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Configurations 10.3 (2002) 387-422

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The Materialities of Maya:
Making Sense of Object-Orientation

Casey Alt
Stanford University

The process of computer graphics modeling is often described as an inherently disembodied activity. At the popular level, this description often stems from the conflation of computer graphics and Virtual Reality—a term that (regrettably) has come to connote a seamless, three-dimensional, hyperrealistic "world" of computer graphics. Initially viewed as an unconstrained realm for sensory experimentation, Virtual Reality has signified for most critics a superficial doubling of surface reality that privileges visuality in such a way as to more strongly foster an eye-mind link that has little, if anything, to do with the particular materialities of human embodiment. As one of the leading advocates of this stance, Jonathan Crary has argued that "computer-aided design, synthetic holography, flight simulators, computer animation, robotic image recognition, ray tracing, texture mapping, motion control, virtual environment helmets, magnetic resonance imaging, and multispectral sensors are only a few of the techniques that are relocating vision to a plane severed from a human observer." 1 As a result of such diagnoses of digital media, Virtual Reality (VR) most commonly has been hailed as an antidote to embodiment and is often portrayed as a means for freeing perception (vision) from the constraints of the flesh, enabling experience to transcend the contingencies of the material.

To a large extent, much of the confusion concerning the specific media properties of computer graphics has flowed from the fact that [End Page 387] most critics have encountered the material output of computer graphics programs as already well-recognized and well-theorized media forms. For example, Alias|Wavefront's Maya, the 3-D modeling and animation application that I will be discussing in this paper, can export representations of any of its 3-D "scenes" as 3-D models that might appear in a video game or on a product website; as digital video that might appear as a special effect in a cinematic movie, or as the entire movie itself; as digital still images that might appear in scientific publications or architectural proposals; and even, to a limited extent, as text that describes the interrelationships of the programmatic objects within the scene. The result of this ability for differential material outputs of computer graphics programs has often led media critics of one particular medium to project backward that digital media are simply computerized versions of traditional modes of production—a move that effectively reduces the inherent multiplicity of digital media to one specific media output. This tendency seems to occur most often among contemporary film theorists who have argued that, because computer graphics programs are often used in films and are often included within the typical filmic conventions (such as cuts, pan shots, etc.), "new media" in general can be understood as merely an extended practice of filmmaking—an argument that I would diagnose as both logically and empirically problematic.

To make matters worse, critical accounts have also been complicated by the fact that not only can digital media programs such as Maya export their computer graphics content to a multitude of media formats, but there is also a reciprocal mediation occurring since the content of many of the more "traditional" media types (printed texts, films, analog audio recordings, etc.) are increasingly being digitized to be used as raw material for digital media applications. Thus, many critics have characterized digital media as a universal medium in which other media can be intermixed and interrelated. Theorists such as Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin have therefore argued in Remediation: Understanding New Media that digital media can be seen as "remediating" other media and even "hypermediating" the multitude of different formats. 2 However, the result of this approach has been a view that digital media can be understood best through a bricolage of theories developed around each of the "constituent" media, a move that reduces digital media to a medium constituted by differences between the other media it "contains" while denying any specific, positive mediality or materiality to digital media themselves. [End Page 388...