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Lists in Literature and Culture: Towards a Listology

Periodic Reporting for period 4 - LISTLIT (Lists in Literature and Culture: Towards a Listology)

Reporting period: 2021-10-01 to 2022-03-31

The project LISTLIT - Lists in Literature and Culture: Towards a Listology researches the uses and functions of lists over time and across a wide variety of genres. As a project conducted by literary scholars, the focus is on literary genres mostly, but visual examples (paintings, films, graphic novels, and others) and new media (Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest) are taken into account as well. Lists abound in our everyday lives and are usually made for very mundane and simple purposes: to remember something or to help structuring one's duties (shopping lists, to do lists). It is exactly this simplicity that makes the form so versatile and useful in many other contexts as well. Literary texts are the perfect example of how the list as a basic form can be transformed into aesthetic vignettes. The impact of lists in literary texts has been underestimated. Conventionally, lists are often considered to be an obstacle to the reader and the flow of reading, difficult to make sense of and thus a burden. If one changes the perspective and looks at lists in literary texts as key features of a novel, short story, or play, a completely different picture emerges: in that picture, the list is crucial because it invites the reader to read differently and ultimately to think differently: rather than 'following' a plot, lists make us halt the reading and can open up other spaces; lists can provide access into structures of thoughts (memories, thinking patterns), they can reveal surprising connections because one cannot help but put the items of a list into some context and thus create coherence between the items. In the project, the researchers look at literary texts that range from ancient and medieval epic, the Victorian novel, the detective novel, and blank fiction to contemporary literature and graphic novels. While the form of the list remains essentially the same over the centuries, the functions of the list change because the simple form allows for absorbing - and reflecting on - ways of seeing and perceiving the world that are prevalent in a given period. The medieval period, for instance, is characterized by an encyclopedic approach to knowledge, which we also find in the lists; they are exuberant and strive for completeness. Postmodern lists, by contrast, give credit to the openness and changeability of meaning; they verge towards a more chaotic or playful, nonsensical mode. In taking the form of the list serious, the project highlights the power and prevalence of a seemingly simple device. The research is highly relevant for society because it lays bare also the deeply political dimensions of the list: lists seem to present us with objective truths while they conceal the exact methods of selection and also the role of authorship. Lists can thus influence the perception of the world in problematic ways; their principles of order can be used to marginalize individuals or groups and to empower others. In literary texts, authors frequently draw our attention to this political dimension and thus help us to approach lists - both in literary texts and in real life - more critically. The overall objectives of the project are to identify and interpret the manifold forms of lists, trace their functions, which change depending on the genre and the period, over time, and to problematise the form as a potentially politically powerful instrument.
The five members of the LISTLIT team started working in 2017 (PI and post-doc #1) and 2018 (PhD student and post-doc #2) respectively. The project follows a broad and cognitive approach according to which lists are first and foremost a figure of thought, which can then be realized in different forms in actual contexts. Also, the project proceeds with a strong awareness for historical change: the specific forms and functions of lists are subject to change. Both the focus on a cognitive foundation of lists and the historical approach informed the workshops and events organized by the project. The LISTLIT team organized several workshops on lists and their configurations in different historical periods and in different contexts. The academic fields the project engaged with in great detail included sociology, medieval Jewish literature, Classics, Arabic literature, philology, history, art history, and media studies. In the summer of 2019, the project conducted an international and interdisciplinary conference devoted to lists in the trajectory of the production and dissemination of knowledge. The relevance of the list for so many research fields demonstrates not only the versatility of the form, but also shows how important it is to work interdisciplinarily. In particular, the LISTLIT project was able to show repeatedly the political dimension of lists: while they come across as seemingly simple and straightforward, they can carry potentially dangerous or ethically problematic meaning in concealing their authors and intentions.The four WPs also brought forth in-depth research on lists in the respective research areas.
As a transhistorical and versatile form, the list is a key example of why it pays off to highlight one specific form and trace its functions over time and across very different contexts. For instance, the study of form (in literary texts, but also in culture more generally) has gained new currency recently, and it is within this context that the study of lists as conducted by the LISTLIT project has considerable impact. The overall aim of the project, to create a "listology", that is, field of its own devoted to the study of lists, is already well under way. Especially the hidden and potentially dangerous political implications of lists have been highlighted by the project and reached a wider audience who has been sensitized to question the assumptions made by a list (who made it, and for which purposes?). The LISTLIT project has considerably advanced the study of enumerative forms at the intersections of literary and cultural studies. New research in the fields of cultural studies is well under way, significantly bolstered by research of the LISTLIT project, for instance with respect to serialization (which is also a form of enumeration), popular culture (the list is a staple in pop culture), and the history of science (for instance in the graduate research school “Kleine Formen” / “Small Forms” at the Humboldt University, Berlin, which considers forms which are often deemed insignificant and which often rely on or are entirely based on list-structures). Especially the cognitive approach – lists viewed as tools for thinking and exhibiting a range of ‘affordances’ – has proven to be a generator for further research and opened alleyways into exploring enumerative forms and structures also beyond the binary “enumeration vs. narration” as an intersectional approach to a fundamental form of managing the world. Even though the project is primarily located in the sphere of literary and cultural studies, there were exciting overlaps with approaches from sociology and history, especially the history of science, but also manuscript studies. In total, LISTLIT has demonstrated in extenso the usefulness of taking a small form seriously and in assuming a broad historical and methodological framework that goes beyond more traditional, text-based approaches to literature and instead considers literary and cultural form as a dynamic agent the changes of which can be traced over time.
Title Page of the book Forms of List-Making, based on the project's conference in 2019
Screen shot of the blog devoted to lists Histology blog