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

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.

Delineating Linguistic Contexts

See page 253 in The Language of New Media

In discussing new media’s use of spatialized visualizations for representing computer data, Lev Manovich observes that:

“The very first coin-op arcade game was called Computer Space. The game simulated a dogfight between a spaceship and a flying saucer. Released in 1971, it was a remake of the first computer game, Spacewar, programmed on a PDP-1 at MIT in 1962. Both of these legendary games included the word space in their titles; and appropriately, space was one of the main characters in each of them.”

Although the discussion prior to this passage uses the word “space” in a topological sense, as in “that which might be filled with objects,” the word “space” is here used to denote “that region beyond the Earth’s atmosphere.” The word “space” is spelled the same in each context, but makes reference to distinct concepts in each context. This conflation of otherwise distinct conceptual vocabularies makes two unrelated discussions appear to be connected in a way they really are not.

The argument that follows from the discussion of “space” is similarly unclear. Manovich observes that “in the original Spacewar, the players navigated two spaceships around the screen” while noting later in the same paragraph that “the space of Spacewar and Computer Space was not navigable.”

It might be supposed that the discrepency surrounding the use of “navigation” in these two cases is meant to point out that it is the spaceship rather than the environment that one manipulates while navigating; but to privilege space in the second instance as that which is manipulated while navigating would be at odds with the conventional usage of the word. To suppose then that the intent is to draw attention to new media’s potential to offer new conceptions of one’s relationship to space, it would be difficult to justify the use of these particular video games as new media objects while elucidating the properties of new media.

What conclusions a reader might draw from this argument is as unclear as the use of terminology, or furthermore how the discussion of “navigable space” relates to the Five Principles of New Media. The problem in part has to do with confusions that arise from an imprecise delineation of context, but also involves matters of interpretation.

If Spacewar was programmed in 1962, the prominence of “space” as a theme in the game might relate in some way to cultural attitudes influenced by the launch of Sputnik and the start of the “space race” five years earlier. As more computers came into use at the academies, their novelty was surely appreciated by those studying them. “Space” in this context might be understood as signifying novelty and to invoke an aestheticized vision of the future. To then contextualize this video game in a more general context of art history, one might appeal to novelty as a central feature of Modernism.

Art and Interface

See page 227 in The Language of New Media

“Historically, the artist made a unique work within a particular medium.  Therefore, the interface and the work were the same; in other words, the level of an interface did not exist.  With new media, the content of the work and the interface are separated.”

The larger context for this claim relates to an application of Manovich’s Principle of Variability: a particular new media object can be viewed in many different ways.  As Manovich observes, new media make it possible to “create different interfaces to the same material.”  This is, however, more of a linguistic illusion resulting from the terms of Manovich’s reductionist analysis than it is an observation about how new media function (either as cultural traditions or as computer programs).

Manovich is here using the word “interface” in an expansive sense, wherein text and cinema, for example, are understood as “interfaces” to shared bodies of cultural knowledge and traditions.  It is somewhat unclear what, exactly, it might mean for Manovich to suggest that a new media object exists in multiple mediums in a way that is substantively distinct from traditional cultural productions.  A CD-ROM, for example, won’t fit into a radio; and while the audio contained on a CD-ROM can be played back over the radio, a painting can just as readily be reproduced in a book.  And while it is true that a particular image might be retrieved from a DVD Player as readily as from a web browser — thus providing an example of multiple interfaces to the same work — it is still unclear how this is substantively distinct from how one might appreciate the literary content of a traditional drama either on stage or in print.

The history of art is filled with countless variations on the themes of the creation myth of Judaism, the narrative of Christ, Greek folk heroes, and the like.  And while these mythologies are not themselves the creations of a single artist, distinct artworks which portray these myths are different “interfaces” to specific cultural productions.

Moreover, an artist who makes use of allegory and symbolism provides an audience multiple ways of “interfacing” with a given artwork.  Iconography and symbolism are frequently used in religious or philosophical art to indicate a transcendent reality distinct from the material world of the senses.  Likewise, allegory is used to implicate general truths distinct from the particular facts of a given narrative.  In a given painting, we may find symbolic uses of color, gesture, geometric composition strategies, and culturally significant objects used to generate different sorts of meaning.  One might appreciate the aesthetics of a painting’s colors or forms in a way quite distinct from what those colors and forms are being used to say about historical, philosophical, or mythological ideas.

It might be illustrative here to mention Dante’s notion of a “polysemous” artwork — that is, an artwork “endowed with many meanings.”  A polysemous artwork involves four distinct types of meaning: the literal, the allegorical, the moral, and the anagogical.  One literary statement might be at once appreciated for the economy and the skill of its construction, for the useful information it conveys, for the transcendent truths which it indicates, and for the moral teachings the statement imply.  A given reader need not be aware of each of these levels of meaning, nor be attentive to each to appreciate the others. Here we have a Mediaeval formulation of what multiple “interfaces” to a single artwork can look like.

Painting is more than pigments on canvas, just as a book is more than “a rectangular page containing one or more columns of text, illustrations or other graphics… pages that follow each other sequentially, a table of contents, and an index” (see page 71).  A book is also a cultural tradition; the obstacles an author (such as James Joyce) must overcome while trying to get a book published confer upon the book a type of authority.  That perception of authority contributes to how a reader might cognitively orient his- or herself to the text.  As more people read texts online, more people come to the realization that there is something emotionally satisfying about holding a bound book in their hands while they read — something quite apart from the content of the text, or what is required of one attempting to “interface” with the text.

While it may be argued at this point that what new media brings to art is the ability to make these multiple modes of “interfacing” somehow more explicit than what is found in traditional art forms, there is little reason to attribute this change to anything about how new media is structured.  The ability to “interface” with a work of art in multiple ways existed before the development of new media, and social practices designed to foreground this multiplicity likewise existed before the development of new media (the museum being an obvious example).  And while it may then be suggested that new media places this multiplicity “within” the artwork in a way distinct from that found in traditional media, Manovich’s argument would seem to preclude this line of reasoning, as he suggests that there is a distinct way in which “the content of the work and the interface are separated” in new media.

Moreover, the best interfaces are those which are most transparent: if, when a person sits at a computer, he or she spends too much time trying to figure out how to operate the computer, the interface is not a useful tool for getting actual work done.  Successful interfaces rely on common cultural signifiers, the consistent implementation of functional components, and a degree of unobtrusiveness.  If an industrial designer tries to be too innovative with the design of a light switch or a doorknob, users will become frustrated when they can’t figure out how to make it work.  And while there may be an aesthetic argument for new media artists addressing the conventions of the interface itself — of directly addressing the complexity of multiple interface possibilities — to identify this possibility as somehow inherent to new media practice misses the point of what an interface actually does.