Order of Multitudes

Is the ideal encyclopedia infinite?

The creators of encyclopedias aspire to include everything. Theoretically, to create an encyclopedia is to dream of being able to encompass the infinite amounts of information that exist. But this is, of course, a paradox: we cannot truly confine infinite knowledge to the (finite) pages of a book, website, or other hyper-media form of the future. And yet, the long history of this dream, of using the encyclopedia as a form of gathering, organizing, and shaping vast amounts of information, continues even today in global networks such as Wikipedia, Ngram, or the Hathi Trust project.

The encyclopedic urge is a desire to collect, catalogue, describe, and classify masses of information in its most granular and list-like forms. Its medium is language, with the occasional help of graphs and figures; its goal is to make information accessible through its alphabetical or thematic organization. It aspires to universal knowledge, decoupling information from a particular space, community, occasion, or time period.

Denis Diderot’s great Enlightenment Encyclopédie was a landmark consolidation of universal knowledge for eighteenth-century Europe, and the Tiangong kaiwu accomplished a similar task for early seventeenth-century China. Prior to and contemporaneous with them are many other, smaller, or less transparent versions of the encyclopedic project: Pliny’s Natural History, Shihab al-Din al-Nuwayri’s fourteenth-century compendium of Arabic erudition, the many medieval and early modern European florilegia, the pre-Columbian sources found in the Florentine Codex, and many others. All of them pose critical questions about how knowledge is organized, ordered, and synthesized—but answer them in significantly different ways.

While Diderot’s Encyclopédie proclaims that the basis of all knowledge is in human reason, carefully dividing its branches in a famous image of the “system of human knowledge,” that was crafted by its editors, the Tiangong kaiwu emphasizes the dissemination and preservation of economically vital technologies, and Bernardino de Sahagún’s ethnographic study of Mesoamerican culture in the Florentine Codex concentrates on the distribution of human activities across a divine timescale. Wikipedia’s decentralized and supposedly egalitarian inclusion of any information offers an alternate model. In theory, this is a model seemingly devoid of any agenda or purpose—but it is a model which, in practice, has shown itself to be deeply biased in terms of things such as gender and race. 

Creating an encyclopedia of any kind requires one to grapple with the challenges of human and material diversity in all its forms. Consequently, as means of ordering multitudes, encyclopedias have often signaled the collection and use of knowledge as a way to advance imperial, racist, and colonial agendas. At the same time, encyclopedias have also offered a foundation for discussions of human similarities, the development of universal rights discourse, and arguments about the value of diversity in the broadest sense (see, for example, David Harmon’s book In Light of Our Differences). By engaging with this double-edged history of the encyclopedic impulse, we can examine how we can address the potential ethical and political pitfalls of this form of making knowledge.


Ayesha Ramachandran

Associate Professor of Comparative Literature, Yale University

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Ayesha Ramachandran

Ayesha Ramachandran is an Assistant Professor of Comparative literature at Yale University. She works primarily with the English, French, and Italian literary traditions; however, her interests have extended to Portuguese, Spanish, Neo-Latin, Persian and early modern South Asian materials. Her work examines early modern maps, the history of science and technology, empires, and the rich visual archive of illustrated books. Her first book, The Worldmakers: Global Imagining in Early Modern Europe (University of Chicago Press, 2015), charts transnational encounters and the early mechanisms of globalization from the late fifteenth to the early eighteenth centuries. It was awarded the MLA’s Scaglione prize in Comparative Literary Studies (2017), the Milton Society of America’s Shawcross Prize for the best book chapter on Milton (2016), and the Sixteenth Century Studies Association’s Founder Prize for the best first book manuscript (2015). Her current book project, Lyric Thinking: Humanism, Selfhood, Modernity, argues for the central importance of lyric form and language in shaping new intellectual possibilities for the self. Moving from Petrarch to Descartes, while also considering their afterlives in modernist writing, it draws together scholarship on theories of mind, cognition and meditation.

Marta Figlerowicz

Associate Professor of Comparative Literature and English, Yale University

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Marta Figlerowicz

Marta Figlerowicz is an Associate Professor of Comparative Literature and English at Yale University. Her research articulates a counter-tradition to aesthetic individualism in Western art and literature. Her work connects this history from the seventeenth century to our contemporary digitally-mediated moment. Her first book, Flat Protagonists: A Theory of Novel Character (Oxford University Press, 2016), discusses an odd group of characters found across the long history of the French and British novel whose construction simplifies in the course of a narrative, instead of deepening or expanding. Her second book, Spaces of Feeling: Affect and Awareness in Modernist Literature (Cornell University Press, 2017), studies representations of intersubjective affective awareness in American, British, and French fiction and poetry. She is currently developing two new projects: a scholarly examination of the non-individualist phenomenology of contemporary digital media called Myths of Obscurity: The Self in the Age of Integrated Media and a popular audience book on global histories of selfhood. She also writes literary and cultural criticism for publications such as The Washington Post, n+1, Cabinet, Jacobin, The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Yale Review, Logic, and Boston Review.

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