Introductory Remarks to this Critique

Lev Manovich’s book, The Language of New Media, provides a seminal account of the computer’s impact on media art practices. Manovich identifies many critical issues that inform an understanding of how the culture of mass media is responding to the increased accessibility of practical computing.

For years — especially on the Internet — computer-mediated art practices afforded artists and critics an intellectually unstructured environment for exploring the aesthetic potential of new media art forms. Since Manovich’s critique has attained prominence in academic circles, artists and critics who wish to explore and discuss the aesthetic features of the new media find themselves increasingly obliged to do so in the terms which Manovich expounds.

The Language of New Media addresses a need in the academic community for a way to start discussing the diverse issues new media practices bring to bear on contemporary computer-mediated aesthetics. Manovich’s work touches upon concepts drawn from computer science, psychology, mathematics, art and cultural criticism; this is certainly appropriate, as practical computers and the software interfaces with which many of us are familiar are informed by these fields of study. Many of Manovich’s arguments, however, warrant further examination, and on close inspection may contain serious flaws which imply conclusions other than those presented in the text.

If the purpose of a critical theory is to help identify and explain what phenomena properly fall under its purview, rigorous testing and analysis is required to determine whether the domain of inquiry is usefully and properly established. For example, if many of the purported features of the new media are to be found in the so-called traditional media, perhaps it is more appropriate to find different features to discuss rather than to seek redefinitions of existing terminology. If the features of new media really aren’t all that new, it may be worthwhile to look for what changes in cultural attitudes lead us to think of the new media as distinct from those media forms previously available.

Just as there are many aesthetic approaches to writing, dance, music, painting, sculpture, and cinema, there are likely to be found many approaches to new media practices. If the value of Manovich’s work is an attempt to construct a singular framework for the identification and analysis of new media practices, then it is important for individual artists and critics to rigorously debate, evaluate, and reconstruct his conjectures.

Manovich’s approach, as implied by the title of his work, is to identify the appropriate terms of discourse involved in new media practices. This opens many doors to linguistic, cultural, philosophical, and historical analyses. Consequently, many of my commentaries presuppose an understanding of the diverse studies — both small and large in their scope — used by Manovich to construct his analysis.

My commentaries are not organized according to the Five Principles of New Media laid out by Manovich (although I do comment directly on these principles). Rather, these commentaries are organized according to what primary inferences might be drawn from individual assertions found in The Language of New Media.

The intent of these commentaries is primarily to render more clearly the terms of discourse involved in a study of new media, and to carry out a discussion started by Manovich, which might serve as a starting point for all of us in the arts to re-examine and re-construct.