19 October 2012

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.

01 October 2012

The New Aesthetic: A Maieutic of Computationality

Screen testing at main stage for the Republican convention in Tampa, Fla (2012)
Many hasty claims are now being made that the new aesthetic is over, finished, or defunct. I think that as with many of these things we will have to wait and see to the extent to which the new aesthetic is "new", an "aesthetic", used in practice, or has any trajectory associated with it. For me, the responses it generates are as interesting as the concept of the new aesthetic itself.

And regarding the "remembering" (perhaps, territorialization) of new media and previous practices, let's not forget that forgetting things (deteritorialization) can be extremely productive, both theoretically and in everyday practice (as elpis, perhaps, if not as entelechy of new generations). Indeed, forgetting can be like forgiving,[1] and in this sense can allow the absorption or remediation of previous forms (a past bequeathed by the dead) that may have been contradictory or conflictual to be transcended at a higher level (this may also happen through a dialectical move, of course).[2] This is, then, a politics of memory as well as an aesthetic.

But the claim that "NA is that it seems to be all gesture and no ideology" is clearly mistaken. Yes, NA is clearly profoundly gestural and is focused on the practice of doing, in some sense, even if the doing is merely curatorial or collecting other things (as archive/database of the present). The doing is also post-human in that algorithms and their delegated responsibility and control appears to be a returning theme (as the programming industry, as logics of military colonisation of everyday life, as technical mediation, as speed constitutive of absolute past, or as reconstitution of knowledge itself). It is also ideological to the extent that is an attempt to further develop a post-human aesthetic (and of course, inevitably this will/may/should end in failure) but nonetheless reflects in interesting ways a process of cashing out the computational in the realm of the aesthetic – in some senses a maieutic of computational memory, seeing and doing (a "remembering" of glitch ontology or computationality).

As to the charge of the inevitability of historicism to counter the claims of the new aesthetic, one might wish to consider the extent to which the building of the new aesthetic may share the values of computer science (highly ideological, I might add) and which is also profoundly ahistorical and which enables the delegation of the autonomy of the new aesthetic (as code/software) as a computational sphere. But this is not to deny the importance of critical theory here, far from it, but rather it is to raise a question about computation's immunity to the claims that critical approaches inevitably make – as Ian Bogost recently declared (about a different subject), are these not just "self-described radical leftist academics" and their "predictable critiques". Could not the new aesthetics form an alliance here with object-oriented ontology?

Within this assemblage, the industrialisation of programming and memory becomes linked to the industrialisation of "seeing" (and here I am thinking of mediatic industries). What I am trying to gesture towards, if only tentatively, is that if the new aesthetic, as an aesthetic of the radically autonomous claims of a highly computational post-digital society, might format the world in ways which profoundly determine, if not offer concrete tendencies, towards an aesthetic which is immune to historicism – in other words the algorithms aren't listening to the humanists – do we need to follow Stephen Ramsay's call for Humanists to build?

Here I point to both the industrialisation of memory but also the drive towards a permanent revolution in all forms of knowledge that the computational industries ceaselessly aim towards. That is, the new aesthetic may be a reflexive sighting (the image, the imaginary, the imagined?) and acknowledgement of the mass-produced temporal objects of the programming industries, in as much as they are shared structures, forms, and means, that is, algorithms and codes, that construct new forms of reception in terms that consciousness and collective unconsciousness will increasingly correspond.


[1] "Forgiving is the only reaction which does not merely re-act but acts anew and unexpectedly, unconditioned by the act which provoked it and therefore freeing from its consequences both the one who forgives and the one who is forgiven" (Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition, page 241), "and if he trespass against thee... and... turn against to thee, saying, I changed my mind; thou shalt release him" (Luke 17: 3-4)
[1] Here I am thinking in terms of Mannheim's concept of "Generation Entelechy" and "Generation Unit" to consider the ways in which the quicker the tempo of social cultural change, here understood as represented through digital technology, the greater the chances that a particular generation location's group will react to changed circumstances by producing their own entelechy. 

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