November 1- Database as Narrative

//November 1- Database as Narrative
November 1- Database as Narrative 2018-01-07T15:25:11-04:00



Review Lev Manovich’s “Databases” chapter from our week on Data/bases

Folsom, Ed. “Database as Genre: The Epic Transformation of Archives.” PMLA 122, no. 5 (October 1, 2007): 1571–79. doi:10.2307/25501803.

Jerome McGann. “Database, Interface, and Archival Fever.PMLA 122, no. 5 (October 1, 2007): 1588–92. doi:10.2307/25501805.

Katherine Hayles. “Narrative and Database: Natural Symbionts.” PMLA 122, no. 5 (October 1, 2007): 1603–8. doi:10.2307/25501808.

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  1. Isabelle October 28, 2016 at 10:23 am

    Folsom’s thesis seems to be that databases are their own genre, and that they will soon overtake narrative. My first issue is that he never really defines what genre is. Maybe I’m focusing on the wrong thing, and should solely focus on his undertaking to declare the database as the champion over narrative, but I can’t help but get hung up on the lack of definition for “genre.” While he never gives a positive definition for a genre, he states that archives are not a genre because of their inaccessibility and stagnant nature, but since when does accessibility or kinetics define genre? I’m not sure I have a definition myself. So maybe my question is simply “what is genre?” and I’ll just leave it at that. Is Folsom referring to a post-postmodernist type of genre?

    I appreciate Folsom’s attempt to forego the rigidity of categories, but I have some hesitation in understanding how databases are without categories themselves. I puzzled while reading his essay, because while I understand that databases allow multi-definitions for one work of art, there is still a strong sense of rigidity, merely from the fact that things are, in fact, being defined. I thought perhaps I was missing something, but McGann also noted that databases rely on “sharp, disambiguated distinctions.” How flexible can a database be? I’ve struggled a lot with the problem of assumed objectivity in databases, and now I feel like I have to struggle with the assumed fluidity of them too. And can a database exist without narrative? After all, the person creating the database most likely has a narrative he or she wishes to portray.

    Authors have been struggling with the concept of narrative for quite some time. Many modernists attempted to dismantle the idea of narratives in their work, and postmodernists will reject the idea of a narrative altogether (in work or in reality). It seems odd that the idea of a narrative being under attack should feel so threatening. Hasn’t the concept of narrative been in flux for a while? Haven’t people been attempting to undermine it for decades? I suppose part of the issue is defining what a narrative is, and then debating whether or not it has been under attack.

  2. Cristina October 30, 2016 at 4:34 pm

    Narrative and Database

    1. Both Ed Folsom and Katherine Hayles describe a biographical database genre, Folsom’s is a utopian resource that obliterates the archival grain through open access while Hayles’ example of biography in enumerated form is the final example that she offers of the interplay between narrative and database, a novel by Harry Matthews called The Journalist: A Novel in which the efforts of the protagonist to list his life experience “quickly tends towards chaos as the interpolations proliferate.” (p. 1607) Is there a tendency, perhaps, for the chaos cited by Hayles to affect the benefits described by Folsom? What, if any responsibilities, do DH practitioners have to curb that potential?

    2. McGann rightly points out the inherent constraints and necessary interpretations that are involved in building a database, or markup, schema. Reading back into Folsom, is he completely unaware of these? I read the final portion of Folsom’s piece, in which he describes the “database of users” as an acknowledgement of the limitations of his own scholarly perspective as his resource is integrated and challenged by users that bring the Walt Whitman Archive into new contexts and provide feedback as to how it serves their needs or falls short of doing so. Can expanding the content counterbalance the claims made by McGann? Or is the problem inherent in the structure within which Folsom is working?

    3. Are there areas in todays media culture that are devoid of either narrative or database?

  3. Zejun October 30, 2016 at 7:04 pm

    Q1. I am curious about the background of PMLA 122, no. 5 (October 1, 2007). What triggered the heated debate about the “database and narrative”? It seems Manovich’s The Language of New Media published in 2002 generates a new round of discussion 5 years later through Folsom’s interpretation.

    Some specific questions to this week’s readings:

    Q2. While Manovich and Folsom argue database and narrative are “enemies” and Hayles claims they are “symbionts,” none of them clearly define what is narrative. In “Narrative and Database: Natural Symbionts.” Hayles gives abstract definitions of the narrative by exemplifying how different is narrative compare to database. The emphases on differences instead of similarities might be problematic. What if, the 2 realms mentioned above are inseparable not because they are symbionts, but because they are inherently one single organism?

    Q3. Hayles claims “database operations say nothing about how data are to be collected or which data should qualify for collection.” (P1605) How true is this statement? Can those data types (e.g. string, number, list) and table attributes be considered as some kinds of data validation?

  4. Lauren October 30, 2016 at 7:26 pm

    1) In Folsom’s piece , he states “Rigidity is a quality of our categorical systems” and then proceeds to explain why this rigidity is in contrast to the artist/writers process. The first question is why is rigidity necessary for a categorical system, ontology in itself could be a static or fluid thing just we mostly see it as static since that is much easier to implement and share. Can categories be forever changing? can you then have a digital store that embodies that?

    2) One of the fundamental points in the Database paper is that databases are inherently only able to be collections, with each piece being as important as the next. And since it is only a collection of objects there is very little ability to have a narrative. But databases are not just a collection of objects, they have a relationship with them and the structure of the relationship can clearly give you a starting and ending point. Is the problem with databases as collection stores just that it is hard to find the being of them. Should a relationship map be the story?

    3) There is this fear that the database will destroy the narrative. Yet narratives are one of the primary ways we have always shared information, it is part of the human way of being. With that lens is it databases will destroy narrative, or rather narrative will impose the set of requirements and conditions on the evolution of databases? does this just show the need for fields like DH that enable writers/artist not to be given a set of tools created by someone who doesn’t deeply understand their field and way of work.

  5. kcauley October 31, 2016 at 9:48 am

    In response to Folsom’s description of Whitman’s use of the term ‘genre’ (and also Isabelle’s question of ‘what is genre?’), I quickly looked up the term on Apparently ‘genre’ is the French origin of the English word ‘gender.’ Since gender has been historically spoken about in binary terms (regrettably) it’s easy to agree with Whitman’s definition of ‘genre’ as being ‘peculiar to a person, period, or place-not universal.” That said- Could we employ a better term to identify ‘genre’?

    When Jerome McGann sort of calls out Folsom on his misunderstanding on what is a database, I was both confused and relieved. I was confused because, quite frankly, I’ve been really uncertain about what TEI actually is. Is the structure of the Whitman Archives a prime example of this initiative? My relief came from the discovery that even a seasoned professional like Folsom, seems to be unclear on these distinctions.

    Hayles states that humans ‘can arguably be defined as meaning-seeking animals.’ So for the sake of argument, is this true? Could we argue that meaning is often spoon-fed to us, and that many don’t look beyond that? Furthermore, how does this play into our discussion on narrative and databases? How much responsibility is on the user to create meaning, versus the data collector? Is that relationship (user & collector) symbiotic?

  6. Shoshanah October 31, 2016 at 5:20 pm

    Two systems both alike in dignity,
    In fair cyberspace, where we lay our scene…

    Manovitch’s claim that “database and narrative are natural enemies” seems both overarching and reductive. Databases and narratives are not the Jets and the Sharks. They are not fated to be sworn enemies till the end of time. As Folsom, McGann and Hayles discuss; it is possible to see them in a productive relationship with one another.

    In discussing the potential for a universal genre, Folsom proposes the concept of Deleuze and Guattari’s rhizome, concluding “databases may well be the epic’s new genre” (1576). Does looking at databases, archives, and narratives as part of a non-hierarchical rhizome allow us to see these modules as potentially existing in harmony?

    Hayles term ‘natural symbionts’ marries the divergent opinions of Manovitch, Folsom and McGann, saying that databases and narratives exist in a symbiotic relationship. Databases need narratives to interpret their results and narratives need databases’ computational abilities to enhance and test the “generality of its insights” (1603). Is this proven or disproven through the example of the Walt Whitman archive?

    There is a clear schism between Folsom and McGann’s view of the physicality of both the archive and the database. Folsom claims, “Physicality of an archive makes it essentially different form a database. There will always be more physical information in an archive than in a database, just as there will always be more malleable and portable information in a database than in an archive” (1576). Conversely, McGann argues that by their very nature archives are more malleable, “The physicality of an archive’s categorical system shows a flexibility that a database does not have, because a card catalog is itself an interfaced database” (1590). It seems to me that Folsom’s definition of malleability has to do with access, or what he terms portability. Last week we discussed the relationship between archive and accessibility. I’m still curious if the value of an archive increases both quantitatively and qualitatively by increasing accessibility (through digitization)?

    Folsom supports the idea of narrative as an interpretative tool with which to analyze a database by quoting Whitman, “we are the winders of the circuit of circuits.” This is reiterated by McGann’s supposition that “these tools are prosthetic devices, and they function most effectively when they help to release the resources of the human mind.”

    In the spirit of breaking the “rigidity” of our “categorical systems”, here’s a little re-write of O’Shaughnessey’s ‘Ode’:

    We are the music makers,
    And we are the dreamers of dreams,
    Wandering by lone sea-breakers,
    And sitting by desolate streams;—
    World-losers and world-forsakers,
    On whom the pale moon gleams:
    Yet we are the movers and shakers
    Of the world for ever, it seems.

    We are the database makers,
    The tech-savvy dreamers of dreams,
    Wandering by the many circuit-breakers,
    And sitting in front of our desolate screens;–
    World-makers and world-forsakers,
    On whom McLuhan’s misquoted “soft light” gleams:
    We are the winders of the circuit of circuits
    Preserving the world’s narrative for ever, it seems.

  7. Anna November 1, 2016 at 2:34 pm

    1- In Database as genre : The Epic transformation of archives p1, Folsom mentions the fact his students were surprised Whitman novel and fictions were published in journals. Later he mentions that Whitman didn’t know what genre to assign to his work. We now call it novels and fictions but I wonder if at the time they were categorise as such. Does the fact it was published under a different form from a book could change the genre since it also changes the experience of te reader. In other word does the form could change the genre even if the content is the same And so if database becomes a genre, what hapens if a fiction is published in a database ? What genre would that be ?

    2- In Database as genre : The Epic transformation of archives, the author calls The Walt Whitman archives a database and he clearly differenciates both p6 « Ar chive suggests physicality, idiosyncratic ar rangement, partiality, while database suggests virtuality, endless ordering and reordering, and wholeness.” I don’t understand though, if the whole point of the task is to create categories, why would one call archive what is in fact a database – if really it is one, (cf p1 of McGann’s Interface, Database and Archival Fever) – especially if giving two distinct definitions for each of them.

    3- Hayles keeps oposing Narratives to databases but doesn’t give a clear definition of narrative so I guess my question would be, what is a narrative to Hayles ?

  8. Ariel November 1, 2016 at 4:05 pm

    In Folsom’s article, he says, “Could there be a universal genre? And, if so, wouldn’t its realization be the death of genre? If genre was by definition not universal, then what would, what could, a universal genre be?” (1572). I understand the point of raising these questions since the article addresses the discrimination and pigeonholeing that arises from genres, but I still can’t help but question, but what would the point be of no genre? I get that there would be other ways to categorize and differentiate works and authors but I can’t help but wonder, wouldn’t those just become other ways to discriminate and pigeonhole?

    Folsom brings up, “Initially, Price and I had ideas of how we would control the material in the database, and we knew the narratives we wanted to tell, the frames we wanted to construct. But the details of the database quickly exceeded any narrative we might try to frame the data with” (1576). How often does this occur in building a database? Is it more often than not? I feel like most databases would encounter this as you won’t really know the full scope of the project until it is underway.

    At the close of the McGann article, he ends with, “This is why databases cannot model such complex works. Scholars do not edit or study self-identical texts. They reconstruct a complex documentary record of textual makings and remakings, in which their own scholarly investments directly participate” (1592). I am just left thinking, “isn’t that obvious?” While databases can make connections, it is not like they can function on their own, so clearly a scholar is needed to participate. I guess my question here is, given that his statement seems so obvious, are there those who think databases are able to replace scholars and function on their own?

  9. Whitney November 1, 2016 at 4:48 pm

    1.) McGann and Hayles differ in the ways in which they ascribe power to the database. McGann sees the power of the database in its ability to draw sharp distinctions while Hayles describes it as the database’s ability to order vast data arras and make them available for different kinds of queries. Are these two definitions of databases really one and the same?

    2.) Does anyone disagree with McGann’s stating that the physicality of an archive’s categorical system shows more flexibility than a database? It seems to me that there would be more possibilities as far as content that could be scribbled onto a physical card system or the rearrangement of said card, but I’m not sure that such a method allows for the most organized categorization of data and media.

    3.) I was so happy to read of the rejoicing of the narrative in Hayles’ article – the narrative isn’t dead! Now that I can breathe a little more deeply, I am curious what literature would look like/read like/be structured like in a world where the narrative actually was dead and the database overcame. Could a database potentially be read as a piece of literature?

  10. lbowen November 1, 2016 at 5:15 pm

    Drawing from Manovich, Folsom argues that database is “a new genre, the genre of the twenty-first century,” without (as others have noted) offering a clear definition of “genre” itself (1576). The essay ends by further suggesting that database may not in fact be ‘new’, but instead the same stuff as epic literary texts that also defy simple categorization such as Moby Dick, “Song of Myself” and the Bible. What makes something become a genre?

    McGann notes a thread of ‘misunderstanding’ in Fulsom’s essay in its presentation of archive as “reified knowledge (and database as liberated knowledge).” Is database, according to Fulsom, liberated knowledge due to its lack of narrative, rhizomatic structure, and (alleged) greater accessibility? Having recently read about applying radical empathy and queer theory to archival practice for another course, I cannot help but wonder if Fulsom is aware of the highly contested nature of the archives and subsequent major shifts in praxis due to challenges to the dominant Western archive. Without attributing the activism or social movements that have pushed for revisions in the terminology of the catalog system, McGann points out the fact that archives are not as rigid as Fulsom maintains.

    I thought discussion of the Whitman biography as presented in database interesting, but I wondered if it were truly a new genre rather than a text embedded with links and maps? Couldn’t one argue that their proposed biography as database is much like a blog or any other sort of web mounted narrrative?

  11. Leslie November 1, 2016 at 5:46 pm

    In “Database as Genre,” Folsom writes, “Our impulses always tend to funnel artists into one or another genre. Most authors work in multiple genres, but over time they get aligned with one category: not only do generic instincts pigeonhole literary works, they pigeonhole authors too” (1571). This got me thinking about Anamesa and how we’re currently looking at genre-bending, but have kind of come to the conclusion that we need to keep genre-specific committees, whether or not we label genres in the journal. It goes along with the careful boxing of art into categories on labels or MFA programs making writers apply for specific genres. However, I think that there is an importance to these labels when it comes to organizing things. However, the problem arises when we don’t let people operate outside of the genres that we have boxed them in. Is there a way to reconcile these two ideas? Do we have to have an overriding ideology that says this is this and that is that or can we operate in gray areas?

    Folsom goes on to say, “It is impossible even to talk about Leaves of Grass as a book, since the entity we call Leaves of Grass is actually a group of numerous things: six books, three written before the Civil War and three after, each responding in key ways to a different biographical, cultural, and historical moment” (1573). I can’t remember who said this recently (maybe Sukhdev?): that you don’t write a book, you print a book. I think I’m trying to grapple with Folsom’s language here, because Leaves of Grass is not bound by its materiality, as he has demonstrated by the archive. So why denote it as a book? How about we call it a collection, much like we call a book full of short stories a “collection of short stories”?

    I think there are two conversations going on in Folsom’s piece. One is about organizing and the other is about artistry. I don’t know if this has confused me or if it has contributed to the conversation about creativity and new media in my head. This is not a question, just an odd thought.

    In “Database, Interface, and Archival Fear,” McGann responds to Manovich’s/Dimock’s idea that the database and narrative are natural enemies. McGann writes, “while its structure is not narrativized, it is severely constrained and organized” (1588). I’m still trying to reconcile this in my head. Again, I think this has just confused me when it comes to the idea of digital humanities and writing. Why, why, why? How the heck are they defining narrative? Narratives can be manied and varied, so making a statement like this, about the incompatibility of the narrative and the database is actually crazy to me.
    collection? Is the term book dependent on the material

  12. Sarah November 1, 2016 at 6:01 pm

    Did the impulse of empire create the database? I came to this question thihinking about last week’s time capsule with a box of things with no coherent narrative. How is this similar to the random collections of 18th century cabinets of curiosity _ Are these collections gathered from the edges of empire an early prototype of the database?

  13. Sarah November 1, 2016 at 6:06 pm

    How does the ways in which we are surprise change when the world is a list of items?

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