The mediastudies.asia team, graphic by Areesha Khuwaja (Arqam Khan, Hammad Siddiqui, Zoha Jabbar, Markus Heidingsfelder)
Before we set up this website, we asked us one question:
What is a medium?
We all know what Asia is. Well, kind of. What we do know for sure is what it means to study something. But what exactly is it that we are studying here? Ironically, nobody really knows. All we have is a word. But what does this word signify? The question has been, and continues to be, the object of a heated debate. We wanted to find our own answer. As Charles Sanders Peirce once put it, if you build a house, it makes sense to use bricks instead of paper. And if one wants to study the media, she needs a precise concept. Without a precise concept of media, there can be no media theory - no 'media house'.
Funnily enough, the consensus among media scholars nowadays is: Well, media aren’t
. They don’t exist. So maybe we’re asking the wrong question here?
We don’t agree. Of course media exist. We’re talking about them right now. They are mentioned every day – for instance in “the media”. Media exist – they are
– because we talk about them. Because there is a word that signifies something – whatever it may be – as something, not as nothing.
It is an existence that needs to be established. That is why media scholars nowadays are more interested in processes than in essences, more in how things become what they are than in defining their ‘nature’. Nobody knows what anything ‘is’. Only God; but there’s some controversy going on about his existence, too. All we can do is observe something as something, and by doing that, make it real. If someone says “Now that’s what I call a medium” – then this statement tells us more about the person than about what a medium may be.
So how can one observe media properly then?
For instance by starting with the word. A word like “medium” is fuzzy. Any word is – they are not precise. Not a big problem, because in our everyday world, it is the context of something that helps us define or fix its meaning. When Saint Augustine contemplated about time, he realized this: “If no one asks me, I know what it is. If I wish to explain it to him who asks, I do not know.”
We all know what media ‘are’, don’t we? TV is a medium. Language, of course, is a medium, as is music. Sometimes even a person is a medium, one who mediates between here and there, the mortal and the immortal – which was actually the first meaning of medium before the technology aspect took over. Scientists call gas a medium. And in a restaurant, sitting in front of a steak, medium again takes on a different meaning.
Someone points at a book: “Now that’s what I call a medium!” Not a big problem, is it? We understand him right away. Now think of someone pointing at a photo of Adolf Hitler: “Now that’s what I call a medium!” We can ask: Are you talking about the medium of photography? Or are you talking about Hitler? We can inquire. But if somebody asks us what a medium is, we do not know any longer.
Science turns words into concepts. It makes precise words out of fuzzy words. It de-contextualizes them. How? By trying to find the least observer-dependent distinction criteria. Is there a consensus, a social agreement on what should be observed as a medium that we can use to generalize the term? The medium of medium, so to say?
Let’s ask ‘the media’ – in this case the internet – to complete the sentence: “A medium is … ” We googled the sentence on the 30th of April 2016, these are the answers that came up (in chronological order):
- a message
- a third party or element
- not a psychic
- a person (who communicates with spirits)
- an intermediate course of action
- a city
- a maker (not just a neutral recorder or transmitter)
- something that is sold in a medium size
- always born twice
- a wave
Most of the observers went for Marshall McLuhan
‘s definition though: A medium is a message. The
medium is the
message, to be precise. What does this message mediate? That media are an important, but for a long time overlooked factor of social change. They ‘massage’ society. Or as observer no. 7 put it, they 'make' things. They're far from being neutral.
We agree, but prefer an abstract concept instead – one that allows us to integrate all the different meanings of medium without being imprecise, to subsume different and even disparate manifestations under one notion. We think of a medium as a loose coupling of homogeneous elements. These elements can be strictly coupled to forms, a process that is triggered by an outer determination. Think of Friday’s footprint in the sand. Think of an evening breeze. Or a wave. Think of the sentences on this page. On any page! The brushstrokes of a painting. Or the pixels of a digital image.
We didn’t come up with this concept on our own. It was introduced by German psychologist Fritz Heider in the 20’s of the last century: it has then been generalized – some say deconstructed – by German sociologist Niklas Luhmann. Since Luhmann, any medium is a medium only by observation. In the case of writing, the letters of the alphabet are coupled to forms we call sentences. But a sentence can be observed as a medium, too. Music, as mentioned before, can be observed as a medium, in which songs or symphonies can be ‘inscribed’. But forms like songs or symphonies can be also observed as media.
And it gets even more complicated, because any medium only shows itself to us – reveals its existence to us – in the form of a form. We don’t see ‘the light’. We don’t hear ‘the music’. We don’t see ‘the digital’. We don’t hear or write ‘English’ – we write in
English. A medium is invisible and can only be seen when a form breaks down. We can call this the 'epiphany' of the medium.
This is our answer to the question of what a medium ‘is’: an observation that puts “medium” on the inside and “form” on the outside. McLuhan's trick was to identify medium with form - he was a man on a mission, and this mission was to enlighten world about the importance of something that had been overlooked for centuries. The sentence 'A medium is a medium' wouldn't have been very informative, and the other option - to find out what lies on the other side, its opposite - wasn't available as a method back then. But McLuhan was right insofar as the form can re-enter the inside – we see the ‘form’ of the medium, for example the pixels of a low resolution image. But we never see the medium itself. It remains hidden. Just like our concept of ‘medium’, as this website isn’t about theory only. But having such a website, we feel much better with
a concept than without one. Try it out – maybe it works for you, too.
So what is mediastudies.asia
all about? It is a platform for media research on and in Asia. We regularly inform about upcoming events: festivals, conferences etc. We showcase media research, because we agree with Michel Serres that "the university must come out of the university onto the net'" - this very text is an attempt to do so. Media research is categorized under ‘truth’, because in modern society, only science has the license to decide what is true and what is not. The fine arts are categorized under ‘beauty’ – which is debatable, as anything else, but also up to this day highly plausible. You don’t think Duchamp’s urinal is beautiful? We do - and the art world does, too. And ‘power’ is the category we use for politics, because we think that this is what politics in the end is all about. We decided to add a separate entry for ‘poetry’, simply because Asia has so many wonderful poets the rest of the world doesn’t know about, and the slam poetry scene in Pakistan is vibrant and alive, it deserves another platform.
We are especially proud on our own productions, interviews with artists like Sheherezade Junejo or Suleman Khilji, with photographers like Andy Spyra, or with POW camp researcher Julia Tieke – or to be able to present poetry recitations by someone like Afzal Ahmed Syed to you. Or those performed by young Karachi talents like Shameneh Majid or Zoha Jabbar, who, by the way, is part of our team and responsible for the poetry section.
We are open to, and invite, all content that explores media within the Asian context.
The Media Studies Asia Team, Karachi, 30th of April 2016