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January 14, 2009

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Narrative and Database

More on narrative from Lev Manovich, circa 2001:

Regardless of whether new media objects present themselves as linear narratives, interactive narratives, databases, or something else, underneath, on the level of material organization, they are all databases. In new media, the database supports a range of cultural forms which range from direct translation (i.e., a database stays a database) to a form whose logic is the opposite of the logic of the material form itself — a narrative. More precisely, a database can support narrative, but there is nothing in the logic of the medium itself which would foster its generation. It is not surprising, then, that databases occupy a significant, if not the largest, territory of the new media landscape. What is more surprising is why the other end of the spectrum — narratives — still exist in new media.

That’s a better articulation of what (I think) I was trying to get at: You can map narratives onto our weird web-world, but it’s something fundamentally different underneath.

From The Language of New Media via Kasia.

Posted January 14, 2009 at 4:02 | Comments (20) | Permasnark
File under: Briefly Noted


Isn't that always the thing with narratives though? That the thing 'underneath' is something fundamentally different and narrative mapping is the attempt to make sense of things; and the attempt is, on some level, always incomplete and temporary?

I ask 'cause I was really intrigued by your previous post on this. The patchwork metaphor you used - the de-centred, non-linear way in which the Web works - really reminded me of Deleuze and Guattari's concept of 'n-1' i.e. that any analysis is always a singular, provisional moment in an almost infinite number of possible interpretations etc.

I was also thinking that post-structuralist approaches to narrative tend to think of it non-linear, networked terms and all readings are just choices of which parts of a web or matrix or whatever metaphor one wishes to travel alone. I don't know if I've articulated that particularly well though.

(Full disclosure: I'm a grad student in literature, so somewhere in my brains, I'm probably invested in defending narrative as somehow primal...)

I, too, have an unreasoned, passionate attachment to my sense of the narrative's role in human affairs. I just viscerally don't believe this thesis.

But I need to think a lot more about why, and about whether I can support that position intellectually. It's clear Robin is right in highlighting the difference between general narrative and the networked, digital structure of the new order. Yep, they're different.

I think Nav may be close to the basis of my objections in suggesting that narrative is of course separate and distinct because its role is to supply the meta-organization that human brains demand. Do we naturally see patterns everywhere because they're there, or because we must? Does that matter?

Great stuff, Robin. I'll find time soon to read the Manovich material and think harder.

This is the great thing about theory. I'm actually for Robin's thesis for the exact same reasons that Nav and Howard seem to be describing themselves as "against" it.

What's underneath narrative on the web is something fundamentally non-narrative. And that's a pretty good description of human interaction with the rest of the world as well. The whole world is information. We turn it into language and impose narrative in order to make it accessible and useful to ourselves.

Narrative mutates and changes as we need it to. It becomes myth, the oral epic, the novel, the newspaper, the blog, as we need it to. Narrative isn't going anywhere because we aren't going anywhere. But that doesn't change the fact that narrative is not the thing. It is us.

The human capacity to perceive order and structure extends far beyond narrative. We can perceive symmetry, identify unchanging laws of nature, abstract three-dimensional objects to two-dimensional shapes, match sounds in a differential system, subsume objects to concepts or subsets to supersets, plot coincidence with or without causation, and play with jokes, puns, and riddles. What's more, we can do all of these things linguistically, visually, aurally, and through touch, with our own bodies and with the outside world. Narrative does not exhaust what we can do in order to make information "accessible and useful to ourselves."

I would also contend that framing this change (if it is one) in how we access information entirely in terms of narrative may not be the most interesting or revealing way to approach it. If it's about a shift from a tiered and categorized system of information grouped under headers (which is not in itself especially "narrative") to a unilevel search where any particular data point is potentially a keyword, then let's talk about that. If it's about distraction vs. absorption (like the book/iPhone vs. desktop thread) then let's talk about that.

Don't get me wrong, narrative is awesome -- like Nav and Gav, I'm a literature-head -- but it feels like we're going around in circles. I would rather progress, narratively, forward.

I would rather progress, narratively, forward.

You mean, rather than build up a constellation of thoughts, a database of ideas? C'mon, Tim, the snarkmatrix doesn't go in straight lines ;-)

I'm really enjoying talking to you guys abt this, b/c it's making me realize how far to one side I actually am these days -- very constellation-y, very ambient-grokkage.

Your point about brains as pattern-finding engines is a good one, Tim. It's crazy how difficult it is to turn the pattern-finding engine *off*.

There's a whole school of art instruction that helps you do that: You need to see the chair as a flat arrangement of colors, really as a pixel grid almost, not as "a chair." You need to see a human face as a mix of pinks and greens, not as "a face" (and all the gigabit messaging that implies). It's difficult!

It's fun to try to do the same thing with speech, too. Even more difficult, I've found. But it's really a trip to hear, even if just for a moment, the *pure sound* of a language you know -- not the words, not the intonation, but the grumbles and hisses.

It's the database underneath the narrative!

Sorry, I didn't mean to make it sound I was 'against' anything. I'm clearly invested in narrative, but also tire of people who say the internet is 'no big deal' or something similarly dismissive.

I like Tim's idea that narrative is one among many modes of understanding. But in terms of 'that thing underneath', I hope I don't sound like a silly 20 year-old, but isn't thing is always inaccessible in its own 'pure' terms? Something has to happen for it to fit into structures of meaning that allow it to make sense, and those structures are necessarily composed of interdependent units that don't make sense alone.

So yes, the logic of the Web is a-linear, network-y, even, perhaps most importantly, anti-teleological. But can it still 'do stuff' outside of narrativisation? Take Waxy's Mechanical Turk experiments - the logic is non-narrative, but is the way we put that information into our lives also non-narrative?

Please don't mistake me, though - I'm pushing the point so someone might show me what I'm missing.

I think we can 'do stuff' outside of narrative, yes.

This just caught my eye, re: the avant garde painters of the early 20th century:

The matrix of sensations was more fundamental than any object.

The object was dispensed with.

The task of painting was no longer to represent objects but to present the matrix of sensations in all its exciting immediacy, to use Alfred North Whitehead's concept of "presentational immediacy." The matrix was no longer embedded or sedimented in objects, but exposed as objective in its own right.

From here.

Loosely applicable at best (though a fun read). Maybe more directly: Take a great project like EveryBlock. Huge database. You can find lots of mini-narratives in it, and you can definitely "tell a story" with the data. But you can also use it totally non-narratively. You can just sort of... poke around. Explore.

Maybe exploration is a word we should be using more?

I don't think that I meant to imply that narrative exhausts or encompasses to totality of human pattern recognition (or imposition). I would kind of like to engage Tim in a conversation as to whether The Making or Americans does or does not implicitly argue that categorization, or "subsum[ing] objects to concepts or subsets to supersets" is somehow a narrative process, but I think that might take us a bit outside of the scope of the conversation here.

By the way, Robin, if you enjoy early 20th century avant garde painters for the rationale you quote, then you owe it to yourself to bang your head against The Making of Americans (Gertrude Stein, Dalkey Archive Press, $12.71 on Amazon, which is, pound for pound [pound for Pound?] the best price that you will ever pay for a book)if for no other reason than to try to figure out why such a technique in painting has reached a popular audience, but not in literature.

(Tim will rightly question the idea of "immediacy" as a possibility in literature or art, but my point is simply that such terms are frequently used to describe what people seem to think that Stein was trying to do.)

Stein, Stein, Stein, Stein! That's right, Stein on Snarkmarket. So there!


(Tim will also note that I said the word "Stein" four times for a reason. [Which begs another question: is referentiality narrative? {And thus, should I actually be sending my writing to fiction editors and not poetry editors?}])

I think I'm getting stuck on the idea that 'everything is text' and, therefore, that everything must be embedded in narrative. There's something to that idea, but I think your original point is more important: that non-narrative modes of thinking will arise from the networked, non-linear way information works in the... 'digital age'. Bleh. I gotta' find a way to sound less clichéd. You know what I mean though, right?

But re Gavin's aside about referentiality: I would say it still has to be bound up in narrative because the thing referred to is (wait for it) always-already in a narrative.

Gavin is secretly a modernist colporteur.

No-no-no, text does not equal narrative! And to look for a narrative is often to find a mistake.

Here's an anecdote to illustrate this. Linguists and archaeologists struggled for *years* to translate Sumerian cuneiform under the assumption that the symbols used were syntactic and continuous. They weren't. They were bureaucratic lists and charts, and the spatial position of the marks corresponded to a system indicating inputs and outputs, goods received and goods exchanged.

Now, it's possible to make the opposite mistake -- linguists and archaeologists assumed for *years* that Mayan glyphs were not semantic or narrative but artistic and emotional, when in fact the glyphs were not only narrative and historical but in fact syllabic, with phonic marks embedded into the pictorial glyphs.

But neither the database nor the narrative is more fundamental than the other form. They are both techniques for organizing the lived world, obeying different organizational logics. Our ability to read order is only equaled by our ability to misread order.

Our discussion of narrative shouldn’t focus on “doing stuff” or “gaining access” or describing reality. Granted. a myriad of forms and structures – databases, paintings, you name it – do all that alongside the narrative, often as well and occasionally better.

Narrative is the organizing framework, the place we stand to see and consider all those additional avenues to knowledge and information. Narrative isn’t about what we see, it’s about how we see.

Of course it’s an artifact of the way our cludged-together brains happen to work. So what?

I made some of my basic arguments about narrative and storytelling in a speech I gave to the California Newspaper Association in the late 1990s. It’s dated and there are certainly things I’d change now, but the core is still what I think about “Tell me a story” and “tribal fires.”

It’s not online as far as I know, so I just posted it to a blog called Quantum Dice, if anybody’s interested.

"But there is nothing in the logic of the medium itself which would foster its generation..."

Databases suggest new narrative forms to me all the time. Taxonomies generate connections which influence the flow of narrative. Dinking around in Django or SOLR gives me storytelling ideas I'd never have had using a piece of paper (paper also gives me ideas that I'd never have in Django). In the post linked you wrote: "It’s all juxtaposition and feeds and filters, searching and stumbling and sharing. And importantly, it’s starting to make sense." Which to me means that we're maybe now figuring out how to manage all the serendipity and randomness, to put up useful filters. I think the problem is that there is not ENOUGH narrative technique being applied--i.e. not enough editing, by which I mean editorial programming, I guess. But predictively editing and organizing random and fluid corpora is super-amazingly-hard.

Posted by: Paul on January 15, 2009 at 08:28 PM

Howard may be on to something -- the narrative and the database are both different ways of making sense of the world, but they do imply (even when they don't entail) different ways of socializing that knowledge.

The database tends towards the kabbalistic -- esoteric notations, secret resonances between events. The narrative tends towards a public space of shared intelligibility. There are plenty of intermediate forms -- "codification" for example refers to Justinian's reorganization of Roman law from scattered scroll repositories into a single set of codex books.

Or to put it another way -- to see in three stars the belt of a hunter is the act of the vision of a prophet. To identify and map dozens of such insights is the act of a priesthood. To tell (and to preserve) a story about a scorpion chasing that hunter across the skies in perpetuity is how a people is made.

Huh. This is fascinating. I really like this idea that narrative and database are different modes of understanding and I think it will take some time for me to wrap my head around that one. Does anyone have any examples of a 'database way of thinking'?

I do have a question though. Is it possible to 'database-ize' ourselves, to construct ourselves in a non-narrative mode? To me, identity is inherently narratalogical, a piecing together of what makes me 'me'. If that's true - and I dunno' - does that mean that narrative, rather than occupying a position of primacy, is a limit to the extent to which our brains can shift?

Also, aside: when I said 'everything is text', I didn't mean everything is script, but that everything is textual, i.e. is an ordering of signs that renders things comprehensible. Having read these comments, I'd now say that, thought of way, the texts of our lives - information, people, histories - are open to both narratalogical and database-ish interpretations.

Does anyone have any examples of a 'database way of thinking'?

Seriously: structuralism.

I've gotten more and more fascinated by Lévi-Strauss's "The Structural Study of Myth" every year.

Essentially, this is L-S's method:

1) Take a narrative.
2) Now take a LOT of narratives.
3) Identify key words/ideas.
4) Turn them into a database.
5) Create a crazy map or chart that visually deforms the narratives so that you don't think about them as narratives anymore.
6) Collapse them all into a single set of logical relationships.
7) That set of relationships is your "narrative." Only because time and space don't exist anymore, we'll call it a law.
8) End.

Structuralism's fallen out of favor, partly because it had the audacity to foreground a lot of its own methodological problems, which were then framed as contradictions. But it is a seriously powerful way of thinking about... almost anything.

We all see our lives as linear trajectories, headed along a defined path described by time. Narrative addresses that. Database doesn't. I think that means the answer to Nav's question -- can we "construct ourselves in a non-narrative mode?" -- is "No."

But wouldn't it make a wonderful William Gibson novel to image somebody who could replace narrative with database and interrupt that linear path?

Posted by: Howard Weaver on January 18, 2009 at 07:32 PM

This might be one way of framing Christopher Nolan's Memento. The character is trying to maintain his sense of his life as a narrative. But it isn't -- it's a database. A continually corrupted one.

This is taken to the opposite extreme in the way that Watchmen's Doctor Manhattan experiences the universe. He sees all times as simultaneous, and periodically confuses them.

It does seem that narrative is something more than a series of points charged by time. In addition to that, it is, at the very least, a stylistic device, and occasionally an explanatory one.

Narrative does not have to move in a purely linear trajectory -- it can digress, it can anticipate, it can recall. It also isn't limited to a single point-of-view, but can slide from one subjectivity to another, or from subjective to objective or semi-subjective or intersubjective points of view. These are the variations that narratology - the analytical database of narratives -- tries to account for.

Franco Moretti in Graphs, Maps, Trees: Abstract Models for a Literary History does something like Lévi-Strauss's steps 1-5 and then says "What a neat chart! What can this tell us about those narratives that we didn't know before? I'm not entirely sure, but it was fun." And calls it "distant reading" (rather than "close reading").

Something else nice: on A Timeline of Timelines, scroll down to 1760-7: "Laurence Sterne's novel, Tristram Shandy, includes a set of sketches indicating the non-linear path of a well-told story; narrative digressions appear as deviations from a straight line."

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