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)