A Remediation's Remediation?

A Remediation's Remediation?

2004-02-22
Windows and Mirrors. Interaction Design, Digital Art, and the Myth of Transparency
Jay David Bolter and Diane Gromala
MIT Press, 2003.

Jan Baetens looks ‘through’ and ‘at’ Bolter and Gromala’s Windows and Mirrors and finds a foggy vision.

In Remediation: Understanding New Media (Bolter and Grusin 1999) proposed a theory on media evolution that attempted to break with the myth of the newness of new media and the linear supersession of older media by newer ones (their main target, although this is not the explicit program of the book, is definitely Marshall McLuhan, whose teleological Understanding New Media is clearly meant to be remediated by a more nuanced and more powerful theory). Coining the notion of Remediation, they argued that each new media refashioned at least one older medium. This process of refashioning, however, does not obey a single strategy: if the basic aim of each Remediation seems to be the increase of realism, this call for immediate transparency does not suffice to explain the whole picture. For Bolter and Grusin, a second strategy has to be taken into account, namely the need to foreground the new medium itself, which gives its user a more vivid experience than the older one. Media history and intermedia relationships are therefore the result of these two interacting strategies and forces, which should never be separated if the Remediation’s goal is to be successful, i.e. to become the new (although always provisory) standard in the field.

Remediation is without any doubt a seductive book, and it has seduced many readers, although not everybody felt happy with the all-encompassing and rather decontextualized sesam-like theory of transparency/hypermediacy (see Kirshenbaum’s 1999 review of Remediation and the accompanying Riposte by Baetens).

I apologize for this long introduction to a review of Bolter’s new book (written in collaboration with Diane Gromala, chair of the SIGGRAPH 2000 Art Committee and curator of the art gallery of this “fair”), but such an introduction is exactly what the authors claim not to provide. There is of course an introduction, and even a whole set of them (as if the absence was contagious!), but these pages are in a sense “self-destructive.” They explain that the book has in view a very particular readership (it aims toward the community of graphic designers, not that of other readers, those for instance interested in media theory), adding that there will be thus no comments on the theoretical background of this mostly hands-on project:

Finally, we acknowledge the work of the following critics and theorists. Readers (and especially reviewers of our book) all have their favorites and are likely to complain that we are ignorant of this or that key idea. We are no doubt ignorant of many important ideas, but we are acquainted with the contributions of the theorists and theories listed below. We choose not to discuss them, because this is a book about the craft of and the material engagement with digital art and design, and we believe that the theoretical literature often strays too far from practice to be useful for our purposes:

Richard Dawkins and memes
Deleuze and Guattari and rhizomes
Donna Haraway and cyborgs
Heidegger and enframing
The Frankfurt School and the culture industry
Lacan and the mirror stage
Baudrillard and simulacra

(x-xi)

(The reader will notice that there is no final point at the end of this enumeration).

This double exclusion (of a certain type of reader on the one hand and of a certain type of discourse on the other) is the more strange since Windows and Mirrors is deeply rooted in the theoretical stances of two authors whose name and work is lacking in the list above (and even in the bibliography and the index!): Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin, whose Remediation is clearly “applied” in this book by Bolter and Gromala. The double metaphor of “window” and “mirror” and its double definition as “looking through (the medium) and “looking at (the medium”) are manifest transcodings of the concepts of “transparency” (realism) and “hypermediacy” (experience). First, an application of Remediation is made to a very specific field, that of graphic design (although some odd things happen here: in fact, the book is on digital art, but this field is considered the quintessence of what graphic design should be and signify today, a wonderful theoretical coup d’état that is nowhere fully motivated). Second, an application is made to the book, i.e. Windows and Mirrors, itself. Remediation was certainly an attractively printed and cleverly illustrated book, and it surely made some attempts to take the digital revolution into account, for instance by inventing a kind of hypertextual variant of the traditional footnote, but these attempts remained rather elementary: readers of SMLXL (Koolhaas 1995) must have found Remediation very old-fashioned).

[ See also Anne Burdick’s review of Bolter’s Writing Space for further discussion of designwriting, eds. ]

A reader with bad faith could say that Windows and Mirrors is nothing more than a quickly made spin-off of Remediation, well served by the wonderful merchandising machine that is MIT. A pretty spin-off and a good-looking one, but nevertheless also a disappointing one. Indeed, despite its fascinating examples, its clear and well-written historical and theoretical enframings, many things go wrong in this book.

One may regret for instance that the global theory of Remediation is not even presented: it is taken for granted that this theory exists, that everybody knows and accept it, and that is does not need any further analysis (in short: as if it had become perfect common knowledge or, to stay in the Barthesian terminology of Bolter and Gromala, a myth; if one were a follower of Charles Sander Peirce, one might say the Remediation theory functions as an unquestioned and unchallengeable “final interpretant,” beyond any doubt, and even beyond the very consciousness). This is of course very dangerous, since it brings the authors to adopt a pretty doxological tone. Every ten pages (say, at the end of each chapter) we are reminded of the Universal Truth of graphic design, with all the DOs and DON’Ts that this position entails. One example among many others:

Good design does not mold users according to its recipe; instead, it allows users to see themselves (and the process and contexts of design) in the interface. An effective interface functions as a mirror as well as a window. (74)

The rephrasing of Remediation, as all readers of this book will observe immediately is utterly transparent. Yet the veracity of all these truths is relative: it depends on many factors, whose role is not always fully incorporated in the book. If the thesis “an effective interface functions as a mirror as well as a window” is true (and why not?), it is not because the authors have been giving arguments for this claim, but because they manage to demonstrate the falseness of what they consider the opposite claim, namely the idea that good graphic design is transparent design (Bolter and Grusin seem to have a particular dislike of Nielsen [2000] and Norman [1998]). But the fact that a theory “X” proves to be wrong does not imply at all that the opposite theory is rightjo (though this is exactly the stance that Bolter and Gromala are taking throughout the whole book).

Moreover, the opposition of transparency/hypermediacy (in the metaphoric terminology of Bolter and Gromala this becomes: mirror/window) remains unclear. It is not clear whether the mirror-like stance of “reflectivity” (in Windows and Mirrors there is no room any longer for the concept of “hypermediacy”) and experience represent something good in itself or not. In other words: do Bolter and Gromala make a plea for the triad mirror/reflectivity/experience as such or do they defend a kind of middle-of-the-road combination of transparency on the one hand and reflectivity on the other? In the beginning of Windows and Mirrors, one has the strong impression that Bolter and Gromala defend strongly the side of the “mirror” as a necessary antithesis to the unsuccessful transparency thesis. Yet the more one advances in the book, the more one notices that the important thing for Bolter and Gromala is not the antithetical relationship of windows and mirrors; instead what counts is their peaceful and ecumenical synthesis. From a theoretical point of view, of course, this makes a world of difference. Indeed, if the aim of the book is to remediate graphic design by proposing, thanks to the examples given by contemporary digital art, a blending of transparency and reflectivity, this has a crucial consequence for the position of the reflectivity pole, which then ceases to be the “good guy” in the eternal battle between right and wrong (I’m sorry for this language, partly inspired by Bolter’s and Gromala’s love of parables). If what matters is the good balance between both sides, then one might argue that the problem of graphic design is as much that of the “mirror” than it is of the “window.” In other words: if it is true that we need more reflectivity in order to compensate for the errors of transparency, it is no less true that we also need more transparency to counterbalance the imperfections of reflectivity. Unfortunately, this is not the logical stance taken by Bolter and Gromala, who are obnubilated by their will to debunk the position of people like Nielsen and Norman (and, more curiously, Tschichold, the ultimate modern representative of the despised transparency myth).

This major theoretical flaw of Windows and Mirrors does not of course prevent the reader from discovering many interesting presentations and analyses of digital art. Even the fact that the works presented do not cover the whole field (readers looking for a good general introduction will be better off with Lunenfeld [2000]), but rather more resemble extracts of the SIGGRAPH 2000 catalogue, is not annoying. The works themselves are generally fascinating. The readings proposed by the authors and their theoretical and historical framing are without exception illuminating. And the systematic “lesson” Bolter and Gromala draw from their interpretations (“there’s nothing like a good mix of transparency and reflectivity, and it works!, as we saw it, not on television but at SIGGRAPH 2000”) has many convincing aspects. What is actually lacking, however, is what is announced in the very blurb of the book: the application of digital art to graphic design. It does not suffice to postulate that digital art shows what graphic design is or should be today, one should also be able to produce actual examples of digital graphic design. In this respect, Windows and Mirrors is doubly disappointing.

It is disappointing, first, because the examples given are not analyzed but simply enumerated. After eight chapters giving a detailed analysis of eight works of the SIGGRAPH fair (including the display of the works in the art gallery itself), Windows and Mirrors dedicates one short chapter to examples of digital graphic design, but it does nothing more than list names and titles, without any further analysis.

Second, the authors claim their book to be an ars poetica, i.e. a performance in practice of what it proposes in theory: “…we have tried to produce this book according to the principle that we have been preaching: to make it an experience that is both transparent and reflective” (164). The reader of Windows and Mirrors will not be convinced by this final revelation, since the overall lay-out of the book is very academic and even dull (one can only regret Marshall McLuhan’s and Quentin Fiore’s mind-broadening psychedelic experiments of the 60s, not to speak of the more recent explorations of some printed no-man’s-land by Bruce Mau and Rem Koolhaas). In this respect the final halleluhia surrounding the digitally remediated typeface “Excretia” makes things only worse. Excretia is a “morphing” typeface that changes following the writer’s bodily states:

The writer is hooked up to a biofeedback device, which measures her heart rate, respiration, and galvanic skin response. As she writes, these continuous streams of data affect the visual character of the typeface. The words “throb” as her hearts beats; they grow tendrils and spikes if she becomes “excitable.” As the writer works, the text she has already written may continue to change, or she may choose to freeze it to reflect her state at the very instant of the writing - in effect, to create a biological-typographical record. The same word may have a very different feel, texture, and therefore meaning at different times… With Excretia, a word processor is no longer simply a productivity tool but a reflective experience in itself. (166)

What is needed here is a strong skeptical response. Not only does the reader not necessarily care for these effects (one should never forget what good old Flaubert said: “Art has nothing to do with the artist” - but everything to do with the work and its impact on the audience). But what Bolter and Gromala are doing in their book has nothing to do with their claims on remediated typography. Actually, their new typeface Excretia does not play any serious part in the design of Windows and Mirrors. The fact that it is incorporated in the typographical form of the title of the chapter does not mean anything for the global design of the book (it is the usual error of typeface designers who make a confusion between typeface and design, between the part and the whole). In order to prove successful, the new typeface should have been used throughout the whole work (and not only as a kind of decorative element at the mere level of the title, where one often finds typographical “figures of speech”) and it should have been incorporated at the level of the page lay-out (and it is impossible to discover any influence or Remediation whatsoever at this page level, contrary to other recent books by MIT such as Hayles (2002) [see Baetens 2003]). All this is definitely not the case, and for very good reasons. A more systematic use of Excretia would have increased dramatically the book’s reflectivity, which is clearly not what the authors want to accomplish: what they have in mind is the transparent communication of a simple message; what they want to give is a “window” on the “mirror,” not the opposite, and not even a blending of both.

Bibliography

Jan BAETENS (2000). “A Critique of Cyberhybrid-hype,” in Jan Baetens and José Lambert (eds), The Future of Cultural Studies. Leuven: Leuven UP, 153-171.

Jan BAETENS (2003). “The Book as Technotext: Katherine Hayles’s Digital Materialism,” in Image and Narrative , 7. n.p.

Jay David BOLTER and Richard GRUSIN (1999). Remediation: Understanding New Media. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT.

Katherine HAYLES (2002). Writing Machines. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT.

Matt KIRSCHENBAUM (1999), Media, Genealogy, History, in ebr.

Rem KOOLHAAS (1995) S.M.L.XL: O.M.A. Rotterdam: 010.

Peter LUNENFELD (2000). Snap to Grid. A User’s Guide to Digital Arts, Media, and Cultures. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT.

Jakob NIELSEN (2000). Designing Web Usability. Indianapolis: New Riders.

Donald NORMAN (1998). The Invisible computer. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT.