A case for conscientious artistic remediation and interpretation

Opinion by Alizeh Ahmad
Nov. 19, 2015, 11:59 p.m.

In reference to music, literature and other products of creative expression, “remediation” is defined in the most literal sense as the translation of a work from its original medium to another, often in an attempt to maintain the longevity and relevance of the piece or to cast it in a new, unprecedented light. Common instances of remediation are adaptations of novels into film, a practice that often sparks seemingly innocuous controversy about authenticity among fans of the story. Similarly, each new theatrical performance of Shakespeare’s “Othello” or rendition of a famed piano concerto can be considered a remediation of the original oeuvre.

It is insufficient, however, to regard the process of remediation as a mere repackaging of content. According to Mark Algee-Hewitt, an Associate Professor in the Department of English and a scholar of the Digital Humanities, it is vital to “understand the way that the object is shaped by its medium of transmission.” He refers to remediation as a “wholesale transformation” that changes the very work being remediated. As an example, a book that is converted into an electronic format such as a PDF or an eBook will provide a drastically different reading experience, thereby coloring the lens through which a reader perceives the story. In essence, we have to consider how the medium affects the matter; this relationship has momentous implications for ethical remediation and consumption of content.

Following the advent, popularization and expansion of the digital landscape within the latter half of the last century, the problems and questions inextricably woven into the nature of remediation have begun to surface with accelerating frequency and sustained vigor. This reality is notably pronounced here in Silicon Valley, a fertile breeding ground for the conception and creation of new digital media that follow older forms such as films, books and even oral traditions. Resultantly, modern technology has transformed the concept of remediation through publication platforms like Twitter or through the creation of eBooks with crowdsourced, public annotations; the focus of the experience of content consumption appears to have shifted to favor the consumer, democratizing artistic license but doing so, arguably, at the expense of authorial intent.

The beauty of remediation is that it adds to the dynamic nature of a work, allowing it to appear in numerous modified forms that reflect a multitude of differing interpretations. Recording a poem with different vocal inflections can add emotive nuances to the overall experience of the story; for example, listening to a recording of Beowulf is a radically different experience than reading the poem, leaving the audience with a perception of the work that likely mimics that of the narrator. Likewise, applying a soundtrack to a movie adaptation of a classic novel molds the viewer’s perception of the story to match the swells and troughs of the music. Other positive attributes of digitally remediated works include widespread accessibility and a capacity for drastic personalization that tailor each consumer’s experience for comfort and familiarity.

However, as it is inherently human to gauge the extent of one’s leeway and freedom, we find that remediation poses a nagging question. Considering the case of remediated literature, for example, issues appear not only concerning the preservation of authorial intent, but also pertaining to the license of the reader to interpret a work independently and without the influence of a middleman. One’s interpretation of a novel in audiobook form, for example, is undoubtedly influenced by the narrator’s choice to vocally emphasize certain words or phrases over others; this guides the listener’s perception of the novel and somewhat reduces his or her license to interpret. The effects of this phenomenon can be extrapolated to apply to the consumption of other forms of remediation.

Another issue with the process of remediation is the loss of original meaning; for example, the diminishing of authorial intent is often lamented by avid fans of books remediated for the screen. Consider a familiar case like “The Phantom of the Opera”; originally a book by Gaston Leroux, it was adapted in the 1980s for the stage and later was made into a motion picture starring the likes of Gerard Butler and Emily Rossum. The work has since become renowned for its trademark musical score, an aspect that is pointedly absent from the original written work. This association of music to the story Leroux intended to impart undoubtedly distorts our perception of “The Phantom of the Opera,” regardless of whether or not we consider our modern experience to be an enriched version. The creators of the movie exercised substantial artistic license simply by choosing a cast and set that may stray from Leroux’s description, and, subsequently, each reader’s imagination, of a character or setting. From a rigidly conservative standpoint, any deviation in form or content from the artist’s original work detracts from the experience that he or she intended to impart as well as from the historicity of the piece; expanding this thinking to the criticism of remediation, one sees the myriad possibilities for loss of original intent, even when applying a less strict set of criteria for its conservation.

These issues bring under scrutiny the responsibilities of the individual remediating a work as well as those of a consumer; it appears that in order to gain an intimate familiarity with a work and to do it justice, a consumer must experience it in multiple forms and be acquainted with its fluidity as well as its numerous interpretations. This can prove to be a cumbersome, and in some cases, impossible task; for example, responsibly experiencing an ancient work such as Beowulf would entail hearing the oral rendition sung by a “scop” or bard from centuries past before reading the epic poem currently compiled as a text.

Speaking to the responsibilities of one remediating a work, Algee-Hewitt claims that “self-consciousness is the most important aspect of remediation,” and that “understanding what it means to transform a work – what is lost that was integral to the old media and what is gained by the new one – this is what successful remediation is built on… responsible remediation understands how context and media shape the interpretation of a work.” The concept of responsible remediation is often capitalized upon by the film industry to establish authenticity, build ethos, boost box office numbers and, idealistically, maybe even stay true to the original work. This can be seen in the advertising of the recent film “The Fault in Our Stars,” as author John Green contributed to the creation of the movie, effectively extending the span of his authorial intent to include the messages conveyed by the movie version.

Deliberate conscientiousness in our experience with works of art is a crucial paradigm adjustment, as Algee-Hewitt emphasizes that remediation is “an ongoing process that is unavoidable” if the relevance of a work is to survive the test of time. It is vital, therefore, to consider the influence of the medium and the era when approaching a work of art. Creative works are ephemeral and beautiful in their temporality, and the fluidity of meaning is what makes art ageless and universally applicable.


Contact Alizeh Ahmad at alizeha ‘at’ stanford.edu. 

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