Lecture Review: Lev Manovich, “Cultural Analytics,” Paradiso, 17 May 2009

On: May 26, 2009
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Manovich’s lecture was terrible in terms of both its preparation and its intellectual content.  As a member of an audience, I find it disrespectful when a speaker – the keynote speaker no less – does not have a well-prepared talk and fumbles through a generic set of keynote slides.  This fumbling was all the more annoying because the audience could not see the whole slide – particularly the text – at once.  The examples he provided of “Cultural Analytics” would have been laughed at by any serious social scientist or art historian.  I would have laughed too, if I hadn’t been so pissed off.

Using a sample-size of 35 hand-picked images from realism to modernism, he analyzed the paintings using open-source digital techniques, which demonstrated that painting became increasingly simple (fewer distinct shapes in each image) during this period.  Obviously, a sample size of 35 is not sufficiently large to generate statistically relevant results. This sample, moreover, was clearly biased and included a disproportionate number of works by Russian artists and no Americans.  But perhaps more importantly, what does one learn from this software-generated observation, which has been generally accepted knowledge amongst art historians on the basis of empirical observation for decades?  Absolutely nothing.

In another example, Manovich showed slides that demonstrated an enormous waste of US tax-payer money.  He had used the remarkable array at UCSD of some 70 large, hi res, flat panel monitors each connected to a processor (thus constituting a potentially parallel super-computer for visualization) in order to demonstrate variations in the brightness of Mark Rothko’s paintings during the artist’s lifetime.  The outcome of the analysis was as underwhelming as the method was problematic.  The challenges of accurately capturing the color and tone of a painting in digital form and then representing them on a monitor are well known.  The challenges of comparing multiple paintings on monitors is all the more complicated. While there may be insights to be gained by such a method – and I’m not sure how relevant they would be even in the best of circumstances – it appears to be limited to only the most superficial formal aspects of a painting.  And while certain aspects of connoisseurship may be aided by computer analysis of high-resolution digital images, Manovich’s example was far from that.  What do we learn about Rothko or about art in general from an analysis of the brightness in his work over time?  Why even bother posing that as a research question?

As a matter of comparison, in the Digital Methods project (spearheaded by Richard Rogers at UvA, and involving several New Media MA students, PhDs, and other researchers), the researcher must very carefully orchestrate the question, the method, and the database. Sometimes, this requires creating new tools.  Sometimes this means asking different sorts of questions. Sometimes both.  Digital Methods analysis works only when these three elements are in synch. And when it works, it can provide vital insight that could not be arrived at otherwise because the quantity of information that must be evaluated and manipulated does not lend itself to traditional methods.  If Manovich’s Cultural Analytics hopes to achieve what Digital Methods has achieved, it must learn how to ask relevant questions of its tools and data.  The questions Manovich posed to his data were mundane and limited to formal features.  Even then the methodology and results were unconvincing. As a member of the audience astutely pointed out during the Q&A, Manovich’s cultural analytics does not reckon at all with content.  Perhaps that, more than anything, is its most egregious shortcoming.

Well, maybe not.  Manovich’s contentions, or rather refrains,  that “culture is software” and “we are entering a new epistemology: pattern is the new real” may sound provocative and progressive but they represent very shallow thought, an epistemological slippage that fails to differentiate between ontological registers. I could not agree more with the audience member who, during the Q&A, said she thought that some of his positions were dangerous. His response – that it’s not dangerous like walking into the street when a bike is whizzing by – was, not surprisingly, as shallow, if not arrogant, as the rest of his presentation.

Manovich is a central figure in new media discourses and is a figurehead of our field within a larger ecology of scholars and public intellectuals.  We should expect more from him.  He does a disservice to the field and presents a poor example for students when he presents material that is intellectually shallow and does so in an unprofessional manner.  There were quite a number of UvA New Media faculty and MAs in a circle around Manovich after the talk.  I hope you were kicking ass and not kissing ass.  None of you rose to my challenge to blog the event.  Maybe next time you’ll have more time and/or courage.

Event details: Lev Manovich was the keynote speaker for the public opening event at Paradiso, prior to the expert meeting “Archive 20/20,” organized by Virtueel Platform and held at the Trouw Building the following day.  See http://www.virtueelplatform.nl/en/#2519 and http://www.virtueelplatform.nl/en/#2489

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