Author Archives: Alexis Hamann-Nazaroff

Google Art Project and its role in the Artworld


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Google Art Project

Google Art Project: a dizzying accumulation of artworks, reproduced with the kind of precision, high contrast and impeccable resolution capable of thrilling the technophile and a tech-skeptic alike. Every time I visit the site, I find a new favorite work, one that is particularly marvelous when I have zoomed as deep as I can. Today, I am made breathless by a corner of the work, Virgin and Child, from 1520, by Lucas Cranach the Elder. This is a corner I would likely never have noticed if I were looking at the real painting hanging in the Pushkin Museum in Moscow. I have zoomed in not on the faces of the Virgin and Child, but on a background detail, the tendrils of the grape vine that twist and curl off the end of a trellis behind the figures.  In this zoom, the trellis, obviously prefiguring the cross, is a meticulous buildup of wavering brown and grey lines. The edges of each gray-green grape leaf are jagged and sharp like knives. I can clearly picture a tiny paintbrush in Cranach’s hand and the way his arm muscles must have tensed to paint each stroke with that kind of precision. But in truth, what I love the most about this zoomed-in view, is how well I can see the cracks, worn over nearly five centuries, that turn this oil-on-wood panel into a mosaic of tiny pieces. Critics discussing the Google Art Project have argued that while the Project shows artworks with great detail, it disconnects us from the their “aura.”[1] I am not sure what defines “aura”[2] for these critics, but to me, the way Google Art Project allows us to see the marks of time on the surface of the Cranach painting, better than we could in front of the painting live, imbues it with another kind of aura, an aura that supports and furthers our already-established reverence for art.

On the Zoomed-in detail of Lucas Cranach “Virgin and Child,” the cracks of age are visible

In Contrast, here is the reproduction of “Virgin and Child” as it appears on the Pushkin Museum Website

As explained by Bolter and Grusin, digital interfaces like Google Art Project, progress along two conflicting logics: the logic of hypermediacy, and the logic of transparent immediacy. According to the logic of transparent immediacy, the medium that is most effective is the one that erases itself. According to the logic of hypermediacy, in contrast, what is valued and admired is the multimedia interface, an interface that is a fragmented, heterogeneous collage of links and functions. We both want to look at a medium, and for this hypermediacy is the most effective, and through a medium, unimpeded, at its content, and for this transparent immediacy is the best logic.[3] Furthermore, remediation is the defining characteristic of digital new media.  New media is “the representation of one medium in another.”[4] If, as Bolter and Grusin argue, the competing logics of immediacy and hypermediacy, in addition to the trait of remediation are the defining characteristics of digital new media, than Google Art Project is its poster child.  Google Art Project is a highly layered remediation, representing museums representing art works, a medium representing a medium.  It is also both hypermediated –with dozens of possible links to click on each page, and obsessed with achieving immediacy –both the “museum view” and the incredible zoom capabilities of Google Art Project attest to this.

Google Art Project was launched in January 2011, in cooperation with 17 museums in the United States and Europe.  Today, it partners with over 230 museums from 40 countries around the world, and features over 30,000 artworks.[5] More museums are signing on every day. With the kind of user-friendly interface we have come to expect from Google, a visitor can browse for hours, scrolling through the artwork by institution, by artist, or even by user-generated galleries. In sum, the Google Art Project is becoming an important player in the Artworld, and one that it is high time for scholars to assess critically. This is the task I take on in this essay. Three central questions frame my thinking. First, how does meaning-making work on Google Art Project? More specifically, how much is this meaning-making a continuation of the ways we have already been trained through Artworld institutions to understand art, and how much doe Google Art Project bring new variables into the system? In particular, does Google Art Project mediate symbolic capital in a way that promotes or devalues the museum function? In answer to these questions I argue that Google Art Project does not, and cannot revolutionize the way we understand art. No single new technology can have that much influence on a well established social system. While technology has a role to play in cultural change, social functions are far more important divers of cultural configurations. Observing the content of the site as it is today, it is clear that Google Art Project does not break down as much as continue to promote the hierarchies and cultural capital that have long been upheld by the Artworld.

Nonetheless, Google Art Project does show some potential to shift the Artworld functions in small ways. The Project, undoubtedly part of the Artworld, is also a node in two other networks: the Google brand name network, and the web/cultural interface network.  In its position at the center of these interlinking networks, Google Art Project runs into conflicting purposes.  In particular, the Web/cultural interface network functions as a general equalizer, which contradicts the hierarchy-building function of the Artworld.  It is in negotiating these frictional functions, that Google Art Project breaks away a tiny bit from the limits of the Artword to create a space of meaning-making slightly different from other, older, Artworld spaces.Already, I have stumbled upon a half dozen examples of art works and art institutions included in the project that destabilize, rather than enforce a rigid high-art distinction. Furthermore, the project is still in its infancy. As I have observed it over the course of even a few months, the trend in its development is undeniably a development towards a more democratic, more inclusive, and broader, definition of art.

In attempting to articulate how art and museums have functioned before Google Art Project, I borrow the ideas of a number of different philosophers, cultural theorists, and media scholars. In particular, the writing of Pierre Bourdieu, and his ideas about symbolic capital are informative in understanding the Artworld and Google Art Project’s developing role.

Creating Value in the Artworld: Bourdieu’s Theory of Symbolic Capital

The purpose of “the Artworld,” is to maintain the cultural category of art.[6] This idea was articulated early by Arthur Danto, and later developed further by Bourdieu.  This insight recognizes that what makes something art is not an inherent property in the art object, but is determined and reinforced by a complex social process.  Institutions like schools, museums, art galleries, and art auction houses, as well as roles like curators, art historians, and art collectors are all part of the Artworld, and play their (often invisible and/or unconscious) parts in the process of maintaining the cultural category of art. The museum’s function is to confer prestige, authority, memory, validation and a cumulative art historical narrative on the works of high art.  In this way, a museum is less a container for artifacts, and more a mediator of the museum function. Since it was founded in 2011, and more and more as it expands its reach, Google Art Project is another player in this game, largely following the rules of the museum function.

As Bourdieu explains, the Artworld runs on an economy of cultural capital. Capital means more than just money, in fact, the mercantile exchange of money for goods is just one case among many kinds of exchange of capital. This is central to Bourdieu’s concept, because “it is impossible to account for the structure and functioning of the social world unless one reintroduces capital in all its forms and not solely in the one form recognized by economic theory.”[7] So if capital is more than just money, what is it?  For Bourdieu, capital comes in three basic guises: economic capital (the most easily convertible to money), social capital (largely reducible to social connections) and cultural capital.[8] Cultural capital itself can take one of three forms: Embodied, objectified, institutionalized. These three forms are to be found, respectively in people, in cultural objects and technologies, and in broader social institutions.  All three of these play a role in the economy of the Artworld.  Embodied capital requires personal investment and is nearly impossible to transfer from one person to another.  This is the kind of capital art historians build up when they put in hours into studying and writing about art. Institutionalized capital, on the other hand, is codified in a complex system.  It is “sanctioned by legally guaranteed qualifications, formally independent of the person of their bearer.”[9] Bourdieu’s central example of institutional capital is the university degree, however any socially sanctioned institutions –including museums – can bestow institutional capital on an object or person, “as if by collective magic,”[10] instantly making the consecrated object or person more valuable. Embodied cultural capital has to constantly work to prove itself, and can be lost with injury to the bearer. Institutional cultural capital, once achieved, is far more stable.

There are two important aspects that make Bourdieu’s insights into capital so profound.  First, all the types of capital are fungible –they all can be converted into monetary gains in the long run.  Second, and particularly relevant to the functioning of the Artworld, cultural capital is routinely disavowed and misrecognized. The Artworld functions by pretending not to be about capital, when in fact, nearly everything it does is done for the purpose of long term profit. Bourdieu insists that we understand how “economic capital is at the root of all the other types of capital… and these transformed, disguised forms of economic capital, never entirely reproducible to that definition, produce their most specific effects only to the extent that they conceal (not least from their possessors) the fact that economic capital is at their root.”[11] Participants in the Artworld, and members of society outside of it, collectively misrecognize where value comes from in the Artworld, as well as the central importance of capital in the museum function. This misrecognized capital, Bourdieu terms “symbolic capital.”[12] Common wisdom holds that the value of a work of art comes from something in the creative act of the artist.  In fact, it is the museum professional or art businessperson who “consecrates” the work and gives it its value.  The museum professional however, has to believe, or at least pretend, that the value comes from properties of the artwork itself, because that is the logic of symbolic capital. Now the question is where does the museum professional get the authority to dictate value? Bourdieu answers this by re-embedding the museum professional in the broader system of the Artworld, insisting that, “his ‘authority’ itself… only exists in the relationship with the field of production as a whole.”[13] In other words, art acquires value from the whole smooth functioning of the Artworld.

Even though Google Art Project does not (yet?) include the collections of two of the most important museums of the western world The Louvre, and The Vatican Museum, its accumulation of museum partners is impressive, and with few exceptions reinforces hierarchies that predate it.  Contrary to much of the rhetoric about the Art Project, (contrary to rhetoric about global internet projects generally), the whole world does not share evenly in Google’s efforts.  The majority of the 230 institutions represented are in the countries of Europe and North America, probably because these countries already have the most developed museum sectors.  Only one museum from the entire continent of Africa is represented (the Iziko National Gallery in South Africa.) This is not to condemn Google alone; choices about which museums to include are almost always made based on practicality, and rely on preexisting structures because these allow the project to develop much more quickly.[14] Regardless, in fundamental ways, Google Art Project is not a radical break from established museums.

The overall structure of Google Art Project’s interface is organized to both mimic and promote the museum. Each artwork you click on to examine links easily to the museum collection that artwork happens to come from.  In fact, on the main screen for each art work, the other artworks from that particular museum collection that are digitized on Google Art Project run in a scrollable line across the bottom of the screen.  In almost all cases, you can click to a “street view” to bring you to a virtual tour of the museum space itself.  Via this interface, you can scroll around the museum, see which works are hanging next to which other works, where benches for visitors have been placed; you can even move virtually through hallways into the next museum gallery. This is not the only way Google Art Project could have organized itself.  It could have instead prioritized linkages between artworks and the original locations or eras they were produced, for example.  In that case, the page for Cranach’s Virgin and Child would be accompanied by a scrollable row of other works produced in 16th century Germany, rather than a row of other works that can be found at the Pushkin Museum.  This is only one of the many, more or less logical ways Google Art Project could have, but did not, choose to organize the artworks in its collection. Choosing to organize the artworks around already established museum collections, as Google Art Project does, is not only practical, it also gives Google Art Project legitimacy. By complying with the general structure of the Artworld system, the Project is rewarded by gaining credibility as a relevant player.

Google Art Project is totally free for users and presents itself as a project for the public good. The Project is a subsidiary of Google Cultural Institute, whose mission is “building tools to preserve and promote culture online.”[15] In other words, Google Art Project presents itself as an institution devoid of economic motivation. In truth, Google is one of the most successful companies in the world, built largely on the cultural capital of its reputation.  In the long run, this cultural capital converts to economic gain.  The Google Art Project feeds into the Google image in a way that is ultimately hugely monetarily valuable to the company, even as the role of money is obscured in their rhetoric.

When looked at through the lens of Bourdieu’s symbolic capital, it is clear that Google Art Project does not so much make new meaning as piggy-back on the structure for meaning making already present in the Artworld.  However, while this is by-and-large an accurate characterization, there are a number of other theoretical models we can use to try to understand the Google Art Project, and they lead us to slightly different insights.

Reproductions, Affordances and the Code of the “Real”

James Gibson coined the term “affordances” in 1977, and this concept has since then been an indispensable framework for thinking about the advantages and disadvantages involved in a particular technology.  Gibson’s defined affordances as: “all action possibilities latent in the environment.”[16] When we borrow Gibson’s concept to understand media technologies, such as Google Art Project, we can see that the website contains certain “affordances;” in other words it supports certain actions but not others. In particular Google Art Project, like most digital media, affords the untrained visitor greater remixing and editing capabilities than its analog “equivalent,” the museum.  Visitors to Google Art Project can take advantage of this affordance when they create their own galleries and play at being curator. Furthermore, to return to my previously described example, the zoom function afforded me a clear look at the cracks covering the Cranach painting, and thus a more visceral sense of the nearly 500 years the painting has experienced since its creation. On the other hand, digitization “looses” three-dimensional materiality of the artwork that is better perceived in a museum. Thinking in terms of affordances suggests that Google Art Project is, at least not completely, just aping museums in its functioning –it cannot. Because they are technologically different, the two media, museums and websites, have inherently different strengths and weaknesses.

Although she does not use the metaphor, affordances relates to the argument put forth by Kim Beil, in “Seeing Syntax: Google Art Project and the Twenty-First-Century Period Eye,” one of the only academic articles as yet to theorize about the cultural implications of Google Art Project. Beil’s main argument is that all reproductions are not created equal, and studying the qualities in a reproduction that we value in any particular historic moment can tell scholars a lot about the way our culture finds meaning in art. Reproductions, do not just iconically show their subject, like invisible windows, rather they also act as an index of the era and context in which they were made.[17] Beil explains that the high resolution, zoom-able, high contrast and interactive reproductions in Google Art project are not “natural” or “real” or “better than the real thing,” as both the project creators, and users have described them. Their being described this way indicates however that we value the particular, specific qualities that they possess more fully than other reproductions. The affordances that Google Art Project technologies give are extreme brightness, high contrast, and sharpness. Beil says that “critics describe these features, which allow us to examine reproduced artworks at an almost microscopic range and simulate the dimensionality of the object’s surface, as part of Art Project’s ‘reality effect,’ but in actuality, these processes vary significantly from our real-life encounters with works of art.”[18] These images are not “real” as much as they mimic our experience with other digital images, experiences we are trained to value through constant computer use. In other words, Google Art Project uses technologies particularly suited for promoting our contemporary code of the hyperreal.  Articulated originally by cultural theorist Jean Baudrillard, the theory of the hyperreal recognizes that so often for society, the mediated world is more interesting than the real world.[19]  We call it augmented, or enhanced reality. In our culture, certain things, certain reproductions, are coded as “real,” or “hyperreal.” The zoomable reproductions on Google Art Project are coded this way. It is just one code among thousands, but culturally, we privilege it. The fact that “the real” is no less mediated than any other form, is what Beil is articulating in her thoughts about types of reproductions. The code has a history, and has meant different things throughout that history. Since the spread of photography in the mid-19th century, the code of “the real” has been tied to a photographic-look, and the particular affordances of photography.  Today, we are in a post-photograph age, and the code of “the real” has shifted to emphasize those qualities that are better achieved by computer images.  Beil’s insights remind us that Google Art Project is not just opening up access to artworks for everyone around the world, as popular discourse seems to indicate, nor is it merely reinforcing the museum function, as a Bourdieu-ian analysis suggests, rather it is mediating and changing those artworks.

This insight takes us one step further than Bourdieu, because it acknowledges the fact that cultures, codes, and institutional functions do change.  They change slowly, not by revolutions, but by baby-steps.  New technologies do not cause these changes, so much as the particular affordances of a technology nudge our ways of seeing and interacting with culture into new directions.  We see this in the example of the Cranach painting, and the way I can focus on the marks of time on its surface when I study it on the Google Art Project.  This is but one of a number of examples of the small ways in which our interactions with Google Art Project are nudging us to notice new things about art.

Yuri Lotman, founder of the discipline “cultural semiotics,” was interested in understanding how and why cultures change.  He argued that the purpose of culture is to transmit memory, and the function of remixing, reframing and resignifying is to keep memory alive and relevant in each new era.[20] Google Art Projects remixes, reframes and resignifies older works of art and museum institutions.  In doing this, it keeps them alive and relevant for our 21st century expectations.

The Future of Google Art Project

America Magazine reports that, thanks to Google Art Project, “a child in some remote corner of the earth, who may never set foot in any art museum or have occasion to peruse an expensive art book, can examine masterpieces from around the world amassed over centuries.”[21] Another article states that Google Art Project “is the ultimate application of the forum mindset: Not only do individuals get to interact directly with art, they also are able to manipulate it. Art is no longer something dissected only by snooty art historians we all find insufferable… it’s a layman’s conversation point.”[22] Both these quotes highlight the way Google Art Project is envisioned by its fans as revolutionary.  In particular, these quotes seem to suggest that Google Art Project is democratizing the traditionally snobby, classist Artworld into something able to affect even the untrained and unprivileged every-day man and woman. Using Bourdieu’s insights about symbolic capital, we can recognize that this great democratic revolution in art is an exaggeration; in fact Google Art Project largely maintains and even reinforces the Artworld structures.  However, Google Art Project does have certain affordances give it the potential to be part of some sort of cultural change.

Google Art Project is still in its prototype stages.  We cannot draw too many conclusions about its ultimate size and shape only by the content that is up on the site already, since Google is adding new things daily.  We can only notice trends and follow them to logical hypotheses about the role Google Art Project may play for our culture in the coming years. There have been some hints in these trends that Google Art Project is indeed trying to make art more democratic.

Photographs and reproductions are what cultural theorist Roland Barthes termed floating signifiers; in other words, out of context, they can suggest any of hundreds of possible meanings to a viewer. Anchoring is the process that ties them to a particular meaning. For Barthes, anchoring often took place in the relationship between image and caption.[23] In Google Art Project, where captions play a subordinate role (you have to click on a further link in order to get a caption) anchoring occurs mostly in the way the Project contextualizes of these reproduction as high art, setting each reproduction in line with other objects of high art. By largely reinforcing Artworld hierarchies, Google Art Project has established its credibility as a consecrator of institutional capital; now it is in a position to make small changes, and consecrate works not normally seen as high art. There are a number of examples of less well known and less valued objects in the Google Art Project.  By including some unusual collections among the more expected ones, using its institutional and technological capabilities to bestow value on these works, Google Art Project anchors these collections to the high art world. One example is the inclusion of the folk objects from the puppet theater collection in the small regional museum in eastern Germany, the Museum for Sachsen Folk Art. With or without its inclusion in Google Art Project, few people would deny that objects such as this toy chandelier show incredible craft and skill on the part of the maker. But because such objects are not part of the unified art history narrative do not fit well in the story of art’s development toward modernism and beyond, they have rarely been conceived of as “high art.” On Google Art Project, they are photographed with a clear, white-cube aesthetic and are zoom-able just like any of the other artworks. This contextualizes them, newly, as high art. Another, even more dramatic example is the inclusion of a collection called “Sao Paolo Street Art.” This is not even a museum collection, but a collection of 189 images of graffiti from around the city of Sao Paolo, Brazil.  There is very little textual information about this particular collection, either why Google Art Project chose to include it, or what makes street art in Sao Paolo particularly noteworthy.  While not exactly revolutionary, both the puppet theater collection from Saxony, and the street art collection from Brazil are indications of the direction that Google Art Project is developing toward. Even though today the project is overwhelmingly dominated by a role call of greatest hits of art history, and partnerships with western museums of traditional high art, the small number of unexpected collections on the site is growing.

from the Puppet Theater Collection of the Museum for Saxen Folk Art

Sao Paolo Street Art

Bourdieu has noted that pop art, and other art movements that seemed to gain their raison d’etre from trying to break the illusions are what Bourdieu calls “ritual sacrilege” and are always swallowed to become part of the system. Critiques or mockeries of the artworld “are immediately converted into artistic ‘acts,’ recorded as such, and thus consecrated and celebrated by the makers of taste.”[24] But maybe we should not discount these artist interventions as meaningless.  Since April 2012, the Art Gallery of Ontario has been a partner with Google Art Project. While their collection includes much that fits with the traditional oil-on-canvas-type artworks most common in Google Art Project, the collection also includes the very interesting, contemporary ouvre by artist Jon Rafman titled Brand New Paint Job. Putnam’s work is one of the first artist responses to Google Art Project.  He uses images accessible on Google Art Project and appropriates them to create intricate virtual settings. As one anonymous user has written in his/her gallery on Google Art Project, “Rafman’s series, Brand New Paint Job, the collection of artworks at the center of the exhibition, straddle the line between artistic sacrilege and homage.”[25] As James Putnam points out in his book Art/Artifact, the Artworld functions not just in the direction of museums conferring value on artworks, but throughout history, “artists exert an equally powerful influence on museums.”[26] His book traces the history of artistic interventions into museum display practices.  Important interventions have sparked dialogue, and arguably changed the Artworld. Rafman’s “intervention” is the first of what we can only expect will be many art projects inspired be and reacting to the particular structure and meaning of Google Art Project. It suggests the potential for Google Art Project to be a resource for artists and a spark for dialog.

Rafman Brand New Paint Job ECarr Masterbedroom

Back in the 1950s, André Malraux envisioned a “Musée Imaginaire,” a world of art accessible to people far more easily and cheaply than ever before. With improvements in photographic technology, Malraux saw this imaginary museum as an imminent possibility. In photographic reproductions of artworks, we loose a sense of scale, context, three-dimensionality and geographic specificity.  Malraux recognized how all these losses are also a gain: by compressing them all into a single format, photographs equalize the value of artworks.[27] Malraux was an idealist.  The artworld has remained largely elitist and driven by symbolic capital in the decades since he wrote, despite photographic technology.  Digital technology and the Google Art Project will not create a revolution either.  Nonetheless, they are part of a larger, slower trend toward a broader, more democratic and contestable definition of art.


[1] Burgin “Goggling over Google’s Art Project”

[2] “Aura” as it relates to art, is a term that has been notoriously vague and overused since Walter Benjamin made it popular by stating that technological reproduction of a work of art –he was speaking specifically of photography and film in the 1930s, distances us from an artworks “aura,” decontextualizing it, and removing from the ritual context it was always associated with in previous centuries.

[3] Bolter and Grusin 21-41

[4] ibid 45

[5] http://www.googleartproject.com/faqs/

[6] Irvine “The Museum System”

[7] Bourdieu “Forms of Capital” 242

[8] ibid 243

[9] ibid 248

[10] ibid 248

[11] ibid 252

[12] Bourdieu “The Production of Belief” 262

[13] ibid 264

[14] An important preexisting structure that Google Art Project cannot directly break with is copyright law.  The majority of the works on the Project come from before the 1920s because these run into fewer copyright entanglements.  Also, Google Art Project gets around the complications of liability by requiring museum partners to take all responsibility for remaining within copyright rules.

[15] http://www.googleartproject.com/faqs/

[16] Wikipedia article on James Gibson

[17] Gittelman 5

[18] Beil 25-26

[19] Baudrillard

[20] Lotman 214

[21] America Press “Googling a Masterpiece”

[22] Burgin

[23] Barthes 112

[24] Bourdieu “The Production of Belief” 266

[25] http://www.googleartproject.com/galleries/26765288/33346242/details/

[26] Putnam 7

[27] Malraux 9-12

 

Works Cited:

America Press “Googling a Masterpiece” 2012.

Barthes, Roland Mythologies, trans. Annette Lavers New York: The Noonday Press 1957.

Baudrillard, Jean Simulacra and Simulation trans. Sheila Faria Glaser. Michigan Press 1981.

Beil, Kim “Seeing Syntax: Google Art Project and the Twenty-First Century Period Eye,” Afterimage 40:4 (Jan/Feb 2013), 22-27

Benjamin, Walter “Das Kunstwerk im Zeitalter seiner technischen Reproduzierbarkeit

Bolter, Jay David and Richard Grusin Remediation: Understanding New Media. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2000.

Bourdieu, Pierre Forms of Capital trans. Richard Nice. Göttigen: Otto Schartz & Co. 1983.

Bourdieu, Pierre and Richard Nice “The Production of Belief: Contribution to an economy of symbolic goods” Media, Culture and Society 2 (1980), 261-293.

Burgin, Leah “Goggling over Google’s Art Project” The Michigan Daily February 6, 2011.

Danto, Arthur “The Art World” The Journal of Philosophy 61:19 (1964) 571-584.

Gittelman, Lisa Always Already New: History and the Data of Culture. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2008.

Irvine, Martin: “The Museum System: Themes, Questions and Issues for Art Museums Today” http://www9.georgetown.edu/faculty/irvinem/visualarts/museums/MuseumModule.html

Lotman, Yuri “On the Semiotic Mechanism of Culture” New Literary History 9:2 (Winter 1978) 211-232.

Putnam, James Art and Artifact: The Museum as Medium New York: Thames and Hudson, 2001.

Malraux, André Museum Without Walls trans. Stuart Gilbert and Francis Price. New York: Doubleday and Company Inc. 1967.

 

Google Glass: neither utopian or dystopian, but a small, combinatorial step


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by Alexis Hamann-Nazaroff

Google Glass –I’d never heard of this specific product until this class assignment, but of course, I’d run across the general idea.  Augmented Reality is a staple of science fiction fantasy scenarios.  I watched the official demo video and noticed that in this case, my first reaction is less the technophile, over-the-moon-with excitement sort, rather, it fills me with a sense of dread – a lump in my gut telling me that Google Glass will bring on a life of detachment from reality, and of inescapable technology-addictions.

Neither the excited nor the doom vision is really an appropriate reaction to this technology.  To get a grip on these reactions we should ask: What of Google Glass is really new?  How does this technology interact as a node in the contemporary network of media technologies and technological position in everyday life?  What social/cultural functions does this interface mediate?

–       Google Glass does not (as far as I can tell) execute any functions have not already been developed in aps for smart phones over the past few years.  Just as the smart phone was mostly not new, but a combinatorial device already available in cell phones, cameras, personal computers, music players etc., making these functions more practical, so Google Glass takes the search for practical one step further.  These functions are now hands free, and voice activated.

–       Google is not the first company to come up with the idea.  Like I mentioned before, the abstract concept has a long history in fiction.  And even actual functioning prototypes were created before Google, for example the iterations of the “Digital Eye Glass” created by Steve Mann in the 1980s and 1990s.  The reason Google Glass can be marketed as revolutionary is that Google has a lot of clout and power through its social positioning.  What Google says will be heard loud and clear (that what a no-name computer inventor may say is less audible has nothing to do with the quality of product he invents and everything to do with his lack of social power.)

–       Google Glass can come out and be accepted as an exciting new invention today in a way it could not have a decade or even a few years ago.  Technology doesn’t take leaps, it takes small, combinatorial steps.  We understand how Google Glass could fit into our lives because we are socialized into fitting smart-phones into our lives.

Touch Screen


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by Alexis Hamann-Nazaroff

My central question: how can we apply the thinking of Manovich in Language of New Media, and “Media after Software” as well as of Boulter and Grusin in Remediation to the touchscreen-interface that has no become so prevalent today?

The Usefulness of the touch-screen for the Cultural Interface: One of my “Inspire” paintings

In the time since Manovich wrote “The Language of New Media”, a major trend has been the move away from mouse-based user-computer interaction to a touch-screen based interface.  Ipods, Ipads, tablets, phones –all are objects that the user interacts with by touching icons on their screen with a finger rather than by dragging a mouse and guiding an arrow.  I wonder about the reasons behind and the implications of this shift.

One way to think about touch-screen interface is through what Boulter and Grusin call the new media’s “logic of transparent immediacy.”  Media developers, users and enthusiasts keep pushing media to be more transparent, for the interface to disappear in the presentation of content.  With this logic, eliminating the mouse is like eliminating a middleman.  It erases one step in the functioning of the interface, and users feel closer to the links they open.  On a touch screen, icons on the screen become like objects with mass and friction that can respond to pushing and pulling just like the objects in the 3-D world.

That touch screens are any “more natural” than mouse-based interface is however a myth.  They have been developed as a response to the particular ideologies and priorities of our time.  Manovich talks about a shift in in the 1990s from what we can call a “Human-Computer-Interface” being the central aspect of new media, to new media acting more often as a “Cultural-Interface.”  In other words, computers are today less about storing and calculating data (they still have these functions, but they are now secondary) and more about sharing, presenting, manipulating and working with culture.  It is in this context that we might be able to explain the touch screen a bit more fully.  The touch screen corresponds to a fantasy we have about interacting with cultural objects.  When we see cultural objects in person, we always have to be very careful how we handle them (if we are allowed to handle them at all).  Visit an archives, wear cotton gloves; visit a museum, don’t get too close to the paintings or you’ll get a scolding from the guard; even the books you own, handle them with respect.  The touch screen imitates a feeling of immediacy that in the 3D world can only ever be a fantasy.

I don’t have a lot of touch screen gadgets, but I do have an Ipod, and about a year ago, I downloaded an application called “Inspire.”  It’s a drawing application, and is an example of a new media function that is infinitely more possible on a touch-screen than on the older mouse interface.  This fits well into Manovich’s point about computers playing a more and more central role as Cultural Interfaces.  “Inspire” takes advantage of all the subtlety possible on touch screen interface, and allows the user to create art.  Manovich says “the language of cultural interfaces is largely made up from the elements of other, already familiar cultural forms” (81), so I pondered what elements “Inspire” borrows.  On the one hand, drawing on “Inspire” is like drawing in a pre-pencil era, like writing in the sand or like finger painting.  On the other, one can build up so much detail in using “Inspire,” that the finished product looks like a painting.  Boulter and Grusin said that virtual reality aims to be “photorealistic” –users judge success based on how close a VR product comes to the visual codes of photography.  If I may invent a term, “Inspire” is “painting-realistic” –users judge success based on how close an “Inspire” image comes to a the visual codes of painting.

One last thought about “Inspire”: Manovich’s “Media after Software” article makes the point that in fact software, and the software creators are far more important to the properties of the media even as they disappear behind the ideal of automatic computer response and user control.  Anything I create on “Inspire,” I owe far more to the hard work of the software developers than to my couple hours of finger sliding.

National History Museums from a Mediological point of view


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Transmission: Traditional history museums, including the NMAH are dominated by transmission functions over communication functions.  This distinction comes from Regis Debray’s formulation.  He understood the study of “communication” to be focused on contemporaneous speech acts, only as long as a single moment, ephemeral sounds that disappeared on the wind.  Debray thought the real effort of culture went not into communication, but into transmission –or passing meaning and ideas over time.  Transmission imagines the future listener/reader/user and invokes past writers/producers/creators. A history museum is a conscious, deliberate transmitter.  It is a cultural institution that acts as a translator and interpreter of objects from the past.  In fact, perhaps nothing fits so well into Debray’s framework as the history museum.

Conveying Distance: As reiterated by Constantina Papoulias’ discussion of his thinking, at the end of Transmitting Culture, Debray bemoans the transparency and immediacy that our current moment in history so values in cultural objects.  Debray’s example is the illusionist piano player who plays a Bach composition with such vibrancy that people feel transported; they no longer are aware of the distance of time that separates them an Bach. Our culture’s desire for immediacy is also evident in how we build computer and internet interfaces –we’re in awe of Google Art Project (discussed last week) is largely because we feel so close to the artworks; they are hyperreal.  Whether this is a good thing (as our culture seems to think) a bad thing (Debray’s opinion) or a more complicated, ambiguous thing with pros and cons (my opinion), there is no doubt that a traditional history museum display retains the distance, the evidence of its mediation in a way Debray would approve of.  A visit to a history museum is framed off as a special ritual act.  The history museum’s architecture is meant to be the opposite of transparent.  Admittedly, some display choices (such as when curators recreate a full scene with a mix of historic objects and objects newly fashioned to look authentic) try to be more immediate.  Nonetheless, the overall museum experience never lets the visitor forget that they are looking into the past.

See – Not invisible and transparent.

Material Traces of Meaning: Because of his interest in transmission over time, rather than ephemeral communication, Debray puts an emphasis on the materiality of ideas.  Our ideologies manifest themselves in material ways and these materials (objects, institutions, documents etc.) cannot be untangled from ideology.  Debray is not a dualist, but a monist, a firm believer that mind and body, ideology and technology, are not independent of each other.  Unlike other intellectual institutions in our culture, such as libraries, newspapers and universities, museums have always privileged objects as carriers of meaning.  Like Debray, museums see ideology as embodied.  These objects carried particular meaning about the past, and could be used and organized by curators to transmit a particular meaning to visitors.

Analyzing an institution from a mediological point of view means taking note of the invisible grounds and conditions, the political-economy and the ideology that embeds the institution.  These few paragraphs about history museums hardly scratches the surface.

Google Art Project and the Museum Cannon


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What I notice in the Google Art Project is not how revolutionary it is but how embedded it is in the forms and structures of the traditional art museum developed over the 19th and 20th centuries.  It relies on these already culturally meaningful structures for its own meaning.  Whether or not this was part of the conscious choice of the Google staff involved in the project is less important than the fact that Google Art Project does not so much change the way we look at art, but reinforces the museum function.

 

Each artwork you click on to examine links you easily not just to the other artworks by that artist, but to the museum collection that artwork happens to come from.  In fact, the other artworks from that particular museum that are digitized on Google Art Project run in a scrollable line across the bottom of the screen.  In many cases, you can click to a “street view” to bring you to a digitized interface of the museum space itself.  Via this interface, you can scroll around the museum, see which works are hanging next to which other works, where benches for visitors have been placed; you can even move through hallways into the next museum gallery.

 

That works of art usually to be found on the walls of museums is such a given for us today that we may not realize that linking artworks to museums is not the only way Google Art Project could have organized itself.  It could have prioritized linkages between artworks and the original locations or eras they were produced, for example.  In that case, the page for Vincent Van Gogh’s Irises would be accompanied by a scrollable row of other works produced in late 19th century France, rather than a row of other works that can be found at the Getty Museum.  This is only one of the most logical other ways Google Art Project could have, but did not, choose to organize art.

 

Another way Google Art Project reinforces the museum function is by continuing without question the high-art/low-art divide and featuring almost entirely works that are already well accepted by the cannon.  I ponder an idea like Google Art Project and I instantly think that it could be a great opportunity to put works by women, works by minority artists, works from less central regions, right next to the old museum favorites, usually works by white males from Paris or New York.  Google Art Project does none of this.  In fact, Google Art Project seems to take a step back from the progress even traditional museums have made in furthering equality in the art world and questioning the validity of the cannon. Even those non-white, or non-male artist who have been lucky enough to be generally accepted as part of the high art cannon are underrepresented on Google Art Project:  Van Gogh has 154 featured artworks, Mary Cassatt only 17.  One could argue that Van Gogh was more prolific than Cassatt, but he was not more prolific than Japanese artist Hokusai, and Hokusai has only 22 featured works on Google Art Project.

To be fair Google Art Project is still in its infancy, and, as the web is such a capricious medium, perhaps we will see more radical choices about which artworks to include and how to organize the project as it matures in the next few years.  There are some exciting indications of this, in, for example the digitization of Australian Rock Art, definitely not a usual part of the cannon, and definitely interesting and worth studying and valuing.

 

Google Art Project is an “Imaginary Museum” like that envisioned by Malraux in the 1950s.  Malraux argued that photographs of artworks equalize their value by turning all works of art into the same size and shape.  However for photography (and digitization) to be a democratizing force, we need to take the first step of digitizing images that are not already part of the cannon.

Authorship


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by Alexis Hamann-Nazaroff

The readings from this week were a review for those of us who have already taken Professor Irivine’s “Cultural Hybridity” class, which went for a semester’s depth in to the concepts of intertextuality, diolgism and the Cultural Encyclopedia.  I am convinced of the power of this model, and the importance of seeing meaning making not as a process based in originality, but as one that is constituted largely as remix. In reviewing this material for today, I noticed a potential imperfection in the theories and I want to bring that up today.  Namely how do intertextuality theories understand the Author, and is their understanding of him/her problematic or contradictory?  If so, is there a better way to conceive of the role of the Author in meaning making?

I should start with the caveat that I am deep into the writing of my master’s thesis, struggling every day to clarify my thoughts on my topic, and this current endeavor may have biased me to be extra sympathetic to the role of the author in creation.

But wait, just by writing that caveat, and explaining my personal biases I illustrated one of the contradictions in the understanding of the Author in intertextuality theory.  I, writing about this theory, deemed a bit of my biography to be important enough to this text to include it as an excuse for something.  This suggests an importance of the individual author to the meaning of the text, in contrast to the way intertextuality often downplays the author.

Here are some ways the theorist we read for today characterized authorship:

–   Barthes critiqued how authors are often metaphorically envisioned as “fathers” of their texts.  Barthes believes a better way of conceptualizing it is: “It is not that the Author may not ‘come back’ in the Text, in his text, but he then does so as a ‘guest’” (Barthes 161).  If I understand his meaning correctly the Author as guest, isn’t really that different a position than any reader of the text, who is also kind of a guest to the work.  (Barthes even has a chapter titled “Death of the Author”)

–   Kristeva also conceptualizes the author evenly with the reader.  She has them on two ends of the same axis, the horizontal axis, in her image of the meaning of a text.

–   Chandler points out the historic truth that: “The ideology of individualism (with its associated concepts of authorial ‘originality’, ‘creativity’ and ‘expressiveness’) is a post-Renaissance legacy which reached its peak in Romanticism but which still dominates popular discourse.”

The above quotes suggest that the author is unimportant.  This strikes my instincts as an incomplete conceptualization.  The author has a more important role for the text than just an average reader, or why would it make sense for me to include reflection on my personal biases in my argument?  My favorite book in the world is the memoir/journey of discovery book Moby Duck.  One could write a whole tomb on how this book is hybrid and intertextual, starting with its punny title, but the point I want to make here is that the reason it is my favorite book is that I love the way it balances deeply autobiographical reflection with environmental and oceanographic issues.  No one could have written this particular book except its author, Donovan Hohn.  The author is important.

The best argument for the importance of the Author to meaning of the text is brought up by Gunhild Agger, when he rather cheekily points out the irony that Bakhtin scholars are obsessed with arguing whether or not Voloshinov and Medvedev are in fact pen-names for Bakhtin.  The vociferousness of the debate suggests that the answer matters.  And even in our class, Professor Irvine’s syllabus is linked by author.  We talk about “Pierce’s model” or “channeling McLuhan”, all terms that originate in authorship.  At the very least, authorship is the current most effective way to label and organize intellectual material.

Both Barthes and Chandler downplay the role of the author, but Chandler also quotes Barthes in what I think is a potentially powerful reconceptualization of authorship.  The author, in this quote is “orchestrator of text already written” (Chandler).  The vision of an author conducting an orchestra –molding the perfect musical experience out of the already-there instruments, the already-there musicians and the already-there musical score, comes to my mind.  I would argue that this contradicts the idea of the author’s unimportance, or the “death of the author”.  Even as an orchestrator, the author is hugely important.  We should not confuse the fact that an author is not inventing his/her words out of thin air with the thought that he/she does not contribute an important aspect of, and a large amount of the meaning to the text.

The Myth of the untainted, endangered exotic


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by Alexis Hamann-Nazaroff

My landlady subscribes to Smithsonian magazine, and the cover story of this month’s issue jumped out at me: LOST TRIBES OF THE AMAZON.  I did a double take: is this really how we are talking, even in the year 2013, about the issues of people living in the Amazon rainforest, involved in a very different daily culture than ours?  Flipping through the article, and catching phrases such as “For decades, adventurers and hunters had provided tantalizing reports that an ‘uncontacted tribe’ was hidden in the rainforest,” I felt like I might as well be reading a 1850s advertisement for a show at the P.T. Barnum Museum, famous for its exotic, its never-before-seen, its freaks-of-nature.  I decided to analyze this story after the model of Rolland Barthes’ mythologies.

LOST TRIBES OF THE AMAZON is a phrase that on the first order combines the signifiers (the words) with a number of possible signifieds (the meanings the words evoke).  Lost could mean confused, missing or vanished.  Tribes, on the first order of meaning, is perhaps more clear: it signifies groups of people, not too large, bonded in traditions, culture, and/or heritage.  And The Amazon is of course a geographic location, a rainforest covering much of South America.  But just as Barthes found in the myths he analyzed, one does not find the real depth of meaning by analyzing the first order signification.  The title, the article, the accompanying photos and the dramatic story they invoke are all signifiers in a long-standing, oft repeated myth: the myth of the past, pure and untainted yet exotic and also, importantly, endangered.  This myth puts us westerners in the position of power in both the destructive way (our past actions have made these tribes endangered) and, perhaps even more importantly, in the beneficent, positive way (if we give great effort, we may still be able to save them… or at least study them before it is too late and in that way, even if the tribes themselves are ‘lost’ forever, human knowledge will still have record of them.)  In fact, a call for “rescue” is the ideological purpose of the article.

In a synthesis of Barthes’ thinking Allen Graham wrote that “culture generally… constantly presents artificial, manufactured, and above all, ideological objects and values as if they were indisputable, unquestionable and natural.”   The Smithsonian article does just that.  Readers are taken in by the authority of the Smithsonian institution and the magazine’s scientific genre.  This keeps them from questioning how ideological the writing is.

While this article and the myth it signifies could be examined in far more detail than I am able to do here, I want to give one more example.  Here is one of the central photographs of the article.  It shows two smiling boys, one shirtless, and climbing a vine, a look-alike for the character of Mogli of Disney’s The Jungle Book.  Even though we know these boys were not raised by wolves, (the caption even mentions their father “Garcia”) the image acts as a metaphor to The Jungle Book and puts this idea of humans-not-quite-human-but-part-wild-animal in our unconscious.  The caption to this image (not seen here) says “Garcia’s son José and nephew Mauricio are schooled in forest lore: They can already identify dozens of medicinal plants.”  A couple of meanings jump out at me from this.  First, the Spanish names of the family members is a clear sign that these supposedly ‘uncontacted’ tribes must in fact already have a long history of connections with Colombia and the world outside their Amazon home.  Second, the metaphor in the word “schooled” allows readers to make a direct comparison between “civilized” schools western children attend and the “wilder” daily lives of these boys.  Finally, the word “lore” is very ideologically chosen.  Lore does not mean contemporary knowledge but ancient, generally false myths, based not on scientific understanding but on fantasy, superstition, legend.  Yet the “lore” these boys are learning is not some kind of equivalent to Santa Clause, but important medical information.  Using the word lore, the writers for Smithsonian magazine can downplay the validity of this knowledge, and keep consistent the message that these people are uncivilized and need saving.

Meaning making and French Moustaches


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by Alexis Hamann-Nazaroff

I am going to analyze a bit of my favorite movie, La Moustache, directed by Emmanuel Carrère.

First of all, the movie is French, in both language and production location.  For me, before I ever saw it, its French-ness was a sign that I would probably like it.  I’ve liked a lot of French movies in the past, and like all humans, my thoughts, my interpretations of signs are time-embedded: I use my past memories of enjoyment to anticipate meanings for future experiences.  French-ness likely does not have this same meaning for most viewers, however.  In fact, to an English-speaking American audience French-ness might be a sign that the film will be difficult or impossible for them to understand.  While subtitles might mitigate the language barrier, perhaps an American audience has other assumptions about French films –that they aren’t likely to end happily-ever-after, or that many of the characters will chain smoke, and La Moustache, merely by being French, may evoke these initial interpretations in American viewers.  The interpretations of La Moustache I suggest above were probably the furthest things from the mind of the movie’s makers.  Thus they are good examples of how a sign’s meaning does not exist statically in someone’s thought or in a DVD on the shelf at a video store.  Rather, as Mieke Bal explains in “On Meaning Making,” “signs and meaning are… contingent on the alliance to a social group” (19).  In the case of La Moustache, I am hypothesizing that an American group might make certain assumptions about things French.

The opening scene of the movie, as well as the first moments of the Youtube trailer, juxtaposes tension-building music with the image of a man shaving his moustache.  It is this contrast, combining a moment so mundane and music so dramatic, that holds our interest.  As this is part of a movie, we recognize, due to our knowledge of the medium, that this moment will lead us to action, conflict or drama.

The movie centers around Marc and his wife Agnès.  It starts in a seemingly simple, everyday moment, as Marc decides to shave off the moustache he’s worn since before he and Agnès ever met, and eagerly waits to find out how his wife will react when she sees him.  But she doesn’t react at all.  And then neither do his friends or his colleagues.  Marc’s new clean-shaven look should be a sign that evokes surprise, or at least mild interest in his friends and family, but instead, they don’t notice that anything is different; they fail to recognize it as a sign at all.  Marc does not know how to interpret his friends’ indifference he alternately thinks the indifference is a sign that his wife is playing a cruel joke on him, that he is going crazy and that he is in danger.

As his central thesis, Bal points out that, “a sign is not a thing, but a function, an event” (9).  One of the things that makes La Moustache a great movie (and a great example for thinking about semiotics) is that the central conflict centers around the sign-event and the meaning (or lack of meaning) in Marc’s shaven lip.

The medium of Skype


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by Alexis Hamann-Nazaroff

I want to talk about Skype, a medium for communication that is hugely important in the current shape of my life.  While a lot of college students are far from their families, I feel like my family in particular likes to spread out to the four corners of the earth.  I lived in Germany for a couple of years.  My boyfriend is still there.  My older sister lives in Japan.  My parents spend significant portions of each year in both Denmark and in Singapore.  But skype shapes how we deal with these kinds of international separations.

In these rather silly photos, my younger sister and I, who could make it to our childhood home for Christmas-time a few years ago, share all the Christmas cards and decorations, via skype, with our older sister, who could not make it.

James Carey describes the telegraph as the technology that “permitted for the first time the effective separation of communication from transportation.” If Skype has a parallel, it permits for the first time the separation of long-distance, simultaneous communication from high costs.  In other words, unlike international phonecalls, Skype is free.  For my life, this means I can conceive spending many hours per day connected to my boyfriend in Germany, with no concern about racking up bills.  Also, skype permits (although a number of similar programs permit this now as well) the re-connection between long-distance, simultaneous communication of sound and sight.

Skype as part of an orchestrated combination of technologies and social conditions: The technology of skype makes an impact in a world where international lifestyles, like that of my family are not unusual.  While skype helps to make my long-distance relationships sustainable, it gains meaning from the relationships, rather than the other way around.

Skype and the conditions of space and time: Obviously, Skype interacts with conditions of space.  Skype allows for simultaneous communication and, like a telephone call, does not record the communication for the future.  Just a couple of days ago however, on my newly updated Skype a button appeared to “leave a video message”.  A new feature and I will have to wait and see whether or not this changes my interactions with skype, and the meaning of what I can and choose to do with Skype.

The social-ideological value, power, and authority of skype: Unlike written communication, skype communication is more informal.  Something said on Skype is not imbued with a higher power than something said in a physical, in-person conversation.  In fact, the social-ideological value of skype, at least for interpersonal relationships as I use it for is diminished in comparison to physical, “real” contact because there are so many symbolically significant acts in “real” contact (ex: hugs, kisses, handing someone a gift, sharing a meal together that includes smelling and tasting things simultaneously etc.) that cannot be simulated over skype.  These symbolic acts have enormous social-ideological value, that we often take for granted in our daily lives, but notice when we have to make-do without them over skype.

Language in Context: evolutionary questions in Deacon’s book, The Symbolic Species


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This week, our readings expanded on the puzzles about language last week’s readings posed, to connect language to cognition more broadly.  Right away, something in this week’s readings resonated with me more than last week’s.  It seems that cognitive linguists are trying to put meaning and context back into the study of language.  Syntax, for cognitive linguists, is not some sort of independent system formed in isolation and following its own logic, as it sometimes seems Chomsky et al. are implying, rather, syntax ties into evolutionary forces and social forces.

Thoughts on Terrence Deacon’s, The Symbolic Species

Last week in my post, I brought up the film Project Nim. I explained that I felt that scientists were missing a lot by insisting that Nim showed no ability to learn language because he did not learn syntax.  Nim was clearly a sophisticated communicator but the scientists did not deem this interesting.  In his book The Symbolic Species, Terrence Deacon suggests some rich new ways of thinking about non-syntax communication (including the communication of animals, and non-verbal human communication).  His conceptions give me a structure with which to critique the anthropocentric thinking of Chomsky et al. in a way that really resonates with me.

First of all, he reinserts evolution into the study of language.  Evolution is not teleological, he reminds readers.  Language is not some superior, end destination, that any species headed in the right direction will eventually achieve.  Rather, it is an adaptation to a particular environmental niche, evolved by humans for very specific reasons, to solve very specific evolutionary problems, just like bats evolved eco-location to catch bugs, or turtles evolved shells to be safe from predators.

The next thing he does, is reinsert our thinking about language into broader thinking about communication, and he argues against the misconception that things like human body-language or animal communication systems are comparable structures to language.  “Of no other form of communication is it legitimate to say that ‘language is a more complicated version of that.’…. Nonhuman forms of communication are something quite different from language… [and] comparison is misguided.”  This strikes me as a much more effective way of thinking about non-human communication, because it recognizes its complexity, draws connections to rich human non-verbal communication rather than to human language, and allows us to analyze these two systems (verbal and non-verbal communication) without expecting them to act like each other.

I love the phrase Deacon uses to critique how some linguists have downplayed the role of evolution in language development: “the hopeful monster theory.”  This theory essentially posits that it was some sort of one-shot mutation that created full-blown syntactic language out of previously unintelligent humanoids.  This type of theory does not need to address the messy questions of the context-specific adaptivity of language.  For Deacon, the main mystery underlying language is its uniqueness to humans, and not because it is too complex for other animals to master, but because it is fundamentally, structurally different.  He phrases his puzzle thus: “despite the intelligence of other species and the fact that they engage in communicative behaviors that are as complex in other ways as a simple language might be, no other language system exists.” And the fundamental structure that makes language different, is its symbolic reference, in other words, that words refer symbolically to each other and are primarily defined by their interactions with other words, rather than any object or action in the real world.

 

Language and Communication: German, linguists, chimpanzees


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John Searle writes that, as Chomsky and his followers showed, “in spite of surface differences, all human languages have very similar underlying structures.”  Steven Pinker details some of these similarities when he compares the structure of English with that of Japanese.  With a lot of detailed branching sentence diagrams, he shows that English is a “head-first” language, and Japanese a “head-last” language.  This means that in English phrases of all shapes, types and sizes, the “head” word –or the word that dictates how the phrase functions in the sentence appears at the beginning, and in Japanese phrases on the other hand, the head word is found at the end.  This conception go a long way in explaining the amazing rapidity and accuracy with which children the world over learn language: the universal existence and structure of phrases can be innate in humans, and children would only have to learn a few parameters of their particular language.

This theory is elegant, and thus highly seductive.  I have studied it far too briefly to even hope to notice and articulate any flaws in it.   That’s not what I intend to do in these following comments.  I am performing more an intellectual exercise than a real critique, so I ask for your indulgence: I’m wondering if there might be something missing, the result of the particular window through which Chomsky, Searle, Pinker and others chose to look at language.

My first humble question is what about German?  It is neither a “head-first” nor a “head-last” language, but one that does both.  When a verb phrase is part of the main clause of a simple sentence, the head-word, the verb comes first:

Ich liebe dich. Literally: I love you.

But when the verb phrase is part of a subordinate clause, the verb come at the end:

Ich denke, dass ich dich liebe.  Litterally: I think, that I you love.

The issue is probably mine; I probably don’t understand Pinker’s structures well enough, but it is worth pausing asking if the innate grammar works particularly well because of the two languages Pinker chose to illustrate it, or if it can say something profound even when applied to pesky languages like German where word order within phrases is not always the same.

A bigger issue I have is this: Chomsky’s asserts, summarized by Searle that: “Language doesn’t have any essential purpose, or it does there is no interesting connection between its purpose and its structure.  The syntactical structures of human languages are the products of innate features of the human mind and they have no significant connection with communication.” If this is true that what, if not communication was the complex, evolutionarily costly innate syntactical faculty inherent in the human mind evolved for?  Is Chomsky asserting communication is a byproduct of an unrelated brain structure?  It seems the simpler logic would argue for humans having evolved complex structures for the sake of communication, which is obviously useful and helpful to human survival.

The faculty for intricate syntax is what sets humans apart from other species.  This is the assertion, well supported by evidence so far, of the Chomsky linguists.  A few months ago, I watched a documentary called Project Nim, which detailed a 1970s experiment with a chimpanzee, cheekily christened “Nim Chimp-sky,” which was trying to prove that chimpanzees, properly trained from childhood, have the ability to learn language similar to humans.  The scientist behind the project was a behaviorist (as portrayed by the filmmaker, he was also a irresponsible, arrogant, sexist fool… but that’s a separate issue).  After years of human-chimp bonding, and the clear evidence that the chimp had deep emotions, thoughts and wants he was both eager to and quite capable of communicating, the final results were analyzed and declared: Chimpanzees, despite the behaviorists’ hopes were not capable of learning language.

My first reaction to the film, and the results of the study, was confusion.  Weren’t the scientists missing a major point? Fine, Chimpanzees couldn’t learn grammar like humans, and this is a potentially important difference between species, but language as I have always understood it is a specialized and deeply refined form of communication, and ignoring the refined communication that the chimpanzee was capable of seems to obscure as much about the human mind as it reveals. I have this same question after the readings for this week. Chomsky and the other linguists who want to separate communication from language, well, maybe they can and should do this as an intellectual exercise to answer some particular questions, but should they loose sight of the very real connection between language and communication?