Digital projects – narratives?

When I think of digital humanities projects (the ones that are not about building tools, but about analysing and interpreting humanities data) I think of efforts like Digital Thoreau, Mapping the Republic of Letters, The Shelley-Godwin Archive , Dickens Journal Online and perhaps some smaller efforts of our own such as the Cork Memory Map. All of these are hypertext resources, with the second item viewed not necessarily following on from the first, and the order of viewing beyond the control of the creator(s). Are these narratives?

As Ricoeur points out, a story is more than just a series of events, instead:

“….it must organise them into an intelligible whole, of a sort that we can always ask what is the ‘thought’ of this story” (Ricoeur 1984, 65).

This view of the narrative, containing, as a pre-requisite, not just a series or a succession of events, but also a configuration that gives them a plot, or transforms them into an emploted story, makes me query whether or not many digital humanities projects could be seen as narratives (within Ricoeur’s definition of the term). Events/items are not presented in chronological order, yet Ricoeur argues that narratives are never atemporal:

“…the configurational arrangement transforms the succession of events into one meaningful whole which is the correlate of the act of assembling the events together and which makes the story followable. Thanks to this reflective act, the entire plot can be translated into one ‘thought’, which is nothing other than its ‘point’ or ‘theme’.” (Ricoeur 1984, 67.)

The question, then, is this; can digital projects be interpreted as narratives when time does not necessarily play a primary role in their configuration? If it is to identify an overarching point, theme or thought, can they be called narratives? Can events in digital projects be configured within a framework other than time, and if so can the projects then be said to be loosely plotted narratives?

Ricoeur discussed narratives almost exclusively as if they were written (not spoken, not illustrated). Digital narratives can be written texts, of course, but projects are often (and perhaps increasingly) accompanied by other items. They may be heavily dependent on images (the nature of the internet being highly visual), in some instances they may be primarily about sound. Titon (2003, 69) argues that these are also “texts”, as the post-modern text can encompass images and sounds. They may be difficult to fit into Riceour’s theories of narrative because composite narratives (ones made up of different media including written text, pictures, spoken word, audio files, hypertext, etc.), these were not conceived of when these theories of narratives were formulated. Yet they often form a unified whole. Perhaps it is in this sense of an overall theme or meaning that they can be seen as narratives, rather than in the more text-based understanding of PLOT .


Ricoeur, P. (1984). Time and Narrative. University of Chicago Press.

Titon, J.T. (2003) Text, pp. 69 – 98 in Feintuch, B. (Ed.) Eight Words for the Study of Expressive Culture. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press.

Zoran, G. (1984). Towards a theory of space in narrative. Poetics Today, 309-335.