Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Skipping Hisotry

Once a day I leave my desk at college to go and see my lover in the nearby university institute. On the way I pass by the university dumping site, a hidden corner of amusement and curiosities. Chairs, desks and filing cabinets are guarantied, but sometimes you can find more interesting things. Today the skip had dozens of bookends, a karate suit and belts, and an exercise bicycle. But the most beautiful find was a wooden cataloging cabinet with thirty small drawers, labelled 'history'. I wish I could take it.

The card catalogue is no doubt a thing of the past. It represented a wish to sort the universe according to a rigid set of categories; it had to be constantly maintained, and it was always in crisis. 'No cataloguing system is ever comprehensive' said to me the archive maiden in Oxford Middle East Centre last year. Yet the catalogers tried their best to keep the world in check. Globalisation swept this away: not so much the computer as the Internet. Tabulated databases made way for networks: pyramids of information were replaced with DNA spirals. The triumph of Google is the filing cabinet's kiss of death. The Google algorithm, with its emphasis on paths and links of information rather than content, and flows of information rather than constant structures, has learnt not to search for a euclidean geometrical order in this chaos, but to follow its entropic dancesteps.

This is no song of praise: just like economic globalisation, the death of the authoritative catalogue does not mean a world without hierarchies. It means a more chaotic and confusing world of information, abundance for some and scarcity for many. The Google spider sits in its web and gets fat on something.

When it comes to scholarly work, my own system of cataloguing is dismal, and my note-taking technique continues to fail me at crucial moments. More than anything, I think of myself as scavenger: like in my trips to the wholesale fruit and vegetable market, I pick the rubbish which others left behind: I collect, not to assemble a complete set, but in order to produce a strange collage. My intellectual journey has its logic and aim, but accident is the rule of thumb. At the end of the day, all I can ever produce are my happy findings on a criss-cross journey over a wide field.

I left the catalogue cabinet in its place, but could not resist the karate belt.

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