Neither One Thing Nor The Other: The Problems and Potentials of The Medium
This is ‘book’ 12 in the series The Impossible Books of Keith Kahn-Harris. The cover was created by Gus Condeixa. For more on this series, read the introduction here.
What sort of book is it?
This could go in a number of different directions: Perhaps it could be an accessible work of sociology, perhaps it could be a strange kind of business advice book, perhaps it could be an intervention in debates about contemporary arts and culture.
How likely is it that I will write the book?
I think I’d have to clarify what sort of book it could be straight in my mind first. However I am quite strongly drawn to exploring these ideas. (I am aware, by the way, that some of my thoughts for this book are quite sketchy and need a lot of further thought.)
Am I happy for anyone else to write the book?
Not really. There’s no copyright on ideas but I’d like to be the one to pursue this one.
Much of my research, teaching and consultancy work over the last few years has taken place in the apparently parochial world of the British Jewish community. Over time, I’ve started to notice something about how synagogues work. Put simply, all the thriving synagogues I’ve encountered seem to either be comparatively large (in terms of numbers of members) or comparatively small. The synagogues that are struggling tend to be neither that big or that small.
The reasons for this are not too hard to infer: Large synagogues can offer a large and diverse range of services to cater for the needs of a large and diverse membership, small synagogues can offer intimacy and fellowship. Both forms of synagogue life are viable and sustainable. The medium-sized synagogues are often too big to allow for intimacy, but too small to offer a broad range of services. They are extremely difficult to make work.
These observations have drawn my attention to an often-neglected and difficult-to-pin-down phenomenon — what I will call ‘The Medium.’
· The Medium is entirely relative. It is located in the lonely space occupied by things that fall between two well-populated poles.
· The Medium is not the same as ‘the average’, although it sometimes overlaps with it. The Medium is not the same as a compromise between two extremes, although it sometimes can appear that way.
· Above all, The Medium is frequently that which is uncomfortable, unsatisfactory, difficult to pinpoint, hard to pigeonhole.
Things located in The Medium often comes under pressure to become something else: to move towards clarity, to adopt a form that is recognisable and classifiable. The question for those working in The Medium is therefore: when is The Medium a worthy location in which to remain and when is it a place from which to flee?
This is the question that medium-sized synagogues, for example, have to face. When is it possible to make a synagogue of that size work and when is it better to try to upsize or downsize?
It may be that a whole range of disparate social and cultural questions are actually questions about the sustainability of The Medium. For example:
· Might the constant debates about the place in the world of countries such as France and the UK, actually be debates about whether medium-sized countries — which are too small to be superpowers and too large to be cosy backwaters — can exist in the world?
· Might the music industry’s crisis in the digital age actually be about the knife-edged viability of medium-sized artists (big stars will always be lucrative, niche artists never were and never will be)?
· Might concerns about the ‘squeezed middle’ in the post-2008 economy actually reveal a fundamental difficulty in maintaining a stable layer of middleness in the capitalist class system?
Yet for all the discomfort of The Medium, it is also the space full of neglected potential, where neither being one thing nor the other opens up interesting possibilities. For example:
· Cultural forms such as the novella and the EP offer things that more common forms cannot provide.
· Medium-sized cities may offer an ideal way of developing urban spaces.
· Medium-sized religions, such as Judaism, Bahaiism and Zoroastrianism may mediate between the twin dangers of isolated culthood and global domination.