lists, inventory, taxonomy, data

How to Cite

Wilken, R., & McCosker, A. (2012). List. M/C Journal, 15(5).
Vol. 15 No. 5 (2012): list
Published 2012-10-15


list, Liszt, mist, quist (Dialect wood pigeon), wrist, grist, tryst, cyst, cist (box holding ritual objects), schist, whist, twist, xyst (long portico) (Fergusson 270)

“Everyone uses lists,” Francis Spufford (2) tells us. Lists are all pervasive; they are part-and-parcel of how we experience and make sense of the world. According to Umberto Eco, the whole history of creative production can be seen as one that is characterised by an “infinity of lists” comprising, to name a few, visual lists (sixteenth century religious paintings, Dutch still life paintings), pragmatic or utilitarian lists (shopping lists, library catalogues, assets in a will), poetic or literary lists (such as in Joyce or Sebald, for instance), lists of places, lists of things (like the great list of ships in the Iliad), and so on, ad infinitum... In accordance with such variation in form comes great variation in purpose, with lists used to “enumerate, account, remind, memorialize, order,” and so on (Belknap 6). List making, Geoffrey Bowker and Susan Leigh Star point out, “has frequently been seen as one of the foundational activities of advanced human society” (137): to cite three examples, list making is argued to be crucial to our understanding of orality and the development of literacy (Goody 74-111), and to the connection between these and later forms and techniques of information management (Hobart and Schiffman), as well as to our appreciation of the functioning and value of narrativity (White). In this way, Robert Belknap perhaps has a point in proposing that, “The list form is the predominant mode of organizing data relevant to human functioning in the world” (8).

Simply defined, a list is “a formally organized block of information that is composed of a set of members” (Belknap 15). What is significant about a list is that it is “simultaneously the sum of its parts and the individual parts themselves” (15). That is to say, like links in a chain, “the list joins and separates at the same time” (15). In addition to these features, Jack Goody also suggests that, across their various manifestations, lists have a number of basic characteristics or conventions concerning how they are constructed and read, which, appropriately, he lists as follows:

The list relies on discontinuity rather than continuity; it depends on physical placement, on location; it can be read in different directions, both sideways and downwards, up and down, as well as left and right; it has a clear-cut beginning and a precise end, that is, a boundary, an edge, like a piece of cloth. Most importantly it encourages the ordering of the items, by number, by initial sound, by category, etc. And the existence of boundaries, external and internal, brings greater visibility to categories, at the same time as making them more abstract. (Goody 81)

Just as boundaries are “an important attribute” (Goody 80) of the list and how each is compiled, so too are semantic boundary disputes for how we conceive of the list vis-à-vis other forms of enumeration. If one were to compose a list of lists, Belknap suggests, it “would include the catalogue, the inventory, the itinerary, and the lexicon” (2). This is, however, a problematic typology insofar as each item can be seen to hold subtle differences in form and purpose from the list, as Belknap is quick to point out: “The catalogue is more comprehensive, conveys more information, and is more amenable to digression than the list. In the inventory, words representing names or things are collected by a conceptual principle.” (2-3) In his discussion of lists in literature, Spufford extends the first of these distinctions by drawing a qualitative distinction between the list (“In a list, almost everything that makes writing interesting to read seems inevitably to be excluded,” 1) and the catalogue (“Rather richer, and a step closer to the complex intentions and complex effects of literature proper, are the catalogues of some sorts of collections,” 3). Elsewhere, the close associations, and difficulties in differentiating, between the list and the classification system has also been noted (Bowker and Star, 137-61). While we recognise these delicate, at times almost imperceptible but nonetheless significant differences in meaning, in this special issue we take an expansive and inclusive approach to the list form and the implications of lists and listing.

One (deceptively simple) distinction that is productive in framing this themed issue and the essays included in it is that which Belknap (3-5) draws between literary lists, on the one hand, and pragmatic or utilitarian lists, on the other hand. According to Belknap, literary lists are “complex in precisely the way a pragmatic list must not be” (5). Belknap, like Spufford before him, takes up and explores these “complexities” of literary lists in great detail. Two contributions to this special issue engage with the intricacies of the literary list. In the first of these, Darren Tofts, in his evocatively titled piece “Why Writers Hate the Second Law of Thermodynamics; Lists, Entropy, and the Sense of Unending,” examines the list form as it is mobilised by a range of writers, from Beckett and Borges, to Joyce and Robbe-Grillet. Tofts explores the exhaustion and tilt towards entropy that “issues from the tireless pursuit of categorisation, classification, and the mania for ordered information” by each of these diverse writers, and the way that words themselves tend to resist entropy by taking on “a weird half-life of their own” and sustaining “an unlikely […] stoical sense of unending.” Quite a different treatment of literary lists is offered by Tom Lee in his essay “The Lists of W. G. Sebald.” Focusing on the novel The Rings of Saturn, Lee explores the way that Sebald mobilises literary lists as a crucial device in his exploration and interrogation of the question, in Lee’s words, of what “might lay ahead for books if the question of what writing can be is asked continually as part of a writer’s enterprise.”

But to focus solely on literary lists is to obscure or ignore other vital dimensions of lists and listing, such as the way that pragmatic listing forms (not just their literary counterparts) can be put to powerful rhetorical use (Belknap 3). Bowker and Star capture this well in the following passage:

The material culture of bureaucracy and empire is not found in pomp and circumstance, nor even in the first instance of the point of a gun, but rather at the point of a list. (Bowker and Star 137)

This is something that has been evident to a number of writers and thinkers, not least Foucault, who, in his The Order of Things, for example, sought to delineate the rise of the great natural history taxonomies in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in terms of their productive power as authoritative forms of classification. Foucault’s exploration of these connections can be said to have fed his subsequent theorisations of “governmentality”—which Judith Butler summarises as “a mode of power concerned with the maintenance and control of bodies and persons, the production and regulation of persons and populations” (52)—and of “biopolitics”—which Foucault defines as a “set of mechanisms through which the basic biological features of the human species became the object of a political strategy, of a general strategy of power” (Foucault, Security 1). It is within this tradition—that takes as one of its sources the work of Foucault and which runs in diverse tributaries of critical enquiry outwards in its exploration of the interconnections between lists (and other, related processes and techniques of classification) and power (see, for example, Poster)—that we can usefully situate two further essays in this issue, that by Katie Ellis and that by Suneel Jethani. Both of these essays take up lists in relation to quite distinct aspects of disabilities studies. In “Complicating a Rudimentary List of Characteristics: Communicating Disability with Down Syndrome Dolls,” Ellis brings “an interrogation of disability into dialogue with a critical analysis of the discursive function of lists” by interrogating “the use of lists in the way meanings about disability are communicated through the medical diagnostic list,” the production of Down Syndrome dolls for children, and unfavourable public reactions to these dolls. Ellis’s aim in exploring these concerns is to “complicate perceptions of disability beyond a rudimentary list of characteristics through a consideration of the negative public response to these dolls”—responses, she argues, that serve as a potent example of “the cultural subjugation of disability.” Meanwhile, in “Lists, Spatial Practice, and Assistive Technologies for the Blind,” Jethani explores the promise and perils of locative mobile media technologies designed to assist vision-impaired supermarket shoppers. Examining two prototypic applications, Shop Talk and Blind Shopping, Jethani argues that “the emancipatory potential” of these applications, “their efficacy in practical situations,” and their future commercial viability, is dependent upon commercial and institutional infrastructures and control, regulatory factors, and the extent to which they can successfully address “issues of interoperability and expanded access of spatial inventory databases and data.”

The bureaucratic—or more specifically, the political economic—dimensions of pragmatic or utilitarian lists and their composition also forms the point of departure for two further essays in this issue. The first of these is Gerard Goggin’s “List Media: The Telephone Directory and the Arranging of Names.” In this feature article (one of two in this issue), Goggin examines the long history and fraught future of telephone directories and proprietary interests in them. The argument he develops is that, while telephone directories are a form of book (at least traditionally), they are in fact better thought of as a unique form of media—what he terms “list media.” Proprietary interests in lists are also the specific concern of Jean Burgess and Axel Bruns who, in their article “Twitter Archives and the Challenges of ‘Big Social Data’ for Media and Communication Research,” explore the “technical, political, and epistemological” issues that attend the corporate control of network, profit-driven database—“list”—infrastructure, such as Twitter.

Notwithstanding the above considerations of power, inclusion and exclusion, ownership and control, there is one further, vital aspect of non-literary lists that warrants explicit mention here. This is the fact that pragmatic and utilitarian lists and our engagements with them are, for the most part, deeply embedded in everyday life and form part of all the routines, habits, and familiar patterns that characterise our “ordinary lives” (Highmore)—after all, to restate Spufford’s opening remark, this is the context in which “everyone uses lists” (2). The final two of the eight articles making up this themed issue examine everyday lists and the potential of lists as productive mechanisms for documenting and making sense of the ineffability of the everyday. The first of these, which also forms the first of the two feature articles, is Ben Highmore’s “Listlessness in the Archive.” This playful and poetic piece explores the challenges that a researcher faces when they attempt to tackle an archive that is the work of an army of “amateur anthropologist” volunteers who documented British lives in a project of Mass Observation. The centerpiece of the article is a series of lists compiled by the Mass-Observers of the objects on their own mantelpieces. Picking up on the theme of entropy (also explored by Tofts in this issue), Highmore describes the sense of listlessness that threatens to overwhelm his encounter with these lists. Lastly, in our article, “The Everyday Work of Lists,” we take a rather different approach to Highmore’s by exploring the work that lists do in “mediating the materiality and complexity of consumer-based everyday life.” Our guide is the French writer, Georges Perec, who, across a variety of projects and texts, deployed the list as a productive mechanism (an “invent-ory,” as we refer to it) and lever for prying open for inspection the seemingly inscrutable inner workings of everyday spaces, things, and memories.

To conclude this editorial introduction, it seems only fitting that we end with a brief list of acknowledgments. We wish to thank:

  1. those at M/C Journal, Axel Bruns and Peta Mitchell, for supporting and assisting with this special issue;
  2. the authors who entrusted us with their articles, and tolerated with good humour and patience our various requests; and,
  3. the many referees for their vital contributions in reading and reviewing the articles gathered here;
  4. Simon Hayter and the Ancient Egypt website, for the banner image, a twelfth century BC papyrus list of Egyptian rulers;
  5. those authors whose insights, scholarly pursuit and use of lists inspired this issue: Robert Belknap, Jack Goody, Umberto Eco, Georges Perec…


Belknap, Robert E. The List: The Uses and Pleasures of Cataloguing. New Haven: Yale UP, 2004.

Bowker, Geoffrey C., and Susan Leigh Star. Sorting Things Out: Classification and its Consequences. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2000.

Butler, Judith. Precarious Life. London: Verso, 2004.

Eco, Umberto. The Infinity of Lists. Trans. Alastair McEwen. London: MacLehose Press, 2009.

Fergusson, Rosalind. The Penguin Rhyming Dictionary. Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin, 1985.

Foucault, Michel. Security, Territory, Population: Lectures at the Collège de France 1977-1978. Trans. Graham Burchell. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

---. The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences. New York: Routledge, 2002.

Goody, Jack. “What’s in a List?” The Domestication of the Savage Mind. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1977. 74-111.

Highmore, Ben. Ordinary Lives: Studies in the Everyday. London: Routledge, 2011.

Hobart, Michael E., and Zachary S. Schiffman. Information Ages: Literacy, Numeracy, and the Computer Revolution. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins UP, 1998.

Poster, Mark. “Foucault and Databases.” The Mode of Information: Poststructuralism and Social Context. Oxford: Polity, 1990. 69-98.

Spufford, Francis. “Introduction.” The Chatto Book of Cabbages and Kings: Lists in Literature. Ed. Francis Spufford. London: Chatto & Windus, 1989. 1-23.

White, Hayden, “The Value of Narrativity in the Representation of Reality.” On Narrative. Ed. W. J. T. Mitchell. Chicago: The U of Chicago P, 1981. 1-23.

Author Biographies

Rowan Wilken, Swinburne University

Rowan Wilken holds an Australian Research Council funded Discovery Early Career Researcher Award (DECRA) in the Swinburne Institute for Social Research, Swinburne University of Technology, Melbourne, Australia. His present research interests include locative and mobile media, digital technologies and culture, domestic technology consumption, old and new media, and theories and practices of everyday life. He is author of Teletechnologies, Place, and Community (Routledge, 2011) and co-editor (with Gerard Goggin) of Mobile Technology and Place (Routledge, 2012).

Anthony McCosker, Swinburne University

Anthony McCosker lectures in media and communications at Swinburne University. His research explores the affective qualities of pain, violence and conflict across visual and networked media, and has been published in journals such as Continuum, Sexualities, M/C and Scope. He is author of Pain, Affect and Visual Culture: Intensive Media, to be published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2013.