A Remediated, Premediated, and Transmediated Conversation with Richard Grusin (Part Three)

I am putting up the final installment of my conversation with Richard Grusin a day early as I am headed out of town for much needed R&R time with my wife. I will not be posting next week, but expect to return shortly thereafter.

History and Genealogy

RG: Speaking of history, though, I wonder if you would let me pose another question about the relationship between remediation and transmedia. One of our claims in Remediation (which has gratifyingly been borne out by a good deal of scholarship in the past decade and more), was that although the explosion of new digital media at the end of the 20th century made the double logic of remediation visible, remediation (and its double logic) had a very long history in Western culture, going back at least to the invention of linear perspective. By identifying the working of remediation in contemporary digital media, we have been able to look back on the history of mediation in Western culture to see it in a different light. Do you see a similar historical genealogy for transmedia?

HJ: Yes, depending on how broadly or narrowly we define transmedia. I have made the argument that the church in the middle ages was profoundly transmedia if you lacked the capacity to read. For the priests, the Bible stories were rooted in a text and everything else would have been understood as an illustration of that text. But if you couldn’t read that text, you were absorbing bits of the stories from many different sources in the culture around you and the stories could be brought together via stainglass windows, tapestries, or paintings, where characters from multiple stories or symbols for many parables might exist side by side. Michelangelo is in that sense a profoundly intertextual artist.

I would also point to the great world builders of the 20th century — especially L. Frank Baum, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Walt Disney as also contributing much to the current configurations of transmedia. Baum in terms of mapping Oz through books, stage plays, films, and public lectures, each adding new layers to the original. Tolkien developed a mythology much larger than he could communicate in Lord of the Rings as a specific narrative. And Disney in moving from the screen to location-based entertainment and in constructing a “world” or “family” of characters drawn from multiple stories.

RG:

Your mention here of “world builders,” and earlier “fictional worlds” or “universes,” is helpful, I think, in clarifying another difference between our approaches. You’re interested in how transmedia create fictional worlds. My approach focuses more on logics and practices of mediation in specific historical formations–although your sense that transmedia represents the current media formation of the infotainment industry is itself, I would argue, a historically specific claim.

HJ:

Derek Johnson and Avi Santos have been arguing for greater historical specificity in terms of how today’s transmedia models emerge from the larger evolution of franchise entertainment across the 20th century. I also would argue that elements can be tied back to series books and film serials, not to mention to the practices of comic books, all of which link individual units to larger story systems, even if they remain largely within the same medium. A lot depends on whether we are tracing transmedia practices in terms of narrative, visual, or economic structures. I think that recognizing transmedia in contemporary media may similarly open up further historical investigations. I hope it inspires half as much generative scholarship as Remediation has done.

I am very interested in Kim Deitch’s graphic novel, Alias the Cat, which depicts a story being created in the 1910s via newspaper serials, comic strips, film serials, and live stunts, all practices possible in the early 20th century, and all practices used in various combinations, although perhaps not in the hypercoordinated way depcited in the comic. For me, this story helps sort through the difference between a set of potential practices, each transmedia in its implications, and an overall logic which may be the current configurations of practices.

Transmedia in that sense is not totally new, yet it is unlikely that it would take its current shapes in the absence of networked communication. And that’s why I started this by reflecting on the different ways that transmedia impulses work in the era of the cd-rom, of the web, and of the iPad.

Turning the lens back in your direction, is the history of remediation one in which the same dual logic repeats itself again and again or is it one of historical transition and transformation in which shifts in the media landscape enable or foreclose certain possibilities, certain models of creative practice?


RG:

As I mentioned earlier, remediation can be traced in visual media at least to the origins of linear perspective, particularly the invention of the idea that the canvas or picture plane should be treated as a transparent window through which to view the world. I will leave it to art historians who know much more than I do to determine if it can be traced back even further or into other artistic media.

But I do remember that, while we were writing the book, we used to have fun imagining with our students other arenas in which the twin logics of remediation, transparent immediacy and hypermediacy, had manifested themselves historically. Romantic poets like Wordsworth, for example, appealed to the immediacy of the vernacular and the heart or intuition, while someone like Blake demonstrated a form of hypermediacy especially through his illustrated poems. The scientific debate between scholasticism and empiricism in science might also be glossed in terms of the immediacy of the experiment and the hypermediacy of scholastic traditions. And it is hard not to see the contrast between the Catholic Church and Protestantism as one between hypermediacy and immediacy. These, however, were mainly speculative musings. As someone committed to historical specificity, I remain cautious in trying to think about transhistorical laws of mediation.

Nonetheless, in the historical period within which remediation does operate, I would argue that the double logic of remediation does not repeat itself in the same form but operates, as you say, in terms of “historical transition and transformation in which shifts in the media landscape enable or foreclose certain possibilities, certain models of creative practice.” In my new book I situate the double logic of remediation both, as you plausibly suggest earlier, in relation to the invention of new stand-alone multimedia storage devices like the cd-rom, as well as in relation to the 1990s desire for immediacy represented most fully in technical fantasies of virtual reality which grew largely out of the cyberculture and cyberpunk imaginary of the 1980s. In the last two decades of the 20th century, immediacy was defined in terms of the erasure of mediation in an immediate, immersive encounter with the real, while hypermediacy was defined in terms of the kind of multiplication of mediation made possible by cd-roms, the world wide web, and other related media formats.

In the first decades of the 21st century, the emergence of social media has, I argue, shifted the ways in which immediacy and hypermediacy manifest themselves–and thus alter the double logic of remediation. In fact where in the 1990s the immediacy of the real was defined in opposition to the multiplicity of mediation, in the 21st century hypermediation is the mark of the real, as epitomized most dramatically in the Fox series 24, which depicted real-time not in terms of the erasure of mediation but in terms of its multiplication. In our current moment of mobile, socially networked media, immediacy is manifested as mobility, connectivity, and flow, the easy, almost seamless, interaction among our countless personal and collective media sites–FB, Twitter, YouTube, Flickr, Tumblr, and countless others. Hypermediacy manifests itself not so much in the formal fragmentation and multiplicity of the visual space of the screen as in the multiplication of mediation among and across our networks, including the ways in which all of our socially mediated interactions are tracked, recorded, and archived by a state and corporate security regime for purposes of data mining, tracking, trendspotting, and preemption of criminal behavior.

Politics

RG: Perhaps because of the changing nature of our times, my approach to premediation, which I argue is the predominant form in which remediation manifests itself in the 21st century, is much more political than our approach to remediation was. While remediation was and remains a concept that can be useful for political means, premediation makes those uses much more explicit. This, then, raises for me another question about your approach to transmedia. Do you see a politics to transmedia, either as practiced in the corporate entertainment industry of as you deploy it in your work? Or is this not an explicit focus of your transmedia work?

HJ: In terms of corporate media, there is certainly a concern that the capacity to expand a story across multiple media platforms and thus blanket the society has a potential to be used for propagandistic purposes in ways which concerns me deeply. That said, as currently developed, the transmedia model comes attached with a very active and skeptical model of spectatorship — one where collectives of fans work through complex challenges together in ways which encourage criticism and reflection.

Indeed, what we are seeing is the spill over of these forms of fan participation and emerging forms of activism, which are the focus of some new work which I am pursuing in collaboration with the MacArthur Foundation. For example, we are studying the case of the Harry Potter Alliance which has built a large scale network of young activists on the metaphors and narratives provided by J.K. Rowling’s media franchise. Here, they are building on an existing transmedia system and on the infrastructure provided by media fandom to motivate political participation around a range of human rights and social justice concerns.

I am also interested in work which Sasha Contanza-Chock has been doing on what he calls “transmedia mobilization” in the Los Angeles immigrant rights movement. There’s a tendency to think of transmedia practices as involving high end production values, but here, he is looking at how activists in Los Angeles are deploying a range of low end media to protest current U.S. policies around immigration and to get their message out to their supporters by any means necessary. Transmedia mobilization, in this case, might involve YouTube video, podcasts, mix tapes, graffiti, posters, and street theater, but it still follows principles we can recognize from other research on transmedia practices.

Finally, coming full circle back to corporate media, I am very concerned with the contradictions about participation embedded in current concepts of web 2.0 and user-generated content, issues in public policy which range from concerns about constraints on Fair Use in the domain of intellectual property to issues of “free labor” in the relations between participants in the creative process and the use of surveillance practices to monitor and monetize forms of audience engagement (of the sort you reference above). These issues are central to my new work on Spreadable Media.

A Friendly Ammendment?

RG:

Thanks, Henry. This has been really helpful for me. I hope others will find the discussion useful as well. I’d like to close by returning to where we began this discussion and offer what I hope you will see as a friendly amendment to your concept of transmedia.

In my Premediation book, I argue that the concept of new media, which was useful for both of us in making sense of the exciting and transformative changes that were occurring in the 1980s and 1990s, no longer does much work in the 21st century. In an era where old media like books, newspapers, radio, and television are created, circulated, and consumed through digital media, the distinction between old and new media becomes increasingly problematic. I argue, instead, that we should focus instead on “mediality,” which I take to include all the forms of media with which we interact on a regular basis. I relate the concept of mediality to Michel Foucault’s concept of governmentality, arguing that media today operate as aspects of governmentality in mobilizing and managing populations, which Foucault describes as networks of people and things. Thus rather than focus on the relations among “new” and “old” forms of media, I argue that we need to pay attention to the things that media do, the way they act and help govern the variety of human and nonhuman publics that proliferate at the present moment. From this perspective the political deployment and implications of transmedia that you have described could be understood as elements of governmentality in the 21st century, as a mode of what I would like to think of as “transmediality.”

If we go down this path, then I would suggest (and here is the friendly amendment) that just as mediality allows us to undo or dispose of the distinction between old and new media, transmediality could allow us to undo the distinction with which our discussion began between stand-alone and networked media. In the most trivial sense, we could see that the interaction with a stand-alone DVD, with its extras and director’s cuts and commentaries, could be seen as a form of transmediality similar to our interaction with transmedia artifacts on the internet. Of course, I recognize that this might remove (or at least minimize) the element of active hunting and searching that you see as part of the transmedia experience. But more significantly, I think that the distinction between stand-alone and networked media is increasingly coming to become unhelpful in the same way that I described in relation to old vs. new media. Whether we think of the transmediality of CDs loaded in iTunes, or the networked capabilities being built into BluRay players as just two examples, the distinction between stand-alone media and networked media seems increasingly unclear. And when you add to this the fact that the creation, production, and distribution of all digital artifacts are inseparable from all sorts of networked media technologies, I think that it will not be long before the distinction between stand-alone and networked media becomes moot. In making this friendly amendment, I mean not to weaken or minimize the concept of transmediality, but rather the opposite–to suggest that, like remediation did in the 1990s, transmediality in the 21st century names the condition to which all of our media will eventually aspire.

Thanks again, Henry, for suggesting this conversation. Let’s do it again some time.

Richard Grusin is Director of the Center for 21st Century Studies and Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. He received his Ph.D. in 1983 from the University of California-Berkeley. He is the author of numerous articles and chapters and four books, including (with Jay David Bolter) Remediation: Understanding New Media (MIT, 1999) and most recently Premediation: Affect and Mediality After 9/11 (Palgrave, 2010).

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