Remediation and Premediation as Medium Specificity in Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin

What is new about new media? As the term “new media” contains powerful ideological connotations, such as “new equals better,” the boundaries between old and new media have been intensely discussed in media studies. Are the old and the new media completely separate entities or are new media old media delivered with new technologies? Bolter and Grusin’s theory of remediation brings yet another way of thinking about new media and answering these questions. For Bolter and Grusin the specificity of new media, their “newness,” lies in the way they remediate older media. Building on McLuhan, they define remediation as “the representation of one medium in another.”[1] Against the technologically progressive view which celebrates new media as an improvement on and a complete break with old media, this notion sets the grounds for conceptualizing the relationship between old and new media not as oppositional but as part of a media genealogy, focusing, in Foucauldian fashion, on their connections and affiliations instead.[2]

The remediation theory is conceived as reaction to a popular position that was circulating at the time when the authors wrote the concept into being, in mid-1990s, namely the end of mediation. Against this theoretical position they argue that “there is nothing prior to mediation”[3] and that every mediation is remediation because each act of mediation is based on other acts of mediation.

Remediation builds on two oppositional concepts: immediacy and hypermediacy. Both logics attempt to represent the real in more authentic ways than previous media by using two different strategies, and end up redefining the real in the process of representation. The first logic attempts to render the real as unmediated immediacy and make the user forget about the medium by trying to deny or erase the act of mediation, as in the case of virtual reality (VR). Immediacy can be associated with the modernist concern for achieving an unified, liniar perspective. The failure to satisfy the subject’s desire for immediacy sets the conditions for a contrary strategy to emerge “in which the subject becomes fascinated with the act of mediation itself.”[4] This second logic is reconceptualises the real or authentic as an excess of media, which becomes our second nature, aiming to explicitly remind the user of the existence of a multiplicity of acts of representations, as in the case of the graphical user interface (GUI). Hypermediacy could be associated with the postmodernist desire for fragmentation and disruption. The paradox of these two logics is that they aim to achieve immediacy and authenticity, which are opposed to mediation, through media.

The two logics are not mutually exclusive and their various degrees of presence in different media give rise to four ways in which digital media remediate their predecessors. This categorisation of remediation which Bolter and Grusin propose is based on an analysis of formal aspects and thus a technological deterministic one. Driven by the logic of immediacy, remediation can be transparent when digital media try to reproduce older media forms without distorting them in the process. Digital media try to erase themselves from the representations which they produce, to render themselves invisible and create the illusion of experiencing the authentic older media as is the case with galleries of digitized photographs or paintings. Secondly, remediation can be translucent when it aims to emphasize the difference between the old and digital version of a medium and offer the new one as an improvement on the old one. Thirdly, driven by the logic of hypermediacy, remediation can be more aggressive when the new medium tries to refashion the old one entirely. The original presence still remains visible, which creates a discontinuous, mosaic-like space which combines fragments of disparate media items and leads to the sense of multiplicity. The GUI is an example of this type of remediation. Lastly, driven by the logic of immediacy, remediation can be even more aggressive when it tries to mask the discontinuities and absorb the other medium entirely. While transparent remediation aims to erase the new medium the absorbing remediation aims to erase the old medium. This type of remediation is specific to computer games with a strong narrative element, like Myst or Doom, which are remediating cinema.

In the last section of their essay, “Remediation,” Bolter and Grusin escape the charge of technological determinism by discussing remediation in a social, material and economic context. Not only formal aspects of older media are refashioned but also their apparatuses, according to the authors. Materials and techniques associated with various media are also remediated, an argument further developed by Manovich.[5] Their social and economic arrangements are also subject to remediation. In this line of thought, the process of refashioning old media by new media is driven by the desire to find a consistent audience. If remediation is taken as medium specificity, a medium could be defined as that which remediates a network of relationships between formal, material, social and economic aspects.

Although Bolter and Grusin set out to map a media genealogy, their analysis follows through a thread through history, namely the subject’s unrelieved desire for immediacy. This desire is being shown to drive the process of remediation throughout history, thus betraying the Foucauldian genealogical project. The authors fail to ask another Foucauldian question: what are the broader processes and power relations which constitute subjectivity as driven by the desire for immediacy and authenticity, and that make digital media address these issues?

In “Premediation,” Grusin attempts to transition from remediation to premediation as specificity of media in the twenty-first century, particularly after the 9/11 event. Whereas remediation involved the refashioning of an older media form by new digital media forms, premediation comprises three logics or desires: (1) to remediate future media forms and technologies, (2) to remediate the future before it happens, (3) to colonize the future by extending media technologies into the future in order to capture the future when it emerges into the present.[6] Premediation has a reformative function post 9/11 in that it tries to eliminate the possibility of a future event to happen without it having already been remediated. This phenomenon of remediating the future however is not specific to the twenty-first century but is a mundane phenomenon in media and has a historical dimension which can be tracked back in a similar fashion to Bolter and Grusin’s genealogy of remediation.

Whereas remediation was rightfully proposed as being a theory of media in general, the premediation concept is developed around a particular media environment and thus cannot be claimed to be replacing remediation as media logic of the twenty-first century. Rather, I would suggest that premediation is a type of remediation which takes the future as its focus, specific to U.S. centralized news media after 9/11.  In this particular context, premediation functions in a similar way with Bush’s political logic of pre-emptive war. Post 9/11 media representations that provided frameworks for looking at and representing possible futures all inevitably led to the necessity of a war in Iraq. American media appeared to join the war on terror with their own means, driven by the paranoid desire that no future event happen without it having already been mediated. However, the political context was not the only drive towards future-oriented reporting at the time when Grusin wrote this concept into being (early 2000s). In the early 2000s traditional reporting was challenged to speed up by the pace of the Internet and the demands for freshness of content which it created. Future-oriented reporting can thus be considered to be equally driven by the changing media landscape in early 2000s, not only by the U.S. political context.

Grusin claims that premediation is not a way to predetermine the real: “by trying to premediate as many of the possible worlds, or possible paths, as the future could be imagined to take, premediation […] is not necessarily about getting the future right as much as it is about trying to imagine or map out as many possible futures as could plausibly be imagined.”[7] However, the preemptive logic often determines the events which it aims to be preventing because mapping is always also a form of anticipating a space. Mapping the future is similar to doing management of expectations, each of which could be linked to a variety of interests, blurring the distinction between possibility and probability. Profiling the future by mapping all potential futures in the desire to control it is a paranoid media response to a political problem. It is paranoid knowledge production, paradoxically claiming to lower anxiety. While premediation is indeed related to affect, it aims for a bodily reaction, for an affective response, it perpetuates paranoia rather than lower anxiety in a desire to predetermine the future.

Bolter and Grusin develop the concepts of remediation and premediation in mid-1990s and early 2000s respectively, before the advent and popularization respectively of social media. Are the logics of remediation and premediation manifest in social media forms? The concept of premediation particularly was developed in a time when news dissemination was done primarily though traditional centralized media: television, radio, newspapers. Do social media forms as vehicles for news dissemination confirm or challenge the theory of premediation?

Bibliography

Bolter, Jay David and Richard Grusin. “Remediation.” Configurations 4.3 (1996): 311-358

Grusin, Richard. “Premediation.” Criticism 46:1 (2004): 17-39

Manovich, Lev. Software Takes Command. unpublished ms. 2008. http://www.manovich.net/


[1] Bolter, Jay David and Richard Grusin. “Remediation.” Configurations 4.3 (1996). p. 339
[2] Ibid. p. 315
[3] Ibid. p. 346
[4] Ibid. p. 355
[5] Manovich, Lev. Software Takes Command. unpublished ms. 2008. http://www.manovich.net/ (accessed 27 Sept. 2010)
[6] Grusin, Richard. “Premediation.” Criticism 46.1. pp. 36-37
[7] Ibid. p. 28

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