Listlessness in the Archive




Mass-Observation, archives, listlessness

How to Cite

Highmore, B. (2012). Listlessness in the Archive. M/C Journal, 15(5).
Vol. 15 No. 5 (2012): list
Published 2012-10-11
1. Make a list of things to do

2. Copy list of things left undone from previous list

3. Add items to list of new things needing to be done

4. Add some of the things already done from previous list and immediately cross off so as to put off the feeling of an interminable list of never accomplishable tasks

5. Finish writing list and sit back feeling an overwhelming sense of listlessness

It started so well. Get up: make list: get on. But lists can breed listlessness. It can’t always be helped. The word “list” referring to a sequence of items comes from the Italian and French words for “strip”—as in a strip of material. The word “list” that you find in the compound “listlessness” comes from the old English word for pleasing (to list is to please and to desire). To be listless is to be without desire, without the desire to please. The etymologies of list and listless don’t correspond but they might seem to conspire in other ways. Oh, and by the way, ships can list when their balance is off.

I list, like a ship, itemising my obligations to job, to work, to colleagues, to parenting, to family: write a reference for such and such; buy birthday present for eighty-year-old dad; finish article about lists – and so on. I forget to add to the list my necessary requirements for achieving any of this: keep breathing; eat and drink regularly; visit toilet when required. Lists make visible. Lists hide. I forget to add to my list all my worries that underscore my sense that these lists (or any list) might require an optimism that is always something of a leap of faith: I hope that electricity continues to exist; I hope my computer will still work; I hope that my sore toe isn’t the first sign of bodily paralysis; I hope that this heart will still keep beating.

I was brought up on lists: the hit parade (the top one hundred “hit” singles); football leagues (not that I ever really got the hang of them); lists of kings and queens; lists of dates; lists of states; lists of elements (the periodic table). There are lists and there are lists. Some lists are really rankings. These are clearly the important lists. Where do you stand on the list? How near the bottom are you? Where is your university in the list of top universities? Have you gone down or up? To list, then, for some at least is to rank, to prioritise, to value. Is it this that produces listlessness? The sense that while you might want to rank your ten favourite films in a list, listing is something that is constantly happening to you, happening around you; you are always in amongst lists, never on top of them. To hang around the middle of lists might be all that you can hope for: no possibility of sudden lurching from the top spot; no urgent worries that you might be heading for demotion too quickly.

But ranking is only one aspect of listing. Sometimes listing has a more flattening effect. I once worked as a cash-in-hand auditor (in this case a posh name for someone who counts things). A group of us (many of whom were seriously stoned) were bussed to factories and warehouses where we had to count the stock. We had to make lists of items and simply count what there was: for large items this was relatively easy, but for the myriad of miniscule parts this seemed a task for Sisyphus. In a power-tool factory in some unprepossessing town on the outskirts of London (was it Slough or Croydon or somewhere else?) we had to count bolts, nuts, washers, flex, rivets, and so on. Of course after a while we just made it up—guesstimates—as they say. A box of thousands of 6mm metal washers is a homogenous set in a list of heterogeneous parts that itself starts looking homogenous as it takes its part in the list. Listing dedifferentiates in the act of differentiating.

The task of making lists, of filling-in lists, of having a list of tasks to complete encourages listlessness because to list lists towards exhaustiveness and exhaustion. Archives are lists and lists are often archives and archived. Those that work on lists and on archives constantly battle the fatigue of too many lists, of too much exhaustiveness. But could exhaustion be embraced as a necessary mood with which to deal with lists and archives? Might listlessness be something of a methodological orientation that has its own productivity in the face of so many lists?

At my university there resides an archive that can appear to be a list of lists. It is the Mass-Observation archive, begun at the end of 1936 and, with a sizeable hiatus in the 1960s and 1970s, is still going today. (For a full account of Mass-Observation, see Highmore, Everyday Life chapter 6, and Hubble; for examples of Mass-Observation material, see Calder and Sheridan, and Highmore, Ordinary chapter 4; for analysis of Mass-Observation from the point of view of the observer, see Sheridan, Street, and Bloome. The flavour of the project as it emerges in the late 1930s is best conveyed by consulting Mass-Observation, Mass-Observation, First Year’s Work, and Britain.) It was begun by three men: the filmmaker Humphrey Jennings, the poet and sociologist Charles Madge, and the ornithologist and anthropologist-of-the-near Tom Harrisson. Both Jennings and Madge were heavily involved in promoting a form of social surrealism that might see buried forces in the coincidences of daily life as well as in the machinations and contingency of large political and social events (the abdication crisis, the burning of the Crystal Palace—both in late 1936). Harrisson brought a form of amateur anthropology with him that would scour football crowds, pub clientele, and cinema queues for ritualistic and symbolic forms. Mass-Observation quickly recruited a large group of voluntary observers (about a thousand) who would be “the meteorological stations from whose reports a weather-map of popular feeling can be compiled” (Mass-Observation, Mass-Observation 30). Mass-Observation combined the social survey with a relentless interest in the irrational and in what the world felt like to those who lived in it. As a consequence the file reports often seem banal and bizarre in equal measure (accounts of nightmares, housework routines, betting activities). When Mass-Observation restarted in the 1980s the surrealistic impetus became less pronounced, but it was still there, implicit in the methodology.

Today, both as an on-going project and as an archive of previous observational reports, Mass-Observation lives in archival boxes. You can find a list of what topics are addressed in each box; you can also find lists of the contributors, the voluntary Mass-Observers whose observations are recorded in the boxes. What better way to give you a flavour of these boxes than to offer you a sample of their listing activities. Here are observers, observing in 1983 the objects that reside on their mantelpieces.

Here’s one:

champagne cork,

rubber band,

drawing pin,

two hearing aid batteries,

appointment card for chiropodist,

piece of dog biscuit.

Does this conjure up a world? Do we have a set of clues, of material evidence, a small cosmology of relics, a reduced Wunderkammer, out of which we can construct not the exotic but something else, something more ordinary? Do you smell camphor and imagine antimacassars? Do you hear conversations with lots of mishearing? Are the hearing aid batteries shared? Is this a single person living with a dog, or do we imagine an assembly of chiropodist-goers, dog-owners, hearing aid-users, rubber band-pingers, champagne-drinkers?

But don’t get caught imagining a life out of these fragments. Don’t get stuck on this list: there are hundreds to get through. After all, what sort of an archive would it be if it included a single list? We need more lists.

Here’s another mantelpiece:

three penknives,

a tube of cement [which I assume is the sort of rubber cement that you get in bicycle puncture repair kits],

a pocket microscope,

a clinical thermometer.

Who is this? A hypochondriacal explorer? Or a grown-up boy-scout, botanising on the asphalt? Why so many penknives? But on, on...  

And another:

1 letter awaiting postage stamp

1 diet book

1 pair of spare spectacles

1 recipe for daughter’s home economics

1 notepad

1 pen

1 bottle of indigestion tablets

1 envelope containing 13 pence which is owed a friend

1 pair of stick-on heels for home shoe repairing session

3 letters in day’s post

1 envelope containing money for week’s milk bill

1 recipe cut from magazine

2 out of date letters from school

What is the connection between the daughter’s home economics recipe and the indigestion tablets? Is the homework gastronomy not quite going to plan? Or is the diet book causing side-effects? And what sort of financial stickler remembers that they owe 13p; even in 1983 this was hardly much money? Or is it the friend who is the stickler? Perhaps this is just prying...?

But you need more. Here’s yet another:

an ashtray,

a pipe,

pipe tamper and tobacco pouch,

one decorated stone and one plain stone,

a painted clay model of an alien,

an enamelled metal egg from Hong Kong,

a copper bracelet,

a polished shell,

a snowstorm of Father Christmas in his sleigh...

Ah, a pipe smoker, this much is clear. But apart from this the display sounds ritualistic – one stone decorated the other not. What sort of religion is this? What sort of magic? An alien and Santa. An egg, a shell, a bracelet. A riddle.

And another:

Two 12 gauge shotgun cartridges live 0 spread

Rubber plant

Brass carriage clock

International press clock

1950s cigarette dispenser

 Model of Panzer MKIV tank

WWI shell fuse

WWI shell case ash tray containing an acorn, twelve .22 rounds of ammunition, a .455 Eley round and a drawing pin

Photo of Eric Liddell (Chariots of Fire)

Souvenir of Algerian ash tray containing marbles and beach stones

Three 1930s plastic duck clothes brushes

Letter holder containing postcards and invitations. Holder in shape of a cow

1970s Whizzwheels toy car

Wooden box of jeweller’s rottenstone (Victorian)

Incense holder

World war one German fuse (used)

Jim Beam bottle with candle therein

Sol beer bottle with candle therein

I’m getting worried now. Who are these people who write for Mass-Observation? Why so much military paraphernalia? Why such detail as to the calibrations? Should I concern myself that small militias are holding out behind the net curtains and aspidistra plants of suburban England?

And another:

1930s AA Badge

Avocado Plant

Wooden cat from Mexico

Kahlua bottle with candle there in

1950s matchbook with “merry widow” cocktail printed thereon

Two Britain’s model cannon

One brass “Carronade” from the Carron Iron Works factory shop

Photography pass from Parkhead 12/11/88

Grouse foot kilt pin

Brass incense holder

Pheasant feather

Novitake cup

Black ash tray with beach pebbles there in

Full packet of Mary Long cigarettes from Holland

Pewter cocktail shaker made in Shanghai

I’m feeling distance. Who says “there in” and “there on?” What is a Novitake cup? Perhaps I wrote it down incorrectly? An avocado plant stirs memories of trying to grow one from an avocado stone skewered in a cup with one “point” dunked in a bit of water. Did it ever grow, or just rot? I’m getting distracted now, drifting off, feeling sleepy...

Some more then – let’s feed the listlessness of the list:

Wood sculpture (Tenerife)

A Rubber band


Junior aspirin

Toy dinosaur

Small photo of daughter

Small paint brush

Ah yes the banal bizarreness of ordinary life: dinosaurs and aspirins, paint brushes and rubber bands.

But then a list comes along and pierces you:

Six inch piece of grey eyeliner

1 pair of nail clippers

1 large box of matches

1 Rubber band

2 large hair grips

Half a piece of cough candy

1 screwed up tissue

1 small bottle with tranquillizers in

1 dead (but still in good condition) butterfly (which I intended to draw but placed it now to rest in the garden) it was already dead when I found it.

The dead butterfly, the tranquillizers, the insistence that the mantelpiece user didn’t actually kill the butterfly, the half piece of cough candy, the screwed up tissue. In amongst the rubber bands and matches, signs of something desperate. Or maybe not: a holding on (the truly desperate haven’t found their way to the giant tranquillizer cupboard), a keeping a lid on it, a desire (to draw, to place a dead butterfly at rest in the garden)...

And here is the methodology emerging: the lists works on the reader, listing them, and making them listless. After a while the lists (and there are hundreds of these lists of mantle-shelf items) begin to merge. One giant mantle shelf filled with small stacks of foreign coins, rubber bands and dead insects. They invite you to be both magical ethnographer and deadpan sociologist at one and the same time (for example, see Hurdley). The “Martian” ethnographer imagines the mantelpiece as a shrine where this culture worships the lone rubber band and itinerant button. Clearly a place of reliquary—on this planet the residents set up altars where they place their sacred objects: clocks and clippers; ammunition and amulets; coins and pills; candles and cosmetics. Or else something more sober, more sombre: late twentieth century petite-bourgeois taste required the mantelpiece to hold the signs of aspirant propriety in the form of emblems of tradition (forget the coins and the dead insects and weaponry: focus on the carriage clocks).

And yet, either way, it is the final shelf that gets me every time. But it only got me, I think, because the archive had worked its magic: ransacked my will, my need to please, my desire. It had, for a while at least, made me listless, and listless enough to be touched by something that was really a minor catalogue of remainders. This sense of listlessness is the way that the archive productively defeats the “desire for the archive.” It is hard to visit an archive without an expectation, without an “image repertoire,” already in mind. This could be thought of as the apperception-schema of archival searching: the desire to see patterns already imagined; the desire to find the evidence for the thought whose shape has already formed. Such apperception is hard to avoid (probably impossible), but the boredom of the archive, its ceaselessness, has a way of undoing it, of emptying it. It corresponds to two aesthetic positions and propositions. One is well-known: it is Barthes’s distinction between “studium” and “punctum.” For Barthes, studium refers to a sort of social interest that is always, to some degree, satisfied by a document (his concern, of course, is with photographs). The punctum, on the other hand, spills out from the photograph as a sort of metonymical excess, quite distinct from social interest (but for all that, not asocial). While Barthes is clearly offering a phenomenology of viewing photographs, he isn’t overly interested (here at any rate) with the sort of perceptional-state the viewer might need to be in to be pierced by the puntum of an image. My sense, though, is that boredom, listlessness, tiredness, a sort of aching indifference, a mood of inattentiveness, a sense of satiated interest (but not the sort of disinterest of Kantian aesthetics), could all be beneficial to a punctum-like experience.

The second aesthetic position is not so well-known. The Austrian dye-technician, lawyer and art-educationalist Anton Ehrenzweig wrote, during the 1950s and 1960s, about a form of inattentive-attention, and a form of afocal-rendering (eye-repelling rather than eye-catching), that encouraged eye-wandering, scanning, and the “‘full’ emptiness of attention” (Ehrenzweig, The Hidden Order 39). His was an aesthetics attuned to the kind of art produced by Paul Klee, but it was also an aesthetic propensity useful for making wallpaper and for productively connecting to unconscious processes. Like Barthes, Ehrenzweig doesn’t pursue the sort of affective state of being that might enhance such inattentive-attention, but it is not hard to imagine that the sort of library-tiredness of the archive would be a fitting preparation for “full emptiness.” Ehrenzweig and Barthes can be useful for exploring this archival mood, this orientation and attunement, which is also a disorientation and mis-attunement. Trawling through lists encourages scanning: your sensibilities are prepared; your attention is being trained. After a while, though, the lists blur, concentration starts to loosen its grip. The lists are not innocent recipients here. Shrapnel shards pull at you. You start to notice the patterns but also the spaces in-between that don’t seem to fit sociological categorisations. The strangeness of the patterns hypnotises you and while the effect can generate a sense of sociological-anthropological homogeneity-with-difference, sometimes the singularity of an item leaps out catching you unawares.

An archive is an orchestration of order and disorder: however contained and constrained it appears it is always spilling out beyond its organisational structures (amongst the many accounts of archives in terms of their orderings, see Sekula, and Stoler, Race and Along). Like “Probate Inventories,” the mantelpiece archive presents material objects that connect us (however indirectly) to embodied practices and living spaces (Evans). The Mass-Observation archive, especially in its mantelpiece collection, is an accretion of temporalities and spaces. More crucially, it is an accumulation of temporalities materialised in a mass of spaces. A thousand mantelpieces in a thousand rooms scattered across the United Kingdom. Each shelf is syncopated to the rhythms of diverse durations, while being synchronised to the perpetual now of the shelf: a carriage clock, for instance, inherited from a deceased parent, its brass detailing relating to a different age, its mechanism perpetually telling you that the time of this space is now. The archive carries you away to a thousand living rooms filled with the momentary (dead insects) and the eternal (pebbles) and everything in-between. Its centrifugal force propels you out to a vast accrual of things: ashtrays, rubber bands, military paraphernalia, toy dinosaurs; a thousand living museums of the incidental and the memorial.   This vertiginous archive threatens to undo you; each shelf a montage of times held materially together in space. It is too much. It pushes me towards the mantelshelves I know, the ones I’ve had a hand in. Each one an archive in itself: my grandfather’s green glass paperweight holding a fragile silver foil flower in its eternal grasp; the potions and lotions that feed my hypochondria; used train tickets. Each item pushes outwards to other times, other spaces, other people, other things. It is hard to focus, hard to cling onto anything.

Was it the dead butterfly, or the tranquillizers, or both, that finally nailed me? Or was it the half a cough-candy? I know what she means by leaving the remnants of this sweet. You remember the taste, you think you loved them as a child, they have such a distinctive candy twist and colour, but actually their taste is harsh, challenging, bitter. There is nothing as ephemeral and as “useless” as a sweet; and yet few things are similarly evocative of times past, of times lost. Yes, I think I’d leave half a cough-candy on a shelf, gathering dust.

[All these lists of mantelpiece items are taken from the Mass-Observation archive at the University of Sussex. Mass-Observation is a registered charity. For more information about Mass-Observation go to]


Barthes, Roland. Camera Lucida. Translated by Richard Howard. London: Fontana, 1984.

Calder, Angus, and Dorothy Sheridan, eds. Speak for Yourself: A Mass-Observation Anthology 1937–1949. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1985.

Ehrenzweig, Anton. The Psychoanalysis of Artistic Vision and Hearing: An Introduction to a Theory of Unconscious Perception. Third edition. London: Sheldon Press, 1965. [Originally published in 1953.]

---. The Hidden Order of Art. London: Paladin, 1970.

Evans, Adrian. “Enlivening the Archive: Glimpsing Embodied Consumption Practices in Probate Inventories of Household Possessions.” Historical Geography 36 (2008): 40-72.

Highmore, Ben. Everyday Life and Cultural Theory. London: Routledge, 2002.

---. Ordinary Lives: Studies in the Everyday. Abingdon: Routledge, 2011.

Hubble, Nick. Mass-Observation and Everyday Life: Culture, History, Theory, Houndmills and New York: Palgrave, 2006.

Hurdley, Rachel. “Dismantling Mantelpieces: Narrating Identities and Materializing Culture in the Home.” Sociology 40, 4 (2006): 717-733

Mass-Observation. Mass-Observation. London: Fredrick Muller, 1937.

---. First Year’s Work 1937-38. London: Lindsay Drummond, 1938.

---. Britain. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1939.

Sekula, Allan. “The Body and the Archive.” October 39 (1986): 3-64.

Sheridan, Dorothy, Brian Street, and David Bloome. Writing Ourselves: Mass-Observation and Literary Practices. Cresskill, New Jersey: Hampton Press, 2000.

Stoler, Ann Laura. Race and the Education of Desire: Foucault’s History of Sexuality and the Colonial Order of Things. Durham and London: Duke UP, 1995.

Stoler, Ann Laura. Along the Archival Grain: Epistemic Anxieties and Colonial Common Sense. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2009.

Author Biography

Ben Highmore, University of Sussex

Ben Highmore is Reader in Cultural Studies at the University of Sussex. His most recent books are A Passion for Cultural Studies (Palgrave, 2009) and Ordinary Lives: Studies in the Everyday (Routledge, 2010), and the edited collection The Design Culture Reader (Routledge, 2009).