CIRCA:Folsom, Ed. "Database as Genre: The Epic Transformation of Archives"


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Folsom, Ed. 2007. Database as Genre: The Epic Transformation of Archives. PMLA: Publications of the Modern Language Association of America 122, no. 5 (October): 1571-1579.


Folsom starts his article with a discussion of the need to categorize, which determines the way we perceive artistic creations as belonging to a particular genre, and the manner in which this affects our perception of authors. He uses the example of Walt Whitman, whose extensive work resists categories and transgresses generic labels. As one of the coeditors of the “Walt Whitman Archive”, the author feels the discussion of genre and categorization is particularly significant in the context of digital collections. Drawing on Wai Chee Dimock’s and Lev Manovich’s views of the importance of non-hierarchical archives for cultural and literary studies, he analyses the database at the foundation of the Walt Whitman Archive. In his opinion, the complexity and level of detail of a database make traditional critical narratives difficult to implement, especially biographies. He continues his argument with a comparison between traditional archives and databases; his belief is that while archives are partial and isolated, the “database facilitates access, immediacy, and the ability to juxtapose items that in real space might be far removed from each other” (p. 1577). This accessibility makes narratives vulnerable to deconstruction and displacement. The conclusion Falsom draws from this analysis is that the database can be viewed as a new genre, the contribution of computer culture to the literary world, as “literary genres have always been tools, families of technologies for exploring the realms of verbal representation as it moves from the lyrical to the narrative to the referential, from vision to action, from romance to comedy to satire to tragedy, from story to play to poem to essay, with all the subgroups and various meldings that genre theory has spawned over the centuries.” (p.1577)

Freedman, J., N. K. Hayles, J. McGann, M. L. McGill, P. Stallybrass, and Ed Folsom. 2007. Responses to Ed Folsom's 'Database as Genre: The Epic Transformation of Archives'. PMLA 122, no. 5: 1580-1612.

Stallybrass, Peter. 2007. Against Thinking. PMLA: Publications of the Modern Language Association of America 122, no. 5 (October): 1580-1587.

The author doubts Folsom’s belief that the database is the original contribution of the Computer Age, and supports his argument through an analysis of the models of authorship common to the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. In his opinion, what the database did was “downgrading knowledge from being the secret horde of archive hunters” to a widely accessible inventory, thus altering the models of modern scholarship. Stallybrass argues that this change in the model of scholarship can and should have as consequences:
  • the transformation of what we understand by original thought and original intellectual production
  • the adaptation of pedagogical models typical to the Renaissance and Middle Ages to modern requirements in order to make students comfortable in operating with inventories of knowledge (he describes his pedagogical experiments with databases, meant to explicitly oppose the idea of proprietary authorship)
According to the author, the idea of originality needs rethinking in the context of databases, which are the ideal environment for inventorying and sharing knowledge.
“Learning requires imitation and inspiration, which today are marginalized by a concept of originality that produces as its inevitable double the specter of plagiarism, a specter rooted in the fear that we might have more to learn from others than from ourselves.” (p.1584)

McGann, Jerome. 2007. Database, Interface, and Archival Fever. PMLA: Publications of the Modern Language Association of America 122, no. 5 (October): 1588-1592.

McGann views Folsom’s argument that the Whitman archive is in fact a database representative of this new, promising genre as a misleading, or at least metaphorical statement. He argues that what Folsom calls database is in this particular case a markup structure over which an interface was imposed. McGann believes the distinction is important for determining the functional character of both archives and databases. In his view, collections of the type described by Folsom have two levels of interpretation, a structured one at the level of the internal structure of the collection, and a more fluid one at the level of the user interface:
"No database can function without a user interface, and in the case of cultural materials the interface is an especially crucial element of these kinds of digital instruments. Interface embeds, implicitly and explicitly, many kinds of hierarchical and narrativized organizations. Indeed, the database—any database—represents an initial critical analysis of the content materials, and while its structure is not narrativized, it is severely constrained and organized. The free play offered to the user of such environments is at least as much a function of interface design as it is of its data structure—whether that structure be a database structure or, as in the case of The Walt Whitman Archive, a markup structure.” (p. 1588)
McGann disagrees with what he considers the two seminal ideas at the base of Folsom’s argument. Firstly, he believes that Manovich’s binary distinction between narrative, especially “privileged narrative”, and some of the new media objects is misleading in that it fails to account for both the narrative’s importance as a form of cultural expression and the highly structured organization of in-line markup which proved itself much better at knowledge representation than databases. Secondly, McGann does not support Folsom’s play on Derrida’s “archival fever” and argues that in order to build better digital archives, we need to fully acknowledge and understand the physical archive, which he sees as a dynamic structure, bearing documentary information and historicity, from its catalogue cards to the story of the collection’s making.

McGill, Meredith. 2007. Remediating Whitman. PMLA: Publications of the Modern Language Association of America 122, no. 5 (October): 1592-1596.

Meredith McGill does not disagree with Folsom’s assumption that digital depositories will free scholarship from the constraints of space, time, money and genre, but she is skeptic about his belief that projects like the Walt Whitman Archive already attain this purpose. She uses the case of the Whitman Archive to demonstrate that in effect the breakup with the idea of genre though stated, is hard to prove, and that print-specific units of organization like the edition are still at the structural foundation of digital collections. She also points out that what is generally viewed as one of the most important strengths of databases – their comprehensiveness – can also become a source of failure in understanding the diachronic evolution of an author’s printed works:
“The comprehensiveness of the database is a liability as well as a strength. Digitizing archives makes it harder to see the partial nature of the printed record, the limited reach of print at any moment in history, and the supersession of one edition by another.” (p. 1594)
Mc Gill ends her intervention by suggesting a couple of initiatives, which, in her opinion, do better job at eliciting new types of scholarship; “The Vault at Pfaff’s” (, which maps the cultural and social connections of over 150 19th century bohemians, including Walt Whitman, and the Collex interface developed in the NINES project (, which is designed to bring together different databases.

Freedman, Jonathan. 2007. Whitman, Database, Information Culture. PMLA: Publications of the Modern Language Association of America 122, no. 5 (October): 1596-1602.

Freedman draws a parallel between the rhetoric of Folsom’s essay and the philosophy behind projects like Google books. He appreciates the usefulness of both projects but in the same type is skeptical about their stated purpose, which he finds somewhat utopic. He argues that endeavors such as these can only be appreciated and reviewed in the light of informational economics and that the danger in these approaches comes primary from the possibility that in relying on databases such as the Google Books project, or even the Walter Whitman Archive, we will forego a critical analysis of the reasons and choices that shaped the collections we rely upon:
“The more data we have access to, the more we need aggregators and entrepreneurs of information like Folsom and the Googlizers; the more we are freed to experience and construct our own world of knowledge through Google searches and Web crawling, the more dependent we become on the ways in which those searches and databases are constructed for us. To celebrate the branching, rooting, rhizomic, proliferating quality of database—to celebrate database as a kind of autonomous form, rooting and branching by a logic of its own—is (in this case, somewhat weirdly) to downplay the inclusions, exclusions, choices that have gone into the making of databases and hence to occlude the possibilities for questioning those choices. “ (1597)
He then proceeds to analyze and discuss the reasons behind Whitman’s complex and genre-defying work as rooted in the similarities between our current information explosion and the information revolution that took place in mid to late 19th century America. He goes on to demonstrate through means of literary analysis that this revolution permeates Whitman’s view of the world, to which the poet reacts through means of inventorying and appropriation.

Hayles, N. Katherine. 2007. Narrative and Database: Natural Symbionts. PMLA: Publications of the Modern Language Association of America 122, no. 5 (October): 1603-1608.

Much like McGann, Hayles argues against Manovich’s idea of a dichotomy of narrative and database, which forms the foundation of Folsom’s essay. She however goes beyond acknowledging the importance of both forms to argue the existence of a symbiotic relationship between the two genres.
“Because database can construct relational juxtapositions but is helpless to interpret or explain them, it needs narrative to make its results meaningful. Narrative, for its part, needs database in the computationally intensive culture of the new millennium to enhance its cultural authority and test the generality of its insights.” (p.1603)
After describing some of the main characteristic of the most common type of databases, the relational ones, Hayles highlights the major differences between the two forms: Being “bound to the linear order of language through syntax”, the narratives are a temporal technology, while databases “lend themselves to spatial displays” (p.1606) In addition to this distinction, from a historical perspective, data analysis has replaced the narrative as main source of global explanations, even though narrative intervenes in interpreting the results of a data analysis.

Folsom, Ed. 2007. Reply. PMLA: Publications of the Modern Language Association of America 122, no. 5 (October): 1608-1612.

This is Folsom’s reply to the five responses his essay received. Here, he leans on the idea of metaphor to place his view in relation to those of the five authors. He fully welcomes Katherine Hayles’ idea of a symbiotic relationship between narrative and database, which he sees as a more apt description of a relation he previously viewed as tension laded. He also welcomes McGill’s vision of a vaster and more inclusive Archive, and agrees with Stallybrass that the philosophy behind the idea of databases is not a recent one. Folsom then points out that Freedman’s parallel between the Google project and The Walt Whitman Archive is unfortunately inaccurate in terms of financing and that efforts are being made to remediate the discrepancy between the percentage of contemporary criticism and the prevalence of older sources.
The author takes more time to respond to McGann’s piece, which was actually the most critical of all five responses. Folsom agrees with McGann’s statement that no database can exist without an interface, but in same time he is opposed to the idea that we can’t refer to a collection of in-line marked up materials as a database. He also agrees that the knowledge representation model illustrated by markup is incomplete.
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