Media Theory for the 21st Century

March 4, 2008

Database and Poetry, Pt. 1

Filed under: Discussion — jeremy @ 8:53 pm

Galloway and Thacker’s critique of network discourses (to reverse Kittler) in The Exploit is one piece of a larger movement to bring the knowledge of networks found in our bodies and habits up to our heads. What would a poetics look like that participates in this same movement?

Here I’m thinking in part of Rita’s discussion of Listening Post as “literary” and specifically as expressing a “poetics.” Spoken word and Whitman were mentioned in relation to the tone and style of the installation’s output. To that list we might add confessional poetry. But what’s interesting about Mark Hansen’s piece is largely, I’d argue, the ways it subverts the apparent immediacy of these earlier styles and foregrounds performativity via rigorously mechanical data manipulation. In the following, I hint at a literary-historical context for what might be termed “datapoetics.” I also mention some strains of recent datapoetics that are bound up with what we find in Listening Post.

If, as Kate argues, database and narrative have a “tempestuous” but ultimately symbiotic relationship (Lindsay’s Bert and Ernie), then poetry and narrative might be thought of as doddering divorcées who occasionally share a cocktail. They have a long history, one they relive via the occasional fling, but they don’t depend on or need each other the way database and narrative seem to.

The tired tale of the breakup between poetry on the one hand and narrative, the lyric “I,” and referentiality on the other has been recapitulated many times. (See, for example, Ron Silliman’s polemical essay collection The New Sentence.) But what about poetry and database?

In one sense, their relationship is the opposite of that between database and narrative. If narrative seems, at least on the surface, to fear and evade databasing, then poetry craves it. Of course, Kate picks up on Lev Manovich’s use of the word “natural” (from “natural enemies”) to deepen the relationship between narrative and database, punning to bring in the biological metaphor of symbiosis, and argues that the tension between the two is productive rather than hostile. This pun helps her get at Manovich’s strangely ambiguous use of the word “structured.” He defines database as “a structured collection of data” (40) but later undermines this computer science definition by arguing that “database represents the world as a list of items, and it refuses to order that list” (44). This is the blurred distinction between data and database that we discussed in class.

A key issue at stake here seems to be that of internal ordering/structuring versus external ordering/structuring. Narrative relies on relationships between elements that are internal and temporal: a character does one thing, which leads to another. Databases, I think, rely on relationships that tend to be external, spatial, or abstract: alphabetization, numerical ordering, tree-like structures, etc. This is true (again, I think) of the various types of computer databases (hierarchical, relational, network, object-oriented), but I’d love to here from someone with more technical knowledge.

Of course, the internal/external binary is problematic and might be more usefully thought of as a continuum a la Crary. Even the basic question I posed in class—“Does alphabetizing a group of items transform it into a database?”—was met with some confusion. Kate said “no,” Rita “yes.” [CORRECTION: Apparently I goofed and reversed these responses, or else they both said “no.” This uncertainty serves to emphasize my point nicely.] In any case, the relationships expressed in the organization of databases tend to be syntactical or logical rather than semantic or referential. This is key.

Please see Part 2 for a discussion of specific poets and poems.

–Jeremy Schmidt


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