Media, Genealogy, History

Media, Genealogy, History

Matthew G. Kirschenbaum
Remediation: Understanding New Media
Remediation: Understanding New Media
MIT Press, 1998.

Matt Kirschenbaum reviews Remediation by Richard Grusin and Jay David Bolter.

Remediation is an important book. Its co-authors, Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin, seem self-conscious of this from the outset. The book’s subtitle, for example, suggests their intent to contend for the mantle of Marshall McLuhan, who all but invented media studies with Understanding Media (1964), published twenty years prior to the mass-market release of the Apple Macintosh and thirty years prior to the popular advent of the World Wide Web. There has also, I think, been advance anticipation for Remediation among the still relatively small coterie of scholars engaged in serious cultural studies of computing and information technology. Bolter and Grusin both teach in Georgia Tech’s School of Language, Communication, and Culture, the academic department which perhaps more than any other has attempted a wholesale make-over of its institutional identity in order to create an interdisciplinary focal point for the critical study of new media. Grusin in fact chairs LCC, and Bolter, who holds an endowed professorship at Tech, is a highly-regarded authority for his work on the hypertext authoring system StorySpace and for an earlier study, Writing Space: The Computer, Hypertext, and the History of Writing (1992), to which Remediation is a sequel of sorts. [Bolter’s book is reviewed by Anne Burdick in ebr, eds.] The book therefore asks to be read and received as something of an event, an extended statement from two senior scholars who have been more deeply engaged than most in defining and institutionalizing new media studies.

Much of Remediation’s importance is lodged in the title word itself. New media studies has been subjected to a blizzard of neologisms and new terminologies - many of them over-earnest at best - as scholars have struggled to invent a critical vocabulary adequate to discuss hypertexts and myriad other artifacts of digital culture with the same degree of cogency found in a field such as film studies. Bolter and Grusin clearly want “remediation” (the word) to stick, and the volume’s rhetorical momentum is often driven by simple declarative clauses like “[b]y remediation we mean…” and “[b]y remediation we do not mean…” Though the cumulative weight of these phrasings helps remind readers that they are in the presence of two critics in full command of their subject matter, the repetitive stress on “remediation” also produces some odd moments, such as this one from the preface:

It was in May 1996, in a meeting in his office with Sandra Beaudin that RG was reported to have coined the term remediation as a way to complicate the notion of “repurposing” that Beaudin was working with for her class project. But, as most origin stories go, it was not until well after the fact, when Beaudin reported the coinage to JB, who later reminded RG that he had coined the term, that the concept of “remediation” could be said to have emerged. Indeed, although the term remediation was coined in RG’s office, neither of us really knew what it meant until we had worked out together the double logic of immediacy and hypermediacy. (viii)

[ Bolter’s more recent collaboration with Diane Gromala, Windows and Mirrors (2003) applies the concept of immediacy/hypermediacy to graphic design. See Jan Baetens’ ebr review ]

This is writing that itself bears the mark of multiple mediations, from the willfully passive construction of its syntax (“that RG was reported to have coined…”) to the flutter of the keyword remediation from an italicized presentation to scare quotes and back again. I dwell on such details not to be clever, but rather because those visible stress-marks, and the placement of this vignette in the volume’s preface (where it is labeled, tongue-in-cheek, as an “origin story”) both underscore the extent to which language itself is about to be recycled and repurposed in the project that follows. For remediation is not in fact a neologism or a new coinage but rather a paleonym, a word already in use that is recast in wider or different terms: remediation is a word commonly encountered in business, educational, and environmental contexts to denote remedy or reform. Bolter and Grusin do acknowledge this later in the book by discussing remediation’s usage by educators (59), but “remediation” (the word’s) status as a paleonym itself becomes questionable when we realize that Bolter and Grusin clearly expect Remediation (the book) to perform exactly this kind of reformative work - most broadly as a corrective to the prevailing notion of the “new” in new media.

For all of this anxiety surrounding its presentation and pedigree, remediation in Bolter and Grusin’s hands is a simple (but not simplistic) concept, and therein lies its appeal:

[W]e call the representation of one medium in another remediation, and we will argue that remediation is a defining characteristic of the new digital media. What might seem at first to be an esoteric practice is so widespread that we can identify a spectrum of different ways in which digital media remediate their predecessors, a spectrum depending on the degree of perceived competition or rivalry between the new media and the old. (45)

This is, as Bolter and Grusin acknowledge, an insight also shared by McLuhan, who famously declared that the first content of any new medium must be a prior medium. But whereas McLuhan once divided the media sphere into “hot” and “cool” media based on the degree of participation they required (non-participatory media were, somewhat paradoxically, “hot and explosive” in McLuhan’s lexicon, while interactive media were termed “cool”), Bolter and Grusin parse various media forms against what they term the logics of immediacy and hypermediacy.

Immediacy denotes media that aspire to a condition of transparency by attempting to efface all traces of material artifice from the viewer’s perception. Immersive virtual reality, photo realistic computer graphics, and film (in the mainstream Hollywood paradigm) are all examples of media forms that obey the logic of immediacy - the expectation is that the viewer will forget that he or she is watching a movie or manipulating a data glove and be “drawn into” the environment or scene that is depicted for them. Hypermediated phenomena, by contrast, are fascinated by their own status as media constructs and thus call attention to their strategies of mediation and representation. Video games, television, the World Wide Web, and most multimedia applications subscribe to the logic of hypermediacy. And, as Bolter and Grusin are quick to claim, “our two seemingly contradictory logics not only coexist in digital media today but are mutually dependent” (6). This co-dependency inaugurates what they refer to as the “double logic of remediation,” which finds expression as follows: “Each act of mediation depends on other acts of mediation. Media are continually commenting on, reproducing, and replacing each other, and this process is integral to media. Media need each other in order to function as media at all” (55).

Once articulated, the ideas behind remediation are quickly grasped and readers may find themselves seeing (I stress because Bolter and Grusin’s critical orientation is overwhelmingly visual) remediations everywhere. It also becomes clear, as Bolter and Grusin themselves suggest, that remediation is the formal analogue of the marketing strategy commonly known as repurposing, whereby a Hollywood film (say) will spawn a vast array of product tie-ins, from video games to action figures to fast-food packages and clothing accessories. This practice raises a daunting set of questions for those concerned with matters of textual theory, for if we grant that a film (or an action figure) can be a text, we are then obliged to re-evaluate much of what we think we know about textual authority and textual transmission in this late age of mechanical reproduction - by what formal, material, or generic logic could we define the ontological horizon of the repurposed text known as “Star Wars?” Likewise, when one refers to “Wired,” is one speaking of just the printed newsstand version of the magazine or is one speaking of the multivalent media property that now cultivates a variety of vertically integrated distribution networks, including: an imprint for printed books about cyberculture, HardWired; an online forum and Web portal, HotWired; separate Web presences for the magazine itself as well as affiliated online ventures (which include WiredNews), LiveWired, and Suck); and two search engines, HotBot and NewsBot. That recognition of this broader media identity is central to any discussion of Wired the magazine is dramatized by the fact that as of this writing the URL deflects visitors from the site of the magazine proper to the aforementioned WiredNews - which only then offers a subordinate link to the Web presence for the newsstand version of Wired (which is itself of course an electronic remediation of the printed content). In retrospect, it seems odd that Bolter and Grusin do not make more of Wired, both because of the complex media ecology outlined above and because in it we have an artifact of print culture that, largely on the basis of graphic design and strong marketing, has remediated the experience of “cyberspace” so successfully that the word “wired” itself has become a popular synecdoche for the Information Age.

Some extended case studies of that sort (MTV would have been another natural) might have added much to the book, but instead its middle section is taken up by more generic surveys of various media forms - computer games, photo realistic graphics, film, television, virtual reality, the World Wide Web, and others - and these are a mixed lot. The chapters on computer games, graphics, television, and film are generally strong. Bolter and Grusin have an enviable feel for the subtle relationships that obtain between media forms, and they are at their best during moments such as a discussion of Myst when they argue convincingly that the game - frequently remarked upon for the “realism” of its graphics - succeeds not via the logic of immediacy, but rather by remediating the immediacy of Hollywood film; they press the point home by observing that there are in fact hundreds of examples of video games adapted from mainstream films (98). Their argument about virtual reality’s lineage in film is equally suggestive: “One way to understand virtual reality, therefore, is as a remediation of the subjective style of film, an exercise in identification through offering a visual point of view… In their treatments [ Brainstorm, Lawnmower Man, Johnny Mnemonic, Disclosure, Strange Days ] Hollywood writers grasped instantly (as did William Gibson in his novel Neuromancer) that virtual reality is about the definition of the self and the relationship of the body to the world” (165-166). What is compelling here is not so much the notion that virtual reality is about “the definition of self and the relationship of the body to the world,” but rather the confidence with which Bolter and Grusin are able to identify a specific filmic technique - the subjective camera, prominent in all the titles mentioned above - and align it with the popular rhetoric surrounding virtual reality, thereby foregrounding the artificial imperatives of both media forms.

But at times the middle chapters also seem sparsely developed. That same chapter on virtual reality, for example, is only seven pages long (including illustrations), and it includes no discussion of any functional VR systems beyond mention of research by Georgia Tech’s Larry Hodges. Likewise, the only electronic artist to receive any individual treatment in the chapter on digital arts is Jeffrey Shaw, who is perhaps best know for an installation piece entitled The Legible City, now a decade old. At other times, elements of the historical record which it would have been desirable to have on hand are simply missing. A discussion of the video game Pong, for example, offers the tantalizing suggestion that its fundamentally graphical orientation, compared to contemporary UNIX and DOS command line interfaces, “suggested new formal and cultural purposes for digital technology” (90). Yet we are not given any specific date for Pong’s first release, or for the releases of its many subsequent versions and variations (which it would have been interesting to track across different platforms); nor do we learn who first programmed the game, or where, or why. Absences of this kind detract from the usefulness of the middle sections as basic references for students of new media.

Given the scope of the attempted coverage in Remediation ’s middle sections - where the topics range from Renaissance painting and animated film to telepresent computing and “mediated spaces” (e.g., Disneyland) - lapses of the kind I note above are perhaps inevitable. And indeed, very early on in the book Bolter and Grusin offer a familiar kind of disclaimer: “We cannot hope to explore the genealogy of remediation in detail. What concerns us is remediation in our current media in North America, and here we can analyze specific texts, images, and uses” (21). But this emphasis on the “specific” is itself a scholarly move that, as Alan Liu and others have demonstrated, bears with it deep implications for any critical project conducted under the broad sign of cultural criticism, a point to which I will return (below).

But some remaining features of the book deserve notice first: Remediation is lovingly illustrated, and Bolter and Grusin deserve credit for the care with which the images were selected and reproduced. The juxtaposition of the front page of USA Today’s printed edition with the home page of USA Today on the web (40-41) or the comparison of stills from a 1980 CNN air check with a more contemporary broadcast format from CNN in 1997 (190-191) do as much to underscore the essential rightness of the core remediation concept as any number of expository passages in the text. The first and third sections of the book also include reference pointers to relevant passages from the survey of media forms in the middle section - these are “the printed equivalent of hyperlinks” (14), and some readers may find them occasionally convenient. Remediation ‘s third and final section examines logics of remediation in relation to contemporary conceptions of the self (readers who have already done their homework with Sandy Stone or Sherry Turkle may find themselves skimming these pages). The bibliography, with about 175 entries, is useful. And finally, there is the obligatory glossary; it will mark a significant milestone in the maturity of new media studies as a discipline when one can publish a book in the field without feeling the need to define for the lay-reader “virtual reality” or “MOO” (or “media,” for that matter: “Plural of medium” [274]).

Near the end of the book, Bolter and Grusin offer an account of the media coverage of Princess Diana’s funeral precession: “Because the funeral itself occurred for American audiences in the middle of the night, CBS decided to run a videotape of the whole ceremony later in the morning. At that same time, however, the precession was still carrying Diana’s body to its final resting place. The producers of the broadcast thus faced the problem of providing two image streams to their viewers” (269). The solution CBS adopted was to divide the screen into two separate windows, one displaying the funeral ceremony and the other the procession. Bolter and Grusin point out that this move marks a shift from the desire for immediacy and “authenticity” of experience that normally governs live TV to a logic of hypermediacy that places the emphasis on the media apparatus itself; but the more interesting point, I think, is that this particular broadcast solution was viable because CBS could count on its audience having already been exposed to bifurcated screen-spaces through the assimilation of the computer desktop and its attendant interface conventions into the cultural mainstream. Bracketing technical considerations, it seems reasonable to argue that CBS could not have opted for the two-window solution in an earlier era of television because the visual environment would have simply been too alien from their viewers’ expectations. Bolter and Grusin go on to note that, “other and perhaps better examples (both of hypermediacy and remediation) will no doubt appear, as each new event tops the previous ones in its excitement or the audacity of its claims to immediacy” (270). Had this closing chapter been written today, Bolter and Grusin would have almost certainly chosen as their example the multi-window displays that facilitated the so-called “surreal” split-screen television coverage of the House Judiciary Committee’s impeachment hearings and Operation Desert Fox (the American and British air strikes on Iraq) in December of 1998.

That the conflicting logics of immediacy (in the desire for live “eyewitness” coverage of two major news events transpiring simultaneously) and hypermediacy (in the spectacle of video feeds from Washington and Baghdad both on the screen at the same time, each in a separate content window, the display filled out by a lurid background “wallpaper” graphic) manifested themselves so dramatically in one of the most notable media events of recent memory surely confirms the usefulness of remediation as a critical armature for contemporary media studies. But it is worth noting that Bolter and Grusin explicitly describe their technique in Remediation as genealogical (“a genealogy of affiliations, not a linear history” [55]), and therefore I’d like to close this review with some additional words about genealogy, and its suitability to new media studies by contrast with other varieties of historicism.

Genealogy as a critical mode comes to us from Foucault; it is most closely associated with his later books such as Discipline and Punish and the three volumes of the History of Sexuality. Genealogy is distinct from Foucault’s other famous method, archeology, deployed most fully in works like The Order of Things and The Birth of the Clinic. Foucault’s most sustained articulation of genealogy is to be found in a 1971 essay entitled “Nietzsche, Genealogy, History,” whose opening lines are these: “Genealogy is gray, meticulous, and patiently documentary. It operates on a field of entangled and confused parchments, on documents that have been scratched over and recopied many times” (76). A few pages later, we read:

Genealogy does not resemble the evolution of a species and does not map the destiny of a people. On the contrary, to follow the complex course of descent is to maintain passing events in their proper dispersion; it is to identify the accidents, the minute deviations - or conversely, the complete reversals - the errors, the false appraisals, and the faulty calculations that gave birth to those things that continue to exist and have value for us; it is to discover that truth or being does not lie at the root of what we know and what we are, but the exteriority of accidents. (81)

Bolter and Grusin acknowledge this same essay, and indeed quote from it in their first footnote. Yet it seems questionable how much the “genealogy” of Remediation really resembles what Foucault imagined by the term. True, Bolter and Grusin’s narrative of media forms is not linear (or rather, it is not chronological), but their narrative is also “documentary” only in the most casual sense and it operates at a level of detail far removed from Foucault’s trademark archival research. Indeed, of the many books published on topics related to new media studies in recent years, none of them, it seems to me, has yet matched the level of documentary (archival) research evident in a work such as Michael A. Cusumano and David B. Yoffie’s Competing on Internet Time: Lessons from Netscape and its Battle with Microsoft (1998). A typical passage from Cusumano and Yoffie (who are business professors) reads like this:

In August 1994, the Seattle-based start-up Spry became the first company to market a commercial version of Mosaic. At least half a dozen non-NCSA-based browsers were also available or in the works. In addition to Netscape’s Navigator, competitors also included Cello, developed at Cornell; BookLink’s InterNet Works; the MCC consortium’s MacWeb; O’Reilly and Associates Viola; and Frontier Technologies’s WinTapestry. By early 1995, PC Magazine declared that 10 Web browsers were “essentially complete”[…] In April 1995, Internet World counted 24 browsers, and by the end of the year CNET had found 28 browsers worthy of review. Very few of those products had any appreciable market share. (95-96)

How soon we forget. Cello, WebTapestry, even Mosaic. Where are they now? Whole generations of software technologies (compressed with the week- and month-long micro-cycles of “Internet Time”) are already lost to us. But surely this level of detail - conspicuous in the InterCapped names of bygone products and technologies, punctuated by the antiquarian version numbers of specific hardware and software implementations - ought to be a key element of any historical method, genealogical or otherwise, that critics working in new media studies bring to bear.

Let me suggest that the start-up work of theorizing digital culture has by now largely been done, and that serious and sustained attention to archival and documentary sources is the next step for new media studies if it is to continue to mature as a field. Freidrich Kittler’s Discourse Networks 1800/1900 already does some of this work. And we could also do worse than Internet Time for a summation of the pace of scholarship in new media studies to date, with fresh books (books: the medium signifies) on matters cyber, virtual, or hyper appearing almost weekly. But where in all this are the careful analyses of the white papers and technical reports (for example) that must lie behind the changing broadcast strategies Bolter and Grusin point to at CNN? Where are the interviews with the network’s executives and with their media consultants and market analysts? Rather than speculate broadly about computer graphics or theories of digital reproduction, why not perform a detailed case study of one particular data format, such as JPEG or GIF (both of which have a fascinating history) or a particular software implementation such as QuickTime, which has been enormously influential to multimedia development as it has evolved through multiple versions and generations? Certainly there are practical constraints that might mitigate against such projects: would Apple unlock its technical reports and developers’ notes on QuickTime for a scholar writing a book? It is hard to know, but: Netscape did it for Cusumano and Yoffie.

A few more thoughts in this vein. Compared to other scholarly fields, new media studies has thus far operated within relatively limited horizons of historicism. Historical perspective in books on digital culture generally takes one of two forms: it is either broadly comparative or it is transparently narrative. Bolter’s earlier book, Writing Space, is a classic example of the former mode, contextualizing hypertext (very usefully) within a much longer history of writing. Sandy Stone’s pages describing the final days of the Atari Lab in The War of Desire and Technology at the Close of the Mechanical Age is an example of the latter narrative mode, as is the writing in such pop-history books as Simon and Schuster’s Where Wizards Stay Up Late: The Origins of the Internet. But both the comparative and the narrative modes encourage a relatively casual kind of historiographic writing. N. Katherine Hayles’ just-published How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics, which I am reading now, is perhaps the beginning of something new, offering a more rigorous kind of historical inquiry. thREAD to the Linda Brigham’s review of Hayles But Hayles still does not approach the level of self-reflexivity evident in a work like James Chandler’s England in 1819: The Politics of Literary Culture and the Case of Romantic Historicism, published last year by Chicago, in which Chandler historicizes history itself as a peculiarly Romantic category of knowledge, while simultaneously undertaking a meticulous investigation of the events of a single pivotal year in the development of British Romanticism. A brief passage from the preface, to suggest the flavor of the volume:

Within part 1, the first section, “Writing Historicism, Then and Now,” tries to establish a way of talking about “dated-specificity” in literary-cultural studies that makes patent the repetition between the “spirit of the age” discourse of British Romanticism and the contemporary discourse of the “return to history” in the Anglo-American Academy. The second section…moves from the notion of historical culture implicit in that “dated specificity” to consider the representation practices that such a notion of culture presupposes or demands… Then, having established how one might understand England in 1819 as a historical case, its literature as a historicizing casuistry, I turn…to explicate a series of works, all produced or consumed in that year, as cases in respect to that larger frame of reference. (xvi-xvii)

Chandler is ultimately ambivalent about the academy’s current insistence on “dated specificity” (including the sort I have been calling for above), as is his fellow-Romanticist Alan Liu in “Local Transcendence: Cultural Criticism, Postmodernism, and the Romanticism of Detail,” a seminal essay which ought to be required reading for anyone working in a field of cultural study, including media studies. Liu makes the telling point that recent critical-historical modes, from Foucauldian genealogy to cultural anthropology and the literary New Historicism, all thrive on an unexamined rhetoric that consecrates what he terms the “virtuosity of the detail” (80), a rhetoric which Liu is then able to convincingly align with the most familiar tenets of Romantic “local” transcendence, such that: “insignificance becomes the trope of transcendent meaning” (93).

Liu’s critique is too complex and finely-developed to go into here any further, but it underscores a fundamental crisis in new media studies today: the field, having really flourished only since the early nineties, has on the one hand not yet had occasion to undertake the kind of detailed case histories I advocate above; yet case studies (their “dated specificity”) are, on the other hand, already themselves being historicized as of a particular institutional moment. There is, for example, something to be learned from the curious genealogy of the font family known - fateful name - as Localizer (see FontFont). Released in 1996, the Localizer font mimics late-seventies LCD technology in an era when state-of-the-art digital typesetting permits perfect anti-aliasing. (Localizer is of course a classic remediation. Its design notes read in part: “we thought this would be the future, then it wasn’t, but it didn’t matter after all, so here it is.”) Layers and layers of media history are perhaps held in delicate high-res suspension among such exteriorities of accidents. Yet at present, new media studies apparently lacks the deep historical self-reflexivity necessary to undertake a genealogy of the Localizer font that would not also appear naive in the face of a critique such as Liu’s.

All of this is not to be taken as a criticism of Remediation itself, for Bolter and Grusin would surely (and fairly) object that a book engaging the particular issues I have been raising here was simply not the book they set out to write. Nonetheless, the probable success of a book such as Remediation only intensifies the realization that new media studies now faces disciplinary challenges that go far beyond building a critical vocabulary and syntax. I will go on record as saying that in order for new media studies to move beyond its current 1.0 generation of scholarly discourse - a discourse which is still largely, though not exclusively, descriptive and explanatory (all those glossaries!) - the field must make a broad-based commitment to serious archival research. Of course the archive is more likely to be found at venues such as Xerox PARC or IBM or Microsoft or Apple - or in a Palo Alto garage - than at the library and rare book room. But case studies of specific hardware and software implementations, and of the micro-events in the commercial and institutional environments in which those implementations are developed and deployed are absolutely essential if we are to begin achieving deeper understandings of the impact of new media on the culture at large. (An example of one such “micro-event”: March 31, 1998. Netscape Communications Corporation posts the source code for its 5.0 generation of browsers on its public Web site in an attempt to recapture market-share from Microsoft. This, I submit, is the real stuff of which new media history is being made.) Those case studies can - should - be theoretically informed, building on the groundwork of a book such as Remediation.

There is no task more important for new media studies than demystifing the unequivocally material processes of development now at work in the high-tech industry. Doing that work, and doing it right, will take time - archive time, not Internet Time.

>>—> Jan Baetens responds.


works cited

Bolter, Jay David and Richard Grusin. Remediation: Understanding New Media. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1998. [Note: All citations in this review are from a pre-press review copy of Remediation, provided by the MIT Press.]

Chandler, James. England in 1819: The Politics of Literary Culture and the Case of Romantic Historicism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998.

Cusumano, Michael A. and David B. Yoffie. Competing on Internet Time: Lessons from Netscapes and Its Battle with Microsoft. New York: The Free Press, 1998.

Foucault, Michel. ” Nietzsche, Genealogy, History.” The Foucault Reader. Ed. Paul Rabinow. New York: Pantheon Books, 1984. 76-100.

Hafner, Katie and Matthew Lyon. Where Wizards Stay Up Late: The Origins of the Internet. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1996.

Hayles, N. Katherine. How We Became Post-Human: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999.

Kittler, Freidrich. Discourse Networks 1800/1900. Trans. Michael Metteer. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1990.

Liu, Alan. “Local Transcendence: Cultural Criticism, Postmodernism, and the Romanticism of Detail.” Representation 32 (Fall 1990): 75-113.

McLuhan, H. Marshall. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1964, 1994.

Stone, Allucquere Rosanne. The War of Desire and Technology at the Close of the Mechanical Age. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1995.