The Digital Plenitude: The Decline of Elite Culture and the Rise of New Media by Jay David Bolter surveys the transformation of American culture since the mid-twentieth century through two related trajectories: a change in class consciousness that no longer accepts elite cultural preferences as innately superior, and the emergence of digital media. The postwar decline of modernism spelled the end of “capital-C” Culture and the end of such confidently imposed value systems. This book elucidates what took its place: a media “plenitude” that has no stable hierarchy, sets no universal standards, and promotes no historical understanding.
Bolter identifies four dichotomies (or poles on four spectrums) that “can be thought of as aesthetic, social, or technological values or preferences” (84). These tensions structure his analysis of media and political culture. Flow, remix, procedurality, and simulation are the newer elements he discusses. Bolter's remarkably lucid argument traces the shift from cathartic popular narrative to unselfconscious flow states, proprietary creation to anarchic remix, organic participation to conformity with digital procedures, and linear history to anti-historical, replayable simulation. These shifts, Bolter concludes, provide context for the dysfunctional state of American politics today.
The book begins with an outline of popular modernism, Bolter's term for the “explosion of different expressive forms from the 1960s to the present” (57). Popular modernism is “what modernism became on its way to dissolution” (76). The Digital Plenitude sets its stage by exploring the twentieth-century devolution of modernist tenets: that art has the power to redeem culture, necessarily involves “refined pleasure,” or can be rightly divided into high and low (12, 48, 41). It also traces continuities: the belief that formal innovation can be socially revolutionary, and that the medium is the message (54, 66–67). With the arrival of digital media, mass participation in cultural production toppled the notion that social elites were the only qualified creators (21). This fertilized the dialogue between highbrow and popular culture, and tradition took a backseat (20, 135). Remixes of older media were enabled by new digital technologies, and new media entailed new participatory mindsets.
Psychological flow, a concept developed by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, is “the pleasure of losing oneself” in an unselfconscious state of focus (101). One loses track of time and “falls into a consistent frame of mind for relatively long periods,” a state induced, for example, by video gaming (103). This “feeling of indefinite extensibility” contrasts with the necessarily confined arc of catharsis, in which stories encourage empathy en route to dramatic resolution (101, 88). Bolter writes that “the flow aesthetic has [achieved] an equal status with catharsis” since the late 1990s, signaling a weakening of narrative (105–6). This isn't necessarily a bad thing: Bolter claims that “[t]hose who insist on the universal importance of catharsis are ignoring the diversity of … our media culture today” (98). The trouble is that when participation follows the programmatic rules of a digital medium, “simulation replaces history”—that is, mediated flow replaces critical engagement with historical narrative. One political consequence is that, as narrative intelligence atrophies, coherent historical vision is less accessible (160, 183).
The fragmentary and repetitive nature of “weak narratives … which deemphasize or ignore history altogether,” and which predominate in video games, is also a quality of remix (161). The fragmentation of cultural production invites creative recombination, and remix is “original in its notion of derivation” (135). Appropriation can add historical depth, but Bolter notes that popular modernism is more characterized by a “lack of gratitude toward the past,” in which creators engage with history à la carte and “know just enough … to believe they can overcome it” (54). Bolter writes that remixed media has a flow aesthetic, which demotes history. This aesthetic is enabled by digital procedures that listeners submit to when they consume the medium (136).
Procedurality refers to that submission, to the media consumer's “willing[ness… to insert themselves into digital procedures” (84). It favors flow states as users enter into the logic and rhythm of digital media, participating “on the computer's procedural terms” (23, 104, 148). These terms are not ideologically neutral, and Bolter invokes the notion of “procedural rhetoric” developed by media theorist Ian Bogost to underscore that procedures contain argumentative structures (157). The reader is alerted to the “perpetual present” established by the flow of procedurality, which provides “an alternative paradigm to historicism” (156).
This paradigm is enacted through simulation, the end result of all digital programs. “The key quality of simulation is replayability,” which is “not only ahistorical but anti-historical” because it minimizes a sense of consequential agency (84, 154). Bolter compares and contrasts the assembly line work of Charlie Chaplin's Modern Times (1936) with the mindless but addictive mobile game Candy Crush Saga (2012), which the player experiences “as play rather than alienating labor” (148). Factory work and aligning digital candies alike rely on flow states in which subjectivity is subordinated by an indefinite procedure. Bolter suggests that these iterations suspend historical sensibility since flow removes people from grand narratives (108).
This book culminates in an insightful discussion connecting these cultural changes to the decline of political coherence in the United States. Media decentralization, the public's disidentification with any unifying national narrative, and the move away from elite qualification all contributed to Donald Trump's legitimization. The digital plenitude, with its lack of commonality and historicity, atomizes the citizenry (48, 190). If a politics of flow now rivals narrative-based politics, as Bolter claims, civil fragmentation bears a relation to the dissolution of cultural hierarchies and the rise of digital media (183).
The Digital Plenitude's sophisticated argument reaches this conclusion in highly readable prose and via a wide range of media texts. An accompanying website (www.digitalplenitude.net) with numerous video clips and links allows the reader to follow along with the cultural references. This supplemental resource also presents brief summaries of each chapter and an additional essay on books in the digital plenitude. Twenty years after his influential book Remediation: Understanding New Media (with Richard Grusin, 1999), Jay David Bolter has made yet another significant contribution to media studies that will be of interest to both academic and general audiences.