Discussion of Methodology

Medium Specificity and New Media

See page 10 in The Language of New Media

“I scrutinize the principles of computer hardware and software and operations involved in creating cultural objects on a computer to discover a new cultural logic at work”

Lev Manovich, as he sketches out his approach to a criticism of new media, here alludes to the art-critical philosophy of medium specificity, popularized in the early 20th Century by Clement Greenberg and others.

A basic tenet of this approach holds that art should be evaluated in relation to how it addresses itself to what are often taken as the material properties of a given medium. The original impetus behind this approach was an attempt to reconcile the lack of traditional aesthetic features in Modernist art with the recognition on the part of the public and art institutions that the Modernists were, in fact, making art.

A stretched canvas that appears to be uniformly painted white is an often-parodied example of the artistic genre medium specificity was designed to address. In the context of a medium-specific analysis, one might consider the material application of white paint to the canvas from a number of different perspectives: how the artist behaved while applying the paint, how light affects the texture of the paint, or how on close inspection minor imperfections in the pigmentation affect what one sees.

However, the products of computerized media are not always amenable to such an analysis, especially in the absence of very specific types of qualifications.

Computers store information, and though art understood as computerized information can be understood materially, the material explanation required by such an understanding involves physical descriptions of space and time on a scale beyond what we readily perceive. Information theory is mathematically related to thermodynamics, but we do not readily apprehend the mechanical details of thermodynamic flows as well as we understand what happens when a glass is knocked off a table.

The scale of a computer’s physical operation involves components such as transistors which are too small for us to see. In using plain language to describe new media in terms of such components, we must rely on descriptions made by analogy, or on descriptions of how computers behave as formal systems. If the formal relationships governing the behavior of either side of an analogy are not carefully taken into account, we run the risk of making inferences that hold for one side but not the other. Such inferences might make logical sense in terms of the plain-language sentences used to describe them, but the descriptions that follow from the vocabulary of one side of the analogy might contradict with what is mechanically probable in the other side. If, when talking about sports, we assume that “Whoever has the highest score wins,” such a supposition might prove helpful when making an analogy between basketball and football, but would prove to be a problem when comparing tennis to golf.

An example of this difficulty can be found in the First Principle of New Media identified in The Language of New Media. The First Principle of New Media holds that new media objects are represented numerically. It is assumed that this numerical feature of new media objects is of fundamental importance to both the design of computer hardware and software; yet numerical features are not what we perceive when watching a montage sequence in digital cinema. Rather, we see juxtapositions of forms and objects; it may well be possible to describe these forms and objects in numerical terms, but that does not mean such descriptions are perceptually meaningful, or of fundamental importance to explaining what we see. We do not perceive objects to be “even” and “odd” the same way we perceive numbers as such; we might say a physical surface is “even” or a color palette is “odd,” but these words are not used in the same sense as when they refer to numbers.

The linguistic consequences of this conceptual problem occur at various points throughout the text, detracting from both the value of the methodology and the validity of the conclusions.

Context Dependency in New Media Critique

See page 13 in The Language of New Media

In discussing why the word “Language” appears in the title of his book, rather than some other term like “Poetics,” Lev Manovich cites literary scholar Tzvetan Todorov. The citation implies that “Poetics” would have been undesirable because, according to Todorov, Poetics is “an approach… at once ‘abstract’ and ‘internal.’”

As The Language of New Media is philosophically grounded in the material and mechanistic qualities of new media objects as they exist on computers — as definite objects independent of subjective perceptions — the word “poetics” would in this sense be unsuitable.

Shortly after citing Todorov, Manovich proposes his analysis of new media in terms of the material properties of a computer. To a typical computer user, the material properties of a computer might seem most properly described as objective qualities of physical computing machines.

This description of practical computing is important to the overall argument in The Language of New Media. On page 52, for example, Manovich rejects a distinction between new and traditional media on the basis of whether they involve discrete or continuous modes of representing information; this rejection is grounded in a materialist approach to understanding “concrete computer technologies.”

At the same time, Manovich proposes an analysis of new media in terms of “information culture,” which he admits is his own coinage, and which he defines only by analogy to another concept, which he calls “visual culture.” Analogy involves abstraction, and a vaguely defined coinage has an internal meaning to he who coins the phrase which is not necessarily shared by others.

Contradictory assertions similar to this appear throughout the text, which in the context of poetry might be perfectly acceptable, but in the context of what purports to be a rigorous and systematic analysis, turn out to be quite problematic.

The Role of Standardization in New Media

See page 15 in The Language of New Media

“Yet another feature of the new media field that unites it with big industry is the strict adherence to various hardware and software standards.”

This statement is at variance with Manovich’s assertion on page 30 that “new media follows, or actually runs ahead of, a quite different logic of post-industrial society — that of individual customization, rather than mass standardization.”

The text is unclear as to whether these two statements should be considered contradictory or whether they simply require additional qualification.

The “strict adherence to” standards mentioned in the first quote might refer to the interoperability of diverse manufactured parts, while the “mass standardization” in the second quote might refer to how the end user adapts to the assumptions behind a manufactured product’s design.

But just as the result of this terminology might confuse a reader, so the text seems to suffer from the results of similar confusions throughout.

If one seeks to explain a given observation about a new media object using the framework expounded by Manovich, how is one to decide whether one’s observations are to be understood in terms of standardization or customization? Manovich provides no mechanism to discern when one or the other context is appropriate. The consequences of the vocabularies of standardization and customization are very different, involving different types of sociocultural attitudes, practices, and objectives; while there would seem to be room for each vocabulary in a discussion of the new media, a careful and systematic delineation of context is required to ensure that one’s observations of a new media object correspond with the implications of one’s description, and that one’s explanation of a given phenomenon accords with the behavior of what one has observed.