Future Cinema

Course Site for Future Cinema 1 (and sometimes Future Cinema 2: Applied Theory) at York University, Canada

Assignment #3 – Carolyn Steele

Lev Manovich – Database as Symbolic Form

Taking perhaps the concept of technological determinism to its logical evolution in the digital age, Manovich explores the database as the dominant cultural or symbolic form of postmodernism in contrast with the linearity of the modernist era suggested by Panofsky. Manovich uses the term ‘database’ in the basic sense of an unstructured collection of images, text, and other items which can be viewed and search through by a user, but this is a distinction he has trouble maintaining throughout his argument as I note below. His distinctions are not unlike those of the structural anthropologist, Levi-Strauss’s opposition of scientific knowledge and mythical or magical thought. This rather Platonic formation is realized in the digital age through digital storage media like CDs & DVDs and is epitomized by the internet. The open nature of the web and the database (here referring to the actual structured database) can always be extended, added to – it has no natural ending. Narrative on the other hand is linear, has structure as described by narratologists such as Bal, and is therefore finite.

Manovich aligns the database/narrative dichotomy with datasets (linked lists, graphs, tables) and cause/effect algorithms, and then tries to break down the oppositional relational by pointing out that in when a user ‘interacts’ with a database, say in the form of a website, their choices of what elements to access in what sequences, can create a narrative, but it can also crate something more random, and not yet named. While a narrative always assumes a metaphysical database, a database does not necessarily foster a narrative – for this reason, Manovich sees the database as the ‘unmarked’ or default paradigm of the digital age – an epistemological shift from print-dominated age where the narrative was the preferred ontological form.

Manovich then goes on to compare database with syntagmatic and narrative with paradigmatic principles of language noting an important shift in the digital world. Whereas in traditional print the syntagm is explicitly realized instantially, (e.g. the sentence) and the paradigm is implicit (e.g. the lexical resources of the language), in virtual media the syntagm is realized through a series of linkages – it is therefore more virtual than the database that drives it. Although this is an intriguing idea, this is one of the places where I would question his use of ‘database’. In this instance he is referring to the actual structured entity of database, ignoring that it is no more substantial than the linkages that he dismisses as implicit. While there is an interface that allows programmers to interact with databases, this is merely a fabrication that allows a corporeal entity to manipulate virtual data. Ironically, Manovich himself makes this point, but fails to connect it to his own argument about the explicit nature of databases.

The ‘language-like sequencing’ of interactive interface is, Manovich postulates, the effect of cinema as the dominant semiological influence of the 20th century, subsuming all other narratives into a linear sequence. I found this an odd comment in face of all the critical theory around the narrative form of the novel as a dominant form long before the introduction of cinema. Of course, if he was conceiving digital media under the category of visual media, which would be reasonable, his argument would hold – but he hasn’t, in spite of his tendency to repeatedly place it against the theoretical backdrop of visual culture.

After demonstrating the interconnectedness of the paradigmatic and the syntagmatic within the process of editing film to create a narrative, Manaovich suggests perhaps database and narrative impulses are simply two ‘essential responses to the world’, competing with each other to create endless hybrids of creative forms. I would add that the editorial process as an exercise of creating narrative out of a ‘database’ of shot footage, is more accurate in the editing of documentary rather than fictional films, which are more ‘remediation’ of a screenplay, with angles, frames and lightening indexing specific text in the script. Documentary on the other hand, often involves the capturing of unpredictable images and action (e.g. cinéma vérité), and structured into narrative sequencing during post-production.

He then calls on digital media to move beyond the tradition sequencing of narrative form, as did the novel (acknowledging at last its pioneering role in narrative development), to embrace experimental forms of avant-garde cinema such as the interactive narratives of Greenaway and Vertov’s Man with a Camera, which he describes as a ‘catalog of discoveries’. Interestingly, Levi-Strauss places bricolage at the intersection of scientific knowledge and magical thought – perhaps that would be an apt description of what Manovich is putting forth. Certainly bricolage has been a collective motif of the virtual remix cultural, who essentially decontextualize items from their familiar associations and positions to create new and unexpected narratives.

Question 1 – How do power relations (in terms of control over form) differ in database versus narrative forms?

Question 2 – Does database give more power to the user – why or why not?

Question 3 – How successfully do Labyrinth, Immemory or Soft Cinema hybrid syntagmatic and paradigmatic impulses?

Question 4 – How does the fact that digital is essentially manifesting a linear, binary code impact Manovich’s belief in the ontological status of the database?

Just as an interesting case in point – I came across this promo for a new data management system that seems to be trying to replace the traditional hierarchies of the Windows interface with a more ‘database’ driven set of relations – I wonder if this will be the wave of the future – social bookmarking seems to be moving us there already – if you get a chance take a peek:


Thu, January 18 2007 » Future Cinema, database, seminar summaries