Monday, February 11, 2008

The Marriage Diagram

Upon reading Manovich’s articles, I had some difficulty accepting his diagnosis of creativity in the last 50 years. While I understand that Manovich does not want to label ALL artists from the 60’s-80’s as “parasitic media artists,” I’m concerned that he focuses his argument on too small a creative pool without defining the parameters of his category. At risk of citing an instance of “simulacrum” before we have read Baudrillard, I would like to use “Sesame Street” as a counterexample to Manovich’s assertion. Although Sesame Street could be described as an idealized version of a fictional reality, it is nevertheless, the product of media artists in the 60’s-80’s who used the tropes of variety shows and puppeteering to create a new kind of media art. Sesame Street could not exist on paper, as a film, or as an RPG; the Sesame Street that we can identify from our childhood is an exclusively television-based experience. Furthermore, its techniques were new. The characters, jokes, themes, songs, animations- all were created as component pieces of Sesame Street. It was a new kind of entertainment, an exclusively media-based entertainment, and it was original. As Manovich explains it, “an original and subjective view of the world.”

Looking back on this example, it looks a little silly, but I still posit that there were new, original kinds of media art being produced from 1960-1989 that did not rely on existing media for content.

It also occurred to me to examine a little more closely Hayles’ thesis that executable code is different from written or spoken language in terms of the immediacy of its behavior. Code, she posits, means what it does; it is “executable” in a way that English, for instance, is not. She cites as an example a priest’s pronouncement that a couple are married, contrasting that kind of executable speech with the more material one implicit in coding. What I would like to think about, though, is the idea that code can be interpreted as backward-functioning speech. If code is executable, and only has meaning insofar as its function is concerned, then it is defined by its materiality (as we talked about in class today). As Hayles describes, a code becomes a behavior when a voltage of electricity is interpreted as a one or a zero, and this binary becomes the signifier for higher levels of programming code. Eventually, code manifests itself in a linguistic system comprehensible only to a machine and a select, elite group of skilled programmers. At its origin, however, code begins as particles moving through space. Something physical has to happen in order for code to work – regardless of the number of layers of signifiers within a given programming system, language cannot create in and of itself.
I guess a diagram of code working would look something like:

Voltage→ binary (transition from matter to language)→ command 1 → command n → interface (eg. text in English)

In the example of the spoken word, however, this system is reversed. A priest pronounces a couple married. This in itself does not have inherent meaning. But then the couple leave the church, have sex, take a honeymoon trip together, move into a house, have children, cook dinner, open joint savings accounts, etc. The impetus here is not the voltage, but the language itself, which prompts the material behavior. A diagram of the executable spoken word working would look something like:

Interface (eg. pronouncement in English)→ [behavior 1 (eg. Make dinner)→ behavior n →] marriage

in which the bracketed parts of the diagram represent the transition from language to matter- the English language equivalent of binary (for the purposes of this metaphor).

This is perhaps a reductionist reading of the effects of spoken words and the inherent difference between code and writing or speech, but there might be something in the idea that in all three forms of executable language, the commands themselves cannot effect change without material changes.

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