Database and Narrative

Lev Manovich notes that traditional GUI use elements of the “real” work place to make its interface more readily understandable–files for storing, a trash can for deleting, etc.  However, he notes that if elements from our physical environment first migrated into the computational sphere, now the conventions of computation are migrating back into our physical reality.  It is an essentially bidirectional movement: just as we first used elements from the physical world to understand and represent computerized space, elements from computerized space are now being used to understand and represent the physical world.  The “database” is one such conception–it is, as Manovich describes it, the “symbolic form” of the computer age, a particular way of making meaning out of the world that fundamentally opposes traditional forms of meaning-making (in particular, narrative).  In short, the fundamental idea seems to be that changes in ways of thinking are the direct result of changes in the technology we design and use.

Manovich suggests that database and narrative are “natural enemies.”  In his view, databases are non-linear while narratives are linear, and narratives focus on rigid processes of selection while at the heart of database logic lies unlimited combination and juxtaposition.  Yet the very issue of order here demonstrates how messy such distinctions can get. While an impetus to cause-effect principles may lurk in the background of any narrative, it must be said that narrative form often complicates or calls into question such chronological or teleological order. And while databases always offer the possibility of re-ordering or relocating their records, any given representation of a database must, finally, present its contents in some order.   A database needs to be able to both collect and store new data and yet retain a certain (relatively) changeless underlying structure for organizing and presenting that data.

Katherine Hayles, I think more correctly, describes these two modes (database/narrative) as symbiotic and not antagonistic. As the various authors we read point out, the human impetus to “collect data” has always been present.  We see this, for instance, in the case of Whitman and his many catalogues. But typically, the mere collection of data is only the means to an end–to a certain interpretation of that data.  And in the fundamental logic of database design itself, the selection, collection, description, organization, and presentation of a database’s contents almost always involves narrative structures, including assumptions about how the information will be manipulated and used through the interface. Narrative and database, it seems, cannot easily be disentangled.  But I do think Manovich is on to something interesting when he considers the need for an “info-aesthetic” understanding of the database itself: what happens when a database becomes not merely the means to an end but an end in itself?

Drawing upon his experience as co-editor of The Walt Whitman Archive (headquarted in my hometown of Lincoln, NE) Folsom observes that traditional notions of genre are too rigid—or have been deployed too rigidly—to do justice to the “rhizomorphous” nature of many authors, Whitman in particular. Folsom happily argues that the database resists this rigidity of traditional notions of genre; and indeed, declares that database is itself a “new genre, the genre of the twenty-first century” (1576), one that fundamentally challenges two traditional cultural forms, narrative and archive. Yet if we consider the database as a concrete form of cultural expression, I wonder if conceptually pairing it with narrative only serves to efface its own idiosyncracies.  For undoubtedly, our way of accessing narratives (e.g., reading, listening, watching) is strikingly different than our way of accessing databases.  You may browse or search information contained within a database (i.e., the metadata), but you certainly don’t read that information in the very important sense of the word in which we read (or view or listen to) more traditional literary narratives.  It seems to me that the difference is not really one of genre, but of access or engagement, and the very different positional attitudes each mode asks us to assume. Folsom does indeed point out that “Leaves of Grass as a database is a text very different from Leaves of Grass contained within covers” (1578); however, what is key is not the different ontologies of the two texts, but rather the fundamentally different experiences of engaging with them (and this is perhaps the point, for if database is to be an entirely new form of aesthetics, it cannot, and should not, simply digitally replicate the experience of reading a printed book).


1 thought on “Database and Narrative

  1. Like you, I thought Hayles’ “symbionts” model to be more fruitful than Manovich’s “natural enemies’”. She has a point when she underlines that a database/data is valuable thanks to the interpretations it allows – what matters is not so much to know how many times Whitman iterated this or that word, but how we interpret this fact. Conversely, the way a database is organized is also influenced by expectations regarding the interpretations that it may produce. I also like what she says about the powerlessness of databases in the face of indeterminacy. Within a database, anything has to be titled and to fit somewhere in preordained categories. It is hard to not think of a database as an inclusion-exclusion system.

    As I was reading this whole discussion about narrative and database, I could not help remembering Foucault’s reference to Borges at the beginning of The Order of Things. Borges, Foucault explains, mentions ‘‘certain Chinese encyclopaedia’ in which it is written that ‘animals are divided into: (a) belonging to the Emperor, (b) embalmed, (c) tame, (d) sucking pigs, (e) sirens, (f) fabulous, (g) stray dogs, (h) included in the present classification, (i) frenzied, (j) innumerable, (k) drawn with a very fine camelhair brush, (l) et cetera,(m) having just broken the water pitcher, (n) that from a long way off look like flies’’. Such an “impossible to think” taxonomy is poetic thanks to its intractability. It also illustrates that to the extent that a database represents a certain ordering of knowledge, it is a narrative that tells the story of a certain system of thought. Thinking of a database as a narrative from the onset may open to the question of its aesthetics in a more straightforward way than Manovich’s. Besides, as different respondents noted, databases often (used to?) draw their categories from former existing technologies (printed books and physical archive). Mimicking the form of existing technological paradigms might be a necessary step at a time of transition. Incunabula look like manuscripts after all, and it took about 50 years for printed books to actually “cut the cord” from the esthetics of manuscripts….

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