John Dyer is continuing the conversation about mediation, and doing it in classic Dyer style–thorough and sensitive:

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.

I’m not convinced it’s helpful to think of environments as mediation, if only because expanding the content away from something that stands between two people inevitably waters it down.  We can make our conceptual analysis too narrow or too broad, and I think John has fallen prey to the latter.  That a particular environment alters our behavior and makes certain responses more plausible does not entail that we should treat it as mediation in the way a screen mediates our interaction.

One interesting aspect of the restaurant example is that the intentionality is built into the case.  John chooses a particular restaurant, presumably for a specific set of reasons.  Hence, it mediates content to his patient wife (whom we hope manages to get him to discuss something other than the topic at hand on the date).  But in what way does the environment “mediate” his experience with the other patrons, or the waiter?  Remove the degree of intentional decision beforehand, and the non-mediatorial aspect of the environment becomes, I think, a little clearer.

One other worry:  In his section on language as mediation, John writes:

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.

Not to go all Saul Kripke on you, but John has deployed the easiest examples for his case.  What if it was a name like “Matthew Lee Anderson?”  John’s examples are naming things according to function or form, but it’s difficult to see what sort of content is being mediated in other proper names.  Or even names of colors.  We might say that language “mediates” the content of redness to us, but that doesn’t prevent us from having a real encounter with the color prior to learning the name.

A simple rule, perhaps:  if everything is mediation, then nothing is.


(See the original review here).


Posted by Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.

  • I hope to get the final part of the trilogy of posts out next week.

    In the mean time, I must ask: Did you spend any time considering the way potential readers might respond to various pen names like: “Matt Anderson”, “M.L. Anderson”, or “Matthew Lee Anderson”?

    • Matthew Lee Anderson


      No, I actually didn’t. The decision was made on one factor alone: searchability. : )

      But if you’re going where you think I am, remember that the case may be an intentional branding decision that authors have to make. Pick any other proper name, especially those of non-public figures. I think the problem is a little clearer that way. : )


  • Eric

    I’ve been meaning to reply to John but I’ve been waiting for the third installment.

    Regarding “If everything is mediation, then nothing is.” First, making distinctions between different types of mediation seems helpful, even if “everything is mediation.” And it is these distinctions that would prevent us from being able to conclude that “then nothing is.”

    Second, I don’t think anybody that I know of would claim that “everything is mediation.” You are more likely to hear something like “one’s relations to others and the world are always mediated.” So it would probably be better to claim “If all relations are mediated, then none are.” But that’s a contradiction, akin to “If all men are mortal, then none are.” So I assume the meaning of the phrase must be something like “If all relations are mediated, then ‘mediate’ isn’t a useful term.” Or it is an unnecessary term. Is that what you’re saying? If so, I don’t see any particular reason to think that is true.

    • Eric,

      Yeah, I jumped the gun because I was out of other things to write about last night. : )

      You guys are both light years ahead of me on this, so go easy on me.

      “So I assume the meaning of the phrase must be something like “If all relations are mediated, then ‘mediate’ isn’t a useful term.” Or it is an unnecessary term. Is that what you’re saying? If so, I don’t see any particular reason to think that is true.”

      The careful version is something like that. I worry that the expansive understanding of mediation such that it becomes the framework through which reality is, um, understood ends up stripping out what was originally helpful or illuminating about the concept.

      But the cheeky version is something like this: I think–and I’m really going out on a limb here–that part of my concern is that the ubiquity of mediation might lead to an infinite regress that impairs our access to reality or things themselves. Hence, there’s “nothing” out there that we could grab on to
      except the mediations of the things. One need not go into metaphysical nihilism here, but it’s certainly a possibility and, as a fan of the medievals, something of a worry for me.


      • I don’t believe that the issue is “if everything is mediation then nothing is”. I believe the issue is, “If everything is mediated, then only the infinite can truly discern the effects of mediation.”

        We can see some of the big effects but to think that we can predict or discern the smaller effects (which in combination, may actually have a larger effect than what we can discern) seems to be reaching in a way that could be idolatrous. An example from fiction, In Asimov’s Foundation trilogy, the basic theme is that you can predict, with mathematics, what will happen. But the very fact of measurement distorts the reality (I think I am remembering the result correctly, it has been a while since I read it.)

        All of you are too smart for me.

        (Matthew, in Chrome on a Mac, your subscribe to comments button is underneath your post comment button, still clickable if you know it is there. Just FYI)

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