A Review of Remediation: Understanding New Media

Remediation: Understanding New Mediaby Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin
MIT Press, 2000
ISBN: 0-262-52279-9. 307 pp., 102 illus., 22 color. $17.95

Review by David Blakesley
Purdue University


Remediation: Understanding New Media is an important, perhaps even great book. It surfs the third wave in the technologizing of the word, from orality to literacy to mediacy (media literacy or secondary orality). It examines rigorously and fairly optimistically what Jean Baudrillard in his exuberance called the obscene ecstasy of communication:

    Obscenity begins when there is no more spectacle, no more stage, no more theatre, no more illusion, when every-thing becomes immediately transparent, visible, exposed in the raw and visible light of information and communication. (21)
It seems as if it has been here forever, but Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin's book has only been on the scene for a little over a year as a printed text. Why the familiarity? We knew (and hoped dearly) such a synthesis was coming, if not from Bolter and Grusin, from someone with their considerable expertise in media technologies. In the world of digital media, things are just happening way too fast. It was just a little over eight years ago that we saw our first Web browsers. Barely four years ago, I composed my first webpage, complete with a frosted-blue, textured background and little purple bullets. Now, it seems like I'm designing webpages and sites all the time. (I've even begun drafting in HTML, which is scary.) There seems to be a tidal wave of enthusiasm for new writing media as well, not to mention all the other forms of media that compete for our attention. Tidal waves have great momentum, like many other cultural changes, but they're dangerous to surf unless you know where you're going and where you've been (and have good balance). What Bolter and Grusin provide is a thoroughly articulated exposť of how we got here, or there, and with some deliberation on our part, we can imagine where we're headed. Is the new media poison or cure? (For one answer to that, see the remedi project.) Are we at the edge of an abyss, nervously loquacious? Or on the edge of a new frontier in the history of mediated communication? I say both. I think that Bolter and Grusin believe so, too.

Remediation has already become one of those instant classics and managed to do so almost before the halftones had dried. This MIT book went into pre-press release in 1998, ample time for the hype to build. (A tagline of the Press is "Where every book is an event.") Remediation has been thoroughly and positively reviewed in digital publications like ebr (electronic book review), ZoneZero, iCS (Information, Communication, and Society), and The Resource Center for Cyberculture Studies. Remediation is indeed an event, one to which teachers of writing in any environment should pay attention. The book tells a cautionary tale, excoriating the unbridled enthusiasm of cyber wonks who proclaim that digital media offer us a transcendent reality and the possibility of immaterial realities more real than real. At the same time, Remediation reinforces that confidence by magically reducing the function, power, and purpose of mediation to agency as a process, as technique, rather than rhetorical action. That reduction unintentionally reinforces the sort of utopian thinking that Bolter and Grusin work so hard to debunk. I mention this reductiveness not as a critique of anything the authors themselves have done or didn't do, but to stress the hegemonic function of economic, cultural, technological, and (even) political forces that mediate new media, usually (always, really) beyond our control. When media is reduced to technique, it becomes hardly more than a simple delivery system, a process (not an act) of communication that merely represents and shunts information or, as in Remediation, gives people what they have already decided they want. But media function rhetorically as well, as acts of communication, persuasion, and identification inscribed in wider cultural practices and attitudes.

That said, let me also say/write that I think Remediation is an insightful book because of Bolter and Grusin's relentless tracking down of implications in the "double logic of remediation" (2) and the concepts of remediation, immediacy, transparent immediacy, hypermediacy, and mediation. Remediation (pronounced REmediation) is the process whereby computer graphics, virtual reality, and the WWW define themselves by borrowing from and refashioning media such as painting, photography, television, and film. Remediation works both ways also; as digital media gain in popularity, for instance, television remediates the windowed world of computing. (Have you ever had the urge to click on a CNN newscast on your television? Or one of those snazzy graphics in USA Today? Software and hardware technology like :CRQ and :CueCat make that possible, under the slogan, "Now ANY PRODUCT is Internet Enhanced.") These concepts of immediacy, hypermediacy, and remediation swirl through each of the book's chapters, most of which focus on the many sites of remediation, including computer games, digital photography, photorealistic graphics, digital art, film, virtual reality, mediated spaces, television, the WWW, and ubiquitous computing. Eventually, in Part III of Remediation, Bolter and Grusin turn our attention to the ways that the self is remediated by digital technology. In the logic of remediation, the authentic self is constructed by fetishizing the medium, by borrowing from it to refashion an identity. The self is "repurposed" and digitized.

The concepts of remediation, hypermediation, and immediacy are not in themselves complicated or especially novel. It's their ubiquitous function that Bolter and Grusin do so well to elaborate. For an excellent (and ironic) overview of Remediation, watch the short video at the book's associated website. Look for Bolter speaking to you from the lead photo on the frontpage of USA Today, alongside a headline reading, "FBI seeks answers to bombings in Ga." (Bolter and Grusin teach at the Georgia Institute of Technology in the Department of Literature, Communication, and Culture.)

Should Remediation be of interest to teachers of writing? Is writing itself remediated and remediating? What happens to writing in a remediated world? What happens to us?

Works Cited
What happens to writing in a genealogy of remediation?