intermedia (Higgins 1965, Coleridge 1812?)

Benjamin Zimmer bgzimmer at RCI.RUTGERS.EDU
Sun Jan 2 08:06:34 UTC 2005

"Intermedia" is only listed in the OED as a plural of "intermedium"--
nothing yet for the sense that developed out of the avant-garde Fluxus
movement of the '60s.  Nothing in MWCD11 either.  RHUD has it, but only as
an adjective:

   intermedia —adj.
   using or involving several media, as dance, slides, electronic
   music, film, and painting, simultaneously; multimedia.

Fluxus cofounder Dick Higgins (1938-1998) discussed the term's coinage in
a 1976 piece for _American Speech_:

    "The Origin of 'Happening'" (in Miscellany), by Dick Higgins
    American Speech, Vol. 51, No. 3/4 (Autumn-Winter 1976), p. 271.
    As _happening_ came into general usage, it ceased to be useful as a
    technical term for artists. Many of us have regretted the loss. I
    tried to avoid the error of using a word that was too adaptable,
    such as _happening_, by my coinage _intermedia_ (foreword to _The
    Four Suits_ by Philip Corner et al. [New York: Something Else Press,
    1965]; "Intermedia," _Something Else Newsletter_, February 1966;
    with a nod to Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who used the word in a letter
    once but never systematically developed the concept). _Intermedia_
    covers those art forms that are conceptual hybrids between two or
    more traditional media, such as concrete poetry (visual art and
    poetry), happenings (visual art, music, and theater), and sound
    poetry (music and literature). The term is sufficiently technical in
    effect that, though it has enjoyed some popular use, it is still
    applied only to the arts and, except for some careless confusion
    with "mixed media" (in which the elements remain distinct though
    simultaneous), is usually applied in my original sense.

The original "Intermedia" piece (written in 1965, published in Feb. 1966)
is reprinted in Higgins' _Horizons: the Poetics and Theory of the
Intermedia_ (1984) and is also available online:
    [from a 1981 postscript:]
    The vehicle I chose, the word "intermedia," appears in the writings
    of Samuel Taylor Coleridge in 1812 in exactly its contemporary sense
    -- to define works which fall conceptually between media that are
    already known, and I had been using the term for several years in
    lectures and discussions before my little essay was written.

I have yet to actually see the Coleridge passage from which Higgins claims
to have borrowed the term.  Dick's daughter Hannah Higgins discusses
"intermedia" in her book _The Fluxus Experience_ (2002) and writes in a
footnote: "The Coleridge citation dates to 1812, but I have not located it
in a specific work."

Hmm, if Higgins' own daughter can't locate the passage, could it perhaps
have been a figment of his very productive imagination?

Some early cites for "intermedia":

1966 _New York Times_ 20 Mar. X22/2 The Something Else Press, New York's
farthest-out art book publisher, is swinging cheerfully into its second
non-profit year. ... Its well-turned out books deal with what it calls
"intermedia," art that falls between such established media as sculpture,
painting, drama, music (Something Else, see?). ... Through Something Else,
Higgins is out to spread the intermedia word.

1966 _New York Times_ 10 Jul. (Magazine) 31/1 The Open Stage is a
psychedelic discotheque, sometimes called intermedia or multimedia, in
which slides, movies and kinetic sounds light the trips fantastic.

1966 _New York Times_ 14 Aug. (Book Review) 2/2 "Happenings" and other
"inter-media" productions are suggesting new uses for the stage and new
means of theatrical production.

1967 _New York Times_ 23 Aug. 39/3 "Inter-media are drawn from the several
arts," he said. "The repertories in each of the arts are no longer

1967 _Los Angeles Times_ 22 Oct. (Calendar) 48/2 His own personal interest
runs strongly to intermedia art, and his first show indicates, in its
makeup, the direction he thinks the arts are taking-- a tendency for the
arts to express their meanings in terms of other arts or in ways not
previously associated with fine art.

1967 _Film Quarterly_ 21 (Autumn) 3/1 Similarly, some of the first
intermedia shows were put on by Dadaists in the twenties.

--Ben Zimmer

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