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The Language of New Media

Author: Lev Manovich
Publisher: Cambridge, MA & London, UK: MIT Press, 2001
Review Published: August 2001

 REVIEW 1: Katie Mondloch
 REVIEW 2: Bryan Alexander

That each new and developing communications medium recapitulates selected characteristics of many preceding, acculturated media is something of a critical staple in current cyberculture studies. Grappling with DVDs or Flash, we have learned to reach back to the rise of print, newspapers and journals in coffeehouses [1], the telegraph [2], and the telephone [3], as well as to literary uses or representations of media [4]. Such an approach runs the disk of diffusion, tracing each medium's implications into the historical ether, creating connections of formal, but not extrinsic, interest. At its best, however, media-historical contextualization expands our thinking about a medium, bringing to bear its cultural determinisms, enhancing its possibilities. This is especially powerful when a medium's self-presentation is that of currency without a past.

Lev Manovich's ambitious new book is a powerful and largely successful example of this method, which he more usefully terms "digital materialism" (10). The Language of New Media selects cinema as an energetic and hidden code of new media. Developing the implications of this powerful insight leads the book into two primary directions. First, it attempts to sketch out a series of concepts addressing the creation and interpretation of digital media. Second, it argues that the historical development of cinema represents a critical, yet underappreciated, historical determination for digital media morphologies. The many productive intersections of these two dialectical themes drive the book's many insights; its few weaknesses result from the media restrictions of this dyad.

Language presents itself pedagogically, establishing arguments and anchoring terms in a deliberate sequence, at each major point carefully recapitulating all preceding moves. This diachronic, accretive strategy avoids the hypertext-ish strategies of some recent work, creating strong narrative consistency, while increasing its teachability, or use as design reference. Like Deleuze and Guattari's What is Philosophy? [1995], the textbook-like format covers a range of innovation and speculation. (To his credit, Manovich resists the lure of accumulatio become copia, and lays out his points and contexts relatively sparingly.) The work begins with a set of definitions and principles, proceeds to apply these theories to the question of human-computer interface (HCI), then grounds the results in the "operations" of constructing and experiencing new media. The climax of the book isolates two architectonics, the database and navigable space, then returns to its inception with an analysis of emergent cinema as digital film. To begin, Languages displays stills. "Vertov's Dataset" establishes Manovich's gambit on several levels. This pre-appendix of fifty-four shots from Man with a Camera [1929] telegraphs the cinematic theme, obviously, but also serves as an embodiment of the database principle. Like the opening note to the reader in Cortazar's Hopscotch, it is an unpacked guide to the subsequent corpus, a captioned yet unnarrated stack of objects, which the following work will mobilize, arrange, and move among in its morphological navigation.

Given its determinant structure, we must follow the book's sequence of arguments carefully. The initializing unit deserves special attention: Manovich defends the title's key term at once, during his first sequence of reterming and neologizing: "I am using 'language' as an umbrella term to refer to a number of various conventions used by designers of new media objects to organize data and structure the user's experience" (7) Despite its anachronistic and structuralist resonances, Language aims to suggest the methods of cultural studies, through addressing "information culture" (13). What is then studied in that culture's language is the "new media object" ("a digital still, digitally composited film . . . hypermedia Web site, or the Web as a whole" (14)), a very useful term for capturing a variety of media projects. Having settled one part of the title, Manovich justifies the rest by explaining what new media is (19-48), as well as what he thinks it isn't (49-61). Like the first chapters of Aarseth's Cybertext [5], this negating section presents itself against mainstream assumptions about new media (interactivity, easy analog-digital dichotomies and analogies). The assertive section argues for new media as the outcome of "two separate [yet parallel] historical trajectories: computing and media technologies" (20), whose material combination yields a set of consistent, mutually-dependent principles: mathematical representation, modularity (or "fractal structure," 30), automated processes, variability, and transcoding. The last two are the most complex and significant notions of the group. Variability embodies most of what we think of as "hypermedia" by including copying but also distortion, multiple access forms for the same information, multiple and branching narrative paths, temporal instability, and fractal scaling. Transcoding, "the most substantial consequence of the computerization of media" (45), cuts in several directions: the iterability of a media object through different formats, the dialectical operation of computing and cultural layers within new media, and the programmable nature of software. In this brace of axioms one might be reminded of Janet Murray's "four essential properties of digital environments" (procedural, participatory, spatial, and encyclopedic); Manovich's complement those, and build back to two of them in his final discussion of forms [6].

Having built this set of principles, Language then runs them through questions of interface and operations. HCI, reconsidered as a "cultural interface" (69ff), becomes the culmination and succession of several earlier mediative technologies: print, radar, and sound recordings, but especially film. For Manovich, the interface in operation progressively aspires to the condition of film in its attempt to simply represent the visual in a mobile state. For example, the Apple GUI [1984] picks up the possibilities of print in scroll and codex, for example, but opens up in space to visuals beyond the frame, as it were. HTML-coded Web pages [1990] create a "page . . . even more fluid and unstable" (75). Director and Flash, despite their strangely minor treatment in the book, carry this drive towards the dynamic eye even further. The acme of this tendency is "spatial wandering," which becomes one of the two climactic principles of the book. In being able to navigate and move over, around, and within objects, new media interfaces return to "the mobile camera" of early film (79). One ideal form of such an interface is the dashboard or control panel, which unites representation and the ability to control it (91-2). The question of control is politically fraught, and Manovich makes the still underappreciated move of demonstrating the critical role of military research and development in cultural interfaces, from virtual reality (VR) simulators to game design. Within such a Virilio-signed historical context, cinema trumps print, as "the Gutenberg galaxy turns out to be just a subset of the Lumieres' universe" (80). Manovich is careful to limit this sense of perspective in motion to one side of the mediation, however; as in the film cineplex, the body remains static, before a screen of display (111).

Within this digital interface, then, newer models of creating and controlling objects appear. The first is selectivity, since the new media artist can begin by choosing pre-created tools and representations. From PhotoShop's ready-to-hand textures to Word's irritating "It looks like you're writing a letter!", creation, Manovich argues, is partly a question of "selecting from a library or menu of predefined elements or choices" (124). This naturally links new media to postmodernism, as legions of critics from Sherry Turkle [1995] onwards have pointed out. Language echoes this by paralleling the rise of Apple and Windows GUIs in the 1980s with the institutional growth of postmodernism (131). Moby succeeds Fredric Jameson in this scheme, as the new media artist's selective nature is symbolized by the figure of the DJ (134-5). The second key operative principle is, logically, compositing, "a counterpart of selection" (139), as the arrangement of digital but nonetheless heterogeneous objects into a larger, seamless one requires crucial craft. And seamlessness is very much the issue, as uneven bricolage falls by the wayside of successful Hollywood films that integrate computer-generated effects (CGI) into live action: "where old media relief on montage, new media substitutes the aesthetic of continuity" (143). Cinematic montage remains a hidden code within this new style, however, as Manovich argues for its persistence as "ontological" and "stylistic montage" (158). The third operative principle stems from the preceding notion of transcoding, mixed with the interface designed around control. "Teleaction" is the least realized of these operations, as of this writing, being largely confined to telepresence experiments with Webcams and the generation of Web pages from remotely-served databases. Yet Language finds the implications of teleaction the most telling and the most ominous, from traditional currents of media studies. While selection and compositing raise questions of the politics of falsifiability (Levinson's Wag the Dog [1997] being a key presence, here), teleaction achieves, for Manovich, the media dream of abolishing distance -- at least "spatial distance, the distance between the subject who is seeing and the object being seen" (174). Benjamin's aura is abolished, not by mass production, but by the elision of distance through remote, digitally-supported control. The destructive possibilities of confusing the haptic with the visual suggest Virilio's fears of a media world of "Big Optics": real-time politics, or policies of teleaction (172-5). Turning to combine all three operational logics into one phenomenological experience, Manovich finds an obverse side to the powers of control lodged in the new media creator. Within such a despatializing, time-centered interface, the mind experiencing a new media object must "oscillate" in responding to variable ontological states within that work. Its objects shift from interactivity (an openable door in Quake) to stasis (a video clip in Myst), while the representative subject moves from "perception" to "action," constituted as seeing eye or database (character stats). The cognition that results is heavily multitasked, not unlike a computer desktop (210-1). (One is reminded of Hayles' concept of the "flickering signifier"; Manovich's account similarly wrestles with Othering, but not at such length [7].)

These groups of principles and operations coalesce into a pair of architectonics. Based on the interface design articulated so far, Language argues for a dyadic model. "The first form is a database, used to store any kind of data -- from financial records to digital movie clips; the second form is a virtual interactive 3-D space" (214). Here Manovich acknowledges his debt to Janet Murray (noted above), as these are two of her four key principles, the ones she finds underpinning the sense of "immersion" a user experiences in digital media [8]. Like Murray, Manovich turns to Myst and Doom as key examples for his theory. Database and narrative, "natural enemies" (225), allow the paradigmatic assemblage of objects into a world, which can then be experienced by the traveling point of view, syntagmatically (231). Dwelling on these two forms, Manovich can now return to and sharpen many earlier points. Software studies can proceed with this structure in mind, working in "info-aesthetics" (a term nearly summarizing and balancing the dyad) (217). An interactive fiction becomes "the sum of multiple trajectories through a database" (227). Military R+D, cited earlier in the development of VR, now appears in the creation of its own violent narratives, mobilizing databases within simulations (277-8). The history of film provides still further determinism and antecedents in the works of Vertov, Chris Marker (La jetee' [1962], IMMEMORY [1995]) and Peter Greenaway (The Draughtsman's Contract [1982], The Falls [1980], Drowning by Numbers [1988]), whose obsessions with counting and accumulating data appear as new media databasing avant la lettre (237ff). The body-immobilized viewer/reader/user working through the interface of such a work, now becomes a navigator or explorer, depending on the density of interaction with other (simulated) subjects and the level of meaning attached to the immanent environment (268-73).

The last section of The Language of New Media is a cross between coda and l'envoi, focusing on the fate of cinema during the age of the digital paradigm. This discussion touches on preceding themes and principles, but pushes in different directions. First, after describing the explosion in digital manipulation of film, Manovich assigns cinema today to a position as a "subgenre of painting" in its decoration and reworking (295). (Think of the modifications and inserts of Zelig [1983] or Forest Gump [1994]) Second, cinema's nature changes to displace the primacy of actors and live action: "Digital cinema is a particular case of animation that uses live-action footage as one of its many elements" (302). As with other digital media, (digital) film represents space, but dwells primarily in time (308). In such a light, the film loop returns as an exciting object, with the viewer become more of an editor (320). Digital films can, logically enough, attempt to incorporate the possibilities of databases and transcoding.

According to its aims, The Language of New Media presents a series of concepts, each of which provoke readerly consideration, appear readily in examples from the field, and appear textually from historical currents. As a work on form, the sets of principles and models are very useful in assessment and as creative guides. As an historicist project, the book succeeds in linking its formal arguments to media and military history, carefully embedding the computer interface in the cultural, always in a dialectical sense of temporal development. In terms of its media-antecedent claim, Language brilliantly elicits aspects of film's material, cultural, and formal history. For both of these reasons, the book deserves the consideration of everyone in cyberculture studies.

However, within such a grand scope, gaps and misprisions appear. First, the focus on film's determining role has the side effect of minimizing other media. Although the history of cybertextual experiments preceding HyperCard et al has been well explored, the textual creation of space and database deserved more attention than the brief mentions it receives (Home, the Encyclopedia (233-4)). For example, literature's power of worlding, especially to the extent found in fantasy, presents an excellent model for virtuality, once recognized in cyberculture through the various iconographies and intertexts of Tolkien, the Gothic, and science fiction. Equally significant is Manovich's undertreatment of sound. From the Trent Reznor industrial-Gothic soundtrack to Quake to the haunting soundscapes of Myst as examples, to the technical issues of music in Webpages (delays, embedding), the topic plays a vital and, arguably, essential role in new media. Further, the twentieth century's history of experiments with sound -- failures of which led Vertov to film, interestingly! -- include a battery of antecedents to digital works of the present day: mixing, splicing, aural collage, jamming [9]. The different practical and political implications of sound, from the creation of sonic space within a listening area to the transformation of Othering without heteronormative vision, need to be addressed [10]. At the same time, the question of intersubjectivity normally, especially in a cultural studies milieu, brings to mind fan culture and questions of marketing distribution. The former plays an increasing role in the creation of television, film, and computer games. Manovich's assertion that the latter have no effect on film language (289) seems to be overshadowed by the innovative and influential, yet formally experimental, digital-media-based publicity campaigns around films such as The Blair Witch Project [1999] and A.I. [2001].

But to return to the question of pedagogy: Language is very much concerned with the process of learning about new media. Manovich persistently provides models for the study of new media, taking great care to identify hardware, software authors and designers, and the socialization of "new media objects." In that light, his call for a new field of "software studies" (48) should not be taken as a separatism against hardware. Further, the book offers a fine model for the presentation of new media within the classroom, as well as a guide to approaching its objects as a student or researcher. At the same time, the book's modeling of virtual spaces should greatly stimulate the instructional technology community. For example, the distinction between navigable and explorable space is a useful paradigm for thinking through the construction and assessment of computer-mediated learning environments. For another, Manovich's insistence on the centrality of databases in connection with virtual spaces should spur a new wave of instructional design in closer collaboration with IT departments [11].

Lev Manovich's The Language of New Media deserves its educational audience, and the hearing of the rest of the digital world as well. Its few flaws can be corrected by further scholarship. Manovich has succeeded in that difficult task of grappling with a very liquid set of media, giving us a working toolset from which to select options for further study and creation.

1. Howard Rheingold, The Virtual Community, Second edition, 2000.

2. Tom Standage, The Victorian Internet. New York: Walker and Co., 1998. Cf my review.

3. Avital Ronnell, The Telephone Book: Technology, Schizophrenia, Electric Speech. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1989.

4. Darren Tofts and Murray McKeigh, Memory Trade: A Prehistory of Cyberculture. North Ryde: Interface, 1997 and Friedrich Kittler, "Dracula's Legacy." Trans. William Stephen Davis. Stanford Humanities Review 1:1 (1982), 143-173. Tofts and McKeigh work with Joyce, primarily, while Kittler finds media incipience in Stoker.

5. Espen J. Aarseth, Cybertext: Perspectives on Ergodic Literature. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1997.

6. Janet Murray, Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace. Cambridge: MIT, 1997, 71ff.

7. N. Katherine Hayles, How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics. Chicago: University of Chicago, 1999; 29-30.

8. Murray, 71.

9. Douglas Kuhn and Gregory Whitehead, Wireless Imagination: sound, Radio, and the Avant-Garde. Cambridge: MIT, 1992.

10. Rosi Braidotti, "Cyberfeminism with a Difference."

11. Cf, for example, the database-driven learning model at Tufts' medical school: Angela Genusa, "Rx for Learning."

Bryan Alexander:
Bryan Alexander is an Assistant Professor of English at Centenary College of Louisiana, where he teaches computer-mediated classes on the Gothic literature, cyberculture, critical theory, and the experience of war. He is currently working on Haunted Spaces, a project exploring connections between cyberculture and the Gothic. Through classes on topics ranging from the Vietnam War to Gothic novels, Bryan has experimented with, and publishes on, innovative approaches to distance learning, including computer-mediated writing, interdisciplinary studies, and writing across the curriculum. 

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