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.