Narrative connections

Author: joe

Thursday, 07 June, 2012 - 21:52

In Database as a symbolic form Manovich contrasts databases, which are merely collections of data, with narratives which instead consist of "a series of connected events caused or experienced by actors" (1998). Manovich's aim here is to retrieve something about the database as a form which we had missed. Actually, far from being 'merely' a collection of data, the database is the catalogue of materials from which the artist might then construct a narrative. The database not only precedes the narrative act but also in fact enables it by providing its raw materials. He notes that "a narrative creates a cause-and-effect trajectory of seemingly unordered items (events)", whereas the database "refuses to order this list". Thus it is the connecting of elements that were otherwise without order, the catching up of them into trajectories of cause and effect, which characterises narrative. Great story-tellers Manovich's example is Dziga Vertov are able to merge database and narrative into a new form, as in Man with a Movie Camera in which Vertov's encyclopaedic cataloguing of the techniques of the new language of cinematography is transformed into a narrative of discovery and possibility.

The strange partner of the anti-narrative character of the database - its resistance to connecting and articulating, and its priority to narrative - is its incompleteness. The web, which is formally recognisable as a database at the largest scales, is always being added to, and these additions are not appended as though to the last items of a list, but can be inserted anywhere. No narrative could survive such a process without sacrificing its integrity - as Manovich puts it, "how can one keep a coherent narrative or any other development trajectory through the material if it keeps changing?" We should not be fooled, then, by the apparent interconnectedness that gives the web its very name. Notwithstanding the links that carry us from one place to another - whether that place is a site, a page, an element, a node within a collection of nodes - there is no way to pin down those connections into something fixed and finished. Even were we to focus in on just one location in the web, entirely within our control, and to impose our structured navigational system onto a designed pathway through our given materials, we must still concede that our user may at any moment stray off the prescribed route, by switching browser window or alt-tabbing away to glance at messages or to graze on walls, feeds, streams and timelines. Every online link is susceptible to insertions of material which may be earth-moving or inane.

Manovich's analysis, in distinguishing the characteristics of databases, gives us a working definition of narrative which is consonant with dominant interpretations. In Propp's formalism, the 31 functions from which all folk-tales can be derived become a narrative when they are instantiated in a story which must always present the functions in unvarying order, even if they may leave some or others of them out. Even in Levi-Strauss' analysis of myth, in which many narratives are taken as parts of an entire system, the de-temporalised components of those stories are nevertheless structured in ways that reflect the underlying imperatives of human nature. Barthes' transcultural, transhistorical narrative, which is "simply there, like life itself", is a corollary of the sentence, with its syntactical (connecting) arrangements of subjects, verbs, objects, modes. Greimas' even more granular analysis posits such connecting principles as desires or aims, communication, and support or hindrance, as the basic patterns of narrative. Todorov's definition, which consists of different states of equilibrium and disequilibrium, is precisely a narrative because those states are articulated to each other. Genette's understanding of narrative is relational, being a product of the interactions between levels of narrative, perspective and focalisation. Historians such as Hayden White and Louis Mink separate the narrative, with its explanatory agenda, from the chronicle, with its enumerative function. From Aristotle, with his requirements for the high being laid low and the lowly being exalted, to Brecht's desire to rouse the audience to reject the necessity of inevitable endings, narrative is only narrative if it is a discrete series of items, caught up together into a connecting principle, a trajectory, a start, middle and end.

Manovic, Lev, 1998. Database as a Symbolic Form Available online at:

Categories: narrative, connection, database, Lev-Manovich ,
Comments: 1


I haven't read Manovich's introduction. I have read his book, Language of New Media. If the New Media piece of the title was iacsnoequentinl, it could titled Language, right? But I don't think that would function in quite the same way. Relatedly, the explicit emphasis digital or new media does make a difference when it comes to something like pursuing a job. In the context of what Manovich wrote, sure artists are using digital tools, but would an artist who happens to use digital tools and an artist more thoroughly invested in digital techniques and technological expertise vie equally for the same sorts of gigs? There are differences here, and the labels seem to me useful for distinguishing degrees of proficiency. I mean that casual encounters with technology are almost a certainty these days, but rigorous, focal encounters (in coursework for example) might provide something different different enough to name directly. Maybe?I guess what I'm thinking about now is that there is a danger in everyone too easily claiming technological expertise. I don't myself like to make too much out of expertise, but that's because I don't like how it tends to represent knowledge as settled rather than in-becoming. Still, there is a slight edge distinguishing humanities work that happens to use digital tools (e.g., a free Blogger account) and something that pushes beyond tools to grapple with yet-unexplored logics operating differently in digital environments. I hope this doesn't sound too soap-boxy, Erin. It's just that I wonder whether we've reached a point where the person who identifies as artist or poet can be assumed to wield advanced (or even adequate) facility with technologies.

Author: Sade Sent: 2012-07-05 04:54:40

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