Topic-Specific Discussion of Contradiction in The Language of New Media

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.

Five Principles of New Media

See page 27 in The Language of New Media

The analysis offered in The Language of New Media is built around Five Principles of New Media. In introducing these Five Principles, Lev Manovich proposes that:

“the last three principles are dependent on the first two. This is not dissimilar to axiomatic logic, in which certain axioms are taken as starting points and further theorems are proved on their basis.”

The use of the word “axiomatic” here implies that the first two principles are self-evident observations, and the last three principles are consequences that follow directly from the interaction of the first two; so “principle” is here used to refer to two distinct categories of logical assertions: assumptions and conclusions.

After establishing his analytical methodology as such, Manovich states in the following sentence: “Not every new media object obeys these principles.” If it is the case that not every new media object obeys these principles, then the relationship of the principles to new media is incompatible with, and therefore quite dissimilar to, axiomatic logic.  The approach Manovich proposes is perhaps more appropriately described as reductionist.

It is the very essence of axiomatic logic that it can be used to uniquely and definitively distinguish and identify logical forms. Just as one never finds a rooster that is not a chicken nor a triangle with more or less than three sides, one ought not reach conclusions using axiomatic logic that conflict with one’s axioms.

Furthermore, the formulations of the Five Principles themselves are deeply problematic, often involving contradictory implications, and at times relying upon the deductive conclusions of incompatible philosophies for evidence.