Sunday, October 28, 2007

"I" brows - low and high

While I didn't completely embrace Folsom's notion that database is a new genre, I was really engaged by the ideas that he outlines and the dialogue that ensued. Two things in particular captured my imagination.

First, I think that database and poems have different levels of dimensionality. Poems have (and I hate to be reductive here) two dimensions on the page and a third dimension when read aloud. On the page, poems have only the x and y axis. The exist in time, but time really enters the equation when the poem is spoken. Certainly, it takes time to read a poem - even if it is read silently - but the dimensions of poems printed on the page seem to me to only be moving left to right across the page and from the top to the bottom. The relationship of words within a poem, while dynamic in the mind of the reader, only have a sequential relationship to one another on the page - again, left to right and then top to bottom. While some poets make moves to undo this, still by and large, these are the relationships of language in poems, bound by tradition and language conventions and apprehension. Databases, on the other hand, are designed to not have these sorts of constraints and to have a exponentially greater dimensionality. Words, or numbers, or characters, in a database are not only related to the item next to it, but are supposed to be in relationship with every other bit within the database. Folsom makes, I think, a compelling argument that Whitman's poems function as database prior to computers. He posits that the lines of Whitman can be put into a database and reshuffled and that in fact is what Whitman was doing to some degree. I'm convinced by this in part. Where I'm not convinced is that Folsom seems to suggest that still a line has integrity and I wonder why. The power of a database is in the distillation into the smallest, discrete part, which would be the word, or even perhaps the letter. Beyond this, however, there is one thing that I think is even more compelling and disturbing about Folsom's notion of the database as genre and what it might do to Whitman. That is this: writers write bound by time. Poems, lines, novels, books, works are organized by time sequentially across the lifetime of a writer. Calamus could not have been written until after Song of Myself. Something happened for Whitman in writing Song of Myself that enabled Calamus to be written later. Our sense of time as human being is only progressive. We cannot move backward in time. Database, however, are not timebound in this way unless we program them to be. So while Whitman may have reorganized his own lines, that reorganization only became possible through the progression of time. To do it otherwise, to suggest that all of Whitman's lines could be fed in and moved around is to deny that fundamental girding of time with which all of us humans must comply.

The other thing that mulls around my mind after this reading is how the "I" in Whitman poems is informed by database compilers and editors. Archives carry the ephemera of writers and the mitigation of libraries and catalogers are made visible through established behaviors and practices, but as electronic archives - or database - are now emerging, how do we establish behaviors and practices that make the mitigation of database editors visible to readers? Is that still important? I think that it is, but that it also is in a medium where identity and visibility around identity is changing and evolving. So is the "I" of Walt Whitman different in the WW archive than it is in Moon's edited volume of Leaves of Grass? How would the "I" of Walt Whitman be different if his work were reorganized, line by line, by a database? Would his "I" still exist or would it be effaced by the database programmer? Who would want to take that job of effacing that "I"? Will contemporary writers in thinking about preserving their archives include directions for electronic storage? Will they try to control their "I" on the screen?

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