Lev Manovich : The language of New Media
Readers of The Language of New Media may be tempted to misrepresent or simplify the relation of new media and cinema that Manovich carefully develops over the course of the work. Indeed, the cover art – a heavily manipulated photograph of film stock which literally wraps around the text – gives some credence to the notion that Manovich’s argument is simply, “New media works like film.” But this sort of judgment has obvious flaws.
Some reviewers have configured the sixth (and final) chapter as a “coda” or “envoi,” and with good reason. The fifth chapter ends with a shift to the past tense, a ruminative final paragraph which begins, “In this book, I have chosen to emphasize […]” (285). Manovich admittedly structures the text so that the sixth chapter is a reversal which reflects back upon the first five (12), a design to some extent represented in the form of this review. But he also notes that the chapter continues the trajectory of the book as a whole. And, most importantly, it’s possible that Manovich downplays the nature of the reversal which does occur in “What is Cinema?” to achieve greater rhetorical effect.
For Manovich cinema provides a double influence: film theory is the “key conceptual lens” (9) with which he investigates new media. Film, especially the work of the Russian avant-garde, and Dziga Vertov in particular, is the primary source of explanatory examples. “Vertov’s dataset,” Manovich’s collage-like prologue, is a series of stills from Man with a Movie Camera accompanied by quotes from the text. The stills reappear throughout the work, at section breaks, and in fact are the only visuals included in the text.
Unfortunately, this focus minimizes the effects of print literacy on new media. Manovich notes some areas where the influence of print is apparent. “Cultural interfaces rely on our familiarity with the ‘page interface,'” he notes. “Given that the history of a page stretches back for thousands of years, I think it is unlikely that it will disappear so quickly” (74, 75-76). Manovich calls on the work of Roland Barthes when tracing the genealogy of the screen from Renaissance painting through print to cinema (104), and again when arguing that the history of the logic of selection predates the development of new media (125). But the influence of the forms of print culture is overshadowed by the power and influence of cinema.
In some ways, this focus is simply a function of remaining true to the established method of a record of the present, and recognizing the “general trend in modern society toward presenting more and more information in the form of time-based audiovisual moving image sequences, rather than as text” (78). There are many specific representations of this trend. Writing of the work of virtual reality programmer and theorist Jaron Lanier, Manovich argues that the repression of linguistic forms in new media is a continuation of “the fantasy of objectifying and augmenting consciousness […] the desire to see in technology a return to the primitive happy age of pre-language, pre-misunderstanding” (59). Shifting to the emergence and influence of new technologies at the turn of the twentieth century, Manovich argues that cinema “impressed itself [more] strongly on public memory” than forms of electronic communication which emerged at approximately the same time, because “the ability to communicate over a physical distance in real time did not seem by itself to inspire fundamentally new aesthetic principles the way film or tape recording did” (162). The traditional style of photography and cinematography with its “linear perspective, depth of field effect […] particular tonal and color range, and motion blur” (179) towered over visual culture, shaping emergent computing technology, yet was seldom foregrounded as a certain kind of realism (191-92).
But though dominance of new media by cinematic forms is a representation of the current status of the relation between technology and culture, Manovich shows this need not be the case. The avant-garde, in particular, have always resisted conventional models. Vertov’s dataset derived its lasting strength from that conscious differentiation. Notably, continuation of the tradition of questioning established forms occurs when new media designers cope with the technical limitations of computing. For instance, the first versions of the Mac OS were monochromatic, because display technologies simply couldn’t represent color very effectively (63). In its infancy, QuickTime worked best with very small frame sizes. These limitations forced an interesting historical convergence:
Because of these particular hardware limitations, the designers of CD-ROMs had to invent a different kind of cinematic language in which a range of strategies, such as discrete motion, loops, and superimposition – previously used in nineteenth-century moving-image presentation, twentieth-century animation, and the avant-garde tradition of graphic cinema – were applied to photographic or synthetic images. This language synthesized cinematic illusionism and the aesthetic of graphic collage, with its characteristic heterogeneity and discontinuity. The photographic and the graphic, divorced when cinema and animation went their separate ways, met again on the computer screen. (311)
Of course, not even ten years after the development of the QuickTime standard, the technological constraints have loosened, and full-motion, full-color moving pictures can now be displayed, and even created, on many consumer-level computers. According to Manovich, on the one hand, this represents a tremendous opportunity for designers: the new languages developed as a result of technological constraint could be augmented with others developed as a result of technological capability. But on the other hand, new media could simply become another vehicle for the form which has dominated moving pictures in the twentieth century: the expression of traditional film language, “the exact duplication of cinematic realism” (314).
For Manovich, the trajectory portrayed as a natural development in both cinema and computing by the computer and entertainment industries – this “progression toward increasingly accurate verisimilitude” (314) – closes out the possibilities enabled by new media technology. The avant-garde artists Len Lye, Norman McLaren, and Stan Brackage, who painted on film stock, anticipate a better theoretical framework: a history of the image which acknowledges the common genealogy of painting, pro-cinematic forms like the magic-lantern show, cinema, and digital imaging. In this conceptualization, cinema is just one of many moving image technologies, and its dominant practices (Hollywood-style photorealism) are just one way to organize sequences of moving images. While we live in a historical moment, and a culture, where cinema’s dominance over all other forms sometimes appears natural and inevitable, Manovich reminds us of the consequences of forgetting it is not.