Jan Baetens asks Remediation or Premeditation?
Matthew Kirschenbaum's review of Remediation rightly insists on both the qualities and the problems of Bolter and Grusin's landmark publication. His "Media, Genealogy, History" underlines two major difficulties of the book: first, the vagueness of its central concept, that of "remediation"; second, the lack of a more solid historical background. Concerning the second problem, he then recommends slowing down the rather flashy "Internet time" adopted by Bolter and Grusin in their global survey of media history, which he proposes to study in the almost immobilized "archival time" of Foucaldian genealogy. Yet the different pace of such Foucaldian case studies is the only way, argues Kirschenbaum, to unveil the way history is made. Largely agreeing with Kirschenbaum, in his globally positive appreciation of Remediation as well in his critiques, I would like to add here some small remarks, which to me do not seem incompatible with his own appeal for a Foucaldian turn in media studies.
True, the media history (essentially the "new media" history) as rewritten by Bolter and Grusin is not chronological at all. Yet in spite of all declarations it remains thoroughly teleological. Behind every change since the Renaissance, the authors see indeed one major drive, the desire for a more direct contact with reality. Of course, the discussion on most of the new media (think of "virtual reality") enables them to offer some convincing examples of this logic. Besides, the very idea of "remediation" is also very telling for the book's teleological agenda. To "remediate," one must have identified a problem and have started looking for a way to reform it. If this seems indeed the case for several technical innovations, this does not mean however that the general thesis is also valid. Technology historians have brought home the two following points. On the one hand, a technical invention is not a response to an already existing need: the use of an invention is not always clear in the beginning. On the other hand, one should not consider an invention as the reform or remediation of a preceding technology: every invention remains in the first place the extension of a human power (for a discussion of these views as applied to photography, see Patrick Maynard, The Engine of Visualization: Thinking through Photography, Cornell, 1997). It seems therefore too easy to resume five centuries of media history by one and almost premeditated logic.
This brings me to my own critique, which I can here only indicate very shortly, but which I shall develop in detail in a forthcoming article ("Back to Basics," in Jan Baetens & José Lambert, eds, The Future of Cultural Studies, Louvain University Press, 2000). I assume indeed that the logic behind all media transformations has in Western countries a strong economic, and thus political and human, dimension, which the too strictly technological approach of Bolter and Grusin fails partially to grasp. And although I know its dangers, I strongly believe that not only a Foucaldian, but also an Adornian viewpoint could be very helpful in addressing some issues hardly discussed by Remediation. Indeed, technical decisions and innovations are not only proposed to readers or viewers, but imposed on customers. The choice between black and white or colour photography is a good case here, for instance in press photography (but the case of amateur photography, where black and white has become dissuasively expensive, should be worth considering also): that nowadays press photography tends to be more and more in colour has nothing to do with any increased realism whatever, but with marketing strategies, with return on investments, and with the public's longing for innovation (which is not at all the same thing as remediation). The last of these elements is the most interesting one, since it clearly shows how ways of thinking are at least partly determined by economic perspectives. We always want something new - even though it often implies that the quality of the new is not so good - because we believe that it is the only way to sustain and even increase our own wealth and income. The choice for the new becomes, intentionally or not, the choice for the capitalist society that allows us to replace the old by the new.
If choices are thus often made by others, the consequences for customers may be far-reaching. The optimistic, or better, depoliticized vision of Bolter and Grusin logically embraces technology as well as the self: in the long run everything gets better and thanks to the new media our lives become richer and fuller. But there should be room for other, more pessimistic visions. One can only hope that the well-deserved success of Remediation will not increase the book's exclusion of such other stories. Technology, politics, economy, are one system, and Bolter and Grusin correctly stress such "hybridity." But the system is not "at peace" - the tensions existing between dominating and dominated forces enable hybridity, but sometimes at the cost of other possible outcomes. We should ask how and why this is so, and it is this perspective that I am missing in Remediation.