The Objectionably Arbitrary
“Database and narrative are natural enemies,” writes Manovich: “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)” (222). Just as systematic progression and entropy cannot coexist, neither can database and narrative; the former will cannibalize the latter, even at times when they might be thought to be working in tandem. This occurs not only because the two cannot be present in one work or because new media favors database, but also because database works by fighting against one of the most important elements of narrative, the suspension of disbelief. Without this, even chronologically well-ordered narrative falls flat, leading to a vicious cycle wherein narrative is continually cast aside for database, since new narratives have been affected by disorder.
As one example, take the recent Netflix production The OA. Premiering in 2016, the show follows a young woman who has returned home after a lengthy absence; she tells her story to a diverse group of locals, who (much like the audience) are interested in but also skeptical of her tale, which is incredible, full of angels, miracles, astral projection, kidnapping, and more. I would argue that any audience inability to enter into the story, to believe any part of it (whether the details or the protagonist as a character), is due to the fact that database logic is the main driving force, not narrative, even though it seems to be a cause-and-effect story. This becomes apparent in an examination of the way that genre and artifacts are used within the show.
Genre, a crucial organizing force in narrative, is especially problematic in The OA. Supernatural elements suggest that the show falls under mystery, as does the underlying question of “what happened?” Thriller plays a large part, too, with chases, police, and clandestine conversations in a morgue. There’s also sci-fi, found in the “mad doctor/experimenter” and the bringing of the dead back to life, as well as horror, with individuals being kept in cages in a basement. Of course, many narratives do play with genre, but it’s almost as if, in this series, the creator dips into and out of all of them seemingly at random, with no one main genre as the controlling force. The pastiche quality here is hard to mistake, and a viewer might be forgiven for thinking that the creator has pulled various tropes from a grab bag blindly, letting the story go this way or that as it will – a certain randomness that follows the logic of the database.
The artifacts (elements) used in the story feel pulled from a random collection, as well. Objects loom and then recede, and all have varying levels of importance and recurrence: dance sequences, a check for $50,000, a guitar player, a cell phone, a gun. Where is the thematic linkage characteristic of narrative? Manovich writes that “if the user simply accesses different elements, one after another, in a usually random order, there is no reason to assume that these elements will form a narrative at all” (228). Perhaps the creator has taken this approach to providing “elements of access,” since artifacts are introduced and dropped quickly, often with only the barest of linkage.
The show itself seems to confirm this database style of storytelling in a scene near the end of the series. One of the story’s auditors finds a box of books under the storyteller’s bed: Each book represents some main thread of the story, and the viewer is supposed to understand that this “database” of information is where the ideas originate. Although she is able to make a story, it’s as if the storyteller (and, by extension, the creator) is tossing in whatever is handy. The viewer never quite understands how everything should be causally linked, which means that accepting the ending is problematic because of a weak suspension of disbelief.
From this example, we are encouraged to come to the conclusion that database and the suspension of disbelief, and therefore narrative, are unable to coexist, as Manovich claims. We aren’t required to make any leaps of faith with a database because connections are what demand our belief, much more than mere things. Certainly, some things are more believable than others, as in pictures of Bigfoot versus pictures of someone’s grandmother; it isn’t until we locate these in a story, however, that we truly begin to test the bounds of our credulity. If I show you a picture of a UFO, you might question whether it’s real or a fake, but you would believe that it’s something: a light, a flying saucer, a digital mockery. If I spin you a yarn about being abducted by aliens, you would be inclined to think I’m making it up, unless I am able to provide convincing enough detail that makes sense.
Further, this cannibalizing of traditional narrative is in line with the anti-narrative logic of the internet, where “if new elements are being added over time, the result is a collection, not a story” (221). In The OA, for instance, nothing is wrapped up with any finality. Since there are so many potential artifacts for exploration, the story isn’t necessarily finished simply because the entertainment company hasn’t made any more (yet). Nearly anything at all could be connected at any point, much like a hodgepodge house that is addition after addition all in sundry styles.
In the end, then, we can accept the database logic of random access as an overall organizational theme in a work of new media, but when it’s applied to narrative, the resulting work will not have the same effect as traditional narrative. Why? Because cause and effect, and therefore suspension of disbelief, have not been properly addressed. Put simply, we just don’t engage with the story in the same manner. This doesn’t mean that it can’t be enjoyable to watch a database parading as narrative, but the effect is not striking in the same manner as traditional narrative. The viewer is firmly outside the story, not inside the narrative bubble with the characters. As narrative becomes less impactful, database takes its place on top, and having vanquished its foe, it retains its status as current cultural champion.
Manovich, Lev. The Language of New Media. MIT Press, 2002.