Life, Database, and Narrative

Days are pretty packed affairs. Like over-stuffed omelets. Seemingly compact and straightforward  on the outside–24 hours, dawn to dusk, 9-5, breakfast to dinner–but within the structured folds of our narrating scheme a lot can take place.

Today, in a mundane sense, I didn’t do much. I prepped for teaching, which involved me reading a lot of articles and book chapters. I talked a bit with a friend, dropping him off while navigating construction-marred streets further thinned with parked cars. I drove home in an oddly bristling, bustling early bird rush hour. I discovered that my car may need a new tire, is overdo for inspection, and has a wonky door. Stressed and a little sickened by the world–like Trump’s remarks this afternoon on the shooting–and the layered little anxieties of my own life, I meditated. Now, I am writing.

I don’t know why I list this little litany. I don’t suspect it makes for good reading, much like those old journals of daily meals or routines that historians–and few others–go bonkers over. But I feel like I just wanted to put some of the basic things I did, leaving out even more granular things like meals or a nap I took.

It may be an odd connection, but doing this reminds me of Lev Manovich’s distinction between the non-narrative, collective pool of data that comprise databases compared to the more narrative, often linear data in a novel. A novel has a beginning, middle, and end with well-orchestrated plot points punctuating the read, making “arcs” or “movement.” And essays do the same thing, for the most part.

But a database is simply a collection. It’s a bunch of stuff that is somehow related mushed together, like diced veggies in an omelet, if I may continue my food metaphor. Here, curation–how stuff is arranged–and searchability–how it’s accessed–become key, as the woolly, non-narrative world of the database has no climax or denouement.

Much like life, it’s a bunch of stuff lumped together.

So I return to my list of major things I did today. They do have a structure and causality, a certain order to their listing. And they have a significance to me, a rationale and an impact in my life and the lives of others. But ultimately, I’m not sure what it means. I suppose it is a bit like the phrase from Beckett’s Endgame: “Grain upon grain, one by one, and one day, suddenly, there’s a heap, a little heap, the impossible heap.”

Increasingly, I feel like the way life forms differs somewhat from how we narrate it. Increasingly, I feel like life, like this little pile, just adds up. Or perhaps a more fitting metaphor, it is like a rock rolling down hill, gathering odds and ends as it rolls forward. But when narrated, it seems to have so much more significance. We do things because we decide to do things or because they needed to be done. A feeling took hold, one might say, and I decided to write. In this view, things aren’t just actions that add up, but are plot points in our life stories. I decide to be a businessman because my dad was; I become a lawyer because I once saw a kid get in trouble when he did nothing wrong; I fell in love with my significant other when I bumped into her at a cafe and got scalded by her tea.

But in the nitty-gritty, sometimes things just happen. Or I just do things because I’m not sure what else to do. Or I chose not to do things. And these little choices seem to create these emergent narratives that supposedly tell us who we are. But in the moment, like I said, they are often just doing things. Maybe passing time. Maybe making a choice as best we can without a clear outcome.

Reflecting this, one of my teachers once described our actions are like raindrops or rivulets. “After class you could rush home and play X-Box,” he said, “Or you could go to the gym, try to meet a friend for dinner, read a new book, sit in a cafe and people watch. Ultimately our decisions add up, little by little, like the droplets in a waterfall or river.”

And I think this gets at how these little decisions have major echoes, though they are little. Each day adds a little bit more stuff to our database of a life, and we curate or narrate that database into biographies or narratives.

And so much of the detritus of daily living gets swept into the invisible metadata at the bottom of our life database, the “long tale” of living, like the little receipts or ticket stubs that show up in coat pockets, the cryptic notes floating in bags and desk drawers, the small talk and browsing that quickly leaves consciousness.

But it all happens, taking up space and time. But like the deletions and edits of any book, they don’t make the cut.

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4 thoughts on “Life, Database, and Narrative

  1. Interesting post…and somewhat terrifying, especially when I consider that about 99.9% of my life is like those forgettable receipts collecting in the bottom of my purse. On the other hand, I’m not sure I’d want to have a life filled with narrative-quality events (too much drama, and I like to take naps and space out sometimes.)

    I’ve recently started writing down what I do each day in my planner, sometimes after the fact (so its like a planner in retrospect.) I started doing this because I realized that sometimes it’s nice to be able to locate the date for when x happened. Having that little bit of scaffolding sometimes allows me to recall quite a lot about that day, even the insignificant stuff of life.

    1. That is a helpful habit. I may do something like it, just as an experiment. And maybe collect some of those little things along with it. And I know what you mean about a quiet life compared with a dramatic life. That resonates a lot, and reminds me of this scene in Plato’s Republic where Odysseus gets to choose his reincarnation and picks a quiet life.

      Thanks for the comment and have a groovy day!

      1. Right! I’d forgotten that part of the Republic. I can’t help but think that happiness is somehow tied into the quiet life, either because happy people don’t need to pursue those things that lead to drama or because the quiet life makes one happy. Or maybe it’s a chicken and egg sort of deal?

      2. Yeah, that’s an interesting quandary that I never thought about: Are certain dispositions attracted to quiet lives or do quiet lives cultivate certain dispositions?

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