Narrative and New Media – Realistic Issues

TitleNarrative and New Media – Realistic Issues
Publication TypeConference Paper
Year of Publication2005
AuthorsVaupotič, Aleš
Conference NameDialetti de la Tribù/Dialects of the Tribe - 1st REELC/ENCLS Congres
Conference LocationFirenze
KeywordsGeppert, Manovich, narrative, new media, Peirce, realism
Abstract

The paper will analyse the concept of text as an archive in its correlation to various artistic media. Referring to Hans Vilmar Geppert’s notion the realistic way as elaborated in his work Der realistische Weg (1994) in views of Peirce's semiology the realistic discourse in the 19th century novel stems from the imminent experience of a crisis. Reality is scattered into multiple archives of text, which form the base for the construction of the narrative. Its effects are the veristic representation and the ideological vein. An analogous process is at work in software art, where the concept of an archive is used to recombine given data through algorithmically generated relations; new meanings are generated as a consequence. Examining this digital reorganisation of data, new media art is approached by using the theory of discourse as developed by Bakhtin and Foucault. Digital archives are scrutinized with particular attention to human-computer interface design that mediates between the archive and the user. Narratives constructed as archives of data are polyperspectivic at heart and such patterns are found already in the novels of Charles Dickens, which is an important link between 19th century literature and the 21st century computer art.

URLhttp://www2.arnes.si/~avaupo2/files/NNM_21.doc
Full Text

Ales Vaupotic

ales(at)vaupotic.com

http://vaupotic.com/

 

Section 2. Cultural Tradition. Literature and the arts /  Convegno Internazionale I DIALETTI DELA TRIBÙ / International Conference THE DIALECTS OT THE TRIBE

15. – 17. 9. 2005, Firenze

 

 

 

 

 

NARRATIVE AND NEW MEDIA – REALISTIC ISSUES

 

1. The database and the narrative in new media

 

The written texts were among the first areas of culture to undergo computerization, the texts moved from paper media to computer data storage media with few technical problems, however one can hardly not notice the somehow troubled relationship between the theories of new media and the literary scholarship. George P. Landow introduced the controversial idea, found in the subtitle of his monograph Hypertext (1992), of “the convergence of contemporary critical theory and technology” and he claimed that the technology, and the digital hypermedia in particular, embodies the notions from poststructuralist and related literary theories. However, until today the field of humanities still pervasively resists the influences of computer technologies. This paper will consider a particular aspect in the interplay of the new media discursive practices and the literary discourses as they negotiate the cultural forms of our time.

A note on terminology that will be used which follows Lev Manovich's groundbreaking work The Language of New Media (2001). Media art refers to artistic practices based on recorded audiovisual material by means of different technologies, the term new media however relates to computerized information and is defined by Manovich in five points: digitization of continuous data results in numerical representation (or numerical coding) and modularity; from these fundamental principles follow automation and variability and finally transcoding as the general aspect of understanding the cultural and computer layers of new media. From this point of view, “the new media [...] acts as a forerunner of [... a] more general process of cultural reconceptualization” (Manovich 2001: 27-48).

Following Manovich's discourse on the language of new media one may notice an interesting tension that traverses his writings. For this discussion what is most interesting is his thesis that the databasei replaces the narrative as the key form of cultural expression that was dominant e.g. in the novel and in classical cinema. The new media objects, according to Manovich, “are collections of individual items, with every item possessing the same significance as any other” (Manovich 2001: 218). According to his methodological frameworks that he calls “digital materialism” his “theory of new media [is built] from ground up[, he ...] scrutinize[s] the principles of computer hardware and software and the operations involved in creating the cultural objects on a computer to uncover a new cultural logic at work” (Manovich 2001: 10). This explains his following conclusions. Manovich distinguishes two different semiotic levels: first, the new media object is always a database on the level of material organization, which follows from fundamental principles of new media, its correlate being the interface that mediates between the computer and human; second, the database is also a cultural form with its particular identity, a particular type of cultural interfaceii (Manovich 2001: 70). It is difficult to imagine a non-narrative language, and Manovich seems to be aware of this. Although it is hard to accept his thesis that the logic of the medium supports the database interface – i.e. its refusal to order its list of items – one must agree that there are many important artistic new media projects that are literally databases; e.g. the works of new media artist George Legrady.iii Another argument in favour of the non-narrative database cultural form is the so called “storage mania” or “database complex” phenomenon, “an irrational desire to preserve and store everything,” (Manovich 2001: 224, 274)iv manifested in numerous digital archive projects, that transcend the mere computer media field.

 

As a cultural form the database represents the world as a list of items, and it refuses to order this list. In contrast, a narrative creates a cause-and-effect trajectory of seemingly unordered items (events). Therefore database and narrative are natural enemies (Manovich 2001: 227).

 

Manovich faces problems while studying particular new media objects, since the unordered database structure is used mainly in cases, when it is simply “an interface to information”, however, “when it tries to become 'real' culture” it resorts to different hybrids between narrative and database (Manovich 2001: 232).v From a retrospective point of view of cultural reconceptualization being the consequence of cultural computerization, Manovich recasts the duality between new media and traditional art object. “The new media object consists of one or more interfaces to a database of multimedia material. If only one interface is constructed, the result will be similar to a traditional art object.” Linear narrative – as the dominant interface to a novelistic text – is only one possibility of the interactive narrative (or hypernarrative) that can be understood as the “sum of multiple trajectories through a database” (Manovich 2001: 227). In addition, Manovich states that it is not enough to merely establish multiple possible narrative trajectories to realize an interactive narrative:

 

[...] merely to create these trajectories is of course not sufficient; the author also has to control the semantics of the elements and the logic of their connection so that the resulting object will meet the criteria of narrative [...] (Manovich 2001: 228).

 

On a more general level, multiple interfaces to a single database of multimedia elements are the fundamental possibility, whereas a single interface new media object is an exception, (Manovich 2001: 227). However still in order for an object to enter the privileged realm of “art” (considered by Manovich more or less traditionally as a consummate whole consisting of form and content), the connection between the content of the multimedia database and the interface to it has to be motivated (Manovich 2001: 67), i.e. the author must control the semantics of the interface.vi The so-called neutral interfaces are similarly based on a highly specific interface, e.g. the general-purpose graphic user interface that emulates office desktop environment developed in 1972 at Xerox PARC, and therefore actually not neutral at all.

Manovich finally, after considering another form of cultural interface – navigable space – concludes that:

 

[...] forms of database and navigable space are complementary in their effects on the forms of modernity. On the one hand, the narrative is “flattened” into a database. A trajectory through events and/or time becomes a flat space. On the other hand, a flat space of architecture or topology is narrativized, becoming a support for individual user's trajectories (Manovich 2001: 284).

 

However, Manovich's theory doesn't let him theorize adequately the new “info-aesthetics” (Manovich 2001: 217) by means of categories such as “simple addition” (Manovich 2001: 325) as opposed to the modernist montage foregrounding the meaningful juxtaposition of pre-existing elements.vii On the other hand, the author’s very close relationship with the field of new media, and new media art especially, enables him to point to the dilemmas traversing the new media art field with great accuracy.

 

2. Realism as narrative ordering of the reality in crisis

 

The new media theory highlights the importance of the question, how to construct a meaningful statement – e.g. an artistic one – out of an archive of ready-made elements, of course in a way that is substantially different from Marcel Duchamp's. One suggestion is the interesting answer to this question in Hans Vilmar Geppert’s particular interpretation of the nineteenth century realistic novels. In his monograph Der realistische Weg (1994) he reinterprets the realistic discourse as a discourse emerging from imminent experience of crisis. By drawing from the semiotics of Charles Sanders Peirce he considers the crisis in semiotic terms: a person cannot accept the discourses surrounding her as adequate and grasps for something better. Since for semiotics a person is nothing more than a “man-sign” (Geppert 1994: 61), it is impossible to turn to a phenomenological attitude and reflect the reality as it appears to an intentionally structured consciousness. Nothing new can be gathered from the world around the person, since the discourse cannot name it and therefore relate to it. However the discontent has to be resolved somehow.

Geppert aligns realism with pragmatism (theoretically and historically) and goes on to prove this thesis in numerous extensive analyses or realistic novels. However here the important thing is the pragmatistic philosophy that helps him interpret the works. Geppert somewhere refers to Peirce's six-level model of the sign (Geppert 1994: 43-50): representamen, immediate/direct interpretant, immediate/direct object, actual interpretant, dynamical object (i.e. real object) and final interpretant. If the direct interpretant – the functioning of sign “represented or signified in the Sign” – and its direct object successfully correspond to the real object then the pragmatistic theory is of little use. Only when the crisis of interpretant emerges and the immediate interpretant, the “common sense”, doesn't correspond to the dynamic object as it is indicated by the actual interpretant - “the effect actually produced on the mind by the Sign” - then the process of the semiosis begins. I.e. when the discourse of reality doesn't suit the needs of its user, the reality breaks down into language, an unordered archive of different socially and historically institutionalized codes.

For Peirce's semiotics the crisis of codes of reality is most disturbing, since the epistemological issues, the beliefs, are inseparable from their effects with practical bearings. The meaning is established as a meaningful action, which additionally needs to relate to a particular type of generality, regulative concept of action, the habit. From the abovementioned six levels of the sign the final interpretant had not been taken into account yet. The final interpretant interprets the sign in its totality; it corresponds to the dynamic object, the real object. It is the transcendental meaning of the sign and the human habit that follows from it. In it the utopian community of meaning is embodied. However, the fact that it is the transcendental meaning, shifts it into the indefinite future. Peirce's semiotics and pragmatics are idealistic as far as the ultimate meaning is conditionally placed into the future. Fallibilistic position of human existence on the one hand is faced with presupposition of the conditional possibility of knowing (the future consensus, the final interpretant).

Moving away from Geppert's analysis of realistic novels that explicates the realistic way, the narrative progress of the discourse in the novel, starting from the breakdown of reality into an archive of problematic codes, following through transitional new possibilities of meanings that, in turn, subsequently also break down progressing toward the final reality of the final interpretant. What is questionable about it is the linear progressivism, “the development of concrete reasonableness” (in Geppert 1994: 32) as Peirce puts it, the uniform path of all humanity towards one, colonialist good and logical reality. However it is only one aspect that doesn't affect the most promising potentials of (Geppert's use) of Peirce's concepts. The position of Peirce's subject, the “thought-sign”, a kind of foucauldian “subject position”, is faced with a double focus: on the one hand she reacts pragmatically (in the colloquial sense) to the reality surrounding her but at the same time she relates in her sign, that she produces as an answer to previous problematic archive of signs, to the transcendental sign as such. This second aspect is eminently ethical, since its goal is to forward humanity towards good (for Peirce, logic is a subtype of ethics.) A strikingly similar situation can be found in the theories of Mikhail Bakhtin, i.e. in his concept of dialogue.

 

The understanding itself as dialogic element enters the dialogic system and somehow changes its total sense. The one that understands inevitably becomes “the third” in the dialogue (of course not in a literal or arithmetic sense, because the number of participants in the dialogue that is understood can be unlimited, besides “the third”); however, the dialogic position of the “third” is a very particular position. Every utterance has always its addressee (of different characters, different levels of proximity, specificity, awareness etc.), whose responsive understanding is searched for and anticipated by the author of discursive product. This is “the second” (again not in arithmetic sense). But the author presupposes besides this addressee (“the second”) more or less consciously the supreme “super-addressee” (“the third”), whose absolutely righteous responsive act is foreseen either in the metaphysical distance or in distant historic time (addressee as “side or last exit” for the thought and word of the addresser). In the different ages and within different understanding of the world this super-addressee and his ideal, actually responsive understanding gets different ideological expressions (god/God, absolute truth, the court of impartial human consciousness, people, the court of history, science etc.) (Bahtin 1999: 318).viii

 

3. Two possibilities of the new media discourse

 

This poses a double possibility to construe the hypertextuality and the language of new media. To exemplify the first possibility, we can refer to George P. Landow’s description of his own (potential) use of the hypertext while writing his monograph that was eventually printed as a traditional scholarly book-length study (Landow 1992: 78-87). He emphasizes the potentials – rather utopically – of the nonlinear narrative composed of multiple lexias linked together in a non-hierarchical manner. He explains how he could, from a certain point in his text, follow his line of thought in two different directions (by forking the text from one lexia to two different ones by means of links). However, this has important consequences that Landow nevertheless hasn’t actually embodied in his printed writing, e.g. the poststructuralist dissolution of the author.

Landow’s image of hypertext as an open textual network establishes a mirroring relation between the writer’s mind and the text (nonlinear, dynamic etc.). What happens is that the text ceases to be a single finished statement of an author (bakhtinian definiton)ix but an object on its own representing or corresponding to the assumed workings of the human mind. However, an open network of meanings is, as indicated with Gepppert’s notes on realistic discourse, a sign of crisis. A similar conclusion follows from the overview of Manovich’s database cultural form.

One example of the opposite type of new media statement is Joerg Auzinger’s switch environment (2003)x, a new media installation consisting of a projection on the wall of a short clip from Truffaut’s film Fahrenheit 451 (made after the Ray Bradbury’s novel) and a light-bulb with a switch on the opposite wall. The user in the gallery space may turn the switch turning the light off in the gallery space and also in the scene in the projected video. In the video there is a fireman, who in previous scenes burns books, reading Dickens’ David Copperfield by the light of the snow on a widescreen flat TV-screen. The user of this work is faced with the situation, where he has to decide, but the options are prescribed in advance. What is emphasized is the problem of reading the new media installation as the Other (in a personalistic sense) that at the same time opens up the issues relevant to the user and shuts out the possibilities. The reality is construed as an archive, but at the same time offered to the user in a particularly configured arrangement of elements, which was consciously created by the author. What user is faced with is an interface based on a database of the reality in crisis that he or she has to negotiate. The archive of the possibilities is not the utopian docuverse (Theodor Nelson’s term) but the configured interface built by one author to communicate to others, by taking into account the possibility of understanding as such, as the third in the dialogue.

 

3. Conclusion

 

The database seen as narrative is a possible answer to the database – narrative opposition from the new media field. Geppert offers us a challenging thesis that the particular refiguration of the Bildungsroman is the model for the realistic discourse in general. Another perspective, eliminating the linear progression of the discourse from the equation, could follow from the dialogic reinterpretation of the theory through Bakhitn’s theories. Some of the novels of Charles Dickens seem to be of key importance here; the so-called “later novels” (novels from Bleak House onwards) pose a problem that cannot be resolved through e.g. modernist models of narrative. Geppert acknowledges this and marks one of the limits of “the realistic way” with Dickens’ Our Mutual Friend.xi The crisis of reality cannot be reconceptualized as a new meaningful attempt as it breaks down into an archive of existing (deictically named) but chaotically scattered elements, however not without a conscious attempt to address the crisis of reality and find a way out (Geppert 1994: 166-7).

The juxtaposition of the paradox of new media language being suspended between the database form and narrative attempt to establish coherent meanings with the similar situation involved in the realistic discourse puts the former into perspective. There is an apparent similarity between our text and the idea that the technology embodies either, according to Landow, the “contemporary critical theory” or the avant-garde, as claimed by Manovich. It is still more notable for Landow himself also refers to Bakhtin’s dialogism to prove his theses. However, the important point is the shifted focus from the noncritical understanding of technology embodying past modernist theory or art practice to the somehow disillusioned but nevertheless productive question of how to create meanings out of archival material. It could be fruitful to consider issues of realistic writing from the point of view of new media – a sort of universal digital metamedia (Manovich 2001: 6) - and vice versa. The veristic style and the ideological supplement that follow from the narrative in crisis are controversial frameworks, which could be used to shed new light on the problem of the new media narrative.

 

Bibliography:

 

Aarseth, Espen. 1997. Cybertext: Perspectives on Ergodic Literature. Baltimore. Johns Hopkins UP.

Bahtin, Mihail M. 1999. Estetika in humanistične vede. Ljubljana. SH.

Fiedler, Elisabeth, Steinle, Christa, Weibel, Peter (Eds.). 2005. Die Postmediale Kondition. Graz. Neue Galerie Graz.

Foucault, Michel. 11969. L'Archéologie du savoir. Gallimard.

Geppert, Hans Vilmar. 1994. Der Realistische Weg: Formen pragmatischen Erzählens bei Balzac, Dickens, Hardy, Keller, Raabe und anderen Autoren des 19. Jahrhunderts. Tübingen. Max Niemeyer Verlag.

Landow, George. P. Hypertext: The Convergence of contemporary Critical Theory and Technology. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1992.

Manovich, Lev. 2001. The Language of New Media. MIT Press.

Vaupotic, Ales. 2002. "On the problem of historical research in humanities: Michel Foucault and Mikhail Bakhtin." Logos. 2. 3 (Fall 2002). URL: http://www.kud-logos.si/LOGOS-3-02/bakhtinfoucault.htm (28. 8. 2006). Also in: Vaupotic, Ales. & Bovcon, Narvika. 2004. Umetniški arhiv: Dva primera/Artistic Archive: Two Examples. (Exh. Cat.) Maribor. MKC. URL: http://www2.arnes.si/~avaupo2/files/vspcmousserap.pdf (28. 8. 2006).

 

Abstract:

The paper will analyse the concept of text as an archive in its correlation to various artistic media. Referring to Hans Vilmar Geppert’s notion the realistic way as elaborated in his work Der realistische Weg (1994) in views of Peirce's semiology the realistic discourse in the 19th century novel stems from the imminent experience of a crisis. Reality is scattered into multiple archives of text, which form the base for the construction of the narrative. Its effects are the veristic representation and the ideological vein. An analogous process is at work in software art, where the concept of an archive is used to recombine given data through algorithmically generated relations; new meanings are generated as a consequence. Examining this digital reorganisation of data, new media art is approached by using the theory of discourse as developed by Bakhtin and Foucault. Digital archives are scrutinized with particular attention to human-computer interface design that mediates between the archive and the user. Narratives constructed as archives of data are polyperspectivic at heart and such patterns are found already in the novels of Charles Dickens, which is an important link between 19th century literature and the 21st century computer art.

i The term database is problematic since in computer science it relates to particular software applications for data storage and manipulation, e.g. relational databases, and doesn't include data collections stored in general, e.g. in an XML file. Manovich uses the term as synonym for data collection. (I thank Andruid Kerne for this comment.)

ii I.e. “human-computer-culture interface”.

iii http://www.georgelegrady.com/ (23. 8. 2005).

iv Manovich quotes the magazine Mediamatic Vol 8#1: The Storage Mania Issue (Summer 1994). http://www.mediamatic.nl/magazine/8_1/8_1Content.html (23. 8. 2005)

v Here leave aside the question whether the narrative aspect in these cases, as Manovich claims, is actually a result of new media following the language of cinema.

vi A similar situation, on yet another level, can be observed in Manovich's notes on montage, which on one hand is pushed back into the 1980s and related to the aesthetics of postmodernism foregrounding boundaries between elements, the computer based compositing on the other hand is privileging smoothness and continuity, the “simple addition” principle (Manovich 2001, 142-4). However, later on Manovich again argues for the difference between the “strong” case of montage, where the juxtapositions of elements form a system and the semantics of juxtapositions are taken into account, and broader virtually meaningless use (158).

vii The same can be said for the dichotomy: database – algorithm. (Manovich 2001, 222-5.)

viii The Problem of the Text in Linguistics, Philology, and the Human Sciences.

ix Landow refers to Bakhtin on many occasions in support of his positions, but, perhaps erroneousely by ignoring the personalistic aspect of Bakhtins theories.

x http://www.auzinger.net (28. 8. 2006).

xi Interestingly, also the second version of Der grüne Heinrich, the first version being the key example for Geppert’s theory of the realistic Bildungsroman, shows similar features of the paradox of the realistic way.

 

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