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Sunday, February 12, 2012

The List Tradition: Chronicling Infinity

Beyer, Susanne, and Lothar Gorris. 2009. SPIEGEL Interview with Umberto Eco: 'We Like Lists Because We Don't Want to Die'. Spiegel Online International, November 11,, consulted 1/4/2016.

I don't know Eco very well, and there's a bit of mumbo-jumbo in here, but I think it's also a lovely little piece of cultural history, very important to me.

·         "The list is the origin of culture."
·         "What does culture want? To make infinity comprehensible. It also wants to create order ..."
·         "How, as a human being, does one face infinity? How does one attempt to grasp the incomprehensible? Through lists, through catalogs, through collections in museums and through encyclopedias and dictionaries. There is an allure to enumerating how many women Don Giovanni slept with: It was 2,063, at least according to Mozart's librettist, Lorenzo da Ponte. We also have completely practical lists -- the shopping list, the will, the menu -- that are also cultural achievements in their own right."
·         "Wherever you look in cultural history, you will find lists. In fact, there is a dizzying array: lists of saints, armies and medicinal plants, or of treasures and book titles. Think of the nature collections of the 16th century."
·         "In the 'Iliad' [Homer] tries to convey an impression of the size of the Greek army. At first he uses similes: "As when some great forest fire is raging upon a mountain top and its light is seen afar, even so, as they marched, the gleam of their armour flashed up into the firmament of heaven." But he isn't satisfied. He cannot find the right metaphor, and so he begs the muses to help him. Then he hits upon the idea of naming many, many generals and their ships."
·         "At first, we think that a list is primitive and typical of very early cultures, which had no exact concept of the universe and were therefore limited to listing the characteristics they could name. But, in cultural history, the list has prevailed over and over again. It is by no means merely an expression of primitive cultures. A very clear image of the universe existed in the Middle Ages, and there were lists. A new worldview based on astronomy predominated in the Renaissance and the Baroque era. And there were lists. And the list is certainly prevalent in the postmodern age. It has an irresistible magic."
·         "Homer's work hits again and again on the topos of the inexpressible. People will always do that. We have always been fascinated by infinite space, by the endless stars and by galaxies upon galaxies. How does a person feel when looking at the sky? He thinks that he doesn't have enough tongues to describe what he sees. Nevertheless, people have never stopping describing the sky, simply listing what they see. Lovers are in the same position. They experience a deficiency of language, a lack of words to express their feelings. But do lovers ever stop trying to do so? They create lists: Your eyes are so beautiful, and so is your mouth, and your collarbone … One could go into great detail."
·         SPIEGEL: Why do we waste so much time trying to complete things that can't be realistically completed?
·         Eco: "We have a limit, a very discouraging, humiliating limit: death. That's why we like all the things that we assume have no limits and, therefore, no end. It's a way of escaping thoughts about death. We like lists because we don't want to die."
·         SPIEGEL: In your exhibition at the Louvre, you will also be showing works drawn from the visual arts, such as still lifes. But these paintings have frames, or limits, and they can't depict more than they happen to depict.
·         Eco: "On the contrary, the reason we love them so much is that we believe that we are able to see more in them. A person contemplating a painting feels a need to open the frame and see what things look like to the left and to the right of the painting. This sort of painting is truly like a list, a cutout of infinity."
·         "ever since the days of Aristotle, we have been trying to define things based on their essence. The definition of man? An animal that acts in a deliberate way. Now, it took naturalists 80 years to come up with a definition of a platypus. They found it endlessly difficult to describe the essence of this animal. It lives underwater and on land; it lays eggs, and yet it's a mammal. So what did that definition look like? It was a list, a list of characteristics."
·         "The list is the mark of a highly advanced, cultivated society because a list allows us to question the essential definitions. The essential definition is primitive compared with the list."
·         "Schools ought to teach the high art of how to be discriminating."

The piece refers to a forthcoming book under title The Vertigo of Lists, but my copy turns out to be The Infinity of Lists, "first published with the title La Vertigine della Lista in 2009 by Bompiani, Milan"), 2009 translation by Alastair McEwen.
Eco, Umbert. 2010. The Infinity of Lists. Maclehose Press Quercus.

Frankly, the text of that very well done Spiegel interview contains the essential idea of the book, which is a true delight to consume, full of amazing ideas and images. The text is a little uneven in terms of interest to me. Here are some of the words:

What Beyer and Gorris 2009 has translated as "topos of inexpressibility", translator Alastair McEwen renders as "topos of ineffability",[i] a lovelier phrasing to my ear. I am a little bit confused on the translation, in fact, since there is a "Note on translation of the anthology" by Alta L. Price, explaining her translation.[ii] Can anyone explain this to me?

contrasts "practical or 'pragmatic' and 'poetic' lists (Eco 2009, 113). Here we get a real sense of his style: he doesn't define a practical list, but deals out exemplars: shopping list, guest list, library catalog, inventory, list of assets, invoice, menu, tour guide, dictionary.[iii]

Practical lists are purely real-world-referential and finite. He also says they are unalterable, but that's the wrong term and I think the point is redundant.[iv]

He loses that thread, never tells us what poetic lists are. That distinction mostly disappears after the intro, or maybe I just missed it.

"In as much as a list characterizes even a dissimilar series of objects as belonging to the same context or seen from the same point of view (for example, Jesus, Caesar, Cicero, Louis IX, Raymond Lully, Jeanne d'Arc, Gilles de Rais, Damiens, Lincoln, Hitler, Mussolini, Kennedy and Saddam Hussein constitute a homogenous whole if we consider them as people who did not die in their beds), it confers order, and hence a hint of form, to an otherwise disordered set.[v]

defines a congeries as "a sequence of words or phrases that all mean the same thing, where the same thought is reproduced under different aspects".[vi]
museums are "voracious by definition … because they spring from private collections, and private collections spring from rapine, the spoils of war".[vii]

"infinity of properties that may be attributed to the same object".[viii]

"we use definitions by properties if we do not have a definition by essence or if this last does not satisfy us".[ix]

Providing a "semantic representation by essence" requires a strictly constitutive logical hierarchy – platypus. This can generate "dictionary definition", to which actual dictionaries need to provide a great deal more color. Dictionary definition is true in terms of the logic tree and its relations of super- and sub-ordination, but true only as far as it goes. He uses the example of a dog.[x]

We might need to use, instead, semantic "representation by accumulation or series of properties". An open-ended list.[xi]

"Los Angeles … has no center and is practically the outskirts of itself. Los Angeles is an 'etcetera' city and so, if we wish to accept the metaphor, it is a 'list-city' rather than a 'form-city'".[xii]

ch 17 "chaotic enumeration".[xiii]

"disjunctive enumeration expresses a shattering, a kind of schizophrenia of the person who becomes aware of a sequence of disparate impressions without managing to confer any unity upon them".[xiv] Recall Koestler's (1975 [1964]) Act of Creation, the "bisociation of previously independent matrices of thought" … this might be like thinking you spot a pattern, searching around for it, but never pinning it down.

"On considering both coherent excesses [ch. 16] and chaotic enumerations [ch. 17]" Joyce and Borges "did not make lists because they did not know what to say [like Homer, he asserted earlier], but because they wanted to say things out of a love of excess, hubris and a greed for words, for the joyous (and rarely obsessive) science of the plural and the unlimited. The list became a way of reshuffling the world, almost putting into practice Tesauro's invitation to accumulate properties in order to bring out new relationships between distant things … In this way the chaotic list becomes one of the modes of that breakdown of form set in motion in different ways by Futurism, Cubism, Dadaism, Surrealism or by New Realism".[xv]

[i] Eco 2009, 49.
[ii] Eco 2009, 407.
[iii] Eco 2009, 113.
[iv] Eco 2009, 113.
[v] Eco 2009, 131.
[vi] Eco 2009, 134. This reminds me of my ol' favorite, the fish-scale model of omniscience (Campbell 1969).
[vii] Eco 2009, 170.
[viii] Eco 2009, 217.
[ix] Eco 2009, 218.
[x] Eco 2009, 231.
[xi] Eco 2009, 231.
[xii] Eco 2009, 241.
[xiii] Eco 2009, 321.
[xiv] Eco 2009, 323; re Koestler, need to get documented formulation, full reference xxx.
[xv] Eco 2009, 327.

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