Indeed, selectivity is fundamental to all processes of mediation. The human mind is itself highly selective, extending its power to make sense of experience by reducing the complexity and diversity of that experience. We exist in time and space, and our bodies allow us only a limited set of experiences at any one time. We cannot perceive our surroundings with all our sense modalities at once. Our sight does not allow us to see things from more than one point of view at a time: we must move to establish another. We cannot even survey our own bodies entirely unaided. Even from the possibilities that are physically available to us at any moment, and from a particular point of view, the process of perception unavoidably involves selection. We may lament, with H. G. Wells, that 'the forceps of our minds are clumsy things and crush the truth a little in the course of taking hold of it' (Koestler 1970, p. 174), but selectivity may be a psychological necessity; without categorization the world would be no more than what William James called a 'great blooming, buzzing confusion' (James 1890, p. 488).
Our social institutions also involve processes of mediation which 'organize, select and focus the environment through various transformational structures.' They tend to channel human behaviour into predictable routines. The anthropologist Ruth Benedict went so far as to describe different cultures as selective mediators of personality, arguing that 'any society selects some segment of the arc of possible human behaviour, and insofar as it achieves integration its institutions tend to further the expression of its selected segment and to inhibit opposite expressions' (Benedict 1934, p. 254; my emphases). Without adopting a stance of cultural determinism, much the same could be said of sub-cultures such as those of academia, where dominant practices in different disciplines tend to favour certain personality traits in those who practise them (or seek to do so). The methods of each academic discipline facilitate certain ways of knowing and inhibit others. For instance, those which involve quantitative paradigms (such as the natural sciences) involve the selection only of those aspects of experience which can be measured. Such selectivity has, of course, dramatically empowered 'the scientific method', but it can do so only in limited domains. The selectivity of any method supports the development of a particular way of knowing but limits its scope. Despite this, academics tend to be drawn into the illusion that a favoured technique reveals 'the whole truth', a commodity with which it is in fact somewhat economical. As Aldous Huxley wryly noted, 'our universities possess no chair of synthesis' (Huxley 1941, p. 276): the way of knowing favoured in the broad arena of academia is specialization.
Prior to Ihde, Marshall McLuhan and Harold Innis had also explored the selectivity of media, although their focus had been primarily on the social 'effects' of various media of communication. Innis had argued in The Bias of Communication (1951) that each form of communication involved a 'bias' in its handling of space and time (see Carey 1968, & 1989, Ch. 6). And McLuhan, in books such as The Gutenberg Galaxy (1962) and The Medium is the Massage (McLuhan & Fiore 1967) had asserted that the use of particular media 'massages' human 'sense ratios' (allusions to which are also found in Innis). More recently, Neil Postman has reinterpreted McLuhan's aphorism that 'the medium is the message' as meaning that 'embedded in every tool is an ideological bias, a predisposition to construct the world as one thing rather than another, to value one thing over another, to amplify one sense or skill or attitude more loudly than another' (Postman 1993, p. 13).
The selectivity of a medium arises from the way in which it formalizes phenomena within its own constraints. Any medium facilitates, emphasizes, intensifies, amplifies, enhances or extends certain kinds of use or experience whilst inhibiting, restricting or reducing other kinds. Of course, our use of any medium for a particular task may have advantages over 'the alternatives' (such as 'saving' time or labour), but use always involves a 'cost'. There are losses as well as gains. A medium closes some doors as well as opening others, excludes as well as includes, distorts as well as clarifies, conceals as well as reveals, denies as well as affirms, destroys as well as creates. The selectivity of media tends to suggest that some aspects of experience are important or relevant and that others are unimportant or irrelevant. Particular realities are thus made more or less accessible - more or less 'real' - by different processes of mediation. Mediation is tied to the distribution of power in society. Selection and exclusion of all kinds favour the realities of some groups rather than others.
An awareness of mediation can have a positive function in research and pedagogy. Firstly, we can note the emphasis given to that which is explicitly handled: what is highlighted or foregrounded and what is downplayed or backgrounded? What is the 'figure' and what the 'ground'? More interestingly, perhaps, we may attempt the difficult task of noticing what is not there. In studying the nature of mediation, a powerful technique is the search for that which is excluded (or 'conspicuous by its absence'), and that which is taken for granted (which 'goes without saying'). In recent times the phenomenon of absence has been described as 'absent presence' by Jacques Derrida. Just as with any physical tool, both the nature of language and its use involve selectivity. We are familiar with the phenomenon of absent presence in our use of language, where we are used to noticing what has been 'left unsaid' and to 'reading between the lines'. The making of meanings is influenced not only by the words which are used but by those which (consciously or unconsciously) are not. Much the same perspective could be applied to media in general, including the choice of one medium rather than another.
The routine use of a medium by someone who knows how to use it typically passes unquestioned as unproblematic and 'neutral': this is hardly surprising since media evolve as a means of accomplishing purposes in which they are usually intended to be incidental. And the more frequently and fluently a medium is used, the more 'transparent' or 'invisible' to its users it tends to become. This has frequently been observed of reading: 'The wonderful thing about language is that it promotes its own oblivion: my eyes follow the lines on the paper, and from the moment I am caught up in their meaning, I lose sight of them. The paper, the letters on it, my eyes and body are there only as the minimum setting of some invisible operation. Expression fades out before what is expressed, and that is why its mediating role may pass unnoticed' (Merleau-Ponty 1962). For most routine purposes, awareness of a medium may hamper its effectiveness as a means to an end. Indeed, it is typically when the medium acquires transparency that its potential to fulfil its primary function is greatest.
However, in reading and writing, both the type of text and our purposes may influence our awareness of the medium of language: we are likely to be more frequently aware of the choice of particular words in a poem than in a scientific paper. The special resonances of words are an important part of the making of meaning in poetry. In this sense literary uses of language tend to be less transparent than other uses of language: they often reveal their mediation. However, Joseph Church, a psychologist, argues that opacity is not confined to literary usage, but is a feature of any attempt to grapple with ideas: 'Our means of expression always have some degree of opacity. It is only the most banal statements in the most neutral situations that ever attain transparency. As soon as we try to describe a new phenomenon, a new relationship, a new way of looking at something, our medium thickens and becomes prominent. Indeed, much of the innovator's time is taken up with means of expression rather than with what is being expressed' (Church 1961, p. 191).
The selectivity of any medium leads to its use having influences of which the user may not always be conscious, and which may not have been part of the purpose in using it. We can be so familiar with the medium that we are 'anaesthetized' to the mediation it involves: we 'don't know what we're missing'. Insofar as we are numbed to the processes involved we cannot be said to be exercising 'choices' in its use. In this way the means we use may modify our ends. Amongst the phenomena enhanced or reduced by media selectivity are the ends for which a medium was used. Since it may be impossible to foresee all the consequences of our use of a medium, such use tends to be accompanied by 'unintentional side- effects' (Winner 1977, pp. 88-100). In such cases, our 'purposes' are subtly, and often invisibly, redefined. Langdon Winner refers to this as reverse adaptation, or 'the adjustment of human ends to match the character of the available means' (ibid., p. 229). This is the opposite of the pragmatic and rationalistic stance, according to which the means are chosen to suit the user's ends, and are entirely under the user's control. How much it matters to us that our ends are transformed by our media depends on whether such transformations seem to us to be in general harmony with our overall intentions: 'side- effects' can, of course, be 'positive' as well as 'negative'. But we are seldom (if ever) so detached in our use of media that we can assess the phenomenon in all of its complexity. Since side-effects can also be immediate or delayed (short-, medium- or long-term), they may need a historical perspective too. And as dynamic processes which are enmeshed with others they elude our attempts to identify them. Subtle side- effects of our use of media may escape our notice, but they may nevertheless be profound.
An awareness of this phenomenon of transformation by media has often led media theorists to argue deterministically that our technical means and systems always and inevitably become 'ends in themselves' (a common interpretation of Marshall McLuhan's famous aphorism, 'the medium is the message'), and has even led some to present media as wholly autonomous entities with 'purposes' (as opposed to functions) of their own. However, one need not adopt such extreme stances in acknowledging the transformations involved in processes of mediation. When we use a medium for any purpose, its use becomes part of that purpose. Travelling is an unavoidable part of getting somewhere; it may even become a primary goal. Travelling by one particular method of transport rather than another is part of the experience. So too with writing rather than speaking, or using a word processor rather than a pen. In using any medium, to some extent we serve its 'purposes' as well as it serving ours. When we engage with media we both act and are acted upon, use and are used. Where a medium has a variety of functions it may be impossible to choose to use it for only one of these functions in isolation. The making of meanings with such media must involve some degree of compromise. Complete identity between any specific purpose and the functionality of a medium is likely to be rare, although the degree of match may on most occasions be accepted as adequate.
I am reminded here of an observation by the anthropologist Claude LÚvi-Strauss that in the case of what he called bricolage, the process of creating something is not a matter of the calculated choice and use of whatever materials are technically best-adapted to a clearly predetermined purpose, but rather it involves a 'dialogue with the materials and means of execution' (LÚvi-Strauss 1974, p. 29). In such a dialogue, the materials which are ready-to-hand may (as we say) 'suggest' adaptive courses of action, and the initial aim may be modified. Consequently, such acts of creation are not purely instrumental: the bricoleur '"speaks" not only with things... but also through the medium of things' (ibid., p. 21): the use of the medium is expressive. The context of LÚvi-Strauss's point was a discussion of 'primitive art' and 'mythical thought', but I would argue that bricolage can be involved in the use of any medium, for any purpose. The act of writing, for instance, may be shaped not only by the writer's conscious purposes but also by features of the media involved - such as the kind of language and writing tools used - as well as by the social and psychological processes of mediation involved. Any 'resistance' offered by the writer's materials can be an intrinsic part of the process of writing. However, not every writer acts or feels like a bricoleur. Individuals differ strikingly in their responses to the notion of media transformation. They range from those who insist that they are in total control of the media which they 'use' to those who experience a profound sense of being shaped by the media which 'use' them.
The significance of media transformations to those involved depends on resonances deriving from the nature and use of a medium rather than from explicit 'messages'. The term resonance is sometimes used by literary critics to refer to associative 'overtones' or metaphorical significances which they discern in particular uses of language. In the current context, I use the term resonance to refer to any kind of significance which may be attached to the use of one medium rather than another, for example, to the use of: one word or phrase rather than another; writing rather than speech; an essay rather than a research report; or a word processor rather than a pen. The comparisons by those involved might be conscious or unconscious, explicit or implicit. And such significances might be experienced by an individual, a group or more broadly in a particular culture or sub-culture; they could be enduring or transitory, current or retrospective, incidental or primary, subtle or dramatic, intended or unintended, related to a particular occasion or more generally applicable. For example, resonance could refer to some quality in a particular text which those writing or reading it might regard as 'lost' if it were to be paraphrased. It might refer very broadly to the special status accorded by Romantics to the spoken word or to the interpretation of textual closure and seamlessness as stereotypically 'masculine'. Or it might refer to a particular writer experiencing a greater sense of 'detachment' when typing than when using a pen.
All of these features - selectivity, transparency, transformation and resonance - are associated with every process of mediation, including those which are involved in the act of writing. And such features and processes exist in dynamic interaction. Traditional academic disciplines attempt to fit the practices of everyday life into frameworks which are primarily sociocultural, psychological, linguistic or technological. But those who seek to explore processes of mediation must attempt to move as readily as possible between such interpretative frames. Such frame shifting is essential for gaining insight into the 'ecology' of media, in which media and processes of mediation subtly and dynamically interact. All writers are inextricably enmeshed in such an ecology, which includes attitudes and practices in the use of media (such as language, the written word, textual forms, physical tools and systems of publication), and other social and psychological phenomena (such as personality and roles). In academia the ecology of writing also involves disciplinary frameworks, epistemological assumptions and research methodologies. It is an ecology in which writers shape texts and are shaped in doing so; in which they use tools and are influenced by their use of them; in which they both employ techniques and are directed by them; in which they adopt roles and adapt to them; in which they both write and are written.
(Adapted from my book, The Act of Writing)
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