Jethro Tull and Remediation

This is yet another in a weekly series of response papers I am submitting to a graduate class I’m in right now. I note this so you understand my references to papers and class periods in general. Also, I note it so you might excuse the crudeness of the entries, as they are usually written in the hour before they are due!

As I sit here at my desk with Jethro Tull’s Thick as a Brick blaring its concept-album-ness, I find myself thinking about remediation. I do not mean the kind of remediation that our readings have dealt with in the field of composition, the kind that relates to the word remedial. I’m thinking more along the lines of re-mediation, the kind that Jay David Bolter talks about in his book Writing Space (and his book Remediation, which I have yet to read). But I’ll get back to Bolter in a few moments.

Jethro Tull was your normal British blues-rock band of the 1960s, right along with The Who and The Kinks. Yet as the years rolled on, artists began to experiment with more than the three-minute radio-friendly singles. The result was the concept album. With Thick As a Brick, Jethro Tull created a unique album—not songs—that mixed genres, creating something that sounds like it ought to be played at a Renaissance Fair—lutes and strings mixing with the electric guitars. More importantly, the entire album was one song, unbroken into tracks—split only so the listener could flip the LP and keep on rockin’.
What does this have to do with remediation?

Tull experimented with forms, breaking genre boundaries and creating a new harmony, but they still could not escape the rules of their chosen medium: the LP. Records have only so much space per side, and their album was designed with a lull in the middle, at about the 22 minute mark, so that the listener could be re-oriented on side B.

Yet I sit here listening to it on CD, a medium that allows for continuous playback—flipping the disc over would probably ruin my player! The sides of the LP are turned into tracks on the CD, and the same lull that helped listeners in the late 1970s transition from one side to the other now sounds odd and out of place. The music has been re-mediated, and the translation is not 1:1. The lull does not mean the same thing in 2006 that it did in 1976.

Now, what does this have to do with writing?

Bolter believes that writing is always mediated, filtered through the medium that carries it. The various media offer different possibilities, depending on their characteristics. For example, the papyrus roll is great for reading long speeches and epic poetry, but they aren’t research-friendly.

open quote digital technology has expanded the horizons of composition to include less permanence and more playfulness
end quote

You can’t go back to a specific part of the papyrus as easily as you can flip to page 500 of your critical edition, for example.
The book, for its part, is just another stop on the trail of “progress”—and I use that term very carefully, because I agree with Bolter in saying that no one medium is better than another since they are all so varied. The book has limitations. It is heavy. It is often expensive to make and therefore to buy. It is easily damaged. It can only contain the text the publisher puts there.

That last one is the really important one. A book cannot contain any more information than the author and publisher put there, until the next edition, anyhow. A new medium can contain nearly infinite information, though: the Internet. I won’t go into too much detail, partly because I want to save it for next week when I discuss Bolter in my presentation and partly because I want to discuss how this relates to writing more specifically.

It is safe to say that the Internet has affected the way people read. For my final project in this class, I want to look at how digital technology (networked classroom, the Web, Microsoft Word) have changed the way people write. I think that the word processor in particular has had a huge impact on the way composition is performed in and out of the classroom. No long is any choice of wording necessarily final, thanks to the all-powerful Backspace key. Word choice is sometimes, at least in my case, affected by how things appear on the screen, where the words will be located on the line. This injects an element of visual aesthetics into a field that was before primarily concerned with the text itself.

That’s one of the beauties of digital technology. It infuses writing and reading with other media. Andrea Lunsford came to that same realization not too long ago when she wrote that, almost without warning, writing became “infiltrated by visual and aural components to mirror the agility and shiftiness of language filtered through and transformed by digital technologies and to allow for, indeed demand, performance” (170). Writing, she says, is dynamic and “multimediated” (171), and I must agree.

Accordingly, my paper will examine how digital technology has expanded the horizons of composition to include less permanence and more playfulness. This could have an impact on how writing is taught in the classroom too, and that is something I will spend time looking at during the research.

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