Digital Scholarship

the database and the narrative

Reading Collin's post on his course and his efforts to develop a way to represent and investigate rhet/comp scholarship. As he asks "what are our options if we want to be able to take the next step with
respect to an aggregated database? How do we take that accumulated body

of information, and perform meaningful work with it?" Collin's particular interest in this post lies in tag clouds and the challenge of finding (or building) an application that will output the kind of tag clouds he's looking for. I've been reading Ulmer this semester for class and was reminded of this passage from Heuretics:

The user of a database, that is, encounters in principle the full paradigm of possibilities, through which a multitude of paths may be traced. Argument provided one path and suppressed everything else (even if the oppositional position was presented in a show of objectivity, the goal of the enthymeme was to convince the reader that the solution offered to the problem was the only possible). In hypermedia the composer constructs an information environment, and the user chooses the path or line through the place provided. The chorographer, then, writes with paradigms (sets) not arguments. One of the profound changes of a hyperrhetoric designed for organizing audiovisuals as well as print practices will be the necessary return of delivery and memory and their adaptation to a new social machine. (38)

Yes, this is old news in some ways. Prescient in 1994 maybe but familiar now. When Collin speaks of narrative, he's speaking particularly here of a story of discipline, "field narratives" as he calls them. They are arguments in the general sense of which Ulmer is speaking here. Both take us down particular paths, whereas databases might be maps on which paths can be drawn, though that analogy isn't quite right either b/c a map might also be an extrapolation of data just as a narrative is.  All three–database, narrative, and map–are certainly rhetorical as well.

This is a conversation I've had with Derek several times. What is the epistemological status of mining a database or "distant reading" as Moretti terms it? How does it compare with the status of conventional humanistic knowledge drawn from close reading? More or less "true"? More or less convincing? Ulmer suggests the database composer writes with sets/paradigms. With databases we make decisions about inclusion and fields within records. I just got an email from where they want to condense the number of top-level research interests (currently over 3000). The information environment composers create obviously shapes the paths users take and carries an implicit rhetoric–a sense of purpose, audience, and genre. E.g., condensing research interests reflects assumptions about the purpose those interests serve on the site, how users want/will want to make use of those interests, and an understanding of how academic disciplines are elsewhere organized.

So here's a thought experiment. Let's say we could create a massive full-text database of nearly every rhet/comp scholarly text in the last 50 years. Of course we would face difficulties trying to figure out what should or shouldn't be included, but let's bracket that problem and say that we create a database that we can agree is "good enough." Now we are going to perform a variety of analyses on these texts:

  • word/phrase frequencies
  • citation frequency, numbers of citations, citational networks, etc.
  • author institutional affiliations

We can arguably see the rise and fall of certain issues. Who reads who and why. Where ideas come from and how they spread. In short, one could write new stories/arguments, but would the rhetorical reception of those stories be different from ones we have told in the past? Obviously they would have a different epistemological status, but would they carry more weight? Would they be more "objective"? Or do they simply add another layer of informational complexity? Do they solve the "reading problem" or do they just add to it?

I don't ask these questions to suggest that this isn't work worth doing. I think it is. In fact, I'm somewhat fascinated by it and its prospects. I'm just also interested in how we investigate the techno-material contexts of such information.

When Collin asks how do we create meaningful work, I see a question that is in part a programming-technological question but I also see a rhetorical-philosophical question, as I'm sure he does as well. How do our conceptions about databases shape our ideas of the epistemology of the information they offer? Do databases suggest that we would offer different kinds of arguments? Or do we end up conducting close, critical readings of database output?

I guess this will all come to the test if/when someone conducts an analysis of this type and discovers something that is significantly divergent from the familiar stories we tell about ourselves.

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