Database vs. Narrative: Some Marxist Musings

If you’re anything like me, the experience of grocery shopping at Harris Teeter is akin to navigating a database. Harris Teeter’s aisles serve as categories (Produce, Dairy, International, etc.) that contain lists of items (parsley, eggs, salsa). Of course, I choose the order in which I engage with these categories (I usually go to Produce first, then make my way across the store—maybe this is my own algorithm of sorts), but my experience could hardly be construed as narrative. Manovich points out that an arbitrary linear sequence does not on its own constitute a narrative. So perhaps grocery stores appeal to database logic?

Image courtesy of GE Lighting

Manovich contends that the database is the key form of cultural expression of the computer age, eclipsing the narrative as articulated through literature and cinema. Because this is a blog post and the stakes are relatively low, I’d like to make an ambitious theoretical maneuver: perhaps the database is the favored form of cultural expression because it better coheres with neoliberal ideas of market and consumer.

Indeed, the “storage mania” that Manovich cites seems predicated on the idea of data as property; the accumulation of data is desirable, then, because it corresponds with the accumulation of capital. In this paradigm, narrative becomes undesirable insofar as it is a smaller container than a database. I admit that this assumption is tenuous: Are fewer data stored in a novel than in an encyclopedia? I don’t know.

Similarly, consumerism relies on paradigmatic ways of thinking and rejects syntagmatic ones. The paradigmatic generates consumer desire by underlying the accessibility of choice and infinite possibility. I can, for example, browse a dozen different online retailers (databases) to find the perfect pair of shoes. Because the syntagmatic emphasizes what is present, rather than alternate possibilities, it is less compatible with consumer ideals.

These are obviously some big ideas with a lot of assumptions that should be unpacked, but I think the connection between databases and market capitalism is worth exploring.

Posted from Digital Studies by Hannah L.