Lev Manovich, Databases, and Me

This week’s assigned reading was Lev Manovich The Language of New Media (Cambridge, Mass. & London, England: The MIT Press, 2001).

I suspect I might have gotten more out of parts of this book if I had a better grounding in film/cinematic theory, or in art theory at least. There were digressions which were opaque – luckily they didn’t obscure the overall message(s) Manovich wanted to convey. The whole work is rich for discussion, but I only want to talk about the section on databases.

Why? I’m a database fan. Manovich argues that cataloging and narration are “two basic creative impulses” dating all the way back to the Greeks, and I agree.(233) I understand the desire to categorize, to sort, but also the need to tell a story about what you’ve sorted out. In some ways, that’s what writing history is – sifting out and distilling sources, and then telling the story which comes from combining those distillations. Thus, I think the section on databases can be of great use to the digital historian.

Some of the points Manovich makes in this section are ones we’ve heard already in the semester: organizing a database is a way to make an argument; a narrative is only one of multiple ways to access the contents of a database; “creating a work in new media can be understood as the construction of an interface to a database”.(226) The examples he provides to support these arguments are helpful, particularly the lyrical paragraph on page 243, the end of the section, where he describes how Vertov’s film is an argument, a meaningful use of effects and sources – “Vertov’s goal is to seduce us into his way of seeing and thinking.” Vertov, we are told, successfully merges the database and the narrative into a new form.

The act of merging database and narrative, or at least smoothly joining the two, is one of the challenges of digital history. As Manovich points out, databases underlie most of the structure of digital projects. When we build an online exhibit or narrative, we build a collection of sources, whether or not we chose to make those sources accessible beyond the narrative we construct for the visitor/user. If we do, there is the chance they will only engage in the categorization, not the narrative. I think that’s okay.

In fact, I think exposing the work is an important benefit of digital history. Not in a rough way, necessarily – to use a textile metaphor, you want to finish your seams, not leave raw edges. Still, showing some of the process can be energizing for the creator as well as the viewer. Earlier in the book, Manovich mentions how Brecht experimented with meta-theatricality, exposing the work of a production to the audience; having worked as tech for a production of Caucasian Chalk Circle, I can attest to how exciting and exposed this technique can feel.

If we expose the work of selection and how we go from collection to narrative, I think it can not only strengthen the understanding of the narrative, but helps to reinforce the notion that simply creating a collection is, in itself, an argument. For ourselves (digital historians), we should make sure that we understand what our process is in making those choices, not just what records we create but what fields we capture. It is part of our method, our argument, and worth consideration.

As a coda of sorts, Jean Bauer has an essay in the open-reviewed work Writing History in the Digital Age about the interplay between a historical database and writing narrative history.