Media Theory for the 21st Century

February 17, 2008

databases and the shadow archive

Filed under: Discussion — zachblas @ 1:25 am
Tags: , , ,

A statement of Victoria Vesna’s at the beginning of Database Aesthetics troubled the rest of my reading throughout the week: “…our amazing abilities to take huge data sets of information and reduce them to the essential truth in the blink of an eye.” (35) It seems here that Vesna has just laid out her understanding of the ways in which we use databases and how they function. To reduce the many to an essential truth. This point became even more problematic for me when Manovich stated databases are “collections of individual items, where every item has the same significance as any other.” (39)

The database, to me, seems inherently built upon a notion of exclusion and, therefore, becomes an entity of varying value. Contrary to Vesna, one does not see the entire world in a grain of sand but the world of the grain of sand. Perhaps a body’s world and the world of the grain of sand overlap, but to reduce the complexity of a body and a grain of sand to a common database seems an act of extreme reduction. The database of the grain of sand excludes us, and yet, we build ourselves into the database of the grain of sand based on how we choose to organize its information.

This idea of the database as always exclusionary and always of value led me to question Manovich’s suggestion that databases and narratives are enemies. Do databases tell a narrative of what is not there? This question immediately caused me to return to Akira Lippit’s work on the shadow archive in Atomic Light. Lippit asks, “Is the archive of the uninscribable, unwritable, and unrepresentable possible only as the destruction of the archive?” Continuing, “The other archive, the shadow or anarchive, represents an impossible task of the archive: to protect the secret, its heterogeneity, and divide the archive from itself.” The database appears as anything but a shadow archive. Thus, how could one imagine a shadow database? To anarchive, to database otherwise.

In a statement bolded with utopian flare, Christiane Paul praises the 1990s as a moment of uniting knowledge for the world with the digitization of collections of works from museums and libraries. This “database aesthetics” strongly alludes to acts of exclusion – everything does not get digitized. Based on personal experience when I was an archivist at the Video Data Bank, material did not get transferred from analog video to digital formats unless it was popular. Are database aesthetics an aesthetics of the popular? Who is deciding what is popular? What narrative does this reveal? What happens to the unpopular? When forgotten, lost, excluded—how do items form their shadow database(s)?

To end with the database of a body, thinking about the body as a database not only cuts it up and constructs it in a particular way but also orients it to the socio-political context of the database. Importantly, what is that context or contexts? Manovich and Paul discuss databases as meta-narratives, but what would be the political impetus to think of a body as a defined by the meta-narrative of database? Are databases really meta-narratives or is this once again a humanistic act of excluding the material specificity of a thing to extract seemingly “de-politicized” concepts. If exclusion, value, and the popular are narrativized in the body as database, where does this leave the shadow body?

Blog at