Because I am Trying to Conceptualize Leaves of Grass as a Database…

Ed Folsom’s semi-anecdotal opening to “Database as Genre: The Epic Transformation of Archives” took me back to the late ‘80’s and early ‘90’s. My parents, in an attempt to find economic solutions to grocery shopping for a family of 9, frequented the generic detergent, cold cereal, hot cereal, and toiletries sections of the grocery store. I was conditioned to avoid the bright colorful pictures, and I instead turned my gaze to the black background with the white Times New Roman printing of “Toasted Oats.”

Folsom’s start—an opening frustration with the abundance of lifelessness in the realm of the generic—is a smart preface to his discussion of Walt Whitman and genre. Whitman, even in his labeling, defied the laws of genre as he teased the boundaries of poetry, prose, and everything near or in between. This is no surprise when one considers how Whitman’s writing, if not his very existence, tore at the seams of the very fabric of sexual identity and philosophical thought. He was somewhere between transcendentalism and realism, somewhere between fifty shades of sexual orientation, and somewhere between anti-slavery and white supremacy. Whitman was not one to easily follow a prescribed agenda, and Folsom speaks to how this plays out in Whitman’s description of genre: “peculiar to that person, period, or place—not universal” (1572). Whitman was frustrated with the narrowness, the lack of transport-friendly-interconnectedness that comes along with genre. He did not want to be placed in a box, and Folsom is suggesting that the reason behind his refusal was a lack of options.

Recognizing this “ongoing battle with genre,” (1572) Folsom offers up the database as the best description of Whitman’s work. He credits Lev Manovich for introducing this conceptualization of the database as genre, and he adds to the conversation by asserting that for Whitman, “the world was a kind of preelectronic database” (1574). Moreover, he supports this claim by referring to Whitman’s multiple edits, last minute edits, antebellum and post-bellum coverage, and strategic posting of lines from poetry as markers or code within the text. This problematizing of Whitman as database then leads to a conversation of archive vs. database. Seeking to separate Derrida’s concept of “archive fever” from database, Folsom contends that archive has much more of an association with the physical space, the actual housing of artifacts, whereas database is more of a digital linking of information concerning a particular subject or combination of subjects. He establishes database as a new genre, one that can make the fitting genre home for Whitman’s works.

To be completely honest, I struggled with this piece. At times I jumped in, ready to find a place for Whitman, willing to re-embrace him as low-tech visionary and genius. And then there were times when my spidey senses tingled: How dare he box the unboxed Whitman? Why must “archive” exist in such limited terms? Being mindful of these tensions, I pose three questions. Like my previous provocation, feel free to respond to one or none of the following questions:

1) How do you think Whitman would respond to Folsom’s reading of his work?
2) Given our readings this week and last week, what do you think of Ed Folsom’s description of “archive” and “database”? Would you reframe them?
3) What does Folsom’s act of naming database as a genre do for the field of the humanities? What is its effect?

Folsom, Ed. “Database as Genre: The Epic Transformation of Archives.” PMLA: 1571-579. Print.

2 thoughts on “Because I am Trying to Conceptualize Leaves of Grass as a Database…

  1. Robert Robinson Post author

    Thanks, Sara. Yes, I believe that newer versions of text necessitate newer ways of seeing their place in the grander conversation of textuality and context. I was actually glad to hear about the database-as-genre argument. My only trepidation was seeing Whitman in this particular vein, not because I am one who protects the canon (heaven forbid), or even one who idolizes Whitman (no disrespect, sir). I was just curious about how he would respond, given we filled him in on the past 120+ years.

    Narrative is certainly not dead; in fact, it has become the new buzz word (I’m guilty, too) used to discuss the repeated commentary on a particular topic or a collection of stories that share the same angle. Like you, I believe that the database facilitates narrative, as it opens up space for more perspectives in the collective narration. With this in mind, I am beginning to see it as its own narrative.

  2. Sara Vogel, PhD. (she/her)

    I must confess I don’t know enough about Walt Whitman to know whether “database” is an accurate category for his genre-bending writing– shame on me as a Brooklynite….

    Folsom’s descriptions of “archive” and “database” do make sense to me, as does his act of naming database as a genre. Before reading this piece and Manovich’s, I had never thought about reading or browsing through a database as a genre, just like a novel or a poem or a comic book. I would have thought about the genres of the items stored in the database, but not the database itself. Now, I see that even if the database is an “unruly” genre (Folsom compares it to the epic poem and the Bible for its wandering nature) it structures the way one experiences ideas, promoting certain kinds of sense-making (searching, making connections and links to artifacts across space and time) and demoting others (both Folsom and Manovich see the database as the enemy of narrative)

    But I don’t think narratives are dead. As we learned a few weeks ago in the NRC report and in Gee’s book, humans are excellent at pattern recognition. Humans like creating and absorbing narratives and stories, and they like reducing loads of information down to “hook” “hold,” “payoff.” I took a quick look at the Walt Whitman database, and while, yes, I was thankful I didn’t have to travel out to Iowa, put on the white gloves, and go through boxes and papers, I was still a little overwhelmed, unsure where to start my search or how. Buying the generic brand (AKA, reading the narrative that has been predigested) can be more comforting than sorting through and evaluating the endless choices on the shelves (searching through a database). That’s why websites like this one, sorry, a little NSFW (http://www.whatthefuckshouldimakefordinner.com/) are sometimes better than foodnetwork.com — too many choices!

    What I think the writers might be getting at with the “narrative is dead” talk, is that the database is in tension with the “grand narrative.” Gone are the days when the biographer was the only authority, imposing the “hero’s journey” structure onto someone’s life. With so many artifacts accessible, there are hundreds of stories, threads, or arguments that one might use to link materials, and now, users around the world (not just those with access to the various archives) can participate in constructing narratives and making arguments. Maybe not all of the narratives are credible or interesting, but they are there. To me, the database is facilitating narrative, not killing it.

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