[-empyre-] visualization as the new language of theory

davin heckman davinheckman at gmail.com
Fri Feb 5 04:41:12 EST 2010

Having seen Lev Manovich's presentation at DAC, I am dazzled by the
strong potential of cultural analytics.  I have been doing the
pauper's version of this for years, telling some of my more dedicated
visual culture students: head to the library, grab a stack of bound
periodicals (or one of the various design annuals) and flip through
them manually, after looking at twenty years, you will see a
progression.  Shifts in palette, layout, font.  What this enhanced
method allows is for a person to do the same thing, except with a
certain layer of abstraction imposed by larger quantities, and without
the distraction of overt content.  The strength of this method, as I
see it, is not in the conclusive nature of such analysis, but in the
support that it offers for certain types of thinking about visual
culture.  For instance, you would not be able to point to particular
changes in rhetoric and narrative, but at points of radical shifts in
visual composition, you could go back and see if the visual shifts
correspond with shifts in ways of thinking/speaking.

A particularly interesting case study, I imagine, would be to look at
cinematic imagery across the period in which CGI is introduced.  While
digital effects strive for a certain continuity with the visual
register of the remainder of the film (for instance, the Matrix, for
all its animation, works hard to keep its animated sequences
consistent with the live action sequences), it would be interesting to
see how the introduction of this technology transforms the overall
character of live action.  In other words, will our conception of
reality become cartoonish?  I would speculate that the tendency with
representational innovation moves along the same path as technological
innovation in general.  It begins with a few eccentric, paradigm
shifting examples, but then as the technology is universally adopted,
it is moderated by a strong reactionary tendency, and the process of
change happens more slowly from this point out.  (I don't know if this
model of change is specific to consumer cultures and the need to
maintain profitability in the face of revolutionary change).  Using
these sort of macroscopic views would help us understand these
phenomena better, provided they are constantly recirculated through
various critical approaches.  In other words, they can alert us to
shifts, but cannot interpret those shifts.

A second interesting relationship would be to map the effectiveness of
culture industries in initiating shifts in popular taste.  For
instance, it is a common practice for clothing designers to decide
which color schemes will be in style for a given season.  The new
color scheme must at once depart significantly from previous regimes
(to ensure more purchasing), to be internally coherent (so that this
year's styles will function at sufficient scale to be profitable), to
be distinct from competing brands, and to be desirable to their
clientele.  It would be interesting to study the epidemiology of
"subdued colors" or "clashing juxtapositions."  (Although you run a
real risk of teaching people how to sell crap more effectively....
so, I suppose any knowledge generated by this method should be married
to wisdom of some sort.).

What I would hope to see emerge out of the long range use of cultural
analytics is a more robust critique of the various analytical
processes themselves.  If cultural studies scholars learn how to use
and interpret these studies, we have opened the back door to a more
fully developed study of an emerging force in the culture at large.
Where we find problems with cultural analytics, we will also find
problems with the various other data-mining projects that are being
used to predict and manipulate human behavior without concern for
humanistic questions (rather, the description of people's shopping
habits, for example, is being used as an explanation for human
behavior....  Detroit makes SUVs because people buy SUVs.).

Finally, I have to admire the openness with which this work is being
shared.  I simply do not have the resources or technical support to
have supercomputers do this work.  And the fact that someone is doing
it in the spirit of the University, from a humanistic perspective,
means that this type of study is not totally monopolized by military
and corporate institutions.  It is, in the end, a scary form of
knowledge both for what it can reveal about human behavior AND for its
general inaccessibility.  But, it is knowledge, nonetheless.


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