By Alexandre Serrano
There is no greater conscious notion in me than the exuberant diversity of the world and no greater aversion than the one I feel for all kinds of mechanisms and ideologies that try to turn it into something uniform. That is exactly why few problems worry me more than our capacity to preserve, retain and catalogue that immense difference without reducing it or suffocating it in the process. It is a dormant conflict, which does not cease to emerge from time to time.
From Aaaaa! to ZZZap!
an exhibition by Michael Mandiberg, Print Wikipedia creator
Thus, when a few days ago I learned about the Michael Mandiberg’s Print Wikipedia, project, I could not deny its connexion with that personal conflict. It is paradoxical that while our planet is becoming more homogeneous than ever, at the same time it creates a hope for more refined methods to capture its richness and complexity. The accumulation of big data or the collaborative encyclopaedias in continual expansion such as Wikipedia try to offer us that last compendium that we seem to have been lacking up to now. But Print Wikipedia reveals its own limits with brilliant simplicity: it consists of a software that downloads the English Wikipedia database, turns it into thousands of volumes, with their covers, and uploads them to a print-on-demand printing platform. It is, in fact, an artistic action dominated by the possibility of fixing in a concrete material object the plurality of all that exists and, at the same time, destined to evidence its futility. Not because it should be quite useless to print all its volumes, but because upon printing them they would already be out of date and, once more, the fragmentary would win the battle. The pursue of completeness is resolved on the extract, the sketch, and the part. Technological utopia does not bring us closer to a solution, but only turns the problem into a more agonising one.
Google data-storing centres. It is estimated that we have reached two zettabytes of data stored around the world. And it keeps on growing.
This is an old and distressing dilemma. The false idea that synthesis and measurement can triumph over the disorder of the world has made its appearance all throughout History, but to no century like the 18th century belongs the illusion that the vast multiplicity of reality can be classified by categories. It is a time seduced by inventories, the century of the taxonomies with which Linneo brings order to the animal and vegetal kingdoms, when museums are born to systematically exhibit discoveries, and of the Encyclopaedia as the definitive compilation of human knowledge. An illustrated and idealistic project compromised to the end with that fictional idea.
Plate of D’Alembert and Diderot’s Encyclopédie showing an illustration from the article devoted to chemistry, with the elements known at the time of its publication.
Barely one hundred years later, that conviction was already being challenged. Nietzsche’s philosophy denounced the counterfeit nature of any attempt of imposing unity upon the chaotic proliferation of life. Although it probably was Gustave Flaubert who better ridiculed the fantasy of wanting to contain the never-ending forms of reality in treatises and literary works. His Bouvard et Pécuchet is the story of two naïve clerks who try to live following the instructions of what they read on specialised manuals and condemn themselves to a shameful failure in all they decide to undertake, whether it has to do with agriculture, anthropology, chemistry or spiritism. However, Flaubert’s book is not only meant to be satirical, but also a summary of all the pretentious handbooks published in his day, with their completely useless enumeration of abstractions. A demanding task that made Flaubert himself read more that 1,500 compendia of all imaginable disciplines, and which, with a delicious touch of irony, prevented him to finally finish his work: Bouvard et Pécuchet is an incomplete novel.
Illustration of Luke Howard’s Essay on the Modification of Clouds. A classic example of illustrated work trying to classify even the most elusive of nature’s phenomena, in this case, the shapes of clouds.
Still frame of Jean-Daniel Verhaeghe’s adaptation of Bouvard et Pécuchet.
The Austrian cultural scene of the beginning of the 20th century might be the one that felt more intensely the rift between the logos’ impulse to order and the endless diversity of experience. At least, that is what is produced almost at the same time with Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities and Ernst Neweklowsky’s Die Schiffahrt und Flösserei im Raume der oberen Donau. The former is perhaps the best instance of a modern work aspiring totally represent reality. Not of its permanent and essential features, which Musil considers as hard to pin down as insufficient, but of its mutable, Babelian, contradictory and plural being. As such, it is condemned beforehand to be an incomplete and partial review and to disseminate into many possible and open endings.
On the contrary, the latter is the monograph par excellence: more than 2,000 pages which, as its title indicates, contain the history of the navigation of the high Danube. And with his manic will to be exhaustive, nothing is forgotten: he lists all the types of vessels and techniques, the characteristics of the water in all the river’s meanders and tributaries, the particularities of the most insignificant ford and narrowness, the duties and tolls to pay to cross bridges, the chronicles of travellers who have plough through its waters, the anecdotes that have been told upon the river beds, the fluvial divinities that were adored, the winds and other atmospheric phenomena, the tools used by boat men, the way they lived, their traditions and slang, their sayings and the songs they sang while at work, and an overwhelming etcetera of anything that took place in the 659 kilometres that go between Ulm and Vienna. It is all contained in these three volumes to which engineer Neweklowsky devoted his life, with a pre-modern faith on the power of the method to capture even the slightest details of a space, which, in all its vastness, mirrored the universe. But as Claudio Magris says in a beautiful review of the text, this construction too fails at times, since one suspects that there might be words and gestures that only exist fully within the context they are circumscribed to. And through that idea, one suspects as well that not even the most precise map of a territory can encompass the whole territory.
The story of the navigation of the Danube is the object of one of the most ambitious monographs undertaken by a single man: Ernst Neweklowsky. Despite his efforts, the last of its volumes was left unfinished after his death.
Borges recites his short story “On Exactitude in Science.”
The paradox of this map takes us, inevitably, to Jorge Luis Borges. The Argentinian felt like few others the fascination of a symbol able to encompass the world even in its more fleeting particularities. It is the Library of Babel, including all the possible books with their most insignificant variations, the memory of Funes, who remembers each experience in its unrepeatable singularity, or the Aleph, that point from which it would be possible to observe simultaneously the entirety of creation. But on those same pages, like in the metaphor of the map in his short story “On Exactitude in Science,” we can learn that reality always escapes any attempt of pinning it down and that no one can represent its infinite diversity without it becoming a simulacra or a redundancy.
It is understood, for example, that the urgency to list in this article all the works that have addressed the question we are dealing with could never be fully satisfied. One never ceases to feel nostalgic for that wholeness and dizziness, because every attempt to take control over the magnificent variety of nature, of its anarchic current, is destined to remain incomplete. But one also perceives that maybe nothing defends it better than the fact that no register can exhaust it.