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January 20, 2009

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A Day Too Big for Narrative

Ha! Alessandra Stanley does my work for me: This was a day best captured by image, not narrative, she says.

In all this talk of narrative and database (here and here) I’m surprised I haven’t mentioned one of the most familiar kinds of databases: the photo gallery!

All the way from LIFE’s breakthrough use of rich, stand-alone photography to TIME’s avalanche of online galleries and (of course) the Big Picture, there’s a rich tradition here. And the best of ‘em aren’t linear sequences that tell a story from start to finish; they’re collections of contrasting moments that, together, deliver a gestalt.

Photo galleries have been one of my favorite ways to track the entire election, and I think there’s truth to what Stanley says about today:

Anchors, compelled to say something, reached for trite metaphors and hyperbolic expressions of wonder (“Our secular version of a miracle,” according to one CNN commentator) that didn’t begin to match the reality unfolding live behind them. The best narration was wordless.

I’ll extend that critique to printed commentary, as well. The flurry of op-eds over the weekend, all packed with world-historical language trying to Put It All In Perspective, fell flat. Just give me the image.

Not even Obama’s speech — which I liked — could match the raw image of him, uh, delivering it. William Gavin, a former speechwriter for Nixon, said this over at the NYT (emphasis mine):

But the setting — the first African-American standing there in the bright winter sunshine as our new president — had an eloquence all its own. I think we will remember this occasion more for the man who gave it than for the words he said. He could have stood there for 20 minutes of silence and still communicated great things about America.

I claim the image for the Team Database. Your move, narrative.

Posted January 20, 2009 at 9:09 | Comments (9) | Permasnark
File under: Journalism, Media Galaxy, Society/Culture


A picture is worth a thousand words, right?

Gibe me a thousand words and I'll give you the Gettysburg address, preamble to the Constitution, 10 Commandments and Bill of Rights. Better be a damned good photo.

And quoting a television writer doesn't carry a lot of weight with me, Robin. The flickering blue box yields an unsteady light, and strangely little warmth.

Okay, let's get terms straight here, people.

Images vs. Language / Vision vs. Sound.

Narrative vs. Database. Or more broadly, narrative vs. non=narrative.

Images can be narrative (uh, cartooning/comics?) or not, and language can be narrative or not. The failure of TV anchor's words is NOT a failure of narrative.

We can also conjure up presence vs. absence, mediation vs. immediacy. I think there is something about our media forms that leads us to think in terms of pure vision vs. pure sound/language, distinctions that often fail when we are phyiscally present. (no hard and fast rules, but a leading generalization.)

btw, +10 to Howard for the Gettysburg Address -- the greatest narrative and narrative-generating speech in American history. But the Bill of Rights, while awesomely linguistic, is not a narrative. In fact, the entire Constitution is neither narrative nor database but a different kind of language-game -- instructions or rules.

Right, sorry: I claim *photo galleries*, not images, for Team Database.

Am I on Team Database? I can't even remember anymore.

I'm just scared I'll get picked last.

Posted by: Howard Weaver on January 21, 2009 at 08:39 AM

Okay, since I referred to "language-games" above, let me just go ahead and drop some Wittgenstein:

Throughout the Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein returns, again and again, to the concept of language-games to make clear his lines of thought concerning language. Primitive language-games are scrutinized for the insights they afford on this or that characteristic of language. Thus, the builders' language-game (PI 2), in which a builder and his assistant use exactly four terms (block, pillar, slab, beam), is utilized to illustrate that part of the Augustinian picture of language which might be correct but which is, nevertheless, strictly limited. "Regular" language-games, such as the astonishing list provided in PI 23 (which includes, e.g., reporting an event, speculating about an event, forming and testing a hypothesis, making up a story, reading it, play- acting, singing catches, guessing riddles, making a joke, translating, asking, thanking, and so on), bring out the openness of our possibilities in using language and in describing it.

Some properties of language-games can be noticed in Wittgenstein's several examples and comments. They are, first, a part of a broader context termed by Wittgenstein a form of life (see below). Secondly, the concept of language-games points at the rule-governed character of language. This does not entail strict and definite systems of rules for each and every language-game, but points to the conventional nature of this sort of human activity. Finally, Wittgenstein's choice of ‘game’ is based on the over-all analogy between language and game, assuming that we have a clearer perception of what games are. Still, just as we cannot give a final, essential definition of ‘game’, so we cannot find "what is common to all these activities and what makes them into language or parts of language" (PI 65).

HELLO? That image of Obama standing there for 20 minutes saying nothing would mean nothing without the narrative of history behind it, especially with MLK's I Have a Dream speech fresh in everyone's minds.

I think the Obamas are the prom king and prom queen of Team Narrative. They have a supernatural touch for storytelling through images. How brilliantly calculated was their first dance?

They tap into the primal narrative thread of fairytale/wedding/happily ever after. One way narrative will always trump database is that well-constructed narratives are ultimately satisfying. When was the last time a database brought tears to your eyes?

When was the last time a database brought tears to your eyes?

Honest? This one did it for me.

Not because there isn't a narrative to be found, or even more than one, but because the narratives all seem woefully inadequate in the face of the individual faces, bodies, moments captured there.

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