Bolter and Grusin – Remediation: Understanding New Media

Bolter, J. D., and R. Grusin. Remediation: Understanding New Media. The MIT Press, 2000. Print.

As the title states, this text seeks to help readers understand “new media” by highlighting what is and isn’t new about it by using the theory of remediation. Bolter and Grusin placed new digital media, specifically visual media, within the contexts of older media such as photography, painting, television, etc. to demonstrate how by definition each medium is understood in relation to another.

“Digital visual media can best be understood through the ways in which they honor, rival, and revise  linear-perspective painting, photography, film, television, and print. No medium today, and certainly no single media event, seems to do its cultural work in isolation from other media, any more than it works in isolation from other social and economic forces. What is new about  new media comes from the particular ways in which they  refashion older media and the ways in which older media refashion themselves  to answer the  challenges of new media.” (15)

Their central argument was that more aggressive practices of remediation, the representation of one medium in another, is a defining characteristic of the new digital media (45): “Unlike  our other examples  of  hypermediacy,  this  form of  aggressive remediation does create an apparently seamless space.  It  conceals its  relationship  to earlier media in the  name of  transparency;  it promises the user an unmediated experience, whose paradigm again is virtual reality” (56).

The text is divided into three major sections: theory, illustrations, and implications for remediation and new media on American culture’s definition of self. The authors argued that new media, and technologies in general, must be understood in terms of their connection to other media, culture, and our social identities.

“The  World Wide Web is  not  merely  a  software  protocol and text and  data  files. It  is  also  the sum  of  the  uses  to which this  protocol is  now being  put:  for  marketing and advertising,  scholarship,  personal expression,  and  so on. These uses  are as much a part  of  the  technology as the  software  itself  For  this  reason, we  can say  that  media technologies  are agents in our culture without  falling  into  the trap  of technological  determinism.  New digital  media are not external agents that  come to disrupt an unsuspecting  culture. They  emerge from within  cultural contexts,  and  they  refashion  other media,  which are embedded  in the same  or similar contexts.” (19)

Their discussion of remediation opens up space for more nuanced discussions of human and technological agency in new media:

“Computer programs may  ultimately be human products,  in the  sense that  they  embody algorithms devised by human programmers,  but once the  program is  written and loaded,  the  machine can  operate without  human  intervention” (27).

Remediation as a theoretical framework is helpful in understanding this phenomenon because we can see how, in attempts to achieve transparency and immediacy, programmers intentionally seek  to remove the traces  of  their presence  in order to give  these programs the greatest possible autonomy (27).

The authors defined two major concepts in remediation, immediacy and hypermediacy, and explained how the two are simultaneously in tension with one another and interdependent. In short, the two can be understood through the “window/s” metaphor:

“Where immediacy  suggests a  unified visual space, contemporary hypermediacy offers a heterogeneous space, in which representation is conceived of  not  as a  window on to the world, but rather  as ‘windowed’ itself-with windows that open on to other representations or other media” (34).

Examples of hypermediacy in modern art include collages and photo-montages.

Hypermedia  and  transparent media are  opposite manifestations  of the  same desire:  “the desire  to get past  the limits of representation  and  to achieve the real.” Not “real” in a metaphysical sense, but “real” based on the viewers experience; “it is that which would evoke an immediate (and therefore authentic) emotional response” (53). This appeal to authenticity of experience is what brings the logics of immediacy and hypermediacy together (71).

The authors argued that this desire for immediacy is neither new nor neutral. One of the most compelling examples of this desire is the image of a draftsman drawing a picture of a nude woman from Albrect Durer, Unterweysung der Messung, Nurenberg, 1538. Bolter and Grusin suggested the image shows the desire for immediacy in viewing the female body with a clinical gaze “to analyze and control, if not possess, its female object” (79). They argued, “The  woodcut  suggests  the  possibility  that  technologies  of transparent  immediacy based on linear perspective, such  as  perspective  painting, photography, and film, or  computer graphics and virtual  reality, may  all be enacting the  so-called  male gaze, excluding  women  from  full  participation  as subjects  and maintaining  them  as objects” (79). At the same time, this example shows how media can be used to deny female desire and subjectivity, the book also offers numerous examples of human bodies are mediated as well as how immediacy and hypermediacy are employed to express new identities and subjectivities in new media.

Ultimately, Bolter and Grusin contended that because all media are understood in relation to other media, the only thing brand new about new media are the unique ways that we employ them in particular contexts now, and this will continue to be the case with any other new media: “The true novelty would be a new medium that did not refer for its meaning to other meaning at all. For our culture, such mediation without remediation seems to be impossible” (271).

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