Lev Manovich on Tue, 15 Dec 1998 20:41:33 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> Database as a Symbolic Form 2/3

Database and Narrative

As a cultural form, 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. 
        In contrast to most games, most narratives do not require
algorithm-like behavior from their readers. However, narratives and games
are similar in that the user, while proceeding through them, must uncover
its underlying logic - its algorithm. Just like a game player, a reader of
a novel gradually reconstructs an algorithm (here I use it metaphorically)
which the writer used to create the settings, the characters, and the
events. From this perspective, I can re-write my earlier equations between
the two parts of the computer's ontology and its corresponding cultural
forms. Data structures and algorithms drive different forms of computer
culture. CD-ROM's, Web sites and other new media objects which are
organized as databases correspond to the data structure; while narratives,
including computer games, correspond to the algorithms. 
        In computer programming, data structures and algorithms need each
other; they are equally important for a program to work. What happens in a
cultural sphere? Do databases and narratives have the same status in
computer culture? 
        Some media objects explicitly follow database logic in their
structure while others do not; but behind the surface practically all of
them are databases. In general, creating a work in new media can be
understood as the construction of an interface to a database. In the
simplest case, the interface simply provides the access to the underlying
database. For instance, an image database can be represented as a page of
miniature images; clicking on a miniature will retrieve the corresponding
record. If a database is too large to display all of its records at once,
a search engine can be provided to allow the user to search for particular
records. But the interface can also translate the underlying database into
a very different user experience. The user may be navigating a virtual
three-dimensional city composed from letters, as in Jeffrew Shaw's
interactive installation "Legible City."11 Or she may be traversing a
black and white image of a naked body, activating pieces of text, audio
and video embedded in its skin (Harwood's CD- ROM "Rehearsal of
Memory.")12 Or she may be playing with virtual animals which come closer
or run away depending upon her movements (Scott Fisher et al, VR
installation, "Menagerie.")13 Although each of these works engages the
user in a set of behaviors and cognitive activities which are quite
distinct from going through the records of a database, all of them are
databases. "Legible City" is a database of three-dimensional letters which
make up the city. "Rehearsal of Memory" is a database of texts and audio
and video clips which are accessed through the interface of a body. And
"Menagerie" is a database of virtual animals, including their shapes,
movements and behaviors. 
        Database becomes the center of the creative process in the
computer age. Historically, the artist made a unique work within a
particular medium. Therefore the interface and the work were the same; in
other words, the level of an interface did not exist. With new media, the
content of the work and the interface become separate. It is therefore
possible to create different interfaces to the same material. These
interfaces may present different versions of the same work, as in David
Blair's WaxWeb.14 Or they may be radically different from each other, as
in Moscow WWWArt Centre.15 This is one of the ways in which the already
discussed principle of variability of new media manifests itself. But now
we can give this principle a new formulation. The new media object
consists of one or more interfaces to a database of multimedia material.
If only one interface is constructed, the result will be similar to a
traditional art object; but this is an exception rather than the norm. 
        This formulation places the opposition between database and
narrative in a new light, thus redefining our concept of narrative. The
"user" of a narrative is traversing a database, following links between
its records as established by the database's creator. An interactive
narrative (which can be also called "hyper-narrative" in an analogy with
hypertext) can then be understood as the sum of multiple trajectories
through a database. A traditional linear narrative is one, among many
other possible trajectories; i.e. a particular choice made within a
hyper-narrative. Just as a traditional cultural object can now be seen as
a particular case of a new media object (i.e., a new media object which
only has one interface), traditional linear narrative can be seen as a
particular case of a hyper-narrative. 
        This "technical," or "material" change in the definition of
narrative does not mean that an arbitrary sequence of database records is
a narrative. To qualify as a narrative, a cultural object has to satisfy a
number of criteria, which literary scholar Mieke Bal defines as follows:
it should contain both an actor and a narrator; it also should contain
three distinct levels consisting of the text, the story, and the fabula;
and its "contents" should be "a series of connected events caused or
experienced by actors."16 Obviously, not all cultural objects are
narratives. However, in the world of new media, the word "narrative" is
often used as all-inclusive term, to cover up the fact that we have not
yet developed a language to describe these new strange objects. It is
usually paired with another over-used word - interactive. Thus, a number
of database records linked together so that more than one trajectory is
possible, is assumed to be constitute "interactive narrative." But to just
create these trajectories is of course not sufficient; the author also has
to control the semantics of the elements and the logic of their connection
so that the resulting object will meet the criteria of narrative as
outlined above. Another erroneous assumption frequently made is that by
creating her own path (i.e., choosing the records from a database in a
particular order) the user constructs her own unique narrative. However,
if the user simply accesses different elements, one after another, in a
usually random order, there is no reason to assume that these elements
will form a narrative at all. Indeed, why should an arbitrary sequence of
database records, constructed by the user, result in "a series of
connected events caused or experienced by actors"? 
        In summary, database and narrative do not have the same status in
computer culture. In the database / narrative pair, database is the
unmarked term.17 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. 
        The dynamics which exist between database and narrative are not
unique in new media. The relation between the structure of a digital image
and the languages of contemporary visual culture is characterized by the
same dynamics. As defined by all computer software, a digital image
consists of a number of separate layers, each layer containing particular
visual elements. Throughout the production process, artists and designers
manipulate each layer separately; they also delete layers and add new
ones.  Keeping each element as a separate layer allows the content and the
composition of an image to be changed at any point: deleting a background,
substituting one person for another, moving two people closer together,
blurring an object, and so on. What would a typical image look like if the
layers were merged together? The elements contained on different layers
will become juxtaposed resulting in a montage look. Montage is the default
visual language of composite organization of an image. However, just as
database supports both the database form and its opposite - narrative, a
composite organization of an image on the material level supports two
opposing visual languages. One is modernist-MTV montage - two-dimensional
juxtaposition of visual elements designed to shock due to its
impossibility in reality. The other is the representation of familiar
reality as seen by a photo of film camera (or its computer simulation, in
the case of 3-D graphics). During the 1980s and 1990s all image making
technologies became computer- based thus turning all images into
composites. In parallel, a Renaissance of montage took place in visual
culture, in print, broadcast design and new media. This is not unexpected
- after all, this is the visual language dictated by the composite
organization. What needs to be explained is why photorealist images
continue to occupy such a significant space in our computer-based visual
        It would be surprising, of course, if photorealist images suddenly
disappeared completely. The history of culture does not contain such
sudden breaks. Similarly, we should not expect that new media would
completely substitute narrative by database. New media does not radically
break with the past; rather, it distributes weight differently between the
categories which hold culture together, foregrounding what was in the
background, and vice versa. As Frederick Jameson writes in his analysis of
another shift, in this case from modernism to post-modernism: "Radical
breaks between periods do not generally involve complete changes but
rather the restructuration of a certain number of elements already given:
features that in an earlier period of system were subordinate became
dominant, and features that had been dominant again become secondary."18
        Database - narrative opposition is the case in point. To further
understand how computer culture redistributes weight between the two terms
of opposition in computer culture I will bring in a semiological theory of
syntagm and paradigm. According to this model, originally formulated by
Ferdinand de Saussure to describe natural languages such as English and
later expanded by Roland Barthes and others to apply to other sign systems
(narrative, fashion, food, etc.), the elements of a system can be related
on two dimensions: syntagmatic and paradigmatic.19 As defined by Barthes,
"the syntagm is a combination of signs, which has space as a support." To
use the example of natural language, the speaker produces an utterance by
stringing together the elements, one after another, in a linear sequence.
This is the syntagmatic dimension. Now, lets look at the paradigm. To
continue with an example of a langauge user, each new element is chosen
from a set of other related elements. For instance, all nouns form a set;
all synonyms of a particular word form another set. In the original
formulation of Saussure, "the units which have something in common are
associated in theory and thus form groups within which various
relationships can be found."20 This is the paradigmatic dimension. 
        The elements on a syntagmatic dimension are related in praesentia,
while the elements on a paradigmatic dimension are related in absentia.
For instance, in the case of a written sentence, the words which comprise
it materially exist on a piece of paper, while the paradigmatic sets to
which these words belong only exist in writer's and reader's minds.
Similarly, in the case of a fashion outfit, the elements which make it,
such as a skirt, a blouse, and a jacket, are present in reality, while
pieces of clothing which could have been present instead - different
skirt, different blouse, different jacket - only exist in the viewer's
imagination. Thus, syntagm is explicit and paradigm is implicit; one is
real and the other is imagined. 
        Literary and cinematic narratives work in the same way. Particular
words, sentences, shots, scenes which make up a narrative have a material
existence; other elements which form an imaginary world of an author or a
particular literary or cinematic style and which could have appeared
instead exist only virtually. Put differently, the database of choices
from which narrative is constructed (the paradigm) is implicit; while the
actual narrative (the syntagm) is explicit. 
        New media reverses this relationship. Database (the paradigm) is
given material existence, while narrative (the syntagm) is de-
materialised. Paradigm is privileged, syntagm is downplayed. Paradigm is
real, syntagm is virtual. To see this, consider the new media design
process. The design of any new media object begins with assembling a
database of possible elements to be used. (Macromedia Director calls this
database "cast," Adobe Premiere calls it "project", ProTools calls it a
"session," but the principle is the same.) This database is the center of
the design process. It typically consists from a combination of original
and stock material distributed such as buttons, images, video and audio
sequences; 3-D objects; behaviors and so on. Throughout the design process
new elements are added to the database; existing elements are modified.
The narrative is constructed by linking elements of this database in a
particular order, i.e. designing a trajectory leading from one element to
another. On the material level, a narrative is just a set of links; the
elements themselves remain stored in the database. Thus the narrative is
more virtual than the database itself. (Since all data is stored as
electronic signals, the word "material" seem to be no longer appropriate.
Instead we should talk about different degrees of virtuality.)
        The paradigm is privileged over syntagm in yet another way in
interactive objects presenting the user with a number of choices at the
same time - which is what typical interactive interfaces do. For instance,
a screen may contain a few icons; clicking on each icon leads the user to
a different screen. On the level of an individual screen, these choices
form a paradigm of their own which is explicitly presented to the user. On
the level of the whole object, the user is made aware that she is
following one possible trajectory among many others. In other words, she
is selecting one trajectory from the paradigm of all trajectories which
are defined. 
        Other types of interactive interfaces make the paradigm even more
explicit by presenting the user with an explicit menu of all available
choices. In such interfaces, all of the categories are always available,
just a mouse click away. The complete paradigm is present before the user,
its elements neatly arranged in a menu. This is another example of how new
media makes explicit the psychological processes involved in cultural
communication. Other examples include the already discussed shift from
creation to selection, which externalizes and codifies the database of
cultural elements existing in the creator's mind; as well as the very
phenomena of interactive links.  New media takes "interaction" literally,
equating it with a strictly physical interaction between a user and a
screen (by pressing a button), at the sake of psychological interaction.
The psychological processes of filling- in, hypothesis forming, recall and
identification - which are required for us to comprehend any text or image
at all - are erroneously equated with an objectively existing structure of
interactive links. 
        Interactive interfaces foreground the paradigmatic dimension and
often make explicit paradigmatic sets. Yet, they are still organized along
the syntagmatic dimension.  Although the user is making choices at each
new screen, the end result is a linear sequence of screens which she
follows. This is the classical syntagmatic experience. In fact, it can be
compared to constructing a sentence in a natural language. Just as a
language user constructs a sentence by choosing each successive word from
a paradigm of other possible words, a new media user creates a sequence of
screens by clicking on this or that icon at each screen. Obviously, there
are many important differences between these two situations. For instance,
in the case of a typical interactive interface, there is no grammar and
paradigms are much smaller. Yet, the similarity of basic experience in
both cases is quite interesting; in both cases, it unfolds along a
syntagmatic dimension. 
        Why does new media insist on this language-like sequencing? My
hypothesis is that it follows the dominant semiological order of the
twentieth century - that of cinema. Cinema replaced all other modes of
narration with a sequential narrative, an assembly line of shots which
appear on the screen one at a time. For centuries, a spatialized narrative
where all images appear simultaneously dominated European visual culture;
then it was delegated to "minor" cultural forms as comics or technical
illustrations. "Real" culture of the twentieth century came to speak in
linear chains, aligning itself with the assembly line of an industrial
society and the Turing machine of a post-industrial era. New media
continues this mode, giving the user information one screen at a time. At
least, this is the case when it tries to become "real" culture
(interactive narratives, games); when it simply functions as an interface
to information, it is not ashamed to present much more information on the
screen at once, be it in the form of tables, normal or pull-down menus, or
lists. In particular, the experience of a user filling in an on-line form
can be compared to pre- cinematic spatialised narrative: in both cases,
the user is following a sequence of elements which are presented

A Database Complex

To what extent is the database form intrinsic to modern storage media? For
instance, a typical music CD is a collection of individual tracks grouped
together. The database impulse also drives much of photography throughout
its history, from William Henry Fox Talbot's "Pencil of Nature" to August
Sander's monumental typology of modern German society "Face of Our Time,"
to the Bernd and Hilla Becher's equally obsessive cataloging of water
towers. Yet, the connection between storage media and database forms is
not universal. The prime exception is cinema. Here the storage media
supports the narrative imagination. We may quote once again Christian Metz
who wrote in the 1970s, "Most films shot today, good or bad, original or
not, 'commercial' or not, have as a common characteristic that they tell a
story; in this measure they all belong to one and the same genre, which
is, rather, a sort of 'super-genre' ['sur-genre']."21 Why then, in the
case of photography storage media, does technology sustain database, while
in the case of cinema it gives rise to a modern narrative form par
excellence? Does this have to do with the method of media access? Shall we
conclude that random access media, such as computer storage formats (hard
drives, removable disks, CD-ROMs), favors database, while sequential
access media, such as film, favors narrative?  This does not hold either.
For instance, a book, this perfect random-access medium, supports database
forms, such as photo-albums, and narrative forms, such as novels. 
        Rather than trying to correlate database and narrative forms with
modern media and information technologies, or deduce them from these
technologies, I prefer to think of them as two competing imaginations, two
basic creative impulses, two essential responses to the world. Both have
existed long before modern media. The ancient Greeks produced long
narratives, such as Homer's epic poems The Iliad and The Odyssey; they
also produced encyclopedias. The first fragments of a Greek encyclopedia
to have survived were the work of Speusippus, a nephew of Plato. Diderot
wrote novels - and also was in charge of monumental Encyclopédie, the
largest publishing project of the 18th century.  Competing to make meaning
out of the world, database and narrative produce endless hybrids. It is
hard to find a pure encyclopedia without any traces of a narrative in it
and vice versa. For instance, until alphabetical organization became
popular a few centuries ago, most encyclopedias were organized
thematically, with topics covered in a particular order (typically,
corresponding to seven liberal arts.) At the same time, many narratives,
such as the novels by Cervantes and Swift, and even Homer's epic poems -
the founding narratives of the Western tradition - traverse an imaginary
        Modern media is the new battlefield for the competition between
database and narrative. It is tempting to read the history of this
competition in dramatic terms. First the medium of visual recording -
photography - privileges catalogs, taxonomies and lists. While the modern
novel blossoms, and academicians continue to produce historical narrative
paintings all through the nineteenth century, in the realm of the new
techno-image of photography, database rules. The next visual recording
medium - film - privileges narrative. Almost all fictional films are
narratives, with few exceptions. Magnetic tape used in video does not
bring any substantial changes. Next storage media -- computer controlled
digital storage devices (hard drives, removable drives, CD-ROMs, DVD-ROMs)
privilege database once again. Multimedia encyclopedias, virtual museums,
pornography, artists' CD-ROMs, library databases, Web indexes, and, of
course, the Web itself: database is more popular than ever before. 
        Digital computer turns out to be the perfect medium for the
database form. Like a virus, databases infect CD-ROMs and hard drives,
servers and Web sites. Can we say that database is the cultural form most
characteristic of a computer? In her 1978 article "Video: The Aesthetics
of Narcissism," probably the single most well-known article on video art,
art historian Rosalind Krauss argued that video is not a physical medium
but a psychological one. In her analysis, "video's real medium is a
psychological situation, the very terms of which are to withdraw attention
from an external object - an Other - and invest it in the Self."22 In
short, video art is a support for the psychological condition of
narcissism. Does new media similarly function to play out a particular
psychological condition, something which can be called a database complex?
In this respect, it is interesting that database imagination has
accompanied computer art from its very beginning. In the 1960s, artists
working with computers wrote programs to systematically explore the
combinations of different visual elements. In part they were following art
world trends such as minimalism. Minimalist artists executed works of art
according to pre-existent plans; they also created series of images or
objects by systematically varying a single parameter. So, when minimalist
artist Sol LeWitt spoke of an artist's idea as "the machine which makes
the work," it was only logical to substitute the human executing the idea
by a computer.23At the same time, since the only way to make pictures with
a computer was by writing a computer program, the logic of computer
programming itself pushed computer artists in the same directions. Thus,
for artist Frieder Nake a computer was a "Universal Picture Generator,"
capable of producing every possible picture out of a combination of
available picture elements and colors.24 In 1967 he published a portfolio
of 12 drawings which were obtained by successfully multiplying a square
matrix by itself. Another early computer artist Manfred Mohr produced
numerous images which recorded various transformations of a basic cube. 
        Even more remarkable were films by John Witney, the pioneer of
computer filmmaking.  His films such as "Permutations" (1967), "Arabesque"
(1975) and others systematically explored the transformations of geometric
forms obtained by manipulating elementary mathematical functions. Thus
they substituted successive accumulation of visual effects for narrative,
figuration or even formal development. Instead they presented the viewer
with databases of effects. This principle reaches its extreme in Witney's
earlier film which was made using analog computer and was called
"Catalog." In his Expanded Cinema (1970) critic Gene Youngblood writes
about this remarkable film:  "The elder Whitney actually never produced a
complete, coherent movie on the analog computer because he was continually
developing and refining the machine while using it for commercial work...
However, Whitney did assemble a visual catalogue of the effects he had
perfected over the years. This film, simply titled Catalog, was completed
in 1961 and proved to be of such overwhelming beauty that many persons
still prefer Whitney's analogue work over his digital computer films."25
One is tempted to read "Catalog" as one of the founding moments of new
media. Today all software for media creation arrives with endless
"plug-ins"  - the banks of effects which with a press of a button generate
interesting images from any input whatsoever. In parallel, much of the
aesthetics of computerised visual culture is effects driven, especially
when a new techno-genre (computer animation, multimedia, Web sites) is
just getting established. For instance, countless music videos are
variations of Witney's "Catalog" - the only difference is that the effects
are applied to the images of human performers. This is yet another example
of how the logic of a computer - in this case, the ability of a computer
to produce endless variations of elements and to act as a filter,
transforming its input to yield a new output - becomes the logic of
culture at large. 

Dr. Lev Manovich
p: 619-822-1012
f: 619-534-8651
address: Visual Arts Department, 0327,
University of California -- San Diego
9500 Gilman Drive, La Jolla, CA 92093-0327 U.S.A.

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