refer to the act of communicating a desired message from one place in space and time to another. For Katz, in his article “Causes from Capturing Sound,” the reader is led to see how the recording of sound exists as one of the simplest examples of mediation. In the world of music, sound from instruments has a physical limitation on how far it can travel, and therefore, how many people may experience that audio moment. The phonograph and later sound recording devices built a cultural context for the widespread transfer of sound. With wax records able to travel across continents, the material of the music, that is, the original sound waves that emanated from the musician’s instruments, could be recorded in one location and replayed thousands of miles away. This phenomenon of information transfer is the prime example of what it means to “mediate.” What it all comes down to really, is the fact that Williams reinforces which is that the concepts of medium, mediation and “the media” as a whole have become tangled into one definition. For instance, before the age of writing, stories were passed on through the oral tradition, which relied on the medium of sound to allow the story to be transferred through the generations. Yet when writing became the way to pass on stories and information, the process was not at all homogenized as it is today. Variations in grammar, spelling and pretty much very aspect of the physical writing led to many mistranslations, which may still be affecting the world today. (Some historians and linguistic scholars recently realized that the word Virgin in the New Testament might have been mistranslated from a similar word meaning young woman, a discrepancy that has prompted religious strife for the last two thousand years). Therefore, a medium itself is flawed if it is not homogenized, just as the process of mediation should be considered a failure if the information is not received fully or correctly. All things media become even more complicated when multiple mediums are needed to convey a message, for instance, music, again. Music has existed for longer than I can say, but it was not until some monk became fed up with how much transcribing (translation for music) work he had to complete in order to recreate a musical piece that musical notation was in any way homogenized. The creation of the musical staff (those lines with little black dots placed at intervals among the lines with even more tiny lines connecting the black dots and even smaller little symbols referring to the tone, pitch and speed) is an amazing moment in the history of communication, for it was a time when the way in which the message was to be conveyed (the medium) was homogenized so that in any place, the codified musical staff could be interpreted by another musical linguist. The phonograph would not have been important if several different machines arrived all at once, playing several physically different recorded forms, because the interpretation of the message would have been too convoluted by a saturation of media.
Williams has a strong sense of intermediacy in his article: “Sense, or reconciliation, was strongly present in Idealist philosophy: between God and Man, between Spirit and World, between Idea and Object, between Subject and Object” (Williams, 205). This quote is particularly important because it sheds some light on the criteria that the social world would use to respond to revolutionary inventions like sound recording. Edison and Katz both talk about the personal experiences of those hearing sound recorded for the first time and the almost sublime emotions they associated with detached sound. I think that all of the dichotomies that Williams believes can be mediated are really just variations of the words material (object, man, world) and message (subject, God, spirit, Idea). The transfer of material through message is therefore a working definition for all things media.