Invention as the Mother of Necessity

In Permanence and Change: An Anatomy of Purpose, Kenneth Burke cites Thorstein Veblen's reversal of the idea that necessity is the mother of invention. "Unfortunately," Burke writes, "invention is the mother of necessity" (5).

There is no question that the new media remediate older forms and that older forms of media in turn remediate newer forms, as Bolter and Grusin are so careful to point out. It is a vicious cycle perpetuated by what Burke would call trained incapacity, the possibilities for action reduced in scope by the terms (and forms) that regulate it.

At its best, remediating media keeps people interested in the spectacle of technological innovation, which ironically, as Bolter and Grusin note, is hardly as innovative as it may be touted by gearheads or suits. Remediation serves the purpose of keeping the engine of technological development running smoothly, so that, for instance, while cultivating a desire for transparent immediacy, new products for gratifying that desire (e.g., digital video, virtual reality, etc.) can be propagated and sold. It doesn't matter that the desire for transparent immediacy may be a form of trained incapacity, that people may desire more from their interactions with media. To the extent that the media conditions us to accept transparent immediacy as the highest goal, we see no other possibilities for action or desire.

Take, for instance, the case of Strange Days (1995), the film that Bolter and Grusin return to repeatedly to demonstrate how the desire for transparent immediacy and for refashioning the self motivates interaction with media. The film's main character, Lenny Nero (Ralph Fiennes) traffics in pornographic virtual reality, selling people opportunities to feel what it's like to be someone else. Lenny and his customers wear headgear (called a "wire") and use a disk player that allows them to see and feel subjectively the experience and sensations of the person who wore the wire when the disk was recorded. Users fall into the scene as if they were there. (It works somewhat like the process developed by Edward Nigma ["The Riddler"; Jim Carrey] in Batman Forever. Nigma invents a way to broadcast television so that people feel as if they're actually in it.)

Bolter and Grusin spend a good deal of time discussing the process and motives that animate the characters in Strange Days. But what's missing is any acknowledgment (that I could discern) that Lenny Nero is a loser, that he dances with his virtual self as L.A. burns. The film blatantly condemns the desire for such an expression of empathy because it is predicated on self-indulgent fantasy. Lenny's is a fascination with the media itself and for how it can appease desire. All around him, however, the society is crumbling and there is no real empathy for the plight of others, a message communicated rather dogmatically in its treatment of the LAPD as a gang of indiscriminate killers.

To be fair, Remediation does not presume to provide a full reading of the films and other media that Bolter and Grusin use to illustrate the process of remediation. At the same time, however, they do propose as their subject the history and culture of remediation, so I was surprised to see them give short shrift to the purpose(s) behind the hypermediation we see in a film like Strange Days, its ironic commentary on the desire for transparent immediacy, and its (perhaps too) explicit social message.

Works Cited