L’allure de liste: The Look of a List

by Martha Rust

Is it right to call a collection of images or things a list? In an early Listology post, “Ten Essentials for hiking,” we raised this question and in subsequent posts, “#adorablepets: Why Instagram Loves Lists” and “Lists and/as Artworks,” we answered it with a resounding “yes.” Following those entries, my own “Two Lists of Labors in Honor of Labor Day” and a “A list on the work of things” took the propriety of both “visual lists” and lists of things all but for granted. 

According to French philosopher Bernard Sève, however, extending the name “list” to collections of pictures and things goes too far. In his book De haut en bas: Philosophie des listes, he argues that words and only words make a list: “En toute rigueur, il n’y a de liste que de mots.”[1] No words, no list. Furthermore, a list, for Sève, is necessarily written: “La liste est une entité graphique et linguistique.”[2] These strict requirements of the list form aside, Sève allows for a feeling of being in the presence of a list (“le sentiment de se trouver en présence d’une liste”) when one is faced either with certain ensembles of objects or pictures or with various kinds of narrative or poetic sequences and repetitions. Although in his view they are not properly lists, Sève affords such collections a conceptual kinship with lists, giving them the look of a list–“allure de liste.” Such groupings, he asserts, have the flavor of a list (“une saveur de liste”).[3] They emanate what we might call listiness. 

In his chapter “Allures de liste,” Sève examines nine types of collections that have this look of a list: to name just three, groups of things that function as signs for their names, such as collections of busts of “great men” in libraries and museums; detective stories that are structured by the elimination of a given number of people, ten in Agatha Christie’s novel And Then There Were None, for instance, and five in Francois Truffaut’s film The Bride Wore Black; and works of visual art featuring objects that are slightly separated from each other. Examples in this latter category include the displays of objects in Denis Diderot’s Encyclopedié (1751-1772) and the gallery of paintings in Davie Teniers’ The Archduke Leopold William in His Picture Gallery in Brussels (1647-51). Listology’s own Instagram feed features several displays of this kind, which we make use of below to further expand on Sève’s idea of l’allure de liste.

According to Sève, an artist may produce the look of a list (whether she intends to or not) simply by placing objects side by side. We may observe this effect in a work by Jannis Kounellis (1936-2017), a photo of which we recently posted to Instagram.[4] The work, “Untitled” (1983), presents a collection of narrow slats of wood arranged side by side in an upright position on a ledge, an ensemble that suggests a row of books on a shelf. From perceiving a collection of books, one is a short step from having a vague sense of also being in the presence of a list of books, this despite the fact that even an actual shelf of books would not constitute a list, at least not according to Sève. Following the logic of his l’allure de liste, however, we can discern that it is by dint of their side-by-side arrangement that both a collection of real books on a shelf and Kounellis’s collection of slats on a ledge call lists to mind. Like the words in a list on a line of text, the objects in these collections–whether books or slats–are clearly distinct from each other and thus create the impression that they constitute lists.[5] Given a real shelf of books, one might copy down the books’ titles, thereby producing a list. Considering Kounellis’s “Untitled,” a person with an eye for lists may feel a pang brought on by a feeling of being so near a list and yet so far away.

A list-seeker may have better luck when faced with a similar display of elongated objects placed side by side: this one of carrots at a Farmers’ Market stand in New York City. The caption for our Instagram photo of the collection reads, “a list?” Not exactly, according to Sève, but here too, the carrots’ side-by-side arrangement creates a sense that they form a list: specifically, a list of the varieties of carrots for sale at this stand. In this situation the creator of the pseudo-list is likely to be nearby and happy to name each variety of carrot represented in the collection, which enumeration would still not qualify as a list in Sève’s view since for him a list must be written. That said, Sève asserts that an arrangement with the look of a list may yet give rise to the sentiments a list provokes, which for him run the gamut from boredom to joy (de l’ennui à la jubilation).[6] Delight surely falls in that spectrum, and thanks to this display of carrots, certainly more than one farmers’ market shopper counted a dollop of that sentiment among her market finds, whether or not they bought carrots. With a memory of the stand keeper’s recitation of the names of the types of carrots in this ensemble, such a shopper would also be able to write them down as a list.

Our third example of the look of a list selected from our Instagram feed suggests just such an eventuality: that an encounter with “listiness”–whether in a visual or narrative form–brings on the urge to make a list. In this creation of a seven-year-old artist and budding list-writer, we find a side-by-side arrangement of objects depicted in crayon at the foot of the page and a vertical black line connecting one of the objects–a carrot–to the word “carit,” written in the upper half of the page. An interview with the artist confirms that he drew the display of objects first and then wrote out the word carit. The call of other activities prevented him from adding to this list so clearly begun, but as we know, once launched a list can go on.

Although most of Sève’s examples of collections of objects and pictures with l’allure de liste exhibit a side-by-side arrangement–as all three of our examples here have done as well–the very title of his book alludes to his opinion that the definitive list arrays words vertically, such that one reads them de haut en bas (from top to bottom). This arrangement, Sève asserts, assures the independence of each list item from the next and from the one before.[7] Using the case of a grocery list, he further observes that there is something natural about writing lists this way: “Il me semble que c’est spontanément en colonne que l’on écrit sa liste de courses” (It seems to me that one spontaneously writes one’s grocery list in a column).[8] In our inaugural post on this blog, posted on April 21, 2018, we similarly asserted that the “iconic” list is arranged vertically and, further, that this format attracts viewers’ and readers’ eyes. In other words, applying a cross-language twist to Sève’s idea of the look of a list, the columnar allure de liste has alure, in the English sense of attraction or fascination.[9] Interestingly, as the first post in our Instagram feed, posted the same day, we chose–as if to exemplify both the look of a list and its alure?–this photo of a grocery list. 


[1]  Bernard Sève, De haut en bas: Philosophie des listes (Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 2010), 67.

[2] Sève, De haut en bas, 65.

[3] Sève, De haut en bas, 66. Here French “allure” denotes the general appearance of a thing, the  “[a]pparence générale d’une chose.” See Le Grand Robert, s.v. “allure,” sense 3. Example phrases, such as “Ça a de l’allure, beaucoup d’allure,” suggest that to the extent that a thing has “allure,” its “general appearance” is worth looking at or that it has a look-worthy look. English allure has entirely different etymology, on which, see note 9 below.

[4] The work was on display in the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

[5] As Sève writes, “L’allure de liste se produit quand un ensemble (simultané) ou une suite (successive) semblent fonctionner comme listes alors qu’ils ne sont pas une colonne de mots” [The look of a list happens when a set (simultaneous) or a series (successive) seems to function as lists even though they are not a column of words]. See De haut en bas, 67.

[6] Sève, De haut en bas, 66.

[7] “Le passage å la ligne assure l’item suivant de son indépendance par rapport à l’item précédent, dont il n’est pas déductible.” Sève, De haut en bas, 30.

[8] Sève, De haut en bas, 30.

[9] OED, s.v. alure, n. 1. English “alure” comes from French aleurer, to lure. The primary sense of French “allure” is speed, from aller, to go. It gets its sense as a look through its also denoting a manner of going and a manner of comporting oneself. See Le Grand Robert, s.v. “allure.”

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