Discovering “The Language of New Media” (Lev Manovich)

Really, I’m not being facetious. Now I understand everything,  about the way we all live now and construct our worlds, visually and mentally in the age of new media. Everyone should read Lev Manovich’s The Language of New Media, including Religion scholars and students of continental and Jewish philosophy. Because if you don’t know this book, you don’t know anything –now I’m being facetious, just a little. And if you are in the tech world and know for sure that the book’s a yawn, will you please tell me quick?!

Lev Manovich’s Language of New Media was recommended to me by an incredibly gifted undergraduate at SU with whom I worked last year. He just graduated from the Newhouse Schools of Communication and told me that this is what everybody is (still) reading for new media. An MA student in English and Textual Studies, also at SU, confirmed this as well.

I’m going to come back to this book later in the week. But the first thing to recommend it is that Manovich is not a New Media or Virtual Reality absolutist. He is much more interested in the lines connecting and differentiating new media from old media, the way the one builds upon by transforming what comes before it, and the way twentieth century art might better anchor New Media objects. It’s a wonderful book. The technical stuff is carried lightly in order to enhance the theoretical points, which draw off of continental philosophy, art and art history, cinema and film theory, as well as media studies. A quick perusal of the index will show the complete range of thinking here. 

The main central chapters include:

Interface: which looks at the difference between classical screens, dynamic screens, and real-time screens. Topics discussed include the framed, aggregate, and prefabricated nature of our New Media objects. Against Virtual Reality, Manovich recommends “simulations” for the way they blend physical and virtual spaces without imprisoning the user.

Operations: which looks at all the functions that dominate our lives: copy, cut, paste, search, sort, filter, etc. The focus here is on three specific operations: selection, compositing, and tele-accessing. What I get from this chapter in particular is the way in which multiple image-sets get selected and composited into a single “New Media object,” as well as attention to the layered texture of New Media objects. Instead of the modern montage of separable image-forms, what we have now is an internally continuous image-object in which elements are added onto and co-exist, without any sense of contrast, complimentarity or dissonance. The individual units are continuous, not discrete or jagged. Uncomfortable with the implications of tele-access, Manovich misreads Benjamin in such as way as to re-valorize the importance of looking at things and letting them be at a distance, as opposed to the more aggressive forms of militarized touch made possible by our new technologies..

All of this, I think, speaks to how we live today. It accounts for the design of our homes, cars, parks and gardens, and, in the most general of ways, how we think and organize space. All of this is directly relevant to the interests here of Jewish Philosophy Place, assuming that religion, including the religion of Judaism, is always a kind of media or technological object. To understand important things about religion and Jewish religion then is to see the way it is constituted as such. In the age of New Media, that means religion turns digital, the ramifications of which are not yet fully understood or apparent.

Illusion: which speculates as to how the too real, too perfectly detailed New Media objects might be, in fact, futuristic realistic images of a non-human computer worlds. This is the realization of the object-world as viewed by a cyborg. He concludes noting the oscillation between the shift back and forth between illusion and the revelation of the underlying mechanisms that make these illusions possible. He calls this self-critical approach meta-realistic.

Forms: which looks at how the type of narrative form that defined Old Media give way to the information-database form, in which information is lined up along a horizontal frame without any organizing narrative grid. The critical point here is how to merge algorithm and datastructure, narrative and database into new, aesthetically persuasive forms. There’s a lot of thinking about how the navigation of space becomes the cultural form of the New Media age, how we use New Media to navigate space and a sense of place in the world.

The big difference between Old Media and New Media is the way in which New Media objects are more modular, pre-fabricated, and aggregate than in Old Media.

While Old Media objects, such as realist painting, were always subject to external symbolic codes and conventions that formed the object in slow artisanal fashion, with New Media, that code is embedded tangibly into the very structure of the object itself, encoded directly and automatically onto (into?) the interface. The transformaiton of subjects from viewers into users.

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics.
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