What is the intersection point of new media and common foolishness? Expressed another way, at what point does the language of new media merely dissolve away, leaving nonsense and mere nothingness in its wake? In the obscure, unpublished, and seldom-reviewed seventh chapter of his book, The Language of New Media, Lev Manovich explores the distinct gulf in comprehension that separates Paul Virilio from radar, virtual reality from syntactic density, and Super Mario Bros. from the typesetting machines of the 1880’s. Most, but not all, can be defined as merely illusory forms of teleaction, transcoded from the conscious to the subconscious mind.
In Chapter 7, Manovich concludes that all virtual reality is derived from cinema, whereas its counterpart in the physical world, actual reality, is descended from radar. These two competing representations, both weighed in the balances with respects to “work,” “text,” and anything previously “written,” dominate the distinct trajectories of media. Yet, as Manovich shows, cinema and radar, in their fundamental opposition, are in fact merely two sides of the same coin. Only on the rarest times, such as April 1 of each year, or special occasions in which an unknown and anonymous user (called the “subject”) achieves a new high score in Doom, does the raw essence of reality emerge from each as the interactive representation of a “world reduced to geometry.” Just as the modern HCI demands multitasking, as electronic art demands a pre-existing signal, as a Sylvester Stallone film such as Cliffhanger demands punches, reality demands a chapter like this one to explain it.
A close examination of Chapter 7 also shows the operational functions that have made the physical world merely the virtual representation of radar, which itself constitutes actual reality. Manovich shows how media has progressed in an unbroken line: from Zeuxis’s seminal appearance in Blade Runner, to Renaissance painters’ development of scripts to digitize the printed word, to Babbage’s application of HTML to resolve the illusory conflict between fashion designers (such as Hugo Boss) and montage, to the overlap of hyperlinks, architecture, and Myst at the annual SIGGRAPH convention. Yet it is the numerical representation of each discrete module that defines the transcoding of each. Moreover, each element of radar can be understood as merely a camera within the unified whole, reflecting the sharpest of contrasts between the cultural layer of digital composition and the computer layer of the graphical user interface. Yet even radar would mean nothing to the audience, whether human, computer, or cyborg, without the technologically generated forms of teleaction. Vertov, no doubt, knew it all along.
What Catherine the Great failed to understand about Russia, the typical user fails to understand about hypermedia. In fact, computer graphics techniques are biased – possibly in favor of radar, possibly in favor of cinema, but always in favor of the virtual universe. In fact, just as Terminator 2 and Jurassic Park are opposites, so (when removed from the context of radar) are metarealism and the pixel-by-pixel juxtapositions of temporal montage. Avant-garde new media and physical reality are thus locked in combat – in Russian, srazheniye. As computer graphics move from 2-D images to 3-D graphical representations, the physical world – again, the simulated cinematic virtual world transcoded into atoms through the interface of radar – moves from 3-D to 2-D, an affirmation of remediation and variability and a repudiation of Columbus, Magellan, and the illusion of the round planet.
Chapter 7, in its obscurity, reveals the progressive diminishing of the aesthetics of continuity. Thus, Manovich projects humans, the Analytical Engine, VRML browsers, “one of the most eminent photographers of the nineteenth century,” and Rodin’s “The Burghers of Calais” into the virtual world in which the body is entirely immobilized. Once driven from its home in radar, the screen is no longer merely a screen. Subsuming nature under culture in real time, and subjecting both cinema and the petrified world of photography to the merciless examination of semiotics, the screen reverses the temporal course of perspectival projection, eventually challenging the representation of representation itself.
Best wishes for a very happy April Fool’s Day for all converged communicators.