The Virtual Window: From Alberti to Microsoft
Author: Anne Friedberg
Publisher: Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2006
Review Published: March 2008
At the beginning of her 2006 book, The Virtual Window: From Alberti to Microsoft, Anne Friedberg refers to passage in Jacques Derrida's 1978 The Truth in Painting, in which he describes the parergon: the boundaries of a work of art. Friedberg's response provides an insight into one of the key motivations of her study:
His fiery assertion that "no theory, no practice, no theoretical practice can intervene effectively in this field if it does not weigh up and bear on the frame" forms a justification for this study. The everyday frames through which we see things -- the "material" frames of movie screens, television sets, computer screens, car windshields -- provide compelling evidence of the dominance of the frame and its visual system. (13-14)This dominance is eloquently illustrated by Friedberg, as Mario Carpo gushes on the book jacket: "Friedberg brilliantly demonstrates that the virtual window has been the most successful single tool for mimesis, command, and control in the history of Western civilization." But what is meant by "virtual window," a two-word construct that in the first half invokes a term that has been appropriated haphazardly for decades? By "virtual" Friedberg is pragmatic: it "refers only to electronically mediated or digitally produced images and experiences" (7). Whereas "window" (and "virtual" at times) is interrogated from material, metaphoric and methodological perspectives. The interdisciplinary approach -- combining media (film) studies, philosophy, art and architecture theory -- is complemented with a two-edged approach to the "window" conceit: there are theories about windows and theories that invoke windows as a metaphor. "It is important," Friedberg argues, "to 'out' the hidden rhetoric of metaphor because it is here, in the sliding signifiers of language, that they perform their sly discursive tricks: metaphors construct our cultural realities" (12).
Due to the complexity and repetitions of themes across time, Friedberg does not present a chronological but a topical journey. The chapters delineate material and conceptual foci: The Window, The Frame, Age of Windows, The Screen, and The Multiple; and are nestled within pivotal philosophies: Descartes' Window, Heidegger's Frame, Bergson's Virtual, and Virilio's Screen. It is not just the theories Friedberg refers to that make this work a feat, but the interweaving and juxtapositions. As Friedberg explains:
I've brought fifteenth-century theories of perspective, seventeenth century theories of optics and the mind, nineteenth century devices and visual practices, and twentieth century moving-image media onto the flattened plane of the present, held next to each other and yet seen through a kaleidoscope of critical lenses. (243-4)To emulate the breadth, canny weaving and critical insights of Friedberg's study, I will attempt a synecdoche tour.
The material thread of Friedberg's tour takes the reader from the sands of Mesopotamia in 2500 BC to watching glass-beads being made, tip-toeing through the (windowless) unlit homes in the Dark Ages, to Paxton's 1851 Crystal Palace where you crush your eyelids against the glaring light refracted in it; to looking out of a French-window with Auguste Perret who is clapping with gloved hands, lauding porte-fenêtre. Suddenly Le Corbusier bursts in, turning the window on its side and stretching it along the width of the wall. Titles come up over the window with the words fenêtre en longeur. While Perret and Le Corbusier coulè, Sergio Eisenstein laughs maniacally, spraying exclamation marks over the window. The scene fades to black, and you're fumbling for a seat in a dark cinema under the opaque glare of the screen...finally you find a seat in your study, where a cubist view returns on your multi-windowed desktop computer.
So too, I found Friedberg's conceptual pathways as tangible: I was petrified still when I met Leon Battista Alberti, locked eye-to-eye in his gaze, silent, while Friedberg with a steady finger traced the line between our pupils and explained the aperta finestra (open window) between us. "Alberti," she explained, "used the window predominantly as a metaphor for the frame -- the relation of a fixed viewer to a framed view -- and not as a 'transparent' 'window on the world,' as has been suggested widely by art historians and media theorists" (12). I blink, and the sudden movement jettisons me out of 1435 to 1637, where I'm in a room with light streaming through a single pin-hole. A finger pokes through the hole and Descartes plucks out my eye. I'm suddenly upside down, my hair standing upright with blood rushing to my head, as Friedberg leans over, explaining that for Descartes this "camera obscura" is an "analogy for the operation of the eye" (51). Using my eyeball as a microphone, she continues: "To constitute subjectivity through vision meant not just cogito ergo sum, but also video ergo sum" (52). Then everything goes blurry. Gradually my eyes focus and I'm in 1889, looking at myself. Henri Bergson is taking photos of me and showing me the photographic plates, mumbling that I don't exist, that I am virtual. Addressing a wall full of pictures of me, Friedberg explains that for Bergson, the photographic camera was "a grand metaphysical metaphor" (142), in which "the 'virtual' served as an ontological distinction between the possible and the actual" (141). The venues of Friedberg's conceptual tour continue on and on.
The themed logic of the book's structure does rid the reader of the experience of redundancy, but I felt the linear format of the book to be an artificial brace both on the author and reader. This is not a comment on Friedberg's approach, but on the growing move of academics to address complex subjects with complex discursive structures. It seems the stand-alone book, rather, the traditional linear argumentative structure it affords, thwarts the polycentric cognitive mapping that has taken place. A diachronic (though not chronological) and polyphonic (interdisciplinary) treatment of a topic that treads both material and abstract concerns, facilitates a chorographic discourse or digital rhetoric as Gregory Ulmer (1994) contends.
Friedberg was well aware of these constraints, stating that "until there is a hyperlinked electronic edition, it will be read while held with the 'archaic stillness' of a book" (19). There is, however, an online component to the book. The Virtual Window Interactive was created by Friedberg in collaboration with designer/programmer Erik Loyer, with consultation from Steve Anderson, developed with the Dynamic Backend Generator (DBG) technology created for Vectors: Journal of Culture and Technology in Dynamic Vernacular. The site was featured in the "Perception" issue (vol 2, issue 4) of Vectors. Friedberg describes the project in Vectors as "a translation/extension/conversion of ideas and arguments from my book." It includes visual representations of some of the material and theoretical apertures. Perhaps ironically, considering my comment about a chorographic approach, a peer review of the interactive work by Leo Braudy of USC criticizes the online work as not having the "argumentative spine" of a book.
The argumentative spine of the book is perhaps Friedberg's concern with how windows, frames, and screens construct perspective. The dual logic of mobility and immobility, materiality and immateriality are argued to exist in Alberti's "open window" to Microsoft's Windows™. That is, how the window, frame, and screen fix the spectator into an immobile position whilst the material screen emulates movement and multiple views, and represents a space that isn't there. The descriptions of how artists and architects have created spectators are important not only because of the implications of these insights, but also because of the shifts to these long-held paradigms that are now taking place.
These shifts are why I found the last section of the book, The Multiple, to be inchoate. Although Friedberg does comment (in the Introduction) on the "postcinematic" visualities of late twentieth century with the "codependency of the movie screen, TV screen, and computer screen" (6), this area is not addressed. Despite the creative correlations with the multiple projectors in 1901, the book ends somewhat prematurely with multiplicity within a single screen. Noted, it is an important area that as Friedberg argues, "allows us in ways that neither Bergson or Einstein could have foreseen -- to inhabit, in a virtual sense, two or more spaces at once, and equally, two or more times" (146). The exclusion of the cacophony of multiple screens (computers, TVs, portable media devices, mobile/cell phones) and how the spectator is mobilized through sequential and simultaneous media usage, is congruous when interrogating "the multiple." However, not only is this concern an emerging area of research, the ideal treatment for it could be in another window: another chapter on the computer screen.
These last two quibbles are not substantial criticisms of Friedberg's work -- instead, they are offered as greater contextual issues in this research area. Friedberg provides a strong and much needed foundation for contemporary explorations of the window, frame, and screen and for academic research that attempts a polycentric approach to a subject. Since this type of interdisciplinary insight is not common, the range of readers this book will appeal to, will find many gems and some gaps. To me, Friedberg's exposure to a cross-section of theories coupled with her authentic interrogation of the topics, renders her insights reliable and illuminating.
Ulmer, G. Heuretics: The Logic of Invention. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1994.
Christy Dena is researching changes to mass entertainment, independent art, and gaming in the context of media proliferation. She is located in at least two places: at the School of Letters, Art and Media, University of Sydney, Australia and online at www.ChristyDena.com. <email@example.com>
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