Against Remediation

A new aesthetic through Google Maps

In contemporary life, the social is a site for a particular form of technological focus and intensification. Traditional social experience has, of course, taken part in various forms of technical mediation, formatting and subject to control technologies. Think, for example, of the way in which the telephone structured the conversation, diminishing the value of proximity, whilst simultaneously intensifying certain kinds of bodily response and language use. It is important, then to trace media genealogies carefully and to be aware of the previous ways in which the technological and social have met – and this includes the missteps, mistakes, dead-ends, and dead media. This understanding of media, however, has increasingly been understood in terms of the notion of remediation, which has been thought to helpfully contribute to our thought about media change, whilst sustaining a notion of medium specificity. Bolter and Grusin (2000), who coined its contemporary usage, state,

[W]e call the representation of one medium in another remediation, and we will argue that remediation is a defining characteristic of the new digital media. What might seem at first to be an esoteric practice is so widespread that we can identify a spectrum of different ways in which digital media remediate their predecessors, a spectrum depending on the degree of perceived competition or rivalry between the new media and the old (Bolter and Grusin 2000: 45).

However, it seems to me that we now need to move beyond talk of the remediation of previous modes of technological experience and media, particularly when we attempt to understand computational media. I think that this is important for a number of reasons, both theoretical and empirical. Firstly, in a theoretical vein, the concept of remediation has become a hegemonic concept and as such has lost its theoretical force and value. Remediation traces its intuition from McLuhan’s notion that the content of a new media is an old media – McLuhan actually thought of “retrieval” as a “law” of media. But it seems to me that beyond a fairly banal point, this move has the effect of both desensitising us to the specificity and materiality of a “new” media, and more problematically, resurrecting a form of media hauntology, in as much as the old media concepts “possess” the new media form. Whilst it might have held some truth for the old “new” media, although even here I am somewhat sceptical, within the context of digital, and more particularly computational media, I think the notion is increasingly unhelpful. Secondly, remediation gestures toward a depth model of media forms, within which it encourages a kind of originary media, origo, to be postulated, or even to remain latent as an a priori. This enables a form of reading of the computational which justifies a disavowal of the digital, through a double movement of simultaneously exclaiming the newness of computational media, whilst hypostatizing a previous media form “within” the computational.

Thirdly, I do not believe that it accurately describe the empirical situation of computational media, and in fact obfuscates the specificity of the computational in relation to its structure and form. This has a secondary effect in as much as analysis of computational media is viewed through a lens, or method, that is legitimated through this prior claim to remediation. Fourthly, I think remediation draws its force through a reliance on an occularity, that is, remediation is implicitly visual in its conceptualisation of media forms, and the way in which one media contains another, relies on a deeply visual metaphor. This is significant in relation to the hegemony of the visual form of media in the twentieth century. Lastly, and for this reason, I think it is time for us to historicize the concept of remediation. Indeed remediation seems to me to be a concept appropriate to the technologies of media of the twentieth century, and shaped by the historical context of thinking about media in relation to the materialities of those prior media forms and the constellation of concepts which appeared appropriate to them. We need to think computational media in terms which de-emphasize, or certainly reduce the background assumptions to remediation as something akin to a looking glass, and think in terms of a medium as an agency or means of doing something – this means thinking beyond the screenic.

So in this paper, in contrast to talk about “remediation”, and in the context of computational media, I want to think about de-mediation, that is, when a media form is no longer dominant, becoming marginal, and later absorbed/reconstructed in a new medium which en-mediates it. By en-mediate I want to draw attention to the securing of the boundaries related to a format, that is a representation, or mimesis of a previous media – but it is not the “same”, nor is it “contained” in the new media. This distinction is important as at the moment of enmediation, computational categories and techniques transform the newly enmediated form – I am thinking here, for example, of the examples given by the new aesthetic and related computational aesthetics. By enmediate I want to draw links with Heidegger’s notion of enframing (Gestell) and the structuring providing by a condition of possibility, that is a historical constellation of concepts.  I also want to highlight the processual computational nature of en-mediation, in other words, enmediation requires constant work to stabilize the enmediated media. In this sense, computational media is deeply related to enmediation as a total process of mediation through digital technologies. One way of thinking about enmediation is to understand it as gesturing towards a notion of a paradigmatic shift in the way in which “to mediate” should be understood, and which does not relate to the “passing through”, or “informational transfer” as such, but rather enmediate, in this discussion, aims to enumerate and uncover the specificity of computational mediation as mechanic processing.

I therefore want to move quickly to thinking about what it means to enmediate the social. By the term “social” I am particularly thinking in terms of the meditational foundations for sociality that were made available in twentieth century media, and which when enmediated become something new. So sociality is not remediated, it is enmediated – that is the computational mediation of society is not the same as the mediation processes of broadcast media, rather it has a specificity that is occluded if we rely on the concept of remediation to understand it. Thus, it is not an originary form of sociality that is somehow encoded within media (or even constructed/co-constructed), and which is re-presented in the multiple remediations that have occurred historically. Rather it is the enmediation of specific forms of sociality, which in the process of enmediation are themselves transformed, constructed and made possible in a number of different and historically specific modes of existence.

Bolter, J. D. and Grusin, R. (2000) Remediation: Understanding New Media, MIT Press.

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