A Little Political Listology: Questions for Katie Little

We at Listology recently had the pleasure of reading Katie Little’s list insights in her recent publication, “The Politics of Lists,” in the journal Exemplaria.[1] For those who have not yet had the pleasure of reading the article, Little uses medieval lists written in Chaucer’s “Knight’s Tale” and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (a historical record of England compiled before the eleventh century) to re-examine modern materiality theorists’ idea that lists are ideology-free because they blend human and non-human subjects. We at Listology would like to continue this conversation about lists’ ideological and political characteristics , and the article’s author, Katherine Little, has kindly obliged us by answering some of our questions—some of which readers will find answered more extensively in her article published by Exemplaria.

  • Listology: Your article begins with the many lists that theorists of materiality include in their studies. What made you interested in these lists in these lists in the first place?

KL: When I first read Jane Bennett’s Vibrant Matter, I was struck by the fact that she begins her book of political theory with a list of objects she found on the street: the dead rat, the pollen, and so on.[2] Bennett seemed to think that the list preserved the reality of the objects, or more properly, their energy, which she calls “thing power.” She writes, that “they were all there just as they were.”[3] I understood her list to be an anti-interpretive move, and that move surprised me.  As a literary scholar, I tend to see texts, including lists in texts, as representations.  To be sure, that representation might attempt to capture a reality, but it can’t be that reality.

The more I read work inspired by Bennett, the more I found a similar approach: that the objects that appear in texts are somehow more real or immediate than the ideas or the people behind the texts or even than the texts themselves.  Scholars of all kinds, both theorists writing about our contemporary circumstances and literary critics responding to objects in texts, are creating lists to convey what they see as an uncontested reality and immediacy.

  • Listology: You demonstrate that these lists are more “assemblages” than ordered systems and that they thus blur the lines between different kinds of objects and (especially) between the human and non-human. Can you explain this capacity of a list in more detail? Where does the political dimension come in?

KL: A list differs from other modes of organizing information in that in many instances it groups items together without subordination or explicit hierarchizing.  And here I’m really talking about the most basic kind of list, where there’s very little exposition of the individual items.  Such lists can look as if all the elements are equally important.  If the list is a grocery list, then the contents of the list are all things I need to buy.  While there might not be a political dimension to the equality of items on my grocery list, or at least not a very interesting one, there is a political dimension of such equality in the lists of the materiality theorists.  In grouping humans, objects, animals, and the environment on the same list, materiality theorists posit that they are all similarly “actants.”  Actant is a term used by Bruno Latour, and taken up by materiality theorists, to refer to both “human individual actors” and “non-human, non-individual entities.”[4] Such lists of actants are therefore offering a new kind of inclusivity and egalitarianism:  not just of people, as in the old mode of egalitarianism, but of the environment and animals and other “entities.” 

The problem for me is that the inclusivity or egalitarianism described by the materiality theorists, and the writers indebted to them, isn’t linked to any specific ethical or political system:  that, for example, all people and things have fundamental rights or that all people and things belong to a divine order, just to invoke and adapt two familiar systems.

In the absence of any system behind it, the list merely asserts inclusivity.  There’s no sense of how conflict between the rights of different entities would be negotiated or even what actions should be taken to achieve the equality of items on the list. For this reason, all materiality theorists can call for is a change in perspective:  that we should now see ourselves in relation to things, see ourselves as part of some kind of list or network.   I have a lot to say about this topic, and I don’t want to go on too long, but I do want to point out that inclusivity or neighboring or an assemblage or a list is entirely compatible with serious inequalities of power.  That is, a corporate structure, like a university or business, can champion inclusivity while preserving great disparities in income and/ or an authoritarian decision-making process. 

  • Listology: In your comments on Ian Bogost’s Latour Litanizer, you observe, “Such a list claims to be new because it tells us, as most lists do not, how it was generated(124). Why do you think it’s the case that most lists seem not to reveal how they are generated or even by whom?

KL: The list is such a basic form of writing that people don’t think of it as a form; instead, it seems to be pure content. When I write a grocery list or a to-do list, I am completely focused on the things on the list.  Although those things might tell someone else (a reader) about my tastes or activities, there is nothing about the form that requires me to indicate that these items are on the list because they have something to do with me:  that they can all be found at my local grocery store or that I have written this list because I have kids and what feels like a million things to do.  There is also nothing about the form that requires me to indicate anything about the culture or the time I live in.

When I look at other peoples’ lists, I see the things on the list (the content), and I also see that this is a list.  I become aware of the form.  I start to wonder why some items are included or question their order on the list.   In other words, when I become aware of the list as a form, I think about the form-er (or writer) of the list, the absent human consciousness behind the list.  And I want to uncover what the list does and doesn’t want to tell us, who generated it and why.  I also want to know about the culture behind the list, the kind of knowledge that the list maker took for granted, that there are, for example, different brands of things at a grocery store or that comets might be a sign from God. With this latter item I’m referring to a list in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.  This background knowledge is what Michel Foucault calls the “system of thought.”[5]

The Litanizer, unlike most lists, can advertise itself as pure content:  the list of items is machine-generated and there is no human consciousness or system of thought behind it that we need to guess at.  In this way, the Litanizer achieves Bennett’s goal, to focus entirely on the objects instead of the systems behind them.

  • Listology: Your key medieval example is Theseus’s famous speech in Chaucer’s “Knight’s Tale,” and you show that Chaucer, unlike his source Boccaccio, problematizes what he enumerates. Why is Theseus’s speech such a great example for the problematic politicizing function of lists?

Chaucer takes a list – of things that die – that seems apolitical, and he assigns it to a speaker to show how that apolitical content becomes political.  It is undeniably in Theseus’s interest, as a tyrant, to tell everyone that earthly order and divine order are the same and therefore there’s no point in trying to change the earthly order.  It’s also in Theseus’s interest to claim that all people are the same, in that they die, even though they are obviously not all the same, at least as far as their social status goes. 

Theseus’s list shows that the content of human-made lists can never really be only content.  If a human is making a list, then there’s a human consciousness behind it, and, for that reason, there is likely an ethical or political system there somewhere. 

In this way, Theseus’s list contrasts markedly with the lists of the materiality theorists.  It also suggests the limitations of their political project: in their belief that focusing on content is somehow ethically or politically more honest or efficacious than focusing on the individual human consciousness that produced that content or the “systems of thought” out of which it grew.

One can find a similar desire for content in the growing dominance of “surface reading” and digital humanities in English and related disciplines, the interest in reading texts in terms of data, which is a kind of pure content. The goal of these new approaches, at least of surface reading, is objectivity, perhaps the same kind of objectivity one finds in the Litanizer and Bennett’s anti-interpretive list. I suppose this new trend reflects the anxiety about the growing irrelevance of the humanities, at least in America.  There is now a desire to be more scientific, since data commands more authority than anything else these days.   

While I’m sympathetic to that anxiety, I also think that the embrace of data and objects and objectivity can lead to an ahistorical view of reality: the way things are now is so overwhelming that our current situation becomes the singular focus. Just because something is true now, doesn’t mean it has to be that way or always was that way.  The value of learning about the past, and of reading pre-modern texts like Chaucer’s Knight’s Tale, is that these texts provide a distancing perspective based in human experience. Chaucer’s Knight’s Tale shows that the “learned helplessness” we experience in the face of the larger forces that rule our lives is not new to us.  “Learned helplessness” is a term, coined by the psychologist Martin Seligman, that explains how animals, including humans, respond to adverse conditions.  They learn not to fight them. The forces that turn us objects are obviously different now:  instead of Theseus’s tyranny, we have apps that sell our personal information, but they similarly require us to think about how we should act when we are everywhere made aware of the fact that we are objects (or data). 

  • Listology: A more personal question at the end: are you a list-maker yourself? What fascinates you about the form of the list in general?

I am indeed a list-maker! I like to write down all the things I have to do, and I’m still very much a paper and pen kind of person.  I am also a list-appreciator.  As a reader, I have always found lists inherently poetic, especially when they appear in a prose narrative where they break up the action or exposition and focus me on individual words.  One that stands out for me is the list of everything the main character, Daisy, never experienced in Carol Shields’s novel, The Stone Diaries: Daisy “never once in her many years of life experienced the excitement and challenge of oil painting, skiing, sailing, nude bathing, emerald jewelry, cigarettes, oral sex, pierced ears, Swedish clogs, water beds, science fiction, pornographic movies, religious ecstasy, truffles, Kirsch, jalapeño peppers, Peking duck, Vienna, Moscow, Madrid, group therapy, body massage, hunger, distinguished honors, outraged condemnation.”[6] I think that list has great affective power.  It is, in many ways the exact opposite of the Litanizer: imagined, subjective, and, ultimately, a celebration, although a sad one, of the intense particularity of human experience.

[1] Katherine Little, “The Politics of Lists,” Exemplaria 31:2 (2019): 117–28

[2] Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things (Durham: Duke University Press, 2010).

[3] Ibid., 5.

[4] Bruno Latour, “On Actor-Network Theory:  a Few Clarifications” Soziale Welt 47 (1996): 369.

[5] Michel Foucault, The Order of Things (New York: Vintage, 1970), xv.

[6] Carol Shields, The Stone Diaries (New York: Viking, 1993), 344. 

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