Some Musings on the Database

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.

3 thoughts on “Some Musings on the Database”

  1. This is a really interesting post. I was especially struck by your latching onto Manovich’s use of film editing as a metaphor for how we construct narratives out of data.

    Some of us may be reminded of Season 4 of Arrested Development, which, rather than unfolding in chronological order, was presented character by character. Not surprisingly, fans — and even, later, the director — went back and re-cut the series chronologically. Same bits and pieces of film (or rather, same digital video), different results based on organization.

    Those of us who are historian-types could also consider the archive as a form of database, from which many different narratives could be constructed.

    Something to think about: the organization of a database, as Manovich also points out, makes some narratives more likely or more possible than others. That can happen in a variety of ways. A lot depends upon the tables upon which the databases are constructed, with some kinds of metadata searchable (that for which there are tables). and other snot. For example, if we stay with Netflix, you can search by actor, director, genre. Try searching by length of movie. Or where it was shot. Or who wrote the music. Or ones in which the main character has a quirky friend from Des Moines. These are all ways of categorizing movies and TV shows, but they are simply not represented in the database.

    Those decisions of what is retained, what can be searched, and how all implicitly represent values.

    Can you think of other databases, how they work and how they don’t, and what values those decisions represent?

  2. Thanks for this post, Katie! Your analogies, particularly the Whitman and film analogies, really helped me conceptualize the database differently. I have been struggling with this lately, and just this week I was talking with one of my friends/colleagues who teaches programming classes. I had a hard time making sense of what he was telling me (his analogy was “a bunch of Excel sheets”…just the word “Excel” hurts my brain), but your post helped me greatly.

    I like thinking about narrative and database more as a dialectic and exploring how they interact. This conversation reminds me of a book I very recently began to read. It is called Only Revolutions by Mark Danielewski, and it is basically a collection of historical events, dates, and data combined with the accounts of two different characters. I am still trying to get the hang of it, but so far it seems like the reader must make his/her own narrative out of all of the information provided. The resulting narrative, I would imagine, has a lot to do with the reader’s own biases, assumptions, and values. Interesting.

    (Here is a link to the novel’s website, which demonstrates the experimental nature of the text: http://www.onlyrevolutions.com/)

  3. Great post! I particularly related to the film analogy, myself, having majored in electronic media and film studies as an undergrad. Having spent way too many hours in an editing bay with digital bins upon bins of movie clips, the database comparison makes perfect sense. I have also been on the other end of the process in which I served as production manager for a no-budget horror film, and part of my job was to make the shooting schedule. I can attest that the narrative did not drive the order of the shoot – rather it was availability of the locations and the actors. All of those takes have to be reorganized into something resembling the script when it’s over. I hadn’t thought about databases that way before, but now I can’t think of another analogy that would be more spot-on.

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