Remediation (1999)

Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin. Massachusetts: MIT Press. Remdiation

Remediation provides us with a very useful vocabulary and theoretical position through which to understand the implications of what happens when the past is made present on our computer screens. It also, like how the best critical work often does, allows us to see that past differently by viewing culture and society as an ongoing series of remediations. For Bolter and Grusin the process of remediation exists in two forms that they describe as a ‘double-logic’. They argue that remediation is a defining characteristic of new media and that when new media refashions older media it does so with either the ‘logic’ of transparent immediacy or hypermediacy.

Transparent immediacy is the ‘logic’ or strategy is the very human desire to see objects of representation as unmediated and for the viewer to feel as if they are in the presence of those objects themselves. Media that exemplify this strategy include perspective painting, photography and mainstream film. What these media all have in common is their claim to represent the ‘real’ and thus to offer the viewer a more ‘authentic’ unmediated experience. For example, a painting using linear perspective very rarely, if ever, calls attention to the canvas it is painted on, or its frame, as to do so would make us aware that what we are looking at is simply a representation. As Bolter and Grusin write, ‘The digital medium […] to erase itself, so that the viewer stands in the same relationship to the content as she would if confronting the original medium.’

Yet this erasure and encounter is surely impossible because, whether we like it or not, digital media is hypermediated. This second of the two ‘logics’ of remediation privileges ‘images, sound, text, animation and video, which can be brought together in any combination. It is a medium that offers “random access”; it has no physical beginning, middle, or end’. Moreover:

hypermediacy acknowledges multiple acts of representation and makes them visible. 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.

The hypermediated style, however, is not just a digital phenomenon. Whilst its most obvious manifestation is the world wide web itself, hypermediacy can be seen throughout history: the twentieth-century artistic movements such as Cubism, Dada, Pop Art and Collage, for example, all embrace viewpoints and strategies that are multiple. As opposed to representing the world as a unified whole these movements are more concerned with, and meditate upon, their own modes of representation themselves. They make us aware that what we are looking at is a construction. Richard Lanham, in his book The Electronic Word: Democracy, Technologyand the Arts, has even described collage as ‘the central technique of twentieth-century visual art’.

If this is so, then it should not be a surprise that fundamental to the success of the desktop computer has been the ability to ‘cut’ and ‘paste’ words and images and to place them in new contexts and recombine them in new ways. In effect, the capacity for computers to take information, whether that is words, images, sounds or video, and to store that information in random access memory, ready for retrieval at any moment and in any context, means that anyone who has ever used a computer is an effective collagist. The world appears to us as fragments of texts and images, because, in a very real practical way, we make it so. A computer remediates.

However, like the interplay we see between word and image in relation to illustration, what makes remediation a fascinating critical practice is that these two logics – transparency and hypermediacy – are in a symbiotic relationship with each other: ‘new digital media oscillate between immediacy and hypermediacy, between transparency and opacity’, observe Bolter and Grusin. Viewing a digital image on screen is a very different experience from viewing that image in an art gallery or on the page, but just because a historical digitised object exists in a hypermediated space does not mean that that object bears no relation to the original object. It is this tension between original and copy, between the past and the present, between transparent and hypermediated spaces which is the cause of so much anxiety concerning digital work. But it is precisely because this work creates these anxieties and challenges deeply held cultural assumptions that make this work so worthwhile.

Remediation is a superb book and its engagement with a range of contemporary media from television to computer games provides us with numerous examples of how the ‘double logic’ of remediation is at play across all media, across all times. As Bolter and Grusin write: ‘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’. Remediation, in turn, challenges us to look to the past to understand the present.

– Michael John Goodman