Listing, Cataloguing, Collecting


As noted in Theory of Everything; List, List, O’List, lists are a significant part of contemporary academic writing practices. We may wish to contemplate the significance of the list before remarking upon one in Karen Barad’s (2007) Meeting the Universe Halfway.

According to Umberto Eco (Beyer, Gorris, and Eco, 2009, 11 November),

“The list is the origin of culture. It’s part of the history of art and literature. What does culture want? To make infinity comprehensible. It also wants to create order — not always, but often. And 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.”

Bearing this thought in mind, Barad writes that reading phenomena, such as scanning tunneling microscope (STM) images, and it is worth noting that it is images or pictures that we are talking about here, “allows the frozen images to thaw out and the subject matter to come alive.” (Barad, 2007: 300)

To understand such images, Barad argues, requires a grasp of the practices which go into their making. Thus, she compiles a list of such practices [spaces, indentations and line breaks added by AP]:

“The entangled set of practices that go into the making of these images include:

STM microscopes and practices of microscopy,
the history of microscopy,
scientific and technological advances made possible by scanning tunneling microscopes,
the quantum theory of tunneling,
material sciences,
IBM’s corporate resources and research and development practices,
scientific curiosity and imagination,
scientific and cultural hopes for the manipulability of individual atoms,
Feynman’s dream of nanotechnologies,
cultural iconography,
capitalist modes of producing desires,
the production and public recognition of corporate logos,
the history of the atom,
the assumption of metaphysical individualism,
complex sets of visualizing and reading practices that make such images intelligible as pictures of words and things, and
the intertwined histories of representationalism and scientific practice.” (Barad, 2007: 300)

Barad comments that this is an abbreviated list that barely begins to cover the kinds of genealogies that are needed to give an objective accounting of the micrograph. [Here, it might be noted, we are close to a fusion of accounting as providing an explanation and accounting as providing a set of accounts, as a computed list, much as a (financial) accountant does; the scientist as accountant of the material world].

Having said this, Barad further notes, anticipating a possible comment that seems to arise, that,

“This is not to say that each particular scientific practice includes everything under the sun, but rather “only everything relevantly related” (Rouse 2002, 83)” (Barad, 2007: 301)

What are the criteria of relevance, though, that would put a boundary around this (compulsive?) listing?

How far are we from Jorge Luis Borges’s fantastical encyclopaedic list, discussed in his essay
“The analytical language of John Wilkins” and mentioned in the preface of Foucault’s The Order of Things?


Beyer, S., Gorris, L. and Eco, U. (2009, 11 November). “We like lists because we don’t want to die.” Spiegel Online, 11 November 2009. Available at:

Borges, J.L. (1993). The analytical language of John Wilkins. In Other inquisitions 1937-1952. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press.

Foucault, M. (1994). The Order of things: an archaeology of the human sciences, New York, NY: Vintage Books.


One thought on “Listing, Cataloguing, Collecting

  1. Pingback: List, Apparatus/Dispositif, Conjuncture: Detournement | Open Readings

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