In this selection from The Language of New Media, Lev Manovich observes the shifts in visual culture and their underlying organization. To begin, he sketches a portrait of New York web development in 1999. He observes the iconographic migrations of browser buttons to wallets and filing cabinets to computer icons to illustrate the cross-pollination of “virtual” forms. He traces the movements of cultural metaphor — those grafted into computer practices and those conceptualizations based on computers. Manovich goes on to distinguish and blur the computer database and 3-D virtual space as arenas of work and fun in computers. He refers to two of Janet Murray’s four essential properties of digital environments, encyclopedic and spatial, to elaborate the aims of new media design. He draws attention to the “opposition characteristic of new media — between action and representation” (Manovich 216). His call for “info-aesthetics” corresponds with much of his art — he considers data the new media as film and photography once were. Take for example, his Timeline. Introducing the database as “the key form of cultural expression of the modern age,” Manovich traces a theoretical descendance from Panofsky’s art historical description of perspective to Lyotard’s cultural theoretical Postmodern Condition to Berners-Lee’s computer science proposal of the world wide web (218-9). Threading together these disciplinary developments, he demonstrates the broadly strewn, networked fields of cultural productivity. The refresh, addend, amend nature of the Web, he contends, lends itself to organization by collection rather than completed narratives. Apparent narratives, ie computer games, depend on players reverse learning algorithms. Thus the “ontology of the world according to computers” is reduced to data structures and algorithms (223). Describing the complementary nature of database and algorithm, he shows how the map of our information is greater than the territory — our indices eclipse our information; positing database in contrast to narrative, he addresses how our meaning making shifts accordingly. He goes on to describe the structure of new media in semiotic structuralist terms (following Barthes). He contends that the language-like sequencing is a holdover from the cinema. Manovich’s frame-by-frame sequence of cinema as differentiated from all-images-at-once spatialized visual culture does not entirely hold up, especially with today’s ‘view-as-you-please’ stop-and-go on-demand video media. I wonder if the database articulation Manovich extols in Whitney’s Catalog really changed the course of how we perceive visual culture. The effects Whitney developed certain contributed to the visual amplifications made by computers, but do they really mark any sort of break in the database/narrative tension?
Manovich seems to suggest that chronological linearity is narrative, and that artists trying to undermine it are attempting to express the database — or all options at once. He considers Peter Greenaway a prominent “database filmmaker” (239). Excerpt from Peter Greenaway’s The Falls, 1982 and
I am not sure that these catalogs of effects achieve the non-narrative. There are certainly differences, but do these assemblages constitute paradigm over syntagm?
What would a radical break from narrative to database look like? Do those things which stubbornly persist through restructuration (Manovich citing Jameson) have something to them which is, dare I say, essentially human? Or are our formal expressions discrete, replaceable, and bound to evolve beyond recognition? Can the paradigm, the vast array of associations, truly be manifested in the database, if we as readers still depend on syntagms (what the screen or interface can render)?
Manovich, Lev. The Language of New Media. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1999.