The Language of New Media

By Josephine Berry, 10 July 2001

Josephine Berry reviews The Language of New Media

Throughout the 90s Lev Manovich has raised the standard of new media criticism through his rare ability to mesh technical understanding (he is a trained computer programmer) with a historically grounded aesthetic analysis. How disappointing then that his magnum opus, which attempts a synthesis of his many shorter essays and interventions, should be so flat. Manovich’s methodology is at first promising; he wants to produce a “comprehensive record” of the technical attributes and cultural effects of new media technology as it emerges and before its familiarity renders it invisible – a record that he regrets never having been written about cinema after its invention in 1895. By creating an exhaustive inventory of the effects that computation has on all mechanical and electronic media, Manovich hopes to be able to read the future by making a precise map of the present.

But this ‘bottom up’ operation runs into some fundamental problems. Firstly, its demands on the computing novice are too high, whilst it simultaneously taxes anyone even remotely familiar with the computer’s basic functions with its excessively elementary descriptions. Secondly, and more seriously, its manual-like approach succeeds in reducing all cultural artefacts to subservient illustrations of its concepts. At times it feels as generic, dry and dislocated from actual experience as the very manuals it emulates. Artworks are cut and pasted into the text with the same montage mentality Manovich identifies as the avant-garde’s core legacy to new media culture. His decision to contextualise,, digitally enhanced Hollywood cinema, and computer games primarily through early avant-garde filmmakers such as Vertov, Eisenstein and, more recently, Godard again cuts living, contemporary culture adrift from its moorings. What happened in the intervening years between the late 60s and the early 90s?

But if the book fails to present a compelling or convincing interpretation of its individual artefacts, its aesthetic extrapolations from fundamental technical processes are engaging. Railing against the George Lucas school of Hollywood naturalism which hides the profound ‘variability’ of the digital object, Manovich calls for a new media culture that lays bare the computer’s inherent ability to composite, algorithmically alter, copy, access, and manipulate material ad infinitum – and he’s right to do so.

Josephine Berry <josie AT> is deputy editor of Mute, former co-editor of Crash Media and a PhD monkey desperately trying to complete her dissertation on site specific art on the Net.

The Language of New Media // Lev Manovich // MIT Press // 2001 // pp 354 // ISBN 0-262-13374-1