Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Ruminating on Remediation: Thoughts on Contradictions in Bolter and Grusin's Work

In their renowned book Remediation: Understanding New Media, Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin thoroughly spell out their concept of remediation which they define as “the representation of one medium in another medium” (45). Though their definition appears complete (and, at times, redundantly so) I believe that their claims appear contradictory at times.  In their discussion of remediated mediums, they tend to fall into the same traps they warn against.  While building the scaffolding for their concept, they also focus on digital media’s relationship to immediacy and hypermediacy.  They define immediacy as individuals’ desire to see the contact point between “the medium and what it represents” (30) and hypermediacy as offering “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).  As such, an interesting contradiction arises between these two concepts that manifests itself in a user’s desire to look through a medium in order to see what it represents as well as being continually confronted with a mediation of content that makes the medium apparent.  They continue to assert that in all remediation, the “older medium cannot be entirely effaced” (47) though “transparency remains the goal” (46).  Within their definition, they continue to emphasize over and again the digital medium’s desire to “erase itself” (45) so that the viewer can confront the original medium (such as the physical desktop emulated through the computer desktop). 

While they admit that the digital medium can never truly be erased, they seem to purport that, within those hypermediated environments, mediums and information can erase and replace each other, an idea that seems problematic.   For example, they turn to a discussion of hypertext and the “World Wide Web” as “our culture’s most influential expression of hypermediacy” because “replacement is the essence of hypertext” (43).  They claim that, upon clicking a hyperlink, the new material can “erase the previous text or graphic” (44).  This reliance on the notion of erasure seems problematic though, for their belief that any data, page, graphic, text, etc. can be erased by new content.  Perhaps this problem lies at the level of semantics in which they simply mean temporary replacement, not physical erasure, because, as Kirschenbaum makes evident in his essay “‘Every Contact Leaves a Trace’: Storage, Inscription, and Computer Forensics,” digital data is hardly as ephemeral as many believe it to be, especially in the case of navigating between pages.  In this move, content is hardly lost- it is just navigated away from.  It seems to me as if, in this instance, Bolter and Grusin must mean that mediums and material replace each other through hyperlink navigation, not erase.  To glorify the WWW as our culture’s “most influential expression of hypermediacy” for the ability of its hyperlinks to “erase the previous text or graphic” seems inane.  To glorify this type of hypermediacy over other mediums ignores the medium’s resemblance to the physical book, one in which a reader can flip the page and replace page two with page three.  In omitting this similarity by glorifying the erasing potential of the WWW, Bolter and Grusin appear to forget their primary claims about remediation, that new media remediates mediums that came before.


  1. I, too, had issues with the use of the word "erasure" in Bolter and Grusin. I think both "erase" and "replace" seem inaccurate for the way the web (and data) actually works at both physical and practical levels. You brought up Kirschenbaum already, so I'll try to focus on the practical / theoretical level as opposed to talking about bits bytes and blobs.

    I wonder if teasing out the word "interpenetration" may be of some use. They write that the "new page wins our attention through the erasure (interpenetration), tiling (juxtaposition), or overlapping (multiplication) of the previous page" (44). It first of all does not necessarily win our attention -- indeed, I just opened up three links in the background of my browser while staying focused and undistracted on your particular page. Your page has not disappeared, they aren't overlapping, and they aren't actually tiling in the usual sense of the word. What does interpenetration mean? Is that what I'm missing?

  2. I think there are (at least) two questions here; one about how we understand the object of B&G's analysis (are they offering an account of our fantasies of new media, or a straight description of the object as it is); the other is specific to the matter of hypertext.

    To simply sharpen the point you're making: the experience of "replacement as the essence of hypertext" indeed seems to smack of the screen essentialism which Kirschenbaum (borrowing from Nick Montfort; see Kirschenbaum 31) s trying to displace with his focus on materiality. It is not clear to me, though, that Bolter and Grusin are describing hypertext naively. Note how they introduce the paragraph: "the World Wide Web [and even that phrase has aged so quickly] is perhaps our culture's most influential expression of hypermediacy" (43). That is, it is an experience structured & imagined this way. The logics of remediation are cultural logics; (does that seem right?)

    A second points concerns the very different way we now experience the web, which makes B&G's characterization of the experience of hypertextual replacement ring false. Jesse's comment seems apposite. Think of the language of "surfing" the web. The fantasy, at least, is that you'd explore one thing, and then be carried by a link to another, and another and another. This is no longer how we use the web, in part b/c of something as mundane as (as Jesse observes) tabbed browsing. (What is the difference between the metaphors of browsing and surfing?)

    In fact, at the risk of this comment growing too long, think of how people use links in blog posts--as a sort of practice citation. They don't imagine (I don't think) that you will click that link and depart immediately (they normally would like you to stick around, right?); but we no longer imagine that a link is only, or even chiefly, a line of flight. It is an opportunity; something else to collect. A link is no longer a choice, but a resource. And resources can be hoarded---the too-many open tabs (and then the too-many windows), which I can't be the only person to suffer from. The interesting question here (I think) concerns the interwoven histories of practices of web-reading and the technological affordances which enable, capture, or codify these practices.

    1. I think the comment "[t]he interesting question here (I think) concerns the interwoven histories of practices of web-reading and the technological affordances which enable, capture, or codify these practices" raises the question of what a genealogical excavation of the different technological advances that have shifted these reading practices would look like. Because remediation is a dialectical process, and thus always engaged with an older technology, I think one could trace an interesting development of the different technologies that have subtly changed the way we navigate, understand, and generally interact with the internet. Does tabbed browsing imply that we no longer think of our interaction with the internet ("surfing") in the same way? And, more broadly, how does this speak to how digital mediums affect the way we read texts in general?