The Encyclopedic Tendency

“...there was to be, as Lord Henry had prophesied, a new Hedonism that was to recreate life and to save it from that harsh uncomely puritanism that is having, in our own day, its curious revival. It was to have its service of the intellect, certainly, yet it was never to accept any theory or system that would involve the sacrifice of any mode of passionate experience. Its aim, indeed, was to be experience itself...that our eyelids might open some morning upon a world that had been refashioned anew in the darkness for our pleasure, a world in which things would have fresh shapes and colours, and be changed, or have other secrets...”
— Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray

As human beings, we are born in a violent passage from a world of undifferentiated experience — the unity between mother and child, the finite bounds of the enveloping universe, the reverse transubstantiation of material sustenance into life itself — into an unknown landscape of fragmentation, populated by the many and the unfamiliar. We might ask whether the human desire to study, describe, categorise, and contain this multifaceted plane of existence within a single, cohesive understanding of the world — to develop an ontology that makes sense of the world and draws connections between its myriad parts — is a way of sublimating our fear of the complex unknown, of yearning for the moment when everything we knew was enclosed in one continuous, protective membrane. While our tendency to quantify and qualify can become a framework for experimentation and discovery, unlocking the secrets of the organic and inorganic molecules that surround us, in our daily lives we paradoxically risk conflating the ontological system with the world itself, thereby precluding the spontaneous, unquantified and unqualified experience (if it were ever possible) as a mode of material encounter. By studying the history and evolution of the ontological orderings of the world — how their hierarchies shifted over time, what cultural ethos they revealed at various points in time and space — we may learn how our perceptual structures prefigure forms of material manipulation, destruction, and creation (which, for our purposes, we might call design or art), but also speculate on how these ontologies delimit such forms, and what counter-strategies could be used to transgress these limits.

The tendency to catalogue and order the physical world into sensible bits of information — what we might call the encyclopaedic tendency — traces a long route through human history since the advent of writing. One of the earliest forms of numeric script was developed by the Sumerians more than 10,000 years ago to count physical things like sheep or grain, embedding a representation of the material world in hollow tokens called bullae. While it is impossible to create an exhaustive timeline of cataloguing systems and other ontologies in the intervening millennia, certain documents or frameworks figure prominently in the narrative. These include Pliny’s Natural History (79 AD) and the largely derivative Polyhistor (250 AD) by Gaius Julius Solinus, the seventh-century Etymologiae by Isidore of Seville, and Ephraim Chambers’s Cyclopaedia (1728) and the Encyclopédie (1751) by Diderot and d’Alembert. Today, we might have to consider such diverse sources as the International Organization for Standardization codes, the European Union’s Combined Nomenclature, the Amazon category database, or open-source projects like Wikipedia as contemporary expressions of the encyclopaedic tendency. Placed within a chronology, these varied ontologies reveal how the world has been read through different filters over time (including geographic origin, material makeup, identity or typology, and economic value), as well as the consequences of each hierarchy of properties as an organising force over the world in turn.

Investigating these diverse texts as a lineage of ontological systems is challenging, given that catalogues are in themselves technologies that evolve and adopt new protocols within each cultural context, but are also constrained by the information and resources available at the time of their development. Additionally, an objective analysis of these sources is impossible: for any given reader, the most recent systems seem more comprehensive and systematic because they approximate more closely his or her contemporary worldview. Therefore, the EU’s Combined Nomenclature seems dry and interminable, while the Polyhistor delights with its fantastic tales of animals that eat their own organs and fountains that run ice-cold by day and boiling hot at night. Yet it is important to recognise that—despite the totalising ambitions of the encyclopaedic tendency—each of these ontologies remains arbitrary, incomplete, self-contradictory, and largely governed by the exceptions rather than the rules. For our purposes, it is not the linguistic tone, the scope, or the complexity of these systems that is at issue, but rather how each one reads the same terrain in startlingly different ways over a span of 2,000 years.

If the language and syntax of these systems is necessarily heterogeneous, we can still observe that they relate to and build on the assumptions and discoveries established by their predecessors, and that they are governed by competing logics as well as common limitations. The aforementioned ontologies exert their ordering influence over the world by dividing it into recognisable pieces and giving them names, a primordial exertion of human dominance over the pre-existing world recalling Adam’s first action in the Garden of Eden. This process of categorisation by division can continue endlessly, as similar things are aggregated and their secondary, tertiary, or even further differences come to prominence. Most importantly, it is the fundamental question of what a thing is, and the order in which distinguishing criteria are applied to it, that reveal the priorities embedded within any system of categorisation and allow it to be instrumentalised towards a specific aim. Although the limited number of case studies already manifest a variety of tensions, this essay will focus on two aspects in particular: the threshold of tangible materiality required for something to be recognised as a thing, and the opposition between a pre-human sense of origin or materiality and a human sense of utility or meaning as the central ordering principle within each ontological system.

In one of the earliest examples, the Natural History, Pliny organises the world largely by the discipline of human study through which it has been encountered, ranging from astronomy and geography to “natural” man, animals, and plants, followed by botany and medicine end ending with precious metals and stones. In writing the Polyhistor nearly two centuries later, Solinus did not expand on the information in Pliny’s work so much as reorganise it by geographic territory, beginning with Rome, Italy, and the islands in the Mediterranean, and slowly expanding to Arabia, Lesser Asia, India, and places like “Seres” (now believed to be north China) and “Taprobane” (most likely Sri Lanka or Sumatra). The Polyhistor, otherwise known as De mirabilibus mundi (“The wonders of the world”), reflects a moment in history in which the unity of the Roman Empire was challenged by invasion and separatism, threatening both the free flow of trade and the universalism of Roman cities. In other words, at a time in which more and more information was becoming available about the rest of the world, these lands were also moving further out of reach and becoming more diverse. The Polyhistor enforces a kind of exoticism in which the most notable things emerging from a place — whether a natural material, a person, a crafted object, a particular site, or a cultural practice or behaviour — are used to define it.

By foregrounding geographic origin, the Polyhistor encompasses both the material and immaterial qualities that make things compelling for humans. At the same time, it reflects a time in which it was far more difficult to move things around the world than to tell stories about them, their mythic properties growing in relation to their distance from Rome. Local materials were thus the defining characteristic of a place, including the ways in which the native population had learned to use them. Thus, gold can be found in many places in the Polyhistor, but it means something different in each location: among the Scythians living along the River Borysthenes (the Dnieper), the Essedons apply it to their enemies’ skulls to create drinking vessels while the Satarchae condemn its use entirely; the Egyptians make gold cups to cast into the Nile as a religious rite, while near Susa in Persis, the people despise it and buy gold only to bury it underground, in order to discourage covetousness. Pliny, and Solinus in turn, publish incredible accounts of material power and transformation: two rivers in Boeotia, Greece, make sheep’s fleece grow russet or white; goat’s blood is used to break up Indian crystals; water flows out of veins of salt in the stones of the Caspian Gates and freezes upon their surface. Yet both authors are also attentive to how material exchange is culturally grounded: in Thrace, women choose husbands based on their mercantile skills, whereas the Troglodytae in Libya eschew all trade, and both Arabian and Northern Chinese merchants want to sell their wares but not buy any in return (oddly resonant with the present-day political rhetoric in the West). The Natural History and Polyhistor allow the spectacularly unbelievable to commingle with banal pragmatics, as long as they stem from the same origin.

This phenomenon — the interweaving of relatively uncontroversial observations with mystical fantasy (a dichotomy that anthropologists such as Eduardo Viveiros de Castro oppose, given its biased assumption of a neutral and objective standpoint) — would seem incompatible in the development over centuries towards the Enlightenment, the high point of categorisation as an intellectual practice. On the contrary, the growing importance of the system of the division seems to have created a space for the inexplicable or the irrational, as long as they could be neatly organised under a sensible framework, shifted into subcategories and subsumed under an apparently stable whole. And if irrational things could be tolerated, then certainly rational but materially nonexistent things like language, logic, and the laws of both science and human conduct would make up most of the contents of post-medieval ontologies. Indeed, as early as Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologica (1265), things could be understood in terms of their conceptual and categorical properties — their “species” — as much as by their physical essence. Aquinas proposed that things, eternal but mute, could be understood by “prophetic revelation” (by the intellect) or by the “coordinations of the phantasms” (through the senses or experience). Four centuries later, in An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, John Locke would make the same argument, but weighted towards systematic or proto-scientific investigation rather than religious reflection. This shift is paralleled by the evolution of narrative forms of categorisation into increasingly taxonomic diagrams.

In 1605, when Francis Bacon published The Advancement of Learning, he sketched out the tree structure that would be perfected in the Encyclopédie 150 years later. “The General Distribution of Human Knowledge” is divided broadly into Memory, Imagination, and Reason, the latter placing natural magic alongside mechanics under the branch of practical philosophy. Yet material things, the building blocks of works like Polyhistor, are scarcely found except as metaphors for more intellectual matters (Bacon cites Plato’s comparison of Socrates to an apothecary’s glazed pot; Aristotle would have us “change a whole wardrobe for a pair of shears”; knowledge must be collected by human devices, like water pooled into conduits and cisterns). Bacon argues that the history of arts is a form of natural history (under the overall category of memory), since the same effects might be produced spontaneously or by human design. At the same time, he advocates for a systematic understanding of the mechanical arts akin to the pure sciences, in which “ingenious practices in all trades” can be transferred from one to the other. Nevertheless, his examples are anecdotal rather than evidentiary, as he notes that the paper-making process has been applied only to linen, except for the use of silk by the Chinese. Materials and material techniques were still obscured by a veil of quotidian practice and arbitrary vernacular culture that could not be explained according to ideal scientific precepts.

In comparison, the Encyclopédie’s engagement with material culture is nothing short of miraculous. Although physical things are still confined to the overall category of memory and the subcategory of natural history, Diderot and d’Alembert elaborated the uses of nature into arts, crafts, and manufacture, divided further by materials like precious metals and stones, iron, glass, skin, plaster, textiles, and more. At that point, they continue into specific technical disciplines from locksmithing to the making of artificial flowers. In the “Preliminary Discourse” to the Encyclopédie, the authors lament the scarce knowledge previously collected on the mechanical arts and explain the arduous process they undertook to compile such knowledge. They had to go into the workshops of Paris, speak with craftsmen, draw their tools and machines, and compare the work of different practitioners. In most cases, words were a poor medium to explain the work with any accuracy, accounting for the hundreds of detailed engravings made to accompany the Encyclopédie. Although the authors celebrate the potential for study of material things, they still place themselves as men of intellect above the makers, although sometimes they had to adapt their method of analysis to a more hands-on approach:

“With them, it was necessary to exercise the function in which Socrates gloried, the painful and delicate function of being midwife of the mind, obstetrix animorum. But there are some trades so unusual and some operations so subtle that unless one does the work oneself, unless one operates a machine with one’s own hands, and sees the work being created under one’s own eyes, it is difficult to speak of it with precision. Thus, several times we had to get possession of the machines, to construct them, and to put a hand to the work. It was necessary to become apprentices, so to speak, and to manufacture some poor objects ourselves in order to learn how to teach others the way good specimens are made.”

For Diderot and d’Alembert, the lack of consistent, detailed information collected by scholars on the material world was only one of several problems. They also castigate artisans as secretive and petty: unlike scientists, who share and build on each others’ discoveries, artists “live unknown, hidden, isolated; they do everything for their interests, and almost nothing for their glory.” They look skeptically upon the piecemeal, nonlinear progression of the crafts, whose every invention immediately becomes proprietary and thus localised in the interest of financial profit. Under the entry for “Encyclopaedia”, the authors write that artisans “fail to notice that they occupy no more than a point on this globe, and will last but an instant; and to this point and this moment they wish to sacrifice the happiness of future centuries and the entire species.” (Compare their negative association of locality with the celebration of place in the Polyhistor.) It is important to recall that in attempting to describe and categorise the world and everything in it, the Encyclopédie’s explicit aim was to catalyse a collective learning process. However, this goal would also accelerate the division of labour, and in so doing create new outlets for human energy to shape the material landscape towards the desires of society. In fact, one theory about the Encyclopédie, written soon after the development of calculus, was that it was inspired by the new power of mathematical analysis: by adding up all human knowledge, it would be possible to calculate its derivative and thus predict its technical advancement into the future.

From that point, as the Industrial Revolution harnessed an exponential growth in mechanical energy to increasingly complex and diversified apparatuses of manufacture, the encyclopaedic tendency would become unmoored from materiality as a source and substrate of knowledge, and drift towards things as consumer commodities disassociated from their makers. In Sigfried Giedion’s Mechanization Takes Command (1948), he rewrites the story of making things into an “anonymous history” centred on the machine. Like Diderot and d’Alembert, Giedion was trying to build an all-encompassing portrait of the manmade universe, but his assimilates the logic of the modern era in its tendency to streamline and standardise production in pursuit of greater efficiency, output, and trade. While his categories show some thematic division, his primary organising principle is a chronology of automation in each industry, measuring its development according to how mechanised it has become. Yet in his conclusion, Giedion despairs of the dehumanising side-effects of mechanisation and its failure to achieve the dream of a better life for all: “All we have to show so far is a rather disquieting inability to organize the world, or even to organize ourselves.”

Only two decades later, Jean Baudrillard marvelled at the way that a contemporary worldview dominated by consumer culture spurred on the manipulation of material into coveted objects, to a degree that would be unrecognisable to the discipline-bound artisans in the era of the Encyclopédie. In The System of Objects (1968), he wonders: “Could we classify the luxuriant growth of objects as we do a flora or fauna, complete with tropical and glacial species, sudden mutations, and varieties threatened by extinction?” Soon after, in The Consumer Society (1970), he abandons the metaphor of evolutionary biology for a more economically-driven understanding of the material world: “these things...in their splendour and profusion...are the product of human activity and are dominated not by natural ecological laws, but by the law of exchange-value.” Today, there may be no better evocation of Baudrillard’s sense of profusion of things than Amazon’s product category tree or the EU customs system, each containing tens of thousands of generic categories (to say nothing of unique objects). While Amazon and the EU customs codes appear to be organised on different principles — the former by product typology and function, the second by materials and their processing — the real force driving them towards increasing organisation and complexity, according to Baudrillard, is their comprehensive effort to equate immaterial value with material goods (and, one could argue, to substitute them entirely). Or perhaps they are both symptoms of the same fundamental drive — towards the frictionless circulation of physical things and the intense transformation of the material landscape in the pursuit of financial gain.

Can we imagine another understanding of our enveloping reality? The history of categorical ontologies demonstrates a great affinity for the material landscape and the things made or manipulated by humans within it, and over time that affinity has expressed itself in a myriad of guises, from the obsession of the collector to the specificity of the customs office, from the division of craft of the medieval guild to the division of labour of the industrialist, from the discoveries of the explorer and the scientist to the inventions of the digital coder. Each of these interests have been the structuring principle for a specific worldview, in which things (both material and immaterial) acquire meaning, change hands, and exert forces or tensions back on the people and systems around them. Viewed in a historical lineage, these various knowledge frameworks appear arbitrary, relative, and transient, suggesting the possibility of multiple forms of encounter with the world they describe. On the other hand, one could also argue that over time, these systems adopt increasingly immaterial principles (like financial value) to differentiate between material things, and that the use of categories to separate out the infinite qualities of material artefacts reduces their potency as complex things. Although the Polyhistor appears to us now as an incredible melding of space, material, ethos, technique, and culture, its location-based ontology is incompatible with the current era of globalised logistics. Today, we must develop a new format of material understanding and encounter in order to escape the reductive logic of the Amazonian ontology — and this is, at heart, the greatest challenge for design today. As Giedion says in his conclusion to Mechanization Takes Command, “Every generation has to find a different solution to the same problem: to bridge the abyss between inner and outer reality...”