Remediation (Bolter & Grusin 1999) refers to a historical process through which newer media forms interact with earlier ones. On the very first page of Understanding media (1964), Marshall McLuhan noted that the “‘content’ of any medium is always another medium: the content of writing is speech, just as the written word is the content of print.” Remediation proceeds from this insight, but understands the process as more complex and historically nuanced.
The relationship between media is not a linear process of replacement or incorporation, as McLuhan suggested; instead, the media of a given culture enter into a configuration of relationships involving cooperation as well as competition among numerous media. When a new medium is introduced (e.g., film at the beginning of the twentieth century, television in the middle, or the computer at the end), the whole configuration may shift. Designers and producers working in the new medium may seek to take over the roles previously played by the established media, and their counterparts in the established media may respond either by yielding easily or by reasserting their own roles. This dual process of appropriation and reappropriation will remain ongoing as long as the various media remain vigorous. Today, printed materials (books, magazines, newspapers), film, television, and radio remain important, although practitioners in these media have had to adjust their roles because of the introduction of digital forms.
One might generalize and claim that Hollywood film remediates the novel, or that computer games remediate film. Used more precisely, however, the term “remediation” describes specific creative acts: the computer game The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers remediates the Peter Jackson films, which in turn remediate the novels by J. R. R. Tolkien. Remediation is not a mere transfer of content. In the quotation from Understanding media above, McLuhan himself put the word “content” in quotation marks, indicating that the distinction of form and content was problematic for him. By the same token, new media producers do not remediate content per se, but rather the representational practices of a previous media form.
For example, some video and computer games borrow and refashion camera techniques and narrative elements from film. Such games have radically extended the first-person (or subjective) camera. In film, the subjective camera locates the viewer in the persona of one or a few main characters. Early generations of action and role-playing games put the player almost exclusively into the viewing position of the main figure. This practice (which may in fact have been adopted to make the rendering of computer graphics more efficient) was promoted as a defining advantage of games over film. Games were and are still claimed to be interactive: not only can the player see through the eyes of the main character, but he or she can act as the main character, usually by fighting opponents and gaining various forms of treasure. Later games have become more sophisticated in their camerawork, refashioning many Hollywood techniques quite explicitly in so-called cut scenes over which the player has no control. Game producers, however, continue to insist on the advantage of games as a representational practice: they are interactive, not fully determined by the game designer.
This claim to greater authenticity (or sometimes even “reality”) is a defining aspect of remediation in general. For this reason, acts of remediation establish an ambivalent relationship between the remediating and remediated forms. The producers of the new form borrow representational elements from the older one, but, in refashioning those elements, they further make an implicit or explicit claim that their new form is in some way better, i.e., more authentic or more realistic.
Bolter and Grusin (1999) identified two main representational strategies of remediation: transparency and hypermediacy. Transparency is a strategy that dates back at least to Renaissance painting, in which the artist or producer tries to erase the evidence of the medium: to make the medium disappear so that viewers may feel as if they were in the presence of the object or scene represented. Examples include linear-perspective painting, so-called “straight photography,” Hollywood narrative cinema, and digital interactive narratives. Hypermediacy is the opposite strategy, in which the producer acknowledges and even celebrates the process of mediation. Examples include avant-garde cinema, postmodern architecture, and many forms of digital installation and performance art. As approaches to remediation, a focus on either transparency or hypermediacy indicates whether the producer is inclined to cover up or to acknowledge a dependence on earlier media forms. The strategy of transparency often makes a direct appeal to nature, denying its dependence on these earlier forms.
Remediation is one theoretical approach to comparative media studies. Intermediality is another term that covers, for instance, an approach currently pursued by a variety of scholars in Europe and Canada. While intermediality often implies synchronic studies of media forms, remediation entails a historical approach. This historical perspective is grounded in a conviction that there is a relationship between formal strategies of representation and the ideologies of particular times and cultural groups. Strategies of remediation are also strategies for affirming cultural identities. Thus, the so-called music-video and remix generation may favor a strategy of hybridity and hypermediacy, while older viewers may prefer the transparency that still characterizes Hollywood films.
- Bolter, J. D., & Grusin, R. (1999). Remediation: Understanding new media. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
- Fetveit, A., & Stald, G. S. (eds.) (in preparation). Digital aesthetics and communication: Conceptual and theoretical reassessments.
- Manovich, L. (2001). The language of new media. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
- McLuhan, M. (1964). Understanding media. New York: McGraw-Hill.
- Müller, J. E. (1996). Intermedialität, Formen modener kultureller Kommunikation. Münster: Nordus Publikationen.
- Qvortrup, L., & Philipsen, H. (eds.) (in preparation). Moving media studies: Remediation revisited.
- Spielmann, Y. (1998). Intermedialität: Das System Peter Greenaway. Munich: Wilhelm Fink.
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