Thursday, October 14, 2010

Database and narrative

Lev Manovich, in his influential book The Language of New Media, discusses the relationship between database and narrative:
As a cultural form, the database represents the world as a list of items, and it refuses to order this list. In contrast, a narrative creates a cause-and-effect trajectory of seemingly unordered items (events). Therefore, database and narrative are natural enemies. Competing for the same territory of human culture, each claims an exclusive right to make meaning out of the world (Manovich 2001, 225).
Digital media, by virtue of their dependence upon database structures, are often thought to undermine the dominance of narrative as a cultural form. What, then, are the implications for representing memory in digital media? For Paul Arthur,
the 'natural' fragmentation and dislocation that is part of digital textuality actually much more closely mirrors the chanciness, randomness and fluidity of memory than does traditional narrative (Arthur 2009, 51-2).
Do you find these arguments persuasive? Does the cultural form of the database rule over narrative when it comes to digital media? And is the database better suited to representing the fluidity of memory?

These ideas can be explored by looking at the online multimedia work Dust on My Shoes. According to its creators, this work:
is based on an epic travel book written by Peter Pinney, an Australian adventurer who journeyed overland from Greece, through Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Assam and India, to Burma in 1949'.
Dust on My Shoes knits together material from Pinney's book with images, maps, audio recordings and animations, together with stories provided by other travellers. In doing so, it explores the possibilities for creatively combining the 'competing' forms of the narrative and the database, in ways that suggest the workings of memory.

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