Mediality in the Middle Ages— for some this title may evoke communication with spirits, while others will be reminded of a popular internet clip, usually entitled “Medieval Helpdesk,” in which a monk who is learning to use a new medium is assisted by an expert. The monk complains about problems handling it, difficulties opening it, the fear that the text, once he has finally found it, might disappear again. The expert explains the logic of the medium to him: “Well you see, there are hundreds of pages of text saved in this thing. So to proceed you just grab one sheet of paper and turn it over like this.” The monk answers: “When you’re used to paper rolls, it takes some time to convert to turning the pages of a— beek [!] .”
The book in the form of the well-known codex is defamiliarized. It appears as an exotic, awkward object, which humankind has yet to learn to use, a tool which the user needs help with, a medium whose benefit has yet to manifest itself. This device— presenting one of the oldest media as if it were new— ironizes contemporary digital media culture— which, for its part, embraces this treatment. The scene, first acted on stage, then broadcast on television, had its greatest impact on the internet, where the book in fact looks like an archaic relict, something to marvel at from the point of view of media postmodernity. The sketch does actually evoke a key event in media history, the transition from scroll to codex. It does not situate it in late antiquity, however, but in an undefined present, which presupposes precisely those developments whose putative beginnings feature here. The fundamental advantage of the codex, allowing rapid movement in the text and discontinuous reading, is demonstrated with a situation in which the consequences of the new technology have apparently not yet been understood; a situation, however, which is regarded from a specific point of view: the assumed end of the Gutenberg era. This perspective provides our own age of rapid media changes with a neat genealogy.
This little sketch shows a fundamental tendency of media forms: the tendency to assimilate or to reference other media forms.