Representational Immersion and the Settler Gaze

Settler adaptations of Indigenous stories, for print, film, television, and video games, is a highly contested space, with a deep history of appropriation and representational violence (McCall, First Person Plural). In this post, which should be read as a work in progress, I explore how the settler gaze, defined by what David Garneau identifies as “scopophilia,” can be further unpacked via adaptation’s new media cousin, remediation. By bearing down on what Bolter & Grusin identify as the “desire for immediacy” in Western media, I illustrate how how white setter representational strategies reproduce settler colonialism via the logic of immersion.

The difference between content and form is an essential point when distinguishing between remediation and adaptation. While the latter is primarily concerned with how stories are translated from one platform to another, the former is more deeply invested how the storytelling platform, which can range from a human storyteller to augmented reality app, is situated in new media platforms. Remediation works on the basis of two central tenets, both equally important to how the theory is conceptualized: immediacy and hypermediation. The former is perhaps the more insidious, given the political implications of mediation presenting itself as truth—an idea that Walter Benjamin connected directly to fascism in “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” According to Bolter and Grusin, audiences (namely white audiences; the authors do not address the impact race and cultural difference impact this portion of their theory) desire immediacy in their storytelling: that is, they want to be fully and completely within the space of the narrative, blissfully unaware of the technology that facilitates it. This is by new means a contemporary phenomenon either, but a compulsion towards immersive representation that Bolter and Grusin trace back to at least the Cartesian plane and the technologies of linear perspective made popular by Renaissance painters and architects.

Probably the most famous example of linear perspective, Raphael's The School of Athens (1509-1511) draws the viewers gaze to Plato and Aristotle.

To be perfectly clear, the desire for immersive media is by no means a universal concept. In fact, it illustrates characteristics of the settler desire to “to penetrate, to traverse, to know, to translate, to own and exploit” what David Garneau adroitly names as settler scopophilia.  That immediacy is perhaps a distinctly settler-oriented means of production is made even more explicit when we hold Bolter & Grusin alongside Indigenous media theorists, such as Loretta Todd, who argues that virtual reality is a means for settlers to escape the physical landscapes they have laid waste to via colonialism and capitalism (1996). According to Todd, who, for context, is writing out of the the onset of the world wide web,  

It is not so odd, then, at this stage of late capitalism in the project called western culture, that cyberspace is ‘under construction.’ It has in fact been under construction for at least the past two thousand years in Western culture. A fear of the body, aversion to nature, a desire for salvation and transcendence of the earthly plane has created a need for cyberspace.

“Aboriginal Narratives in Cyberspace” 1996)

According to Candice Hopkins who reads Todd against more contemporary cyberspaces, from Indigenous perspectives, “Todd asserts that there is no disconnection from the material world: All relationships—mind and body, human and nature, hunter and prey—are interconnected and symbiotic.”14 In this sense, as Hopkins identifies, Todd sees cyberspace as an abstraction of home and homelands invented by Western a culture that perennially, “has to [have] somewhere else to go.”15 As such, Todd asks, “would we [Indigenous people] have created cyberspace?” And she answers definitively, “I think not—not if cyberspace is a place to escape the earthly plane and the mess of humanity.”16

If immediacy is the (settler) drive to be immersed in another world, then hypermediation is the act of resisting immersion and making the frames through which we view content discernible and thus subject to critique: “hypermediacy offers a heterogeneous space, in which representation is conceived of not as a window on to the world, but rather as ‘windowed’ itself—with windows that open on to other representations or other media” Bolter and Grusin 2000). A classic example of hypermediation, for instance, is the inclusion of a television in a videogame or YouTube video. It can be argued that by including the “old” media in the “new” the latter media encompasses the former and therefore striving more deeply to suspend the viewers’ disbelief and efface all traces of its mediation. However, Bolter and Grusin argue that it is more productive to consider the ways in which hypermediacy draws our attention to mediation and therefore the ways in which all of our experiences are mediated—even those we assume to be immediate. As they put it, “in every manifestation, hypermediacy makes us aware of the medium or media and (in sometimes subtle and sometimes obvious ways) reminds us of our desire for immediacy.” It is through the awareness facilitated by hypermediation then that we are afforded the opportunity to think critically about the frames that work to shape and steer our actions and experiences.

Parallel railway tracks are the most common contemporary example of linear perspective.  

If you google “vanishing point” you will almost certainly encounter a swath of railroad track receding into the distance. Railway tracks are a great way to illustratelinear perspective. However, the connection between form and content (i.e. tracks & vanishing point) unintentionally compels us towards another way of thinking the relationship between representation and settler colonialism. Inasmuch as the railway was the physical technology through which colonialism was enacted (Duarte 2017), linear perspective is perhaps the representational technology through which that railway is imagined.

Hypermediation is not the solution to settler colonialism. How could it be? But it does offer a way to think about the ways in which the immersive gaze of colonialism is naturalized. How can we use that knowledge to make the frames of colonialism more visible to white settlers?

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