Narrative, Database

Today I read Ed Folsom’s PMLA article, “Database as Genre: The Epic Transformation of Archives,” and the better part of the five responses to the piece and even Folsom’s response to the responses. I won’t attempt a full summary in this entry, but I wanted to note a few initial impressions and lingering questions.

The lead article discusses Folsom’s efforts to develop The Walt Whitman Archive, a growing digital collection of Whitman’s works–works not easily or summarily identifiable as narrative or as poetry. Folsom characterizes Whitman as a forerunner, noting that “[f]or him, the works 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” (1574). The identification of Whitman as an “early practitioner…of the database genre” (1575) doesn’t, as far as I can tell, explain why his work should be any more appropriate for digitization and databased setup than any other, but it does give us the background on Folsom’s insights into database as genre.

Folsom seems generally to adopt Lev Manovich’s pitting of narrative versus database in The Language of New Media. The tension between database and narrative is repeated in Folsom’s account of how the Whitman project evolved, with the database taking on a predatory dimension. Folsom explains, “Only if we insulated the narrative from the database could the narrative persist. As databases contain ever greater detail, we may begin to wonder if narrative itself is under threat” (1576).

In her response to Folsom’s essay, “Narrative and Database: Natural Symionts,” N. Katherine Hayles suggests replacing the rivalrous polarization of narrative and database with notions of compatibility and complementarity. Rather than accepting Manovich’s description of the two as “natural enemies,” we should think of them as “natural symbionts” (1603). Hayles introduces ecological and biological metaphors: “Database and narrative, their interdependence notwithstanding, remain different species, like bird and water buffalo” (1605). Each can do something the other cannot; together, they get along smartly. Yet, narrative (presumably the water buffalo; leaving database the back-pecking bird?) is “an essential technology for human beings who can arguably be defined as meaning-seeking animals” (1606). Citing Jerome Bruner, Hayles emphasizes the persistence and abundance of narrative: “Wherever one looks, narratives surface, as ubiquitous in everyday culture as dust mites” (1606). I admit to being mildly thrown off by the buffalo-bird-mites line-up. The mites–narrativistic minutiae–are not quite the same, I think, as the narrative-buffalo (or even narrative-bird, if that’s the way you read it). Maybe the mites are more like data, and there is startling similarity in the small particles, whichever party they enliven. So many mites.

Hayles also has this to say:

“The constant expansion of new data accounts for an important advantage that relational databases have over narratives, for new data elements can be added to existing databases without disrupting their order [“to order” stands out earlier, as well, in Hayles’ account of the strengths of database (1604)]” (1607).

“No longer singular, narratives remain the necessary others to database’s ontology, the perspectives that invest the formal logic of database operations with human meanings and that gesture toward the unknown hovering beyond the brink of what can be classified and enumerated” (1607).

In his response to respondents, Folsom is won over by Hayles’ replacement of “natural enemies” with “natural symbionts.” Reading this series–the article and responses–I am wondering whether about the pairing itself. Does narrative go along with database? I mean that many of the treatments of the narrative/database dyad go at characterizations of the two. But why are there only two participants if, ultimately, we are thinking of these as they stand (water buffalo and bird) in the midst of a complex ecology of, well, everything else? I am not posing this question to detract from the quality of the conversation, only to call the terms back into question, and ask Why these two? Folsom’s reference to database as genre makes this point seem all the more important to me. Is narrative genre? Maybe. In the same sense that exposition is genre, right? Should, then, exposition have a place in this discussion? Does database as genre parallel narrative as genre (i.e., does genre apply at the same scale to each?). I don’t know. It seems like pairing of narrative and database, whether as “natural enemies” or “natural symbionts” is, in itself, adequate–and maybe it is adequate for getting at the two primary logics for arranging words and things.

Hayles characterizes some of the key differences between narrative and database; her account clarifies, for me, some of the basic qualities that hold them apart in their respective functions. Still, I wonder whether database and narrative should be predatory, symbiotic, even whether they might, in certain cases, be parasitic (one damages the other) or commensalitic (one gains from the other, but the one is unaffected). May as well be symbionts, right?

I’ll stop here. This is all to say that the series slowed me down on the matters of 1.) genre and 2.) what other species are there besides narrative and database. I also need to spend more time reading on the concept of archives, beginning with the Manoff citation in Folsom’s lead. If a carnivalrous mood strikes you, I’d enjoy more conversation on the set of articles.

Folsom, Ed. “Database as Genre: The Epic Transformation of Archives.” PMLA 122.5 (2007): 1571–1579.