Lev Manovich and the Digital Object

Since I posted on the work of writing in the age of digital replication, I have begun, finally, to read Lev Manovich‘s The Language of New Media, part of which relates to what I was addressing in that post.   My argument was essentially that a digital copy of a digital object “is always entirely identical to its original and to every other copy,” but Manovich proposes, among his several principles of new media, a principle of variability, which states that “a new media object is not something fixed once and for all, but something that can exist in different, potentially infinite variations.”

What Manovich means by this is that the same digital object can be, and often is, altered and modified according to the specifications of each user, so that each user has, at least in potential, access to many variations of the same digital object.  For example, the digital object of this post will be used to produce many variant digital objects by different users.  Some will read it through one or another feed reader.  Some will read it through this site itself.  Some will see it first in a search engine’s display.  These people will be using various browsers, various graphics drivers, and various operating systems.  All of these things will manipulate the original digital object and create a variation of it for the end users.

Now, Manovich’s principle and my own are not mutually exclusive, but they do emphasize two apparently opposing characteristics of the digital object, and they do raise the question of how exactly digital objects are related to the copies and the variations that are made from them.  In this respect, I would suggest that it is necessary to refine the idea of the copy as such, whether it is being used to describe digital objects or physical ones, and I would argue that every copy is distinct from its source object both in space and in time.  Whatever continuity there may be in the content of the object, in the words or the code or the images that it bears, it is always temporally and spatially discontinuous from every other copy.  Whether I am printing a new edition of a book or copying a file for a friend, the copy is always discontinuous from its original.

This distinction may seem obvious, but it is necessary to insist on it in order to realize the difference between how digital objects relate to their copies as opposed to how physical objects do so.  When I take a physical object, I can mark it, individualize it, make it more unique.  When I do so, I create an object that is new, in a very real sense, but one that is not temporally and spatially discontinuous with the one that it replaced.  When I add notes in its margins, or spill coffee on it, or put a dedication on its flyleaf, or bend the corners of its pages to mark my place, I make that object different from the object that it was, but this object is not discontinuous in time and space from the previous object.  This is what allows the user to fetishize the physical object, what makes it available to the user as an object of nostalgia or obsession. It is a new and unique object, but it is physically and historically continuous with the object of the user’s memory.  It takes a place in history.  It is, in fact, entirely irreplaceable.

When I make changes to a digital object, however, these changes do not modify an object that remains continuous with the one that was changed.  Instead, they always create an entirely new digital object.  There is never any way for the digital object to be changed except to be created as entirely new.  It can only be the source for a new object that is in every case entirely discontinuous spatially and temporally from the one that preceded it, and this new object can only be identical with the source object or not.  It has no other way to appear.  There will never be the digital equivalent of coffee stains or bent corners, because any such interventions become embodied in the new object itself.  Even if it replaces the object that preceded it, it is a new and discontinuous object.  Even if it maintains a history of the changes that have been made to it, it is a new and discontinuous object.

It is precisely because digital objects function in this way that they can be made identical, producing copies that are able to replace their originals in every respect.  One copy is a good as another.  So long as they are copies, any one will do.  This is why, while it is still possible to fetishize the function and the history of a digital object, it is never possible to fetishize one copy of this digital object over another.  It is possible for me to have nostalgia for a digital song or computer program, but one copy of these objects will always be as good to me as another, because they will always be entirely interchangeable.  They will never have dog ears or creases or stains that make them identifiably mine and identifiably a part of my history.  They will always remain invisible to my memory and to my history and to my nostalgia.

What Manovich’s principle of variability recognizes, therefore, is the ability of a particular digital object to be manipulated endlessly, but what it fails to recognize is that these manipulations are not variations of the original digital object at all, but entirely new digital objects in themselves.  Though they have used the original object as a source, they are no longer continuous with it spatially or temporally.  In other words, exactly counter to what I quoted from Manovich in my opening paragraph, a new media object is indeed fixed once and for all, however many further objects might use it as a source.  It cannot, as Manovich claims, exist in potentially infinite variations.  It can only be a source for a potentially infinite set of new objects.  While a physical object might potentially exist in many ways as it becomes subject to the alterations of time and space, this is precisely the thing that the digital object can never do.

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6 comments
  1. Don Moore said:

    This discussion of Manovich and the reproducibility of the digital object reminds me of Marjory Garber’s discussion of quotation marks, in particular, the way in which they may indicate either “authenticity” or “doubt,” and the way in which quotations blend into the apparent text of the writer. For every claim to authenticity, in other words, there must be doubt as to the singularity of the text, if not the singular impact of the “text” on the reader. That text–even if infinitely removed from its source–may be the only viable access one has to the singular intervention of its “source.”

    What’s more, as Luke says, there is a temporal and spacial discontinuity between “original” and “copy.” However, the same can be said about the temporal and spacial discontinuity of different readers, even of the same text, or readers and writers of texts. “Place”–even the same place–is clearly different for different people with different political, economic, physical, cultural relationships to particular places (or contexts) in which particular texts are “read.” Secondly, time is likewise not the same for different people whose historical contexts cannot be mapped with the same cultural, political, economic, gendered, or nationalistic temporal sign posts. Further, digital objects are always already re-mediated through the language and infrastructure of the language, infrastructure and medium of the digital, which has already “preshaped” and/or “re-shaped” the singularity of the object in relation to the medium. As Derrida says in “Signature, Event, Context,” we cannot isolate the original, or proper context in which such singular enunciations of the “thing itself” occur, as even contexts rely upon citational language–an infinitely deferred supplementarity through which we hopelessly try to express the “originality” of the “original.”

    The point I’m trying to make with this rather abstract preamble: I was talking to my class about the impacts Youtube has had on the ways in which online video is disseminated. When a particular event–for example, security guards tasering a student at a John Kerry speech–goes “viral,” this rapid supplementation of the “original” image creates a buzz that, I argued, adds to the “original” and actually becomes part of that “quoted” text. Dance remixes and copies of the original video interspersed with MC Hammer videos, argued my class, doesn’t necessarily do justice to the importance of the original incident. However, there is a function to this often fluffy reworking of the origin that perhaps serves a wider purpose to the impact of that video footage. The “original” has become something quite different due to the intermediation of the image into a supplemental, spectral web which has expanded and amplified the singular intervention of that “original” cell-phone video. Is there actually an “original” here, when the so-called “original” meant very little outside of the supplemental chain of re-signification caused by its going viral? What’s more, there were other “originals” which came to light as a result of the viral effect–an effect that Baudrillard describes as the simulacral spectacle BECOMING the event itself, even more so than the so-called “original.” For example, the repeated–and highly mediated–images of the World Trade Center disaster, which reached a global audience and, far more than the “real” event on the ground, sparked the global response to 9/11. Further, with the Kerry tasering incident, the so-called “original,” here, is a poor quality cell phone video (or videos), which are already mediated images of a so-called “event” that has thus been photographically, ideologically, and maybe even in a legal sense “framed” by the digital medium. Where is the “origin” here? Is there a spiritual “origin” outside of this (possibly infinite) spectral web of quotation, or supplementarity? If there is, I don’t think we can even talk about it outside of using “quotation marks,” and citational language that makes the point always already mute. How does the event impact us, right now and in important, singular ways? That, i think we can meaningfully talk about.

  2. Don,

    There is too much here for me to address through the comments. We should talk about this together sometime, or, better yet, you should get writing in your own blog again, so that we can have a proper exchange.

    I will only say this: I am not interested here in how a copy relates to some absolute original, but only with how it relates to the object that it is copying. I am interested in the structural relationship between the copy and the copied, where the physical copy is subject to space and time and memory in a way that the digital replication never can be.

  3. Don Moore said:

    Hi Luke:
    Yes, we should discuss this soon. However, to reply to your truncated reply: You remind me that I may be thinking through such questions in a particular deconstructive mode that Hardt and Negri, at any rate, seem to think is past its prime. That said, while I’m not trying to fetishize the idea of an “absolute origin” in order to set that up as the straw man target for all my attacks (or friendly observations) on whatever topic, I do think that the very dualistic notion of that which is “copied” vs the “copy” does posit the notion of an origin. This, if only because it hierarchizes the notion of the origin in relation to the “merely” copied. My point is, I think, that the copied BECOMES the origin, and the origin the copy, to the extent that (in the case of video going viral, for example) the original only has meaning in a differantial relationship to all that which is both not itself and that which is supplemental to itself. I think the point is that this “spirit” of the whatever thing, kinda goes beyond the materiality of the object in itself, don’t you think? I guess that’s what I’m wondering about. /d

  4. Don Moore said:

    Hi again:
    Just to add to my last post–I think that this spiritual relationship between the copy and copied not only transcends digital to digital reproduction, but all other reproduction. I think the specificity of the digital, however, may make this point par excellence. /d

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