Library Juice 7:4 - February 19, 2004


1. Links...
2. Database as a Symbolic Form (Lev Manovich)

Quote for the week:

"There's no type of assault quite like that of a limp female librarian:
it chills the bones."

- Bruce Wilson, in a post to a discussion thread on Metafilter regarding
the subpoena of university records pertaining to anti-war activists,
including librarian Christine Gaunt, who was charged with assaulting
an officer though she went limp when she was arrested. (The subpoenas
have since been dropped.) The Metafilter thread is at:

Homepage of the week: Mikael Böök


1. Links...


New on the Library Juice site:
Collected Paper Topics (for use by MLIS students and researchers alike)
The list in its present form was previously published in Library Juice,
but will now be updated periodically.


On Democratization of Information with a Focus on Libraries
Summary and Proceedings of the Workshop at the World Social Forum in
Mumbai, India, January 2004.

[ sent to multiple recipients by Mikael Book ]


Personal Voices: A Hysterical Librarian [AlterNet]

[ Library Link of the Day - ]


Library Career Romances

[ sent to PLGnet-L by Monika Antonelli ]


The Right 101 (a power-point presentation)
(Breaks down the factions of the Political Right - very interesting.)

[ sent to me by Jen Ferro ]


"El Pen Club sueco compró paquete del terrorismo cubano".
Liberación. Malmö, Suecia . 3 de octubre de 2003. URL:


Björklund, Eva. "¿Están Pippa medias largas y Harry Potter
prohibidos en Cuba?". Liberación. Malmö, Suecia. 12 de septiembre de
2003. URL:

Two articles from the Spanish Language weekly out of Sweden,
Liberación, continue the Cuba discussion, for those interested.

[ Sent to ALAWORLD by Rhonda Neugebauer ]


Search For Tomorrow
We Wanted Answers, And Google Really Clicked. What's Next?
(Joel Achenbach bashes libraries)
(Requires registration)

[ sent to Library Underground by Bob Conrad ]


Radical Mass Media Criticism: A Cultural Genealogy
David Berry, John Theobald, editors
New from Black Rose Books, Spring 2004

[ info sent to me by Sanford Berman ]


2. Database as a Symbolic Form

Lev Manovich (all rights reserved): for a fuller version of this argument
see chapter 5 of The Language of New Media. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2001.

This article is covered under a Creative Commons License (Attribution-
No Derivs-Noncommercial 1.0.) For more information on this license, see

The Database Logic

After the novel, and subsequently cinema privileged narrative as the key
form of cultural expression of the modern age, the computer age introduces
its correlate - database. Many new media objects do not tell stories; they
don't have beginning or end; in fact, they don't have any development,
thematically, formally or otherwise which would organize their elements
into a sequence. Instead, they are collections of individual items, where
every item has the same significance as any other.

Why does new media favor database form over others? Can we explain its
popularity by analyzing the specificity of the digital medium and of
computer programming? What is the relationship between database and another
form, which has traditionally dominated human culture - narrative? These
are the questions I will address in this article.

Before proceeding I need to comment on my use of the word database. In
computer science database is defined as a structured collection of data.
The data stored in a database is organized for fast search and retrieval by
a computer and therefore it is anything but a simple collection of items.
Different types of databases - hierarchical, network, relational and
object-oriented - use different models to organize data. For instance, the
records in hierarchical databases are organized in a treelike structure.
Object-oriented databases store complex data structures, called "objects,"
which are organized into hierarchical classes that may inherit properties
from classes higher in the chain. New media objects may or may not employ
these highly structured database models; however, from the point of view of
user's experience a large proportion of them are databases in a more basic
sense. They appear as a collections of items on which the user can perform
various operations: view, navigate, search. The user experience of such
computerized collections is therefore quite distinct from reading a
narrative or watching a film or navigating an architectural site.
Similarly, literary or cinematic narrative, an architectural plan and
database each present a different model of what a world is like. It is this
sense of database as a cultural form of its own which I want to address
here. Following art historian Ervin Panofsky's analysis of linear
perspective as a "symbolic form" of the modern age, we may even call
database a new symbolic form of a computer age (or, as philosopher
Jean-Francois Lyotard called it in his famous 1979 book Postmodern
Condition, "computerized society"), a new way to structure our experience
of ourselves and of the world. Indeed, if after the death of God
(Nietzche), the end of grand Narratives of Enlightenment (Lyotard) and the
arrival of the Web (Tim Berners-Lee) the world appears to us as an endless
and unstructured collection of images, texts, and other data records, it is
only appropriate that we will be moved to model it as a database. But it is
also appropriate that we would want to develops poetics, aesthetics, and
ethics of this database.

Let us begin by documenting the dominance of database form in new media.
The most obvious examples of this are popular multimedia encyclopedias,
which are collections by their very definition; as well as other commercial
CD-ROM titles which are collections as well - of recipes, quotations,
photographs, and so on. The identity of a CD-ROM as a storage media is
projected onto another plane, becoming a cultural form of its own.
Multimedia works which have "cultural" content appear to particularly favor
the database form. Consider, for instance, the "virtual museums" genre -
CD-ROMs which take the user on a "tour" through a museum collection. A
museum becomes a database of images representing its holdings, which can be
accessed in different ways: chronologically, by country, or by artist.
Although such CD-ROMs often simulate the traditional museum experience of
moving from room to room in a continuous trajectory, this "narrative"
method of access does not have any special status in comparison to other
access methods offered by a CD-ROM. Thus the narrative becomes just one
method of accessing data among others. Another example of a database form
is a multimedia genre which does not has an equivalent in traditional media
- CD-ROMs devoted to a single cultural figure such as a famous architect,
film director or writer. Instead of a narrative biography we are presented
with a database of images, sound recordings, video clips and/or texts which
can be navigated in a variety of ways.

CD-ROMs and other digital storage media (floppies, and DVD-ROMs) proved to
be particularly receptive to traditional genres which already had a
database-like structure, such as a photo-album; they also inspired new
database genres, like a database biography. Where the database form really
flourished, however, is on the Internet. As defined by original HTML, a Web
page is a sequential list of separate elements: text blocks, images,
digital video clips, and links to other pages. It is always possible to add
a new element to the list - all you have to do is to open a file and add a
new line. As a result, most Web pages are collections of separate elements:
texts, images, links to other pages or sites. A home page is a collection
of personal photographs. A site of a major search engine is a collection of
numerous links to other sites (along with a search function, of course). A
site of a Web-based TV or radio station offers a collections of video or
audio programs along with the option to listen to the current broadcast;
but this current program is just one choice among many other programs
stored on the site. Thus the traditional broadcasting experience, which
consisted solely of a real-time transmission, becomes just one element in a
collection of options. Similar to the CD-ROM medium, the Web offered
fertile ground to already existing database genres (for instance,
bibliography) and also inspired the creation of new ones such as the sites
devoted to a person or a phenomenon (Madonna, Civil War, new media theory,
etc.) which, even if they contain original material, inevitably center
around the list of links to other Web pages on the same person or

The open nature of the Web as medium (Web pages are computer files which
can always be edited) means that the Web sites never have to be complete;
and they rarely are. The sites always grow. New links are being added to
what is already there. It is as easy to add new elements to the end of list
as it is to insert them anywhere in it. All this further contributes to the
anti-narrative logic of the Web. If new elements are being added over time,
the result is a collection, not a story. Indeed, how can one keep a
coherent narrative or any other development trajectory through the material
if it keeps changing?

Data and Algorithm

Of course not all new media objects are explicitly databases. Computer
games, for instance, are experienced by their players as narratives. In a
game, the player is given a well-defined task - winning the match, being
first in a race, reaching the last level, or reaching the highest score. It
is this task which makes the player experience the game as a narrative.
Everything which happens to her in a game, all the characters and objects
she encounters either take her closer to achieving the goal or further away
from it. Thus, in contrast to the CD-ROM and Web databases, which always
appear arbitrary since the user knows that additional material could have
been added without in any way modifying the logic of the database, in a
game, from a user's point of view, all the elements are motivated ( i.e.,
their presence is justified).

Often the narrative shell of a game ("you are the specially trained
commando who has just landed on a Lunar base; your task is to make your way
to the headquarters occupied by the mutant base personnel...") masks a
simple algorithm well-familiar to the player: kill all the enemies on the
current level, while collecting all treasures it contains; go to the next
level and so on until you reach the last level. Other games have different
algorithms. Here is an algorithm of the legendary "Tetris": when a new
block appears, rotate it in such a way so it will complete the top layer of
blocks on the bottom of the screen making this layer disappear. The
similarity between the actions expected from the player and computer
algorithms is too uncanny to be dismissed. While computer games do not
follow database logic, they appear to be ruled by another logic - that of
an algorithm. They demand that a player executes an algorithm in order to

An algorithm is the key to the game experience in a different sense as
well. As the player proceeds through the game, she gradually discovers the
rules which operate in the universe constructed by this game. She learns
its hidden logic, in short its algorithm. Therefore, in games where the
game play departs from following an algorithm, the player is still engaged
with an algorithm, albeit in another way: she is discovering the algorithm
of the game itself. I mean this both metaphorically and literally: for
instance, in a first person shooter, such as "Quake," the player may
eventually notice that under such and such condition the enemies will
appear from the left, i.e. she will literally reconstruct a part of the
algorithm responsible for the game play. Or, in a diffirent formulation of
the legendary author of Sim games Will Wright, "Playing the game is a
continuos loop between the user (viewing the outcomes and inputting
decisions) and the computer (calculating outcomes and displaying them back
to the user). The user is trying to build a mental model of the computer

What we encountered here is an example of the general principle of new
media: the projection of the ontology of a computer onto culture itself. If
in physics the world is made of atoms and in genetics it is made of genes,
computer programming encapsulates the world according to its own logic. The
world is reduced to two kinds of software objects which are complementary
to each other: data structures and algorithms. Any process or task is
reduced to an algorithm, a final sequence of simple operations which a
computer can execute to accomplish a given task. And any object in the
world - be it the population of a city, or the weather over the course of a
century, a chair, a human brain - is modeled as a data structure, i.e. data
organized in a particular way for efficient search and retrieval. Examples
of data structures are arrays, linked lists and graphs. Algorithms and data
structures have a symbiotic relationship. The more complex the data
structure of a computer program, the simpler the algorithm needs to be, and
vice versa. Together, data structures and algorithms are two halves of the
ontology of the world according to a computer.

The computerization of culture involves the projection of these two
fundamental parts of computer software - and of the computer's unique
ontology - onto the cultural sphere. If CD-ROMs and Web databases are
cultural manifestations of one half of this ontology - data structures,
then computer games are manifestations of the second half - algorithms.
Games (sports, chess, cards, etc.) are one cultural form which required
algorithm-like behavior from the players; consequently, many traditional
games were quickly simulated on computers. In parallel, new genres of
computer games came into existence such as a first person shooter ("Doom,"
"Quake"). Thus, as it was the case with database genres, computer games
both mimic already existing games and create new game genres.

It may appear at first sight that data is passive and algorithm is active -
another example of passive-active binary categories so loved by human
cultures. A program reads in data, executes an algorithm, and writes out
new data. We may recall that before "computer science" and "software
engineering" became established names for the computer field, it was called
"data processing." This name remained in use for a few decades during which
computers were mainly associated with performing calculations over data.
However, the passive/active distinction is not quite accurate since data
does not just exist - it has to be generated. Data creators have to collect
data and organize it, or create it from scratch. Texts need to written,
photographs need to be taken, video and audio need to be recorded. Or they
need to be digitized from already existing media. In the 1990's, when the
new role of a computer as a Universal Media Machine became apparent,
already computerized societies went into a digitizing craze. All existing
books and video tapes, photographs and audio recordings started to be fed
into computers at an ever increasing rate. Steven Spielberg created the
Shoah Foundation which videotaped and then digitized numerous interviews
with Holocaust survivors; it would take one person forty years to watch all
the recorded material. The editors of Mediamatic journal, who devoted a
whole issue to the topic of "the storage mania" (Summer 1994) wrote: "A
growing number of organizations are embarking on ambitious projects.
Everything is being collected: culture, asteroids, DNA patterns, credit
records, telephone conversations; it doesn't matter." Once it is digitized,
the data has to be cleaned up, organized, indexed. The computer age brought
with it a new cultural algorithm: reality-> media->data->database. The rise
of the Web, this gigantic and always changing data corpus, gave millions of
people a new hobby or profession: data indexing. There is hardly a Web site
which does not feature at least a dozen links to other sites, therefore
every site is a type of database. And, with the rise of Internet commerce,
most large-scale commercial sites have become real databases, or rather
front-ends to company databases. For instance, in the Fall of 1998,, an online book store, had 3 million books in its database; and
the maker of leading commercial database Oracle has offered Oracle 8i,
fully intergrated with the Internet and featuring unlimited database size,
natural-langauge queries and support for all multimedia data types. Jorge
Luis Borges's story about a map which was equal in size to the territory it
represented became re-written as the story about indexes and the data they
index. But now the map has become larger than the territory. Sometimes,
much larger. Porno Web sites exposed the logic of the Web to its extreme by
constantly re-using the same photographs from other porno Web sites. Only
rare sites featured the original content. On any given date, the same few
dozen images would appear on thousands of sites. Thus, the same data would
give rise to more indexes than the number of data elements themselves.

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." 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.") 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.")
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. Or they
may be radically different from each other, as in Moscow WWWArt Centre.
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

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." 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.
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 Semiotics of Database

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 culture.

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."

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. 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." 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 simultaneously.

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']." 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 encyclopedia.

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." 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. At 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. 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." 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.

Database Cinema: Greenaway and Vertov

Although database form may be inherent to new media, countless attempts to
create "interactive narratives" testify to our dissatisfaction with the
computer in the sole role of an encyclopedia or a catalog of effects. We
want new media narratives, and we want these narratives to be different
from the narratives we saw or read before. In fact, regardless of how often
we repeat in public that the modernist notion of medium specificity ("every
medium should develop its own unique langauge") is obsolete, we do expect
computer narratives to showcase new aesthetic possibilities which did not
exist before digital computers. In short, we want them to be new media
specific. Given the dominance of database in computer software and the key
role it plays in the computer-based design process, perhaps we can arrive
at new kinds of narrative by focusing our attention on how narrative and
database can work together. How can a narrative take into account the fact
that its elements are organised in a database? How can our new abilities to
store vast amounts of data, to automatically classify, index, link, search
and instantly retrieve it lead to new kinds of narratives?

Peter Greenaway, one of the very few prominent film directors concerned
with expanding cinema's language, complained that "the linear pursuit - one
story at a time told chronologically - is the standard format of cinema."
Pointing out that cinema lags behind modern literature in experimenting
with narrative, he asked: "Could it not travel on the road where Joyce,
Eliot, Borges and Perec have already arrived?" While Greenaway is right to
direct filmmakers to more innovative literary narratives, new media artists
working on the database - narrative problem can learn from cinema "as it
is." For cinema already exists right in the intersection between database
and narrative. We can think of all the material accumulated during shooting
forming a database, especially since the shooting schedule usually does not
follow the narrative of the film but is determined by production logistics.
During editing the editor constructs a film narrative out of this database,
creating a unique trajectory through the conceptual space of all possible
films which could have been constructed. From this perspective, every
filmmaker engages with the database-narrative problem in every film,
although only a few have done this self-consciously.

One exception is Greenaway himself. Throughout his career, he has been
working on a problem of how to reconcile database and narrative forms. Many
of his films progress forward by recounting a list of items, a catalog
which does not have any inherent order (for example, different books in
Prospero's Books). Working to undermine a linear narrative, Greenaway uses
different systems to order his films. He wrote about this approach: "If a
numerical, alphabetic color-coding system is employed, it is done
deliberately as a device, a construct, to counteract, dilute, augment or
compliment the all-pervading obsessive cinema interest in plot, in
narrative, in the 'I'am now going to tell you a story school of
film-making." His favorite system is numbers. The sequence of numbers acts
as a narrative shell which "convinces" the viewer that she is watching a
narrative. In reality the scenes which follow one another are not connected
in any logical way. By using numbers, Greenaway "wraps" a minimal narrative
around a database. Although Greenaway's database logic was present already
in his "avant-garde" films such as The Falls (1980), it has also structured
his "commercial" films from the beginning. Draughtsman's Contract (1982) is
centered around twelve drawings being made by the draftsman. They do not
form any order; Greenaway emphasizes this by having draftsman to work on a
few drawings at once. Eventually, Greenaway's desire to take "cinema out of
cinema" led to his work on a series of installations and museum exhibitions
in the 1990s. No longer having to conform to the linear medium of film, the
elements of a database are spatialized within a museum or even the whole
city. This move can be read as the desire to create a database at its most
pure form: the set of elements not ordered in any way. If the elements
exist in one dimension (time of a film, list on a page), they will be
inevitably ordered. So the only way to create a pure database is to
spatialise it, distributing the elements in space. This is exactly the path
which Greenaway took. Situated in three-dimensional space which does not
have an inherent narrative logic, a 1992 installation "100 Objects to
Represent the World" in its very title proposes that the world should be
understood through a catalog rather than a narrative. At the same time,
Greenaway does not abandon narrative; he continues to investigate how
database and narrative can work together. Having presented "100 Objects" as
an installation, Greenaway next turned it into an opera set. In the opera,
the narrator Thrope uses the objects to conduct Adam and Eve through the
whole of human civilization, thus turning a 100 objects into a sequential
narrative. In another installation "The Stairs-Munich-Projection" (1995)
Greenaway put up a hundred screens - each for one year in the history of
cinema - throughout Munich. Again, Greenaway presents us with a spatialised
database - but also with a narrative. By walking from one screen to
another, one follows cinema's history. The project uses Greenaway's
favorite principle of organization by numbers, pushing it to the extreme:
the projections on the screens contain no figuration, just numbers. The
screens are numbered from 1895 to 1995, one screen for each year of
cinema's history. Along with numbers, Greenaway introduces another line of
development. Each projection is slightly different in color. The hundred
colored squares form an abstract narrative of their own which runs in
parallel to the linear narrative of cinema's history. Finally, Greenaway
superimposes yet a third narrative by dividing the history of cinema into
five sections, each section staged in a different part of the city. The
apparent triviality of the basic narrative of the project - one hundred
numbers, standing for one hundred years of cinema's history - "neutralizes"
the narrative, forcing the viewer to focus on the phenomenon of the
projected light itself, which is the actual subject of this project.

Along with Greenaway, Dziga Vertov can be thought of as a major "database
filmmaker" of the twentieth century. His Man with a Movie Camera is perhaps
the most important example of database imagination in modern media art. In
one of the key shots repeated few times in the film we see an editing room
with a number of shelves used to keep and organize the shot material. The
shelves are marked "machines," "club," "the movement of a city," "physical
exercise," "an illusionist," and so on. This is the database of the
recorded material. The editor - Vertov's wife, Elizaveta Svilova - is shown
working with this database: retrieving some reels, returning used reels,
adding new ones.

Although I pointed out that film editing in general can be compared to
creating a trajectory through a database, in the case of Man with a Movie
Camera this comparison constitutes the very method of the film. Its subject
is the filmmaker's struggle to reveal (social) structure among the
multitude of observed phenomena. Its project is a brave attempt at an
empirical epistemology which only has one tool - perception. The goal is to
decode the world purely through the surfaces visible to the eye (of course,
its natural sight enhanced by a movie camera). This is how the film's
co-author Mikhail Kaufman describes it:

An ordinary person finds himself in some sort of environment, gets lost
amidst the zillions of phenomena, and observes these phenomena from a bad
vantage point. He registers one phenomenon very well, registers a second
and a third, but has no idea of where they may lead... But the man with a
movie camera is infused with the particular thought that he is actually
seeing the world for other people. Do you understand? He joins these
phenomena with others, from elsewhere, which may not even have been filmed
by him. Like a kind of scholar he is able to gather empirical observations
in one place and then in another. And that is actually the way in which the
world has come to be understood.

Therefore, in contrast to standard film editing which consists in selection
and ordering of previously shot material according to a pre-existent
script, here the process of relating shots to each other, ordering and
reordering them in order to discover the hidden order of the world
constitutes the film's method. Man with a Movie Camera traverses its
database in a particular order to construct an argument. Records drawn from
a database and arranged in a particular order become a picture of modern
life - but simultaneously an argument about this life, an interpretation of
what these images, which we encounter every day, every second, actually

Was this brave attempt successful? The overall structure of the film is
quite complex, and on the first glance has little to do with a database.
Just as new media objects contain a hierarchy of levels (interface -
content; operating system - application; web page - HTML code; high-level
programming language - assembly language - machine language), Vertov's film
consists of at least three levels. One level is the story of a cameraman
filming material for the film. The second level is the shots of an audience
watching the finished film in a movie theater. The third level is this
film, which consists from footage recorded in Moscow, Kiev and Riga and is
arranged according to a progression of one day: waking up - work - leisure
activities. If this third level is a text, the other two can be thought of
as its meta-texts. Vertov goes back and forth between the three levels,
shifting between the text and its meta-texts: between the production of the
film, its reception, and the film itself. But if we focus on the film
within the film (i.e., the level of the text) and disregard the special
effects used to create many of the shots, we discover almost a linear
printout, so to speak, of a database: a number of shots showing machines,
followed by a number of shots showing work activities, followed by
different shots of leisure, and so on. The paradigm is projected onto
syntagm. The result is a banal, mechanical catalog of subjects which one
can expect to find in the city of the 1920s: running trams, city beach,
movie theaters, factories...

Of course watching Man with a Movie Camera is anything but a banal
experience. Even after the 1990s during which computer-based image and
video-makers systematically exploited every avant-garde device, the
original still looks striking. What makes its striking is not its subjects
and the associations Vertov tries to establish between them to impose "the
communist decoding of the world" but the most amazing catalog of the film
techniques contained within it. Fades and superimpositions, freeze-frames,
acceleration, split screens, various types of rhythm and intercutting -
what film scholar Annette Michelson called "a summation of the resources
and techniques of the silent cinema" - and of course, a multitude of
unusual, "constructivist" points of view are stringed together with such
density that the film can't be simply labeled avant-garde. If a "normal"
avant-garde film still proposes a coherent language different from the
language of mainstream cinema, i.e. a small set of techniques which are
repeated, Man with a Movie Camera never arrives at anything like a
well-defined language. Rather, it proposes an untamed, and apparently
endless unwinding of cinematic techniques, or, to use contemporary
language, "effects," as cinema's new way of speaking.

Why in the case of Witney's computer films and music videos are the effects
just effects, while in the hands of Vertov they acquire meaning? Because in
Vertov's film they are motivated by a particular argument, this being that
the new techniques to obtain images and manipulate them, summed up by
Vertov in his term "kino-eye," can be used to decode the world. As the film
progresses, "straight" footage gives way to manipulated footage; newer
techniques appear one after one, reaching a roller coaster intensity by the
film's end, a true orgy of cinematography. It is as though Vertov re-stages
his discovery of the kino-eye for us. Along with Vertov, we gradually
realize the full range of possibilities offered by the camera. Vertov's
goal is to seduce us into his way of seeing and thinking, to make us share
his excitement, his gradual process of discovery of film's new language.
This process of discovery is film's main narrative and it is told through a
catalog of discoveries being made. Thus, in the hands of Vertov, a
database, this normally static and "objective" form, becomes dynamic and
subjective. More importantly, Vertov is able to achieve something which new
media designers still have to learn - how to merge database and narrative
merge into a new form.


L I B R A R Y   J U I C E

ISSN 1544-9378

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