Our readings this week focus on the database and how it conflicts with narrative, its “natural enemy” (Manovich). Both of the readings fascinated me, so I’m not exactly sure where to start. Perhaps the readings inspired me to embrace the seemingly disjointed nature of the database in the writing of this post.
When I first came into contact with Whitman’s Leaves of Grass it was in my undergraduate American Literature class. I remember being shocked by the differences of the different versions of the work. Luckily my professor told us which edition to buy, otherwise I wonder what we would have been able to talk about. The differences between the versions perhaps, but that is probably all. Leaves of Grass was helpful for me to visualize what a database does. Whitman started with a particular work of literature, and then he kept adding and amending it throughout his life, creating a work even greater than its original. As an interesting side note, I thought The Walt Whitman Archive would be a great way to show my students a professional writer’s process. I had one ask me the other day why it was necessary for me to put notes on a final draft. I told him it was so he knew what he could improve on in the future. Being able to show different versions of Whitman side-by-side would enable me to show them that even after publication writers continue to revise and hone their works.
The Folsom piece also reminded me that in addition to our impulse to categorize “artists into one or another genre,” but also that databases predated the computer: “For him, the world was a kind of preelectronic database, and his notebooks and notes are full of lists of particulars–sights and sounds and names and activities–that he dutifully enters into the record.” This reminded me of a practice I started when I was in undergrad. For three semesters I kept a commonplace book: a notebook filled with bits of writing that I liked along with my analysis of them. I still keep one, although not as frequently as when I was in school. I started a similar project with my students, giving them composition books and having them write in them daily. Unfortunately, they thought it wasn’t worthy of their time and did as little as possible to get the points necessary to pass.
But I digress. The other example that helped me visualize what a database does was when Manovich put it into the context of creating a film: “We can think of all the material accumulated during shooting forming a database, especially since the shooting schedule usually does not follow the narrative of the film but is determined by production logistics. During editing the editor constructs a film narrative out of this database, creating a unique trajectory through the conceptual space of all possible films which could have been constructed.” This example also shows that narrative and database are not necessarily mutually exclusive, which I found in both pieces.