Blog Post #4

Begin at the beginning and go on till you come to the end: then stop.

New media represents several striking departures from “old” media; one of the most noticeable (at least for those of us who love traditional texts) is the de-privileging of the narrative arc. We can identify this lack of narrative in the use of database as a method of structuring and representing the world. Manovich explains:

As a cultural form, the database represents the world as a list of items, and it refuses to order this list. In contrast, a narrative creates a cause-and-effect trajectory of seemingly unordered items (events). Therefore, database and narrative are natural enemies. Competing for the same territory of human culture, each claims an exclusive right to make meaning out of the world. (225)

Narrative and database are enemies in that they force each other to redefine what each means and can be used for, represent. As Manovich explains, “just as a traditional cultural object can now be seen as a particular case of a new media object. . .traditional linear narrative can be seen as a particular case of hypernarrative” (227). The way that narrative plays out, comes into being, is challenged and formed by the database, thereby changing and redirecting our ideas about what narrative is and can be.

It is perhaps this overwriting and change that can become dangerous, since we lose ways of looking at the world and reconciling culture when methods of representation are lost. On the other hand, however, Manovich does note that

we should not expect that new media would completely replace narrative with database. New media does not radically break with the past; rather, it distributes weight differently between the categories that hold culture together, foregrounding what was in the background, and vice versa. (229)

Forms, ideas, and methods all enter the forefront and then regress, so the notion of the complete loss of narrative is simply not adequate. To uphold this, Manovich gives the example of encyclopedias and Greek epics, both of which have been around since antiquity.

If we think of synonyms for enemies, then, we could see some of the sense of “adversary” or “foe,” but we can also understand the conception of enmity in a gentler manner as in “challengers,” with each vying for its particular place in mainstream culture. Manovich: “I prefer to think of them as two competing imaginations, two basic creative impulses, two essential responses to the world” (233). To paraphrase Hamlet, there’s nothing good nor bad but thinking makes it so; both database and narrative are able to render different cultural ideas in their own ways, meaning that one doesn’t need to be seen as necessarily dominant (in the sense of better) over the other.

In fact, we might go one step further and suggest that the two can exist symbiotically. A database can provide the starting tools for a narrative, while a narrative can blossom into a database that enriches an experience. For instance, a user can choose stock footage from a database in order to create a photo narrative, adding effects to heighten the drama, while a fan of a particular universe (Star Trek, Star Wars, Firefly, etc.) can draw from its contained narratives to make experience-enhancing databases (as in a collage, below). The paradigm may be favored over the syntagm, but this does not automatically suggest an ironclad law of media.

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In sum, as Manovich notes, “database and narrative do not have the same status in computer culture. . .it is not surprising, then, that databases occupy a significant, if not the largest, territory of the new media landscape” (228). The operative terms here are “computer culture” and “new media landscape.” Culture, transcoding, media forms, interfaces, screens—they’ve all impacted and changed our landscape and will continue to do so. While database is currently challenging narrative, it does not mean that the two are bitter rivals à la Sherlock and Moriarty—just that flux in media is possible. As cultural landscapes and capabilities change, it would perhaps not be surprising to see a flip in dominance (again) or even a new challenger enter the ring.

Works Cited:

Manovich, Lev. The Language of New Media. MIT Press, 2002.

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4 thoughts on “Blog Post #4

  1. When you point out the quote, “two essential responses to the world,” it made me think of it more as two separate approaches, which they are; but, I had been thinking of the ways database and narrative work together, which you also do later on. What I am trying to say is that narrative is the human method of making sense of the world – that it is not random, there is cause and effect. Databases are the way that computers make sense of the world – that it is random but can still be organized in a structured way. While we all are talking about them as fundamentally different approaches that can function together, is it possible for one to take over, or dominate as you say? I don’t know, but science fiction has already looked at that question and the database always wins. Well, until the humans show up (montage style) and save the day. I like databases – but I am a bit OCD when it comes to organization and proceduralization (from the other reading). I also like narrative, as you clearly do. As Brittany mentioned in her post and I commented on, narrative is too much a part of the human experience to ever be eliminated. I believe Manovich wanted us to consider the possibilities of database and narrative together and what they may mean for future media, but I don’t have a clear vision of what that is.

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  2. “A database can provide the starting tools for a narrative, while a narrative can blossom into a database that enriches an experience”

    I appreciate this comment because it has expanded my thinking greatly. I picked up on in the reading that a database can be used to create a narrative, but not vice versa. Your example makes perfect sense though!

    I have to digest information in terms of my own realm of experience, which usually involves books, but I think I can make the connection. For example, I am a huge fan of the Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series. I have read all eight books and watched seasons 1 and 2 of the Starz t.v. series religiously (God bless Sam Heughan). Each book is quite long and the action of the series spans over about 150 years and two continents thanks to the time-travel concept of the story line. By the time one finishes all the books, characters, settings, and storylines start to blend together (in Gaelic) to say the least. Therefore, Gabaldon created two different Outlander companion books to serve as databases for readers with character lists, plot lines, glossaries, genealogies, etc. She even included information about the t.v. series as it is perceived by fans as just another vein of narrative in the Outlander world (she appeared in one episode and wrote another). Even beyond these companion books, Outlander has a fandom with a significant digital presence on social media who also add to the database of all things Outlander with everything from recipes and knitting patterns to conspiracy theories for the next book. Once a narrative has grown to such proportions, I see that a database becomes essential to the narrative’s relevance and survival.

    Thank you so much for helping me understand (hopefully correctly) this aspect of the database and narrative correlation. Your post really helped!

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  3. “Narrative and database are enemies in that they force each other to redefine what each means and can be used for, represent.”
    Beautifully stated! I enjoy the way you juxtapose the narrative and the database throughout your post. As you state, we should look at synonyms for the word “enemy” when considering Manovich’s meaning. I think we both touch on the same idea as far as how both the narrative and the database can work together or exist symbiotically. I stated something similar in my own post. As you have confirmed here, “a database can provide the starting tools for a narrative, while a narrative can blossom into a database that enriches an experience.” To go along with your example of a photo collage, a video montage would be the same. Often when I browse YouTube I like to look for montages or highlights of my favorite shows or movies. This collection of events tells a story therefore providing a form of a narrative. Furthermore since these videos are coupled together they also serve as a database for users looking for the same type of information. Instead of searching for the videos one by one, the YouTuber provides the user with a procreated database. Also once the user has watched the assortment of videos a newfound narrative is created when the user informs another person of the importance of the video montage. Great post!

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  4. I think your final paragraph here, Melissa, actually perfectly exemplifies the ways that database and narrative do work together. The two are certainly not mutually exclusive, and one could easily argue that the database has always been there – it has just been computer culture that has encouraged us to describe it as such. Really, it’s the same concept, in many ways, that Derrida describes in _Archive Fever_ – the confluence of artifacts and ephemera that is constantly recreating itself to accommodate new additions

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