Friday, December 2, 2005

Manovich - The Language of New Media (2001)

Notes on Lev Manovich's The Language of New Media (2001). In the prologue, Manovich gives us what he calls a Vertov Dataset--full-passage selections from elsewhere in the book matched up with frames from Vertov.   It's a distinctive and memorable way to open onto the project--self-sampling and re-associating, which emphasizes (paradoxically?) the relational and modular qualities of new media objects, the intertwined historical-theoretical trajectories of cinema and computing that now constitute new media, the logics of selection, association and assemblage driving new media, and the evolving lexicon of new media, from database, loops and micronarratives to transcoding, [var]-montage and the tele-.  It's all in the Vertov Dataset, then explained more fully elsewhere. 

Manovich's method depends on "digital materialism": extrapolating from new media objects the generalizable principles (characteristics, properties, qualities, albeit with a false neatness acknowledged here and there by M.): numerical representation, modularity, automation, variability (a truism?) and transcoding (27-48).  In introducing the project, Manovich says he wants to observe the bottom-up organization of new media while also relating the layers of historical and theoretical precedents.  Still, new media--especially in light of transcoding or the code-layering of computing and culture--must make room for those objects unmarked by historical precedent--the innovations.  This is somewhat less deterministic-seeming than remediation; new media's programmability (numerical representation, the anxiety-producing shift from constant to variable) can dissociate the new from older forms. The "new" celebrate/mourn the obsolescence of the older forms; they also tend to flow solubly in streams of digital information (the same ductwork that heightens the body as medial). And yet, Manovich folds the cinematic-computing complexities of new media back into the history of cinema (this, one of Hansen's critiques of Manovich).  At the end of the first chapter, Manovich explains his rationale for avoiding "digital" and "interactivity" in LNM.  Briefly, he refutes "digital" because it is commonly mistaken to suggest perfectible data (no loss, degradation, noise) and "interactivity" because it is meaningless to restate "the most basic fact about computers" (55).

Something to be said for Manovich's writing: super-organized.  His chapters and sub-heads make LNM easy to navigate; the chapters are tightly partitioned and he involves just enough repetition to assist each section's coherence with the aims of the broader project.  No need to trumpet on about the structure, but I want to observe the book's structuring as one factor contributing to its landmark status and the promise of future returns to these ideas. Following chapter one, which concerns "the properties of computer data" (117), the middle chapters, 2-5 present four more aspects of new media: c. 2, "The Interface" on human-computer interface; c. 3, "The Operations," on application software; c. 4, "The Illusions," on computers as illusion-makers and new media "at the level of appearance" (178);  and c. 5, "The Forms," on modularity and interactivity or database, narratology and navigation.  To each chapter, a few sentences.

2. Human-computer interface, a key concept for Manovich and a primary concern in Hansen's critique of LNM, "describes the ways in which the user interacts with a computer" (69).  The trouble, for Hansen, is that the user is ambiguous; LNM tips toward disembodied, non-affective notions of mind and cognition.  Nonetheless, Manovich develops an insightful (basic, useful) trajectory of three interfaces: cinema, print and general purpose HCI (71).  These, Manovich writes, are the "three main reservoirs of metaphors and strategies for organizing information which feed cultural interfaces" (72), and it follows--unsurprisingly--that they contend and co-operate with one another. The cinematic is most aggressively transformed into a computer-based cultural interface in computer games involving dynamic points of view (83-84).  Manovich ends by touting the presence of the screen, and he regards the screen as completely separate from the body, perhaps even as something that imprisons, constrains or immobilizes the body (114-115).  This is considerably different from Hansen's emphasis on affect; Manovich does little to acknowledge integrative-affective HCI.

3. Next, software development has followed a trajectory defined by abstraction and automation [I'm not sure whether this characterization holds up with open source projects and some of the stackable apps developed since 2001].  Here Manovich explains three varieties of operations that are akin to transcoding (121): selection, compositing and teleaction.  Selection is, just as it seems, choice among options.  "New media objects are rarely created from scratch; usually they are assembled from ready-made parts" (124).  Selection names the re-made/ready-made logics of practicing new media; authorship becomes a technology of selection. Examples of selection range from effects plugins to customizable gaming (level editors, build your own team) to web-in-a-box CMS and build-a-site control panels.  Other theoretical and historical origins of selection trace to photomontage (125) and signal modification or filtering (132).  In selection, variability replaces a more physical-material notion of malleability; the cultural figure illustrative of selection in new media: the DJ (134-35).  The second term, compositing, involves a rhetoric of arrangement: assembling.  The flatten image function in Photoshop is an example, according to Manovich [better examples?].  Seamlessness comes in on compositing, too: "Digital compositing exemplifies a more general operation of computer culture--assembling together a number of elements to create a single seamless object" (139).  The possibility of seamlessness sustains the designer's wish for convincing virtual reality.  Contrast and edge is replaced by a desire for aesthetics of "smoothness and continuity" (142).  [Within montage, though, seamlessness and edge contrast are at odds.] "The examples of 'methods of montage' include metric montage, which uses absolute short lengths to establish a 'beat,' and rhythmic montage, which is based on a pattern of movements within the shots" (157). In the final section of this chapter, on teleaction, Manovich plays with the prefix tele- and notions of distance.  He calls telepresence more radical than VR or visual simulation because "you take your body with you" (qtd. Laurel, 165). Teleaction in new media complicates Benjamin's arguments about aura and remove or distance (171).  This also relates to a problem I want to return to, one restated by Virilio:  "He [Virilio] mourns the destruction of distance, geographic grandeur, the vastness of natural space, the vastness of guaranteed time delay between events and our reactions, giving us time for critical reflection necessary to arrive at a correct decision" (173).  I also want to come back to Bettman's Archive: a stockpile of various media (130) and Potemkin's facades for Catherine the Great (146, 148).

4. The illusions chapter covers the problem of new media and appearances.  Beginning with VR's "quest for a perfect simulation of reality" (178), Manovich accounts for the evolution of 2D and 3D graphics, conceptions of the real in cinema and computing, and broader pursuits of mimesis.  Pursuits of realism diverge along two lines for Manovich: cinema and computer animation.  In this chapter, Manovich also articulates what I take to be a controversial claim about the problem in the mix of photorealism and the digital: "Synthetic photos are more real than traditional photographs.  The synthetic are 'too real'" (199).  Realistic representative media are pushed by the entertainment industry (re-recoloring of B&W films) (192-193) and also by initiatives to perfect simulation. Interactivity and navigability shift the encounter from viewer to user.  Manovich briefly mentions that the (re)combination of real and illusory objects necessitates "different mental sets--different kinds of cognitive activity" (210). Now a possible illusion, the represented real is no longer secure (if it ever was).

5. New media make use of indexing and database logics that are distinctive from traditional forms of documentation. Manovich suggests that "information access and psychological engagement with an imaginary world" influence the invention of new media objects (216).  Furthermore, although they run together, often mix-mashing into conglomerations (234), database and narrative can be understood as distinctive trajectories in new media.  Whereas narrative logics (syntagmatic) are primary to database logics (paradigmatic)  before the information age, new media reverse their relationship and pit database logics at the fore.  Consequently, "montage is the default visual language of a composite organization of an image" (229).  The second half of this chapter takes up navigation--the spatial journeys (245) and diagesis (246) involved with narrative action and exploration. Manovich draws on the figures of Gibson's data cowboy (250) and Charles Baudelaire's flaneur (268) to account for the variety of axes we select when moving at/through the space-medium of new media. The connections to de Certau (245), Virilio (278) and Auge (279) ring with other stuff I've heard/read/thought through lately, too.  There are several promising returns in this chapter.

6.  Following a restatement of the intersection of cinema and computing--its ~junction, new media--and a list of arguments from the book so far (287), the final chapter, "What Is Cinema?", reconfirms the blend of illusionistic and real brought together in computer images and new media objects. For all that the cinematic real did to displace animation in the mid-20th century, new media has (con)fused them, thereby relegating animation to "a subgenre of painting" (295) and cinema to "one particular case of animation" (302).  Hansen's critique takes issue with Manovich's historical assertions here; these arguments sound more like Bolter and Grusin in Remediation than some of the more nuanced spots in LNM.  In the concluding section, Manovich asks, "Can the loop be a new narrative form appropriate for the computer age?" (317).  I found this section on loops and micronarrative to be especially striking, especially for its potential to incorporate narrative and database logics rather than treating them as incompatible.

LNM presents a whole lot more than this, but this is all I have to blog about it for now. 

Terms: new media objects (14), cinematograph or "writing movement" (24), digitization (28), lossy compression (54), viewing regime (96), dioptric arts (104), photomontage (125), "tissue of quotations" (127), "authorship as selection" (130), "digital compositing" (136), montage (158), tele- (161), phatic function (206), metarealism (208), diagesis (246), kybernetikos (251), haptic/optic (253), space-medium (255), flaneur (268), loop (315), "database narrative" (319), micronarratives (322)

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