The list is the origin of culture.
At least, that's according to Umberto Eco, whose words open Liam Cole Young
's new book, List Cultures: Knowledge and Poetics from Mesopotamia to Buzzfeed
(Amsterdam University Press
, 2017). Young follows shifting functions of the list through history, revealing a form that "mediates boundaries between administration and art, knowledge and poetics, sense and nonsense" (10). Where systems of order surround and enframe human society, the list is there. Lists shape and shift the social world as new uses for the list are discovered, adapted, modified, and abandoned. As a searching exploration of the way that our intellectual tools "simultaneously conceal and reveal, enforce and subvert social systems," List Cultures
proves to be a rewardingly vigorous and sweeping intellectual history.
restores formal analysis to a critical discourse divided between analyses of institutions, contexts, and particular historical uses of texts. Beginning with a rereading of the earliest writing (inventories and transaction records), Young builds his case for the primacy of the list by explicating the ways lists negotiate tensions and paradoxes that have persisted across time. Young extends the work of Foucault, Latour, Borges, Benjamin, Ong, Innis and many others, demonstrating that listing is a cultural technique that constitutes concepts and categories on which technical systems and social institutions are built.
explores the pop charts and the innerworkings of Buzzfeed
, giving readers a chance to see our world anew through the lens of media materialism. Lists draw borders, create hierarchies, and provide points of reference in the world of tastemaking and fandom, and speed the spread of viral media through databases and traced signatures. As an extension and counterpoint, the exploration of lists in the administrative states of Renaissance Italy and Nazi Germany provide careful reflections on how lists have been used to establish facts, determine personhood, police subjects, and build structures of knowledge that expose bodies to violence.
Making the case for modernity as primarily logistical in orientation, Young closes List Cultures
with a heartening meditation on ways the list has been used to remake old orders, explode boundaries, and extend horizons of possibility. Following Wolfgang Ernst's argument that real-time data collection channels ancient forms of organizing time, List Cultures
' final chapter plays with a binary of narrative and non-narrative modes of writing and thinking, asking us to consider how lists can displace the logic of logistical modernity and preserve a heterotopian space for thinking "other."
Carl Nellis is an academic editor and writing instructor who researches contemporary American community formation around appropriations of medieval European culture. You can learn more about Carl's work and request an editorial consultation at carlnellis.wordpress.com.