Bolter, Jay David. “Critical Theory and the Challenge of New Media.” Eloquent Images:  Word and Image in the Age of New Media. Eds. Hocks, Mary E. and Michelle R. Kendrick. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2003. 19-36. Print.

  • B. begins by noting that over the course of the 20th century we have become a far more visual culture.  This includes the imagization of words themselves into visual objects that move beyond the limits of syntactical relation.  He notes that the web is a “multilinear writing space” that more fully utilizes the interplay of text, image, and moving image (20).  He mentions all this to draw attention to one fundamental point:  the www is challenging the “representational power” of the printed work in fundamentally important ways.
  • B. notes that Humanists – both conservative and liberal alike – tend to prefer to publish their work, critiques, polemics, and manifestos in the medium of print.  He points out that the typical first response by those humanists that “do theory” is to point out how new media is actually just a consumerist tool of late global capitalism; as such, folks shouldn’t take it seriously.
  • B. notes that the “cultural studies of new media theory must be critical”; however, this is only the case if new media is considered to the latest extension of the “culture industry” as first theorized by Adorno and Horkheimer (22).  The extension of this perspective is that because new media is a tool of the capitalist consumer system it must be kept at a “critical distance” so the critic remains aware of its hegemonic/ideological aims; however, as B. notes, some cultural critics want to critique the system of new media/tech development and participate in it at the same time[1. B. identifies Haraway’s work as representative in this regard. She posits that capitalist ideologies are bound up in new media forms; however, she also suggests that “technoculture may be redeemed” (22)].
  • B. points out a similar critique to Ball’s: radical new media criticism often (if not always) takes the linear, print-based format it seeks to disrupt (23).  As B. states, “Critical theory needed the technology of print in order to deconstruct print.” He calls this “ekphrasticity or the practice of producing critiques in the same format as the object of the critique (in this case print.  B. highlights this scholarly practice because it draws attention to a particular disjunct between scholarly tradition and popular culture. . . in fact, B. claims that this gap between print and new media (or scholars and the digital public) has grown so wide that print-based theorists may no longer be capable of levying any critique at all (24-5).  The folks in academic, according to B., that are addressing this disjunct are teachers of writing (woot! – 25).
  • B. attributes the buy-in of writing teachers to new media and digital literacy to the increasingly prevalent institutional and bureaucratic pressures that writing studies instructors deal with in their pedagogy and conduct as public intellectuals.  Because technical communication and electronic writing are fundamental to producing literate subjects for the 21st century folks in writing studies are much more likely to buy in to new media criticism and scholarship.  The combination of digital literacy with critical cultural theory results in “critical literacy” (25).  Yet, this desire to not only theorize but also practice (literacy as practice not theory) electronic communication leads some traditional theorists to be skeptical of their work (25).
  • B. notes that folks agree on almost nothing about the American public education system except that it must incorporate technology into its missions, curriculums, etc. (26).  This is the result of an “education as tool to reach economic prosperity” argument.
  • B. notes that as humanists turn toward new media as a subject of critique they must also turn to new media as a site of practice.  To do this means developing the literacies and aesthetics to engage audiovisual and textual modes of representation – to recognize the cultural significance of images and sound as well as the written text (27).
  • How can critical theory engage new media practice?  According to B. “critical theory can contextualize practice.  To do so, however, theory must be framed in such a way as to inform or reform practice.  This means that theory may need to reform itself in order to speak to a practice that is visual and aural (perceptual in general) as well as textual” (27).  In other words, the tension of new media is embodied in the ways that traditional ratios between print and the visual are challenged and renegotiated (27).
  • How do they do it at GT where B. teaches?  1)  They consider the history of media as an important critical context for design.  This process of “remediation” or borrowing from earlier technological forms allows for a rhetorical repurposing of such genres and content.  This creates opportunities to redesign content while also contextualizing design (30).  2) They consider the relationship among body and technology through technological embodiment (31-2); etc.
  • B. notes that at its heart the program at GT intentionally refuses to separate issues of design from issues of culture and history (33).  B. claims that the tension between the two modes of analysis (theory and practice or the critical and the practical) can actually be reformulated as a tension between the formal and the ideological (33).  The formal includes issues such as clarity, harmony, cohesiveness, and restraint – the critical considers the ideological influence of various cultural forces.  Yet, as B. notes, this isn’t enough – the “new critical theory” needed to do new media work needs to bring the formal aspects of design into conversation with the theoretical aspects of cultural critique.  As B. notes, “Any theory that is going to be useful for actual practice must offer the practitioner guidance in conceiving and executing the form of her work.  A new critical theory should offer in addition an understanding of the cultural contexts in which the form is embedded.  Such a theory should analyze and even criticize current cultural practices through new media forms” (34).


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