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Revisiting Our Remediation Discussion

Below are both my questions (in italics) and my notes from yesterday. Since our discussion was pleasantly desultory, I thought it might be helpful to record (remix, remediate?) some of the major highlights in one place.

Challenging Immediacy, Transparency and Reality

We all seemed in agreement that it’s a worthwhile task to challenge the assumptions inherent to the terms “immediacy” and “reality.” In my questions, I asked: In a cultural (and perhaps even cognitive) sense, what makes a mediated experience feel immediate? Similarly, what makes these experiences feel any more “real” than any others? Who or what defines the experience — the medium, or its participant?

In the discussion, several people pointed out that an experience of transparent immediacy or what could be called “reality” is culturally determined (e.g. my experience may be different from someone who grew up under different circumstances). (Kate Hayles defined “reality” as a “mediated flux.”) While B&G were rightly criticized for their assumptions, it’s worth noting (as we didn’t in class) that they seem to anticipate this criticism.

The appeal to authenticity of experience is what brings the logics of immediacy and hypermediacy together. This appeal is socially constructed, for it is clear that not only individuals, but also various social groups can vary in their definitions of the authentic. What seems immediate to one group is highly mediated to another. (41)

They go on to give an example about UFOs — people who believe in aliens see UFO films as transparent, while those that don’t see these films as hypermediate constructions, fakes. (This seems to me a much worse example than the ones we came up with in class!) Yet, they argue, even given the subjectivity of an experience like immediacy, the notion of media transparency still has some objective value; they point to studies wherein subjects who have no prior knowledge of film are shown a movie, noting that “when shown a photograph or perspective drawing for the first time, subjects sometimes had trouble interpreting the images, although after a few minutes or a few tries they could handle the images more easily” (72).

I think B&G’s response to our objection is unsatisfactory, particularly since it still operates under the assumption that transparency is a self-evident goal of most media when, as Bill Seaman pointed out, it’s in fact the lowest common denominator, a drive only vaguely present in popular media culture. Much of the most thought-provoking art of the twentieth century (perhaps of any century) plays with and in some cases actively rejects the value of immediacy. Nonetheless, B&G are not unaware of the kinds of objections we raised.

The Role of History

We didn’t get to talk about this question as much, but it’s one of the most interesting to me personally: How do B&G approach, present and exploit historical evidence? In other words, in theorizing media artifacts from the present (the subtitle is, after all, Understanding New Media), what position do they adopt toward the past?

Remediation is itself a kind of historical approach, so the question is not what so much as how. Others might disagree, but I would argue that B&G flatten the past into one big soupy mess, thereby undermining their own historical goals. In what can we really say that, for instance, VR and baroque Wunderkammer are at all alike? What contexts do we risk losing by superficial comparisons across vastly different time periods and cultures?

Agency

What role do users play in the processes of immediacy, hypermediacy and remediation?

I have to admit that this isn’t my question, but Lisa Gitelman’s in Always Already New: Media, History, and the Data of Culture (MIT Press, 2008). She examines this passage from B&G —

New media are doing exactly what their predecessors have done: presenting themselves as refashioned and improved versions of other media. 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. [etc] (15)

— and concludes that “Bolter and Grusin’s identification of media as social and economic forces appears amid a lot of syntax that seems to make media into intentional agents, as if media purposelly refashion each other and “do cultural work'” (9).

I wonder if others agree with her assessment. More broadly, how can we talk about media (by their very nature socially and culturally embedded objects, used objects) without slipping into this trap?

Defining Mediation

Finally, while we discussed the definition of ‘mediation’ as a kind of lens (in the metaphorical sense) over one’s embodied experiences, I wanted to conclude by pointing out that Bolter and Grusin offer their own definition:

A medium is that which remediates. It is that which appropriates the techniques, forms, and social significance of other media and attempts to rival or refashion them in the name of the real. A medium in our culture can never operate in isolation, because it must enter into relationships of respect and rivalry with other media. (65)

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  1. September 5, 2009 at 9:32 am

    Thanks for the very coherent notes and cogent analysis, which helps fill me in areas that I have missed out for having to leave early. Whitney rightly pointed out that we do need to think about the role of history, especially as we go through the other texts and critically compare them against the “Remediation” text. I don’t suppose we will ever get to Lev Manovich?

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