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Remediation: Understanding New Media

Author: Jay David Bolter, Richard Grusin
Publisher: Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1999
Review Published: December 1999

 REVIEW 1: Patrick J. Cook

This innovative and informative book from two scholars in Georgia Tech's School of Literature, Communication and Culture, rejects the notion that the "new media" of today's cyberculture are fundamentally different from the media they seem to be replacing. The implications of this rejection are twofold. First, it undercuts the claim routinely made by the promoter of the latest innovation (streaming video! Virtual Reality Modeling Language!) that a product represents not merely an incremental improvement in a very limited domain, but a revolutionary development that will utterly transform the way we interface with the world, if not now then eventually. Second, it effectively clears the way for the study of how and why media borrow from and refashion not only earlier media from which they are emerging but also the later media emerging from them.

Three introductory chapters grouped under the rubric of "Theory" introduce us to the book's central analytic dichotomy, which is derived from two unquestionably powerful trends. The first is "our apparently insatiable desire for immediacy" (5), for removing all evidence of mediation to provide an experience of the pure presence of the object represented, of which Virtual Reality is merely the latest manifestation. Opposed to immediacy is hypermediacy, most obviously of course on the World Wide Web, which "acknowledges multiple acts of representation and makes them visible" (34-35). Both rely on "the appeal to authenticity of experience," immediacy through immersion and hypermediacy through "the insistence that the experience of the medium is itself an experience of the real" (71). Both also have histories, which the authors trace back respectively to illusionistic painting of the seventeenth century, with its sophisticated creation of perspective, and the medieval illuminated manuscript, which challenges one "to appreciate the integration of text and image" (12). One can expect that art historians will find the authors' recourse to such precedents somewhat arbitrary, but most readers will find them enlightening.

These chapters also introduce us to the book's other major concept, remediation, which they define as "the representation of one medium in another" (45). This process can be carried out in a wide variety of ways. The degree of fidelity depends on the goal of the remediation, ranging from the simple and almost completely faithful digitizing of printed texts, to the more aggressive remediation of rock CD-ROMs that provocatively juxtapose media, to the nearly total absorption of one medium by another in the webcam site. From such examples the authors conclude that "all current media function as remediators" (55), appropriating forms and techniques and refashioning them "in the name of the real" (99). As the new media shape audience taste, the old fight back by reversing the process. Television newscasts and newspapers, for example, increase their visual appeal through imitating Web site designs.

Bolter and Grusin attribute media innovators' claims to revolutionary novelty to the continuing influence of the modernist assumption "that a medium must be new to be significant" (270), strangely ignoring the obvious fact that revolutionary claims are the staple of modern advertising and promotion for all products, from the world of floor care to the multiverse of cyberspace. Yet they are not always so oblivious to the cash nexus and other social aspects of their topic. Their description of the evolution of media sometimes seems to imply an autonomous technological world, but they remind us to keep in mind that technologies are "hybrids of technical, material, social, and economic facets" (77). Also wishing us to keep in mind that remediation has psycho-sexual implications, they note quite reasonably that the drive for sensory immediacy can be realized in ways other than that hoary commonplace of feminist film theory, the masculine appropriating gaze. "Multiple and deviant" in its very nature, hypermediacy can present "a multiplicity of viewing positions and a multiplicity of relationships to the object in view, including sexual objects" (84), and even the desire for the kind of sexual immediacy promised by pornographic Virtual Reality can be non-voyeuristic, a desire for union facilitating return to the ungendered realm of the Lacanian Imaginary.

The central section of the book consists of eleven short chapters devoted to individual media. A brief sampling of Bolter and Grusin's observations must suffice. Computer games produce hypermediation through their remediation of television, and transparency through their remediation of film. Individual games generally tend in one or the other direction, but sometimes, as in the example of the early erotic program Virtual Valerie, a game may deliberately oscillate between the two effects. Computer generated photorealistic graphic art aspires to pure transparency, but at this stage of its development it seems unable to avoid hypermediation. It often fails to convince in terms of texture and light, even if it can model perspective more faithfully than any previous medium. But even with perspective, it often borrows from and therefore alludes to the highly developed art of perspectival painting, and viewers in paying attention to the effort to achieve transparency undercut the experience of transparency. Digital artists, as opposed to the engineers in quest of realistic graphics, exploit this movement from immediacy to hypermediacy, whether their art is popular and commercial or, as in the case of the Ars Electronica festival, they are attempting to work as "heirs of traditional high art" (143). Ubiquitous computing, the goal of those who would incorporate computers into every imaginable device, is the opposite of virtual reality: a refashioning of television and the Internet; it multiplies the computer interface instead of erasing it, eliminating the shifts of perspective and the consequent interrogation of the nature of subjectivity that Virtual Reality facilitates.

All of the eleven chapters grouped under the title "Media" contain such worthwhile nuggets of insight. At times, though, I found the attempt to define media relationships a little strained. The authors argue, for example, that digital photography presents a complex instance of mutual transformation: although one might assume that analog photography is transparent while its digital successor is hypermediated, each, they observe, can also aspire to the condition of the other through digital transparency and the foregrounding of analog manipulation. But of course aggressive manipulation of the image was a very conspicuous feature of photography long before the darkroom became digital, and it does not seem accurate to claim that "digital photography alters our understanding of the prior history of photography" (112) in any important way. I also found that as I proceeded from discussion of one digital medium to the next it became progressively easier to predict what the authors were going to say. The least predictable, and therefore the finest chapters of this section concern older media that have well-developed pre-digital pasts. Bolter and Grusin interestingly observe, for example, that Walt Disney's attempts in animated films to create immediacy through "what the culture regarded as authentic emotional response" (149) work across the grain of his medium, since the conspicuous artificiality of cel animation makes it more conducive to hypermediacy. In the non-animated film (and one must note that the boundaries are blurring) computer generated special effects have facilitated a return to what has been called the "cinema of attractions" that dominated film before the triumph of the Hollywood narrative style. But the results are complex. The audience of a film such as Terminator 2 and Jurassic Park expects to see something "simultaneously remarkable and credible" (153), a celebration of computer graphics that depends upon a combination of transparency and awareness of the medium. Of course, that has always been true of special effects in film, but today's technologies for the first time can match the visual realism of the unreal to that of the real. The discussion of theme parks is no less subtle. These are our century's first attempt at full exploitation of hypermediacy, a fact visible even in the visually busy early postcards celebrating them. Again Disney is a key figure, for he re-invented the theme park in a way that allowed for the mutual refashioning of park, movie, and television.

Bolter and Grusin follow their lengthy survey of individual media with a section entitled "Self." Here they argue that the fundamental duality of remediation shapes our subjectivity, as the forces of transparency support a "romantic" self eager to occupy the position of the other empathically, while the forces of hypermediacy support a "modernist" or networked self defined through its multiplicity of connections. Drawing a parallel with the psychic model of Jacques Lacan, they conclude that in the double logic of remediation "desire for immediacy cannot be fulfilled by transparent media and must therefore be supplemented by technologies of hypermediacy" (236).

The authors of Remediation acknowledge that their project is necessarily tentative and exploratory, and because they cover such a wide range of media the individual chapters are highly selective. Nevertheless, readers will come away from the book "understanding new media" more deeply and comprehensively. Theoretically, continual recourse to the "double logic" of immediacy/hypermediacy is both a strength and a weakness. Bolter and Grusin effectively demonstrate the analytic power of the dichotomy, and students of other historical periods may wish to ponder the application of these distinctions to "new media" phenomena beyond the book's small collection of pre-modern examples. I came away, for example, with a new way to ponder the Elizabethan theater's assimilation of other forms of public spectacle. But if the focus on immediacy and hypermediacy effectively uncovers an important common feature of our diverse electronic environment and unifies the book conceptually, it also obscures the fact that remediation often follows other logics as well. Consideration of the theory of literary genres, for example, especially on the ways generic forms evolve into less formalized "modes" that can be incorporated into other generic forms, and vice versa, might have allowed the authors to make finer distinctions and, especially, to define more clearly what precisely is new in digital remediation. Taking into account more traditional, and highly theorized, phenomenologies of self and other would also have been useful. The psychoanalytic distinction between incorporation and introjection, which describe respectively the dissolving absorption and the internalizing preservation of an object within the body, frequently came to mind as a way to make more nuanced descriptions.

Patrick J. Cook:
Patrick J. Cook is an Associate Professor in English at George Washington University. He has published a book on the evolution of epic poetry from Homer to Milton and numerous articles and reviews on Renaissance and medieval literature, film, and cyberculture. He also reviewed James J. O'Donnell's Avatars of the Word: From Papyrus to Cyberspace as the November 1998 book of the month.  <pcook@Tidalwave.net>

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