History and Remediation

In Remediation: Understanding New Media, Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin offer a compelling analysis of contemporary culture’s obsession with media. Their analysis turns on the observation that “our culture wants both to multiply its media and to erase all traces of mediation: ideally, it wants to erase its media in the very act of multiplying them” (5). In attempting to understand this “double logic” they call “remediation” (5), Bolter and Grusin utilize two terms — “immediacy” and “hypermediacy” — that help readers to deepen their understanding of media’s function.

For Bolter and Grusin, “immediacy” refers to the kind of “unmediated visual experience” (4) that is the goal of such “immersive” media as film, television, video games, and virtual reality. “Hypermediacy,” on the other hand, refers to the multiplication of media — to the constant replication of new media types, as well as the fusion of these media types (5-6). These two logics are “mutually dependent” upon one another: films combine live-action footage with computer-generated imagery to fashion “a seamless moving image,” and TV news stations blend in-studio broadcasters with “on-the-scene” reportage and always-running ticker-tape headlines to engage viewers on as many levels as possible (6-7).

An analysis of this “double logic” and its effect upon new media consumes the majority of Bolter’s and Grusin’s text, which is divided into three conceptual sections: “Theory,” “Media,” and “Self.” Rather than providing a blow-by-blow summary of each section, I want to consider how Remediation helps us as historians to think critically about the potential for and limits of using new media to “do history” effectively.

First, I want to think about the concept of “immediacy” as it relates to doing history. Bolter and Grusin tell us that consumers of media want an immersive and unmediated experience. Consumers of history, it seems, want the same thing. How else can we explain the popularity of and exponential recent increase in living history museums? Remediations of traditional lectures, academic monographs, and (to a greater or lesser extent, depending on the museum) amusement parks, living history museums claim to be places where one can “interact with history, up close and personal.” But as we all know, there are significant intellectual problems associated with living history museums. For those of us more attuned to the apparent “control” offered by traditional educational techniques (lecture, seminar discussion, etc.), living history museums seem to be places of little to no control — folks can have an “immersive” experience without ever consulting an “expert” or reading more about the historical context. Of course, there are also considerable benefits to living history museums, since they are often more heavily trafficked than the conventional public outreach types of experiences governed by “experts.”

I like to think of living history museums as a kind of “new media” — or at least a kind of “new mediated space.” But there are also more familiar new media that offer immersive historical experiences: documentary TV and film, websites, podcasts, etc. In fact, given the popularity of immersive virtual portals like Second Life, I can imagine a kind of new media historical experience that provides users with the ability to create an avatar and “live” history online!

Does the strong desire for immediacy effectively problematize our ability to do history with new media? If we think about history as a synthetic product — as a construct based on different kinds of “textual” sources (or, in other words, a remediation of texts, photos, and other media) — can history be “immediate” and “transparent”? Doesn’t history have to be hypermediated? What are the problems historians face when we try to do history in forms without footnotes — like living history museums, documentaries, and the like?

Second, I want to think about Bolter’s and Grusin’s discussion of technological determinism (75-78) and consider its impact upon doing history with new media. The authors, like many postmodernists, dismiss the notion that “new electronic technologies of communication will determine our social organization” (76). They see the technological forms as economic and political extensions of the corporations, governments, and other culturally powerful entities that create them. They deny these new technologies agency, suggesting instead that the agency is held by the larger forces that the technologies.

Do you agree or disagree with Bolter’s and Grusin’s line of reasoning? Or do you think (as I do) that new media have a kind of agency independent of that agency bestowed upon them by their socially, economically, and politically powerful creators? Can new media types cause cultural change, or control the way users engage, consume, and interpret the message? Does the reality of hypermediation have a control over the way we consume information from certain kind of media — say, from film or from websites? This discussion harkens back to the discussion we had last week of McLuhan, who seems to come out on the side of technological determinism and affirms the agency of new media. (After all, his “the medium is the message” explicitly suggests that the media type itself directs and controls our response to it.)

For instance, I am often overwhelmed by web pages saturated with different media — digital images, seemingly endless text, embedded video, audio files. I find that this kind of proliferation directs the way I read these pages — controls the way my eyes ingest, collate, and analyze the information presented to me. Graphic designers refer to this concept as the visual hierarchy: our eyes and our brains only process so much information, and the nature of the media controls what information we process. In this case, the media form exerts an influence over me, the user, and directs my actions — directs my reading, my navigation, my cognitive processing. The result? When I browse the web, I often miss lots of information — information I don’t realize I’m missing, because my attention has been directed by the media type itself.

Does the visual hierarchy constitute a kind of agency? Am I right to say that the web site “exerts an influence over me . . . and directs my action”? Or am I giving agency to the medium? In other words, does the web’s hypermediacy suggest a kind of agency?

If yes, how might this agency effect the way we “do history” online? Might this agency change our approach to disseminating historical information via a web-based platform, for instance?