"The digital realm is an avant-garde to the extent that it is driven by perpetual innovation and perpetual destruction. The built-in obsolescence of digital culture, the endless trashing of last year's model, the spendthift [sic] throwing away of batteries and mobile phones and monitors and mice . . . and all the heavy metals, all the toxins, sent off to some god-forsaken Chinese recycling village . . . that is the digital avant-garde."—Sean Cubitt
In a January 2009 essay in Postmodern Culture, Brian Lennon remarks that the field of new media studies has "discovered temporality." Lennon's essay responds to a recent turn in the field away from a focus on "presentist prognostication, even—often enough—a kind of bullying," towards a more complexly historically contextualized approach to "a new media now understood as after all always already new." The turn Lennon encapsulates constitutes a vital development within the field, one that expands the umbrella of new media to include predigital and premodern information technology. Yet it also raises a critical challenge: how might we build on the valuable historical work of recent years to understand the temporality of the current technological moment? How might we take account of the rapidly changing conditions of infrastructure, storage, and circulation across the space and time of global digital culture, and of how these factors shape the consumption of various forms of textuality? [End Page 88]
Put more simply, what characterizes the technology of the present beyond the seeming newness of the new?
In this essay, I begin to take up these questions by tracing the materiality and paratextuality of the DVD medium across a variety of economic, cultural, and technological contexts in order to theorize the complex temporality of the present digital moment. In focusing on paratexts as an area of inquiry, I show how these elements transform both the nature of a digital text and the reading protocols it demands. This project brings the line of narrative theory initiated by Gérard Genette into dialogue with the recent attention to materiality in media studies exemplified by the work of critics such as Matthew Kirschenbaum, N. Katherine Hayles, and Ian Bogost and Nick Montfort. More broadly, by focusing on the DVD in particular, I also show how its paratexts reveal a complex and conflicted timeline of technological change shaped by interdependence among innovation, obsolescence, residuality, reproduction, and reuse.
My argument has three major sections: in the first, I establish the DVD as a medium in rapid flux between cultural dominance and obsolescence, contextualize this flux alongside recent critical concerns in media studies, and argue for the theoretical and historiographic payoff of focusing on such an overdetermined moment of technological change. My approach here relies on recent critical work that prioritizes attention to the material dimensions of media technology, making particular use of the emergent subfield of media archeology: drawing on media archeology's attempts to destabilize the presentism and linearity of media studies, I consider what it might mean to write media history by means of an immanent archeology of a contemporary media form. I begin the second section by reading the paratexts of the mainstream DVD as articulations of a cultural anxiety about planned obsolescence and bootlegging. I contrast the paratextual excess of commentaries, deleted scenes, and other special features against two paratexts that speak more immediately to the state of the home video industry and the DVD itself as an object, namely the Blu-ray format advertisement and the antipiracy warning that begin many mainstream DVDs. I argue that these latter two paratexts, often ignored within critical discussions of digital video, betray a profound historical anxiety that the paratextual surplus of the special feature serves to suppress. The aesthetics of bootleg video, then, provides a vision of paratextuality that runs counter to this market-driven mainstream textual constellation. I argue that the paratextuality of the bootleg, marked by audiovisual decay and distortion, represents an alternate temporality of media change that runs counter to the linear teleology of mainstream video technology. In the final section, I trace a complex intertextual and paratextual ecology around the 2006...