The Database and Narrative Form

See page 218 in The Language of New Media

“After the novel, and subsequently cinema, privileged narrative as the key form of cultural expression of the modern age, the computer age introduces its correlate — the database.  Many new media objects do not tell stories; they do not have a beginning or end; in fact, they do not have any development, thematically, formally, or otherwise that would organize their elements into a sequence.  Instead, they are collections of individual items, with every item possessing the same significance as any other.”

In his efforts to distinguish new media from traditional media, Manovich posits a distinction between narrative and the database.  This distinction serves to illustrate a conception of art history that understands the prevailing mode of cultural expression primarily in terms of what technological capabilities are available for use.  Implicit in this conception of art history is a sequential progression of media forms, wherein the book leads to cinema, which in turn leads to the computer; the computer, being most recent, is therefore more advanced or complex than cinema or the novel.  Additionally, this distinction overtly connects the novel with linearity, to make the novel a representative of traditional media generally; simultaneously, the database is connected to non-linearity and taken as a representative form of the new media.  The manner in which this argument is constructed, however, creates a number of problems.

For example: the choice to oppose traditional forms to the database is in many respects arbitrary.  Manovich’s choice to associate the novel with linearity as a means to signify the properties of traditional media glosses over common traditional forms for which this association is meaningless.  It makes no sense to discuss a painting or a photograph in terms of the linearity Manovich attributes to narrative — even though a picture can tell a story worth a thousand words.  Neither does it make sense to discuss a single painting or photograph as a database — especially if the image is visually abstract, and therefore not amenable to description as a collection of distinct objects.  Even if Manovich’s account of literary works is taken at face value, novels such as Finnegan’s Wake can be understood as organizaed towards a depth of referentiality rather than anything linear or narrative; the same holds for poetry.

Furthermore, Manovich’s definition of the database is profoundly unclear.  After describing the database as a collection “of individual items, with every item possessing the same significance as any other,” Manovich provides contradictory details further down the same page.  If, for example, a database can be “organized into hierarchical classes,” it follows that, if two elements are located at different levels of the hierarchy, they by definition possess a different sort of significance (even though an interface may render this hierarchy transparent to a user).

Finally, Manovich does not here take into account that a user of a database may well experience the database as a sequence of events — though the beginning and end points of that sequence may well be arbitrary.  When a user accesses an electronic encyclopedia, for example, he or she does not experience the whole collection at once: a user might begin with what seems like a reasonable starting point, and make numerous attempts to more narrowly focus his or her investigation of some subject matter.

Like any printed reference text, such as a dictionary or a thesaurus, an electronic encyclopedia may be experienced in an arbitrary order, and it is the careful tailoring of individual sentences into a logical sequence that gives the text its meaning — not whether those sentences are bound in an alphabetized book or stored on a CD-ROM.  A video game too may be stored as a database on disc, but may only have meaning in virtue of the sequence in which a user accesses different parts of that database.  The designer of a database often enough provides a means by which users can access the database in a structured, sequential, manner.

Omitting a discussion of this structuring of experience results in something like trying to describe a novel in terms of the properties of the alphabet.

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