Skip to main content


An Archaeology of Form

Liam Cole Young

Bare lists of words are found suggestive
to an imaginative and excited mind.
— Ralph Waldo Emerson

We like lists because we do not want to die.
— Umberto Eco

The list is a form totally ubiquitous in contemporary culture. We are inundated with lists at every turn: online, offline; at work, at play; in “high” culture, in “low” culture; in conversation, in print. Lists enumerate, measure, and rank – they tell us what is best, most valuable, or even simply what has happened. The form seems innocuous in its ubiquity; the detritus of day-to-day life, cast aside having served whatever its immediate purpose. While lists have always been with us, few would argue with the claim that there has been a massive proliferation of this form – particularly online – concomitant with the transition to what is variously called the “network,” “digital,” or “information” society.1

Observing contemporary “list culture” begs the question: why this explosion of lists, and why now? A plausible explanation is that their proliferation stems from huge increases in the volume and velocity of data flows, which facilitate a shift toward the list as a mode of managing “information overload.” Certainly, both producers and consumers have turned to the list – the former to quickly communicate information, the latter to help navigate a perceived information deluge. It follows from this hypothesis that the list is a prime example of the total subsumption of life, labour, and practice by capital – even our most banal or neutral spaces. This again seems plausible, given that the form has proven a highly efficient and effective device by which to reduce noise in the communicative channel, and not just in the realm of consumer culture.2

But then again, “information overload” is not a phenomenon unique to network cultures. Anne Blair points out that we’ve been complaining there is “too much to know” since at least the early modern period, more probably since antiquity.3 And the list itself is certainly not a new form – in fact our earliest surviving examples of writing are the clay tablet administrative lists of ancient Sumerians.4 Indeed, Blair, Jack Goody, and others show us that the list stands alongside almost every new media-technology and its corresponding “flood” of information – from ancient administrative writing, through medieval manuscript culture, the Gutenberg galaxy, the technical world of gramophone/film/typewriter, and into the digital code of the contemporary era.5 This being the case, the above preliminary hypotheses that regard the list as either a corollary of network society’s so-called “information overload,” and/or a surreptitious agent of capital are obviously not sophisticated enough to do justice to a form that exists in or alongside almost every inscription system on record.

How, then, to bring into focus a form that so defies classification? After all, the list functions variously as a communicative device, a cultural formation, a technique of administration, a storage or archival device, a poetic form, and a mediator. It can be past, present, or future-oriented – retroactive, administrative, or prescriptive. Consequently, rather than attempting a concrete definition of what the list is, it would be more productive to look at how it functions in relation to various techniques of inscription and/or representation, historical constellations of power/knowledge, and media-technical conditions of possibility. Media archaeology offers tools required to pursue such a functional history or genealogy. As “a kind of epistemological reverse engineering”6 that unearths the “nondiscursive infrastructure and (hidden) programs of media,”7 this emergent approach can excavate, for instance, certain capacities encoded within the list form that are related to the ways in which it processes, stores, and transmits data over space and time. By teasing out such programmatic dimensions, we gain crucial insight into the role of the list in the history of inscription systems that would be elided by more conventional cultural or socio-political approaches.

This essay will map out some connections between the list and the network in order to develop an archaeology of the list as a paradigmatic form of non-narrative inscription. Such an analysis will show that networks of various kinds (conceptual, imaginary, infrastructural, computational) as well as their often-competing logics (epistemological, disciplinary, operational) are too often conflated under the totalizing category “network.” In other words, observing the entities that structure and inform the constitutive elements and processes of networks can sharpen conceptual focus. Thus, the paper has three sections:

  1. 1. The list will be explored as a network by observing the operation of lists in the aesthetic and epistemological realms. “Network” is here deployed heuristically in order to map out the ways in which words and things and relations formally congeal.
  2. 2. Section two regards the capacity of lists to facilitate networks of action in the realm of administration. “Network” here denotes processes of action and reaction in a more Latourian sense.
  3. 3. Finally, I will offer some remarks about lists and digital networks in relation to programming and code, showing the list to be a crucial component of the operational infrastructure of digital computation and its networks.

This archaeology of form8 demonstrates that there lies at the heart of the list a constitutive tension that has ensured its persistence through multiple epistemological moments, going back to the advent of writing. This tension, first described by Umberto Eco regarding literary lists and visual art, is between “everything included” and “etcetera,”9 the finite and the infinite, and it exists in every place and every time that lists are made to function. The poetics of this tension allow the list to gesture toward what is unsayable (especially by narrative and prose), and to facilitate processes that would be impossible for the mind alone as a technique of data processing, storage, and transmission. As such, the list has much to tell us about the essence of writing, the human imagination, and even those spaces from which the human is excluded. An essay of this size can only hope to scratch such a surface, but specifically I will show that the tension between “everything included” and “etcetera” in the analog worlds of writing and representation tells us much about the persistence of the list form in operational, digital milieu, wherein the very same processes and tensions are negotiated. Put another way, my goal is to excavate the layers in which the list and its constitutive tension are inscribed and encoded within larger networks and infrastructures – both analog and digital.

The approach developed here follows Ernst’s media archaeological gaze in looking to modes of “counting rather than recounting”10 that resist the tendency to narrativize media history, “mak[ing] us aware of discontinuities in media cultures as opposed to the reconciling narratives of cultural history.”11 Ernst argues that ancient non-narrative modes of telling-as-counting such as chronicles or epics not only offer a “glimpse of a way of processing cultural experience that does not need stories,”12 but their calculation biases are far better equipped to guide our understanding of the code-based logic of contemporary network society. What follows isolates and deploys the list form as precisely such a non-narrative structure. To do so I take methodological inspiration not just from Ernst, but also from Zielinski’s media “anarchaeology”13 and Huhtamo’s tracing of wandering topoi,14 which provide tools to fashion this text as an “anarchaeological wandering”: a litany of examples, commentary, quotations, etc. regarding lists that resists narrative reductionism. “To write history … means to quote history,”15 wrote Walter Benjamin, the first media archaeologist. Through quotation and enumeration we interrupt the continuum of history, and it is in the spirit of Benjamin’s listed scraps of observations, analysis, and quotation that the following is offered as a means by which to probe the poetics and functionality of a form that has resonated for over five thousand years in our imaginations and our programs, which are usually not so very different.

List as Network

Christopher Kelty observes that though networks are material things, they must not be mistaken for the world; they are rather “the tool that the analyst uses to make sense of the world.”16 Yet networks are not just tools for analysis, but also of imagination. As such, this section deploys a conception of list-as-network metaphorically and heuristically to probe the form in both its analytical and imaginative capacities. Doing so brings into focus the extent to which a list is a form that is not strictly representational, nor diagrammatic, but indexical – both of its individual data units, and of the connections between these units. These constitutive elements and connections are materialized in a way other than the link-node diagram that has historically dominated network studies. A form such as the list forges units, relations, and caesuras17 via other visual means – borders, columns, numbers, lines, words, commas, etc. – and as a result helps us to see and to imagine strange resonances between words, things, data, and people that might otherwise escape our grasp. By attending to the formal dimensions of a list we learn about the way such forms materially structure the constitutive units of larger apparatuses (such as networks): units, relays, operations, protocols, relations, etc.

We can conceive of the list as a network because before anything else it draws things together – it collects, translates, abstracts, and places words and things in relation to one another. In the act of listing, a thing is visualized as a word that is placed above, below, or beside another; a border is drawn around several items that henceforth are connected by this very act of inclusion. The list is therefore indexical not just of its items, but also its categories and the system by which they are classified. Eco and Foucault both explore this dimension of lists in the aesthetic realm, with the latter offering a particularly memorable meditation on the power and pleasure of a list with his vignette about one of Jorge Luis Borges’ strange taxonomies.18 Foucault’s recounting of his confounding encounter shows just how generative a list can be – it was this event that inaugurated the archaeological approach to knowledge and history that would define his oeuvre:

[The Order of Things] first arose out of a passage in Borges, out of the laughter that shattered … all the familiar landmarks of my thought – our thought, the thought that bears the stamp of our age and our geography – breaking up all the ordered surfaces and all the planes with which we are accustomed to take the wild profusion of existing things … In the wonderment of his taxonomy, the thing we apprehend in one great leap … is the limitation of our own, the stark impossibility of thinking that.19

By drawing together a network of things that does not simply resist, but radically negates any conventional classificatory mechanism, Borges’ list materializes to Foucault his inability to think outside the conditions that delimit and structure his own thought. This impossibility is rendered immanent through both the list’s content (the seemingly random series of items), and its form (the placement of things beside one another in writing, the confounding nature of its classificatory system). Furthermore, its affective power is derived from the very fact that this is a closed list in which everything is included – there is a system to the finite collection of things, but it is unthinkable. Thus the role of the list in collecting, organizing, and structuring information – in creating “knowledge” as networks of knowable things – is here laid bare to Foucault, and us, via a negation achieved through the materiality of form.

Eco, meanwhile, celebrates a poetics of the list by tracing a long history of its use as a descriptive and figurative form in literature and visual art. The list for Eco has a unique capacity to collect the world; it is suggestive of what he calls the “topos of ineffability,” which is an aesthetic gesture toward the infinite, the unknowable, or the not-yet-known that is made again and again throughout the ages to stimulate the imagination of the beholder: “[f]aced with something that is immensely large, or unknown, of which we still do not know enough or of which we shall never know, the author proposes a list as a specimen, example, or indication, leaving the reader to imagine the rest.”20 John Durham Peters, too, is fond of this disseminative capacity of lists. He describes their function in his writing as both a “battle against [his] own finitude” and an always already futile attempt to “catch the cosmos.”21 These kinds of lists point us toward the infiniteness of all things on a vast, macrocosmic scale. They open up horizons that can make manifest the entirety of human history, or at least written history, which is, at its core, 5000 years of listmaking. Perhaps the greatest affordance of the list’s poiesis is that it confronts us with this fact, that as long as we have made marks on inscription surfaces, we have made lists; as long as we have contemplated the cosmos, we have sought to capture it and to revel in its infiniteness – often with the very same formal gesture. Lists of the ineffable offer the list maker the means by which to express simultaneously an awe of the infinite, and a sense of his or her own finitude. They offer a means by which to transcend this finitude by reaching across the void to a beholder via an affective form that circumvents any need for interpretation, or even historical context. Certain lists, such as the famous catalogue of ships in Homer’s Odyssey, call forth the past in a way that narrative and prose cannot – call it an “affect of etcetera.”22

While talk of the cosmos and the transcendence of space and time may project a grandeur that seems incommensurate with such a commonplace item, it is worth noting that the topos in question is just as often about the ineffability of the world disclosing itself via life’s excruciating banalities. Georges Perec found this idea productive; for him listing was an essential mode through which to explore the melancholy of time. Marc Lowenthall asserts that, by attempting to observe and record everything that occurred in one space over a period of time,23 Perec worked through the notion that “everything that happens and that does not happen ultimately serves no other function than that of so many chronometers, so many signals, methods and clues for marking time, for eroding permanence.”24 The impossibility of the attempt to see or catch everything is immanent in Perec’s work; his enumerations continuously touch the ecstatic madness of infinity. The same topos of ineffability identified by Eco and Peters as encoded in the list as an aesthetic form is thereby operative in Perec; the former explore it through “etcetera,” the latter through “everything included.” Excavating such articulations is exactly the kind of media archaeological project that Huhtamo calls for in “identifying topoi, analyzing their trajectories and transformations, and explaining the cultural logics that condition their “wanderings” across time and space.”25

Related though divergent takes on the unique capacity of the list to probe horizons of thought and existence have begun to appear in contemporary debates concerning the “new materialist” and “nonhuman” turn(s). Matthew Fuller, for instance, highlights the capacity for lists to materialize relations. Any media ecology, in his theorization, must start with a listing of the stuff of which it is made, a breaking down into constituent parts which allows for the generative exploration of resonances, connections, and becomings between and amongst these parts. Meanwhile, Ian Bogost sees a unique capacity of lists for foregrounding the inherent discontinuity of the world. Bogost argues that “ontographic” forms such as lists disrupt the linearity of narrative and representation, serving to foreground objects or things in their alien, isolated strangeness. The list is an intruder, to the literary ear its “off-pitch sound … only emphasizes [its] real purpose: disjunction instead of flow. Lists remind us that no matter how fluidly a system may operate, its members nevertheless remain utterly isolated, mutual aliens.”26

In his thinking about lists – specifically, horizontal lists – Bogost finds especially compelling the work done by the “gentle knot of the comma.”27 The comma both connects and disconnects, uniting the items of a list only by dividing them into discrete units. As such, the comma seems to do as much or more of the philosophical work Bogost attributes to lists, since it is the comma that materially isolates the alien units contained in a list. For all the richness of his analysis, a preoccupation with the way the list isolates leads Bogost to conflate its material properties – the unit that actually atomizes, the comma, falls under the general rubric of “list” and is not attended to in its own operative strangeness. As a result, the fact of the list itself – a space delineated by borders that inscribe a distinct barrier around its contents – is de-emphasized. For instance, any horizontal list is bookended by punctuation, usually a colon to signal its start and a period to mark its end: glass, book, pen, coaster, cord. All units that fall between these marks are connected by this spatial inclusion. The strangeness of these relations may provoke us into a consideration of each isolated unit; nonetheless, they have been drawn together for as long as the list endures. Inscriptive practices and cultural techniques matter here – we cannot only focus on the discrete units of lists or the marks of punctuation that frame them without also training our eye on the larger form of which they are constitutive, and toward the larger arrangement of relations that emerges – even if that very arrangement is one of discontinuity.

A list is not reducible to its discrete contents, nor only to the connections it forges between them. Before all else, a list is a list – a thing unto itself, a bordered space of collection. The etymology of the word reminds us of this fact: border, strip, edge, or hem.28 Incorporating vertical lists (which Bogost curiously ignores) can lend precision to this point. Goody notes that “the [vertical] list … has a clear-cut beginning and a precise end, that is, a boundary, an edge, like a piece of cloth … And the existence of boundaries, external and internal, brings greater visibility to categories, at the same time as making them more abstract.”29 Foregrounding its material properties or techniques of inscription forces us to reckon with the fact that the list always draws things together. And through its visible borders the list wears its principle(s) of organization (or lack thereof) as a kind of exoskeleton: always observable, but often unnoticed. As such, every list is dialectic, simultaneously challenging existing classificatory schemes by erecting new ones, and calling into question the very categories it materializes.30

And so any list forges connections between its contents – even if just the basic fact of being placed together – that did not exist prior to the act of listing. This can be for the purposes of suggesting the infinite in a poetics of “etcetera,” as Eco and Peters show us, but it can also be for more pragmatic purposes, such as in the documentation of science, knowledge, and so-called “everyday life.” Such “utilitarian” lists31 are more about doing than showing, but it would be a mistake to write them off as essentially less complex than lists used for aesthetic purposes. Latour’s work can help us to understand such lists as a kind of black-boxed actor-network in which the poetics of “everything included” are often at work. If we un-black box a list, we can see how its collected objects come to be stabilized, mobilized, and combined as “information.” Latour calls forms that do this kind of work “immutable mobiles,” which draw things together and allow us to control their contents – what they re-present – from a distance.32 “When someone is said to ‘master’ a question or to ‘dominate’ a subject, you should normally look for the flat surface that enables mastery (a map, a list, a file, a census, the wall of a gallery, a card-index, a repertory) and you will find it.”33

I have explored elsewhere34 the ways in which lists congeal the various components of a field such as popular music, wherein songs, artists, moments, and memories are abstracted as data in a variety of lists that function in field-specific ways. Through this form, collective archives and canons emerge, commodity circulation is measured, taste is made, and mastery of knowledge is performed. This constitutive capacity of lists on knowledge is also observable in Foucault’s meticulous tracing of emergent modes of observation and classification that in the classical period helped distance natural history from the mysticism that preceded it.35 Lists serve a similar function in the florilegia of the Middle Ages. While this mode of information organization emerged initially as a personal list of things worth remembering about a text, Blair notes that authors of florilegia very quickly began to share and disseminate their lists, which served to establish and spread awareness of a (or “the”) canon.36 More than mere summaries, florilegia stood as conscious value judgments about a text, in which the “best” or “most important” passages were isolated and emphasized. These lists of individual judgments began to circulate as crucial, authoritative documents regarding important sources and passages, a fact that emphasizes the form’s constitutive function in knowledge formation and circulation. That is, lists are here epistemological operators on emergent fields of knowledge and discourse communities.37

This section has explored what the list-as-network tells us about human epistemology and imagination. It has traced some of the ways the material, inscriptive, properties of lists perform a structuring function on human knowledge and thought in various historical epochs; that is, how lists testify to the modes of classification and conceptualization that obtain at different historical moments. Focusing on such functions illuminates the extent to which systems of thought are assembled via material forms such as lists. But it is crucial also to understand that lists are not static documents; they go out and do things in the world. Florilegia, for instance, allowed their authors to inscribe themselves into a network of intellectual activity as cultural relays or tastemakers, offering a space in which to announce and enact one’s erudition and mastery. This tendency is alive and well in contemporary list culture, as we observe each December with the inevitable flood of “best of the year” lists. Such activity points toward the ways in which lists facilitate networks of action that occur outside of their borders, which is where we will turn next.

Lists facilitating networks

Lists facilitate networks of activity by programmingaction, and thus are never neutral. This becomes evident when looking at the list’s implication in both internalized technologies of self-administration, and also in externalized technologies of control over human populations. Max Weber talks about the former in his discussion of the religious account-books of reformed Christians, which function as an internal checklist used by the conscientious Puritan to supervise his/her own state of grace.38 More recently, Maurizio Lazzarato describes the ways in which contemporary subjects are made to internalize the creditor-debtor relation via a similar (though secularized) moral-ethical balance sheet, a process that produces neoliberalism’s new ideal subject: “the indebted man.”39, 145-50.))

On the other hand, examples of the list facilitating the externalized control over human populations are evidenced most heinously by the census and death lists of the Nazi administrative apparatus. By reducing human beings to lines in a registry and abstracting bare life into numbers and figures, such tactics served not just to de-humanize subjects but also to “transport them to a new reality – namely, death.”40 Kenneth Werbin argues that the materiality of the list – again, its visible borders – served a crucial function in the installation of Nazi governmentality by enacting a caesura of certain policable segments of the population from others.41 While a logic of “everything included” is implied by lists that create new categories of people by drawing borders around certain groups in opposition to others, at the same time these lists were necessarily flexible – the list of groups judged abnormal by the Nazis continued to expand over time, as did criteria for inclusion.42 Which is to say, the competing logics of “everything included” (a closed group of abnormal subjects to be policed) vs. “etcetera” (a continuous expansion of whom and what would be categorized as such) are at play within the Nazi listing apparatus.

The implication of forms such as lists is not often acknowledged in histories of the Third Reich, wherein they are understood (if noticed at all) simply as the administrative detritus of a vast mythico-ideological apparatus articulated via more conventional, literary forms of writing and rhetoric. Lists are thus elided as a kind of noise in the archival channel in which conventional narrative and causal histories of the Third Reich are written.43 But media archaeology teaches us that noise is as crucial to understanding a discourse network as any other factor, if not more so.44 Operational “noise” like lists structure the way people see things and they enable (sometimes demand) people to do things. And it is only via the “cultural techniques” of doing things that larger structures and infrastructures come to exist,45 whether at the level of a small group that commits itself to political action via a list of principles or demands, or a fascism bent on mobilizing the world in the name of a thousand year Reich. Thus, Götz Aly & Karl Heinz Roth: “[e]very military and labor column existed first as a column of numbers. Every act of extermination was preceded by an act of registration; selection on paper ended with selection on the ramps.”46 There is a networked infrastructure of media, practice, forms, and action that prefigures any of the nominal categories deployed in conventional histories of the Third Reich (such as ideology, racism, militarism, mythology, etc). As a form that travels across media and through media environments, the list here is an integral component of this network; it is an example of a residue or trace of relationships that is essential to the network archaeological project of excavating a non-media-centric history of connection.47

The host of ethical issues that emerge out of this implication of lists in the administration of human life lay outside of the scope of this essay. The point to be emphasized is that in such administrative contexts, lists prescribe and determine networks of action – the Nazi census produces a series of lists and documents that program the actions of its agents, the structure and organization of its institutions, and the trajectories of its subjects, while the Puritan’s internal checklist prescribes his/her future actions and overall way of being-in-the-world. In both cases, the list processes the past in the present so as to affect the future – the puritan calls forth past transgressions in an internal incantation so that s/he might know what must be done, while the administrative apparatus of the Nazis only functions because its logistical operations are recorded for future reference. A system of data operations congeals in each case, which show lists to be algorithmic.

Cornelia Vismann isolates this function of lists in her magisterial exploration of files as the privileged entity in Occidental culture. Files, she argues, are constitutive of the central concepts by which the modern West was forged: truth, subject, state, and law. Lists are crucial in this process, she notes, given that they actually prefigure files and “govern the inside of the file world.” While files are process-generated algorithmic entities, going a layer deeper shows that the process generators are themselves “list-shaped control signs.”48 Lists prescribe any file’s movement through space and time – a file note issues a command for the next movement of a file’s existence (to where or to whom in any network of activity the file will travel, at what time, by which means, etc). Each executed command triggers another one, and over time these notes accumulate, one after the other, to form a list. File notes therefore both program and preserve, prescribe and record any file’s “life.”49

Any mention of algorithms necessarily points toward digital computation, so this is where we turn now, to see what our anarchaeological wandering through the world of lists tells us about programming and code.

List and computation

The logic of the list is integral to the world of computing in data structures such as arrays, queues, stacks, and databases, as Vismann, Manovich, and Adam all highlight.50 The latter defines “List” in computing as “a data structure that is an ordered group of entities.”51 This structure can be either static or dynamic. The former allow only observation and enumeration of elements, the latter allow for manipulation – the insertion, replacement, or deletion of elements. The programming language Lisp (short for List Processor) is the second oldest high-level computing language still in use and is an instructive example in this regard. The constitutive data type of Lisp is, of course, the list, out of which almost all other entities are constructed.52 Echoing Vismann’s description of algorithmic file-notes, Adam points out a double function of lists in Lisp that both program and store data: a list is sent first as a command, which is then processed via the list form, after which the data sent and processed stands as a listed record of what has occurred.53

Lisp accommodates the mixing of data types (any type of thing) within the same list. In Lisp, “a variable can hold values of any type and the values carry type information that can be used to check types at runtime.”54 That is, you may enumerate trees, cars, a cat, and bandages without declaring them to be any single type:


The fact that Lisp does not require a programmer to declare data types in advance according to any guiding principle in order for them to be processed runs contra programming languages such as C++ and Java. The latter require at the outset a declaration regarding what type of object each variable can hold (and if an object doesn’t match the value assigned it cannot be processed). Because they do not require a human programmer to establish their criteria, lists in Lisp are “self-typing” and thereby inherently more flexible.

Furthermore, Adam shows, lists provide a structure that allows Lisp to process symbols rather than simply numbers. According to Lisp creator John McCarthy, developing a programming language capable of moving beyond “number crunching” and toward reasoning about the world would involve

representing information about the world by sentences in a suitable formal language and a reasoning program that would decide what to do by making logical inferences. Representing sentences by list structure seemed appropriate – it still is – and a list processing language also seemed appropriate for programming the operations involved in deduction – it still is.55

As such, the list has proven particularly attractive to AI researchers – it is an elegant data structure not limited by pre-existing abilities that can both absorb, and potentially reason through (rather than simply process), a significant amount of data. As a “programmable programming language,” Lisp very easily absorbs paradigm shifts in programming and will likely continue to do so.56 Thus because its constitutive form is adaptable and can create its own processes, Lisp has survived epistemic shifts in programming better than other languages.

This brief overview of Lisp is meant to show one example in which the list is formally operative in the digital realm. Others can be found, such as ArrayLists in Java or linked lists in C (similarly open-ended data structures); “List” was one of the thirteen original HTML tags designed by Tim Berners-Lee; while early programmers will no doubt recall “program listing” printouts that stored pages upon pages of line-by-line code on fan-fold paper. The latter in fact stand as an interesting bridge between digital computation and Vismann’s analog world of files – program listings testify to a moment in which the storage and transmission capacities of computation had not yet caught up to processing capacity; or perhaps they betray the last vestiges of the archive fever of the Gutenberg galaxy. Regardless, lists give form to protocols,57 and in its algorithmic capacities (both analog and digital) the list discloses itself as a building block of digital computation’s operational infrastructure. As Ernst describes, “[c]omputer programming, the cultural force of today, is non-narrative; its algorithmic forms of writing – alternative forms of minimal, serial time-writing … are close to the paradigm of computing itself.”58 Just as these algorithmic lists in computation are present-based processing forms, so too are Vismann’s file-note lists. What interests both thinkers about these lists of “etcetera” is that they are inherently open, flexible and able to operate in real time as required by the computational networks of which they are a part. Such a time-critical understanding of networks is made available by zeroing in on their constitutive processual operators, such as the list.

The media archaeological lens allows us to simultaneously keep in focus: (1) that seemingly innocuous things like lists perform crucial operational functions, as shown above; (2) that they become formally baked into emergent digital ecologies, being archived in any medium through which they are operative (the list is imprinted in files, for instance, as the constitutive processing form through which the latter can exist, while it is similarly inscribed in the digital computer as the entity that gives form to the algorithm and, often, the protocol); finally, (3) that such non-narrative forms have served similar functions in previous epistemological moments.

Ernst forges many such direct connections between network society and earlier non-narrative modes of relaying data in terms of calculability:

In digital computing, the sequence of operations required to perform a specific task is known as an algorithm. Medieval annalism also stands for a writing aesthetics of organizing a sequence of events in serial, sequential order … Here diachronical clustering serves as a memory operation beyond the narrative unification of data.59

Ernst means to show that digital computation has more in common with the way data is processed in ancient modes of relaying the past than with the monopoly of narrative in modern historiography; pre-modern modes engender sorting and counting, enumeration rather than causation, and so doing constitute a sense of time rooted in calculation rather than narrative: counting rather than recounting. Modern historiography has excised calculated time, but this was not always so:

The old English tellan derives from a prehistoric Germanic word meaning “to put in order” (both in narration and counting). We find this kind of non-explanatory and paratactic mode in the epic discourse. Homer, in his Iliad, already used the form of listing in the appropriately called “Catalogue of Ships” … Here telling is counting – a practice well known from ancient oriental lists of rulers.60

Epic discourse mobilizes the list form to relay the past non-narratively, to tell via counting. Goody shows this with written lists from even earlier periods (ca. 3000 BCE), which visualize words and things into data that can be re-ordered and manipulated in new, non-narrative ways.61 Later, Leibniz “actually mused on the option to calculate a virtual protocol of the world by counting, not narrating: combining and recombining every letter that has ever been written in world history. Once registered in discrete symbols, events could be literally processed … The form can match every object, every referent.”62 The algorithmic logic of protocols, stacks, and compilers in digital computation are the distant echoes of such operations. Digital aesthetics and computation enact a situation in which telling has become counting once again, “[n]arrative on the emphatic literary level (raconter) is being replaced by literally counting microevents on the media archaeological level.”63 Languages such as Lisp show that computer programming – “the cultural force of today” which does not tell stories but calculates units – takes shape and unfolds formally via certain understudied but vitally important entities such as the list, or as emphasized elsewhere in this issue, the stack.64 An archaeology of the list form allows us to connect certain computational a priori that exist within the very different media environments of, for instance, network society, ancient administrative writing, and early modern philosophical speculation.

Furthermore, the constitutive tension between etcetera and everything-included resonates in each context: the unfolding of non- or pre-narrative historical time becomes thinkable through the listing of events, actors, and things from the past in the annals; these both enumerate data as a bulkhead against the entropy of infinity and reach toward the future by compiling as much information as possible. Meanwhile, algorithms streamline processing mechanisms and protocols as a means by which to tellan (give order) to the numerical ontology of computation, while also maintaining a flexibility that enables modes of self-generating, indefinite processing. In both instances, operative forms like lists constitute and facilitate the required networks of actors, signs, processes, events, mechanisms, etc. Such a Benjaminian folding of time, in which different epochs are made to touch and resonate with one another, is precisely what media archaeology makes available to analysis.65


Following Eco, this essay has identified a poetics that lies at the heart of the list’s survival over space and time, which emerges out of a constitutive tension between the competing logics of “everything included” and “etcetera.” Everything included lists are closed structures that offer the pleasure of the finite, such as Homer’s description of Achilles shield in the Odyssey.66 Similarly, data structures in computing such as Arrays are closed structures with static memory allocation, dependent on a human agent. Algorithms, too, are finite lists of instructions that enable the calculation of functions. In each case, everything is included. On the other hand, there are lists of “etcetera,” such as Homer’s famous catalogue of ships, in which the topos of ineffability is made manifest.67 In programming languages such as Lisp we see a poetics of “etcetera” in the malleability of a self-generating structure that does not rely on a human agent.

Such comparisons are made to show that this tension between “everything included” and “etcetera” exists at a deep, possibly ontological level, and that it is eminently productive. According to Fuller, the list articulates what Deleuze calls an aesthetics of multiplicity; by enumerating the diverse components of an ecology or system, such forms compel us to ask: “[h]ow can they be connected? The heterogeneity, the massive capacity for disconnectedness of the parts, coupled with the plain evidence of their being linked by some syntax, of writing or performative action, allows for the invention of newly transversal, imaginal, technico-aesthetic or communicative dynamics to flower.”68 The poetics of “everything included” vs. “etcetera” encapsulates all of the ambivalence and complexity of the list as a form that Fuller sees as so generative in digital worlds – exclusion vs. inclusion, order vs. chaos, finite vs. infinite, the drive for organization vs. the ecstasy of accumulation. This same tension is integral to each of the thinkers and examples discussed in the above three sections.

To draw a border around this essay: we have seen that tracing a form such as the list using tools and concepts borrowed from media archaeology can open up our capacity to map productive connections between the aesthetic, socio-political, epistemological, and digital. Toward the project of network archaeology, we have used the list to conceive of networks beyond the link-node model, and to think about how networks contain processes, units, operations, and actors that are structured by particular forms. The latter are not simply passive containers, but actively contribute to what is possible for any network’s constitutive elements and processes. Alex Galloway’s expansion of the concept of network accounts for various “lower” level operations such as protocol; what I argue is that we can go even further “down” to show that these operations themselves take particular and at times peculiar forms. By probing one such form from many different angles, I have tried to avoid categorizing the list as something that is either good or bad, this or that, here or there. This archaeology of form has furthermore sought to explode conventional historical narratives – such as those that conceive the ubiquity of contemporary lists as a response to so-called information overload – in order to develop an analysis that instead looks toward what lists actually do, how the form travels along throughout history, congealing in or as certain sets of relations, and facilitating certain kinds of activity. Our anarchaeological wandering brings forward the list as a generative entity of the kind Michel Serres connects to the god Hermes. Serres will thus be granted the final, suggestive entry in this litany of thoughts, descriptions, elaborations, questions, etc:

The abstraction itself that I have in view … is not so much in place as circulating. My effort consists of abstracting, throughout the duration of relations, the different mailmen or messengers – represented by the god Hermes or the host of angels – who serve as delivery persons for prepositions … A verb or substantive chosen from a galaxy of Ideas, from the categories either in consciousness or in the subject, spawns systems or histories that are static, even if they claim to describe a process of becoming. It’s better to paint a sort of fluctuating picture of relations and rapports – like the percolating basin of a glacial river, unceasingly changing its bed and showing an admirable network of forks, some of which freeze or silt up, while others open up – or like a cloud of angels that passes, or the list of prepositions, or the dance of flames …69

  1. Examples are countless, whether in film, (American Film Institute’s “100 Years…100 Movies”), or literature (Time magazine’s “All-Time 100 Novels”). Even historical moments, persons, and events are being collected and/or ranked (BBC’s “100 Greatest Britons”). There is,, Amazon’s “listmania,” the listography books series (“your life in lists”), and who can forget the “25 things” craze that engulfed Facebook in 08-09. 

  2. Tiziana Terranova, for instance, convincingly demonstrates that such streamlined forms of communication have political implications, in that political action always rests upon and is delineated by the communicative forms and processes available to citizens (Terranova, 2004, 6-38). In networked society, she argues, the complexity of the world is broken down into what Baudrillard calls “the code” (1993, 50-87) – a series of resolvable probabilities (yes/no, good/bad, us/them, important/unimportant, etc.), which are contained in and delivered by communicative devices such as lists. One might suggest then, following Innis (2008), that the list is a technique of knowing that facilitates the monopolization of knowledge and maintains the status quo. Jean Baudrillard, “The Order of Simulacra” in Symbolic Exchange and Death, trans. Iain Hamilton (London: Sage, 1993), 50-87. Tiziana Terranova, Network Culture: Politics for the Information Age (London: Pluto Press, 2004). Harold Innis, The Bias of Communication 2nd ed. (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2002). 

  3. Anne M. Blair, Too Much to Know: Managing Scholarly Information before the Modern Age (New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2011). 

  4. Jack Goody, The Domestication of the Savage Mind (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1977).__ These early lists were both administrative (facilitating trade and other economic activity), and mnemonic (storing useful information about transactions and inventories). Over time, more sophisticated lists cropped up as societies of antiquity began to collect large numbers of texts in libraries such as Alexandria. ((Specifically, reference tools such as the Pinakes were developed, which “built on preexisting practices of list making (including Aristotle”s pinakes of poets), sorting (such as Theophrastus”s doxographies sorted topically and chronologically), and alphabetizing” (Blair, Too Much to Know, 16-17). 

  5. Such as: Jacques LeGoff, History and Memory, trans. Steven Rendall & Elizabeth Claman (New York: Columbia University Press, 1992); Kenneth C. Werbin, The list serves: the apparatuses of security and governmentality, PhD Thesis (Montreal: Concordia University, 2008); Umberto Eco, The Infinity of Lists (New York: Rizzoli, 2009). 

  6. Wolfgang Ernst, “Media Archaeography: Method and Machine versus History and Narrative of Media” in Media Archaeology: Approaches, Applications, and Implications, eds. Erkki Huhtamo and Jussi Parikka (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2011), 239. 

  7. Wolfgang Ernst, Digital Memory and the Archive, ed. Jussi Parikka (University of Minnesota Press, 2013), 59. 

  8. I use the term “form” not to denote a formal apparatus, i.e. the cinematic apparatus of film theory, which has inspired formal analysis of the apparatuses of the Internet and new media by thinkers like Alexander Galloway and Lev Manovich. Rather, I use the term to describe the shape and dimensions that data units, information, and protocols take, to denote what Galloway calls the “wrappers” or “containers” of protological entities: “Protocols are highly formal; that is, they encapsulate information inside a technically defined wrapper, while remaining relatively indifferent to the content of information contained within.” (Protocol: How Control Exists after Decentralization, Cambridge MA: MIT Press, 2004, 7-8). These wrappers are, more often than not, lists. 

  9. Eco, The Infinity of Lists, 7. 

  10. Ernst, “Media Archaeography,” 251. 

  11. Ernst, Digital Memory, 25. 

  12. Ernst, Digital Memory, 145. 

  13. See Sigfried Zielinski, Deep Time of the Media: Toward an Archaeology of Hearing and Seeing by Technical Means, trans. Gloria Custance (Cambridge MA: MIT Press, 2006). 

  14. See Erkki Huhtamo, “Dismantling the Fairy Engine: Media Archaeology as Topos Study” in Media Archaeology, 27-47. 

  15. Walter Benjamin, “N [Re the Theory of Knoweldge, Theory of Progress]” in Benjamin: Philosophy, Aesthetics, History, ed. Gary Smith (University of Chicago Press, 1989), 67. Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin discuss Benjamin”s use of quotation in their foreword to The Arcades Project: “The transcendence of the conventional book form would go together, in this case, with the blasting apart of pragmatic historicism … Citation and commentary might then be perceived as intersecting at a thousand different angles, setting up vibrations across the epochs of recent history … all this would unfold through the medium of hints or ‘blinks’ – a discontinuous presentation deliberately opposed to traditional modes of argument.” (“Translator”s Foreword” in Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, trans. Howard Eiland & Kevin McLaughlin, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999, xi). 

  16. Christopher Kelty, “Against Networks,” (2006) online at: 

  17. Werbin adopts the same usage of the literary term caesura as Foucault and Agamben (who use it to denote biopolitical fractures) to describe the ways in which lists fracture populations, segregating certain groups from others on paper (The list serves, 24-25, 73). 

  18. “In its remote pages it is written that the animals are divided into: (a) belonging to the emperor, (b) embalmed, (c) tame, (d) sucking pigs, (e) sirens, (f) fabulous, (g) stray dogs, (h) included in the present classification, (i) frenzied, (j) innumerable, (k) drawn with a very fine camelhair brush, (l) et cetera, (m) having just broken the water pitcher, (n) that from a long way off look like flies,” (Jorge Luis Borges, Other Inquisitions 1937-1952 [1964], trans. Ruth L.C.L. Simms, Austin: The University of Texas Press, 2000, 103). 

  19. Michel Foucault, The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences [1966] (New York and London: Routledge), xvi-xxvi. 

  20. Eco, The Infinity of Lists, 49. 

  21. John Durham Peters, “Becoming Mollusk: a conversation with John Durham Peters about media, materiality, and matters of history” in Communicaiton Matters: Materialist Approaches to Media, Mobility, and Networks, eds. Jeremy Packer & Stephen B. Crofts (London & New Work: Routledge, 2011), 45. 

  22. Eco uses Hesiod’s Theogony as an example, a list that “presents itself as a rather intolerable swarm of monstrous and prodigious beings, a universe overpopulated with invisible individuals that runs parallel to that of our experience, and whose roots are sunk in the mists of time” (Infinity of lists, 18). 

  23. In, for instance, An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris (1975) and Life: A User’s Manual (1978). 

  24. Marc Lowenthal in Georges Perec, An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris [1975], trans. Marc Lowenthal (Cambridge MA: Wakefield Press, 2010), 49-50. 

  25. Erkki Huhtamo, “Dismantling the Fairy Engine,” 28. 

  26. Ian Bogost, Alien Phenomenology, or What It’s Like to Be a Thing (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2012), 40. Bogost takes inspiration in such passages from Francis Spufford’s The Chatto Book of Cabbages and Kings: Lists in Literature (London: Chatto and Windus, 1989). 

  27. Bogost, Alien Phenomenology, 38. 

  28. Hence, also, “lists” as place of combat at the boundary of fields. See: Online etymology dictionary. 

  29. Goody, Domestication, 81. 

  30. Goody, Domestication, 81-84. See also Werbin, The list serves, 5-7. 

  31. Robert Belknap draws a distinction between pragmatic and literary lists in his exploration of the latter in The List: the Uses and Pleasures of Cataloguing (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004). 

  32. Bruno Latour, Science in action: How to follow scientists and engineers through society (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1987), 215-257. 

  33. Bruno Latour, “Drawing Things Together” in Representation in scientific practice, eds. M. Lynch and S. Woolgar (Cambridge, MA; London: MIT Press, 1990), 45. 

  34. Liam Young, “Un-black boxing the list: Knowledge, materiality, and form,” Canadian Journal of Communication (forthcoming). 

  35. Foucault, The Order of Things, 136-77. 

  36. Blair, Too Much to Know, 34-5. 

  37. Young, “Un-black boxing.” 

  38. Max Weber, The Protestant Work Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism [1958] trans. Talcott Parsons (New York and London: Routledge, 2001), 76-7. 

  39. Maurizio Lazzarato, The Making of the Indebted Man: an essay on the Neoliberal Condition, trans. Joshua David Jordan (Los Angeles: Semiotext(e 

  40. Götz Aly and Karl Heinz Roth, The Nazi Census: Identification and Control in the Third Reich (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2004), 1. 

  41. Werbin, The list serves, 44. 

  42. In 1933 categories of abnormal were “diseased,” “asocial,” and “criminal,” by 1935 these had been expanded to all “non-aryans,” with particular emphasis on the now overtly stated, inclusive category of “Jew.” See Michael Burleigh and Wolfgang Wipperman, The Racial State: Germany 1933-45 (Cambridge UK: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 45-59. 

  43. Edwin Black points to Raul Hilberg”s The Destruction of European Jewry as a paradigmatic example that, though it does outline the bloodshed and violence mandated by bureaucrats, misses entirely the fact that certain practices, forms, and methodologies structured such decisions. “In fact, the crucial minutiae of registration are barely mentioned in any of thousands of books on the Third Reich” (Edwin Black in Aly & Roth, The Nazi Census, ix). 

  44. See, for example, Jussi Parikka, “Mapping Noise: Techniques and Tactics of Irregularities, Interception, and Disturbance” in Media Archaeology, 256-277; and Ernst, “Media Archaeography,” 239-255. 

  45. As Macho suggests, “Cultural techniques – such as writing, reading, painting, counting, making music – are always older than the concepts that are generated from them. People wrote long before they conceptualized writing or alphabets; millennia passed before pictures and statues gave rise to the concept of the image; and still today, people sing or make music without knowing anything about tones or musical notation systems. Counting, too, is older than the notion of numbers. To be sure, most cultures counted or performed certain mathematical operations, but they did not necessarily derive from this a concept of number” (Macho in Bernhard Siegert, “Cacography or Communication? Cultural Techniques in German Media Studies,” trans. Geoffrey Winthrop-Young. Grey Room 29, Fall 2008, 29). 

  46. Aly & Roth, The Nazi Census, 1. 

  47. Nicole Starosielski, Braxton Soderman, and chris cheek, “Introduction: Network Archaeology,” Amodern 2 (2013). 

  48. Cornelia Vismann, Files: Law and Media Technology, trans. Geoffrey Winthrop-Young (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2008), 7. 

  49. For further elaboration of the role of lists in Files, see the author’s review essay, “Files, lists, and the material history of the law,” Theory, Culture and Society 30 (forthcoming). 

  50. Alison Adam, “Lists” in Software Studies: a Lexicon, ed. Matthew Fuller (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2008), 174-178; Lev Manovich, The language of new media (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2001); Vismann, Files, 163. 

  51. Adam, “Lists,” 174. 

  52. Derek Robinson, “Function,” in Software Studies, 104. While this is true for the original Lisp language designed by John McCarthy, it is important to note that contemporary iterations, such as “Common Lisp,” incorporate other data types such as vectors and hash tables. 

  53. Adam, “Lists,” 177. 

  54. Peter Seibel, Practical Common Lisp (New York: Apress, 2005), 65. 

  55. John McCarthy, “LISP Preshistory—Summer 1956 through Summer 1958” (1996), online at: 

  56. Seibel, Practical Common Lisp, 4. 

  57. Galloway, again: “Protocol is simply a wrapper. It must conceal its own innards” (Protocol, 65). 

  58. Ernst, “Media Archaeography,” 252. 

  59. Ernst, Digital Memory, 150. 

  60. Ernst, Digital Memory, 148. 

  61. Goody, Domestication, 76. 

  62. Ernst, Digital Memory, 151. 

  63. Ernst, Digital Memory, 155. 

  64. Rory Solomon, “Last in/First out: Media Archaeology of/as the Stack,” Amodern 2 (2013). 

  65. A much broader project would map the extent to which the list’s role in processing data in analog epistemes offers us glimpses of an emergent inscription matrix that anticipates and prefigures the appearance of the digital computer. 

  66. Eco, The Infinity of Lists, 8-13. 

  67. Eco, The Infinity of Lists, 15-35. 

  68. Fuller, Media Ecologies, 15. 

  69. Michel Serres with Bruno Latour, Conversations on Science, Culture, and Time, trans. Roxanne Lapidus (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1995), 105. 

Article: Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License

Image: "Introduction: Paragraph 13”
From: "Drawings from A Thousand Plateaus"
Original Artist: Marc Ngui
Copyright: Marc Ngui