Liberal Judaism, Liberal Religion, and The Language of New Media: Who Controls the Database (Manovich)

“Database” is the essential form of new media, which got me wondering about liberal religion –i.e. liberal Judaism and liberal religion (Christianity). According to Manovich, to create a persuasive new media object, the creator-user must combine database with narrative (The Language of New Media, p227ff). Manovich’s point is that in new media, database tends to trump narrative. Datastructure is developed. Narrative is thin. A database is “the [representation] of the world as a list of items” (p.225).

In the nineteenth century and in the first half of the twentieth century, liberal Judaism and liberal religion (Christianity) controlled the “database.” Indeed, establishing and controlling the database was the foundation of liberal Judaism in Germany (Reform Judaism and what became Conservative Judaism in the U.S.). That was the activist, as opposed to purely scholarly, motivation behind the emergence of “the Science of Judaism” (Die Wissenschaft des Judentums), or “Jewish Studies” today, to plumb the historical record in order to reconstitute a new form of Judaism.

Of course, the works of historians like Geiger, Graetz, and Schechter were narrative driven, but what I think is really interesting today is to understand how each historical detail can be looked at as a datapoint. Each historical incident such as the destruction of the Temple or the Golden Age in Islamic Spain took on an imagistic or tableau-form character in these old historical studies. That’s what makes these historical studies “great.” In telling the narrative story, as they understood it on their own terms, they took control of the entire database. [The Christians did this too. The Jews learned it from them. They would include Strauss, Feuerbach, Harnack, and Troeltsch. The master was Hegel.]

As Manovich continues to explain, the database is at the center of the creative process in the computer age. “The ‘user’ of a narrative is traversing a database, following links between its records as established by the database’s creator. An interactive narrative…can then be understood as the sum of multiple trajectories through a database” (p. 227). Unlike old media, in new media objects, database (or the “paradigm” understood as a set of choices) is given real, concrete material existence whereas the narrative (or syntagm –the actual appearance of a sequence of word-signs) is dematerialized and virtual (pp.223-1). In designing a new media object, the database of all possible elements is assembled beforehand. “The complete paradigm is present [and available] before the user.”

It could be that in fumbling around for new narrative, more contemporary forms of liberal Judaism and other forms of liberal religion fail to understand that in our new media environment what is most basic to the process of form or object creation is database, not narrative. Conservative religionists don’t seem to have this problem. They have their websites, blogsites, podcasts, cd-roms, interactive mega-churches, a database loaded with stuff. It’s the inability to create, develop, and control a database that makes liberal Judaism and liberal Christianity the dull beer it often is. It often seems to me that liberal religionists don’t know what to look for or what to look at, so they try to fumper around to pick up a narrative thread, to re-tell old stories, as if nothing has happened in the last forty years to change the way things get designed and built, including religions.

And as Manovich says, “The loss of viewer’s attention is the end of the installation” (p.267)

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics.
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