Review of List Cultures: Knowledge and Poetics from Mesopotamia to BuzzFeed
Amsterdam University Press, Amsterdam, NL, 2017
Distributed by the University of Chicago Press
196 pp., illus. 4 b/w. Trade, $105.00 / € 85,00
Liam Cole Young is a contemporary representative of the Toronto “civilizational” school of media studies (its major historical figures are Harold Innis and Marshall McLuhan), which aims today at bridging the modern gap between the often conflicting approaches of cultural studies (with a strong focus on identity issues and politics of media representation) and political economy (with a strongly politicized reading of the production and organization of labor and wealth). This book on the history and the uses of lists is a brilliant example of this school, which does not simply repeat the many broad and daring insights of Innis as well as McLuhan. In Young’s work, the expansion of the Toronto civilizational approach results from the dialogue with two other disciplines. First is the German hard-core media theory and history à la Kittler, with a “fearless” (I am quoting Young, who particularly likes this adjective) use of interdisciplinary concerns and ways of thinking. Contrary to Kittler, however, Young prefers to shy away from sweeping overgeneralizations and grand narratives, which he replaces by a more modest but eventually no less eye-opening close reading of media affordances and practices. Second is the media archeology (the book is published in a series coedited by Jussi Parikka), more specifically media materialism, which strong influences of Latour’s actor network theory and its fine-grained observation of actual uses of technological items and mechanisms.
This global framework is applied to the notion of “list.” For Young, lists are not a single universal and transhistorical phenomenon, in spite of the apparent simplicity and comparable features of any list whatsoever. In this book, the list is in the first place a technique, nothing more and nothing less, that can be found in practically all human communities. Young is not in search of the underlying logic of all possible types of lists, but of what distinguishes them from various points of view: historical, technical, cultural, political, and his most fundamental analytical resource is a mix of contextualization and close-reading. He therefore departs from a set of four general arguments, that both guarantee the overall coherence of the approach and allow for a fine-grained individualization of each list culture under scrutiny: 1) what has a media materialist approach to offer us when examining a specific list culture?, 2) what can lists as cultural techniques, that is as material operations that precede but also generate media forms and structures, learn on the ways in which knowledge is being built and how it takes place within certain material circumstances?, 3) what are the actual functions of a given list culture – a functionalist caveat that helps avoid thinking of lists in terms of either good or bad?, and 4) how can we display the inherent ambivalences of the list, which often articulate deeply contradictory feelings and aspirations?
Each of these questions informs, from a civilizational point of view, the close reading of list cultures, that is list techniques, in the next five chapters of the book (the concrete topics are, respectively, the pop music charts, the double-entry bookkeeping, the Nazi Census, BuzzFeed, and a set of poetic lists such as those invented by Jorge Luis Borges in literature and Chris Marker in cinema, but in fact the book enriches these key examples by a great number of supplementary case studies). The objective of Young is not to study lists in themselves, but to approach them as tools or springboards for larger social, philosophical, and political analysis, in the already mentioned spirit of the Toronto school and the new German media theory, which he firmly opposes to current Anglo-Saxon media analysis: “We tend not to touch figures like Aristotle, Jesus, or Pythagoras (with some notable exceptions), but the German tradition understands that these figures usually have as much or more to say than Marconi, Edison, Hearst, or Zuckerberg” (154-55).
In List Cultures, the list appears as the ideal instrument to get a better grasp of the radical transformation of space and – increasingly – time as productive commodities in modern or modernizing societies. In this regard, Young’s emphasis on compression, knowledge formation, control, transportation, exchange, and the like brings him very close to Jonathan Crary’s work on “the end of sleep” (as addressed in his book 24/7), but List Cultures is in the first place a book that attempts to (and succeeds in) sketching positive alternatives. Since Young rightly rejects any a priori judgment of the meaning of the list as cultural technique, List Cultures pay a lot of attention to other forms and uses of lists, either in poetry or philosophy (although is this powerfully interdisciplinary approach of human activity, the frontier between poetry and philosophy becomes very thin, as shown for instance in Young’s innovative reading of Markers’s La Jetée and Sans Soleil, two list-based works of art. Young reads them in the background of recent theory of “database narrative”, but manages to disclose that database narrative should not only be about database but also about narrative.
List Cultures is an important book, both form a scientific and a societal point of view, which brilliantly illustrates the role humanities can and must play in debates that may seem unhospitable to them, but that are are cruelly in need of the broader civilizational approach updated by Young. His book is the perfect example of how to continue, instead of debunking or deconstructing, the quasi-mythical study of lists by Jack Goody (The Domestication of the Savage Mind), which it is now possible to reread afresh.