We like lists because we don’t want to die

Umberto Eco interviewed in Der Spiegel about his book The Infinity of Lists (2009):

SPIEGEL: Mr. Eco, you are considered one of the world’s great scholars, and now you are opening an exhibition at the Louvre, one of the world’s most important museums. The subjects of your exhibition sound a little commonplace, though: the essential nature of lists, poets who list things in their works and painters who accumulate things in their paintings. Why did you choose these subjects?

Umberto Eco: The list is the origin of culture. It’s part of the history of art and literature. What does culture want? To make infinity comprehensible. It also wants to create order — not always, but often. And how, as a human being, does one face infinity? How does one attempt to grasp the incomprehensible? Through lists, through catalogs, through collections in museums and through encyclopedias and dictionaries. There is an allure to enumerating how many women Don Giovanni slept with: It was 2,063, at least according to Mozart’s librettist, Lorenzo da Ponte. We also have completely practical lists — the shopping list, the will, the menu — that are also cultural achievements in their own right.

SPIEGEL: Should the cultured person be understood as a custodian looking to impose order on places where chaos prevails?

Eco: The list doesn’t destroy culture; it creates it. Wherever you look in cultural history, you will find lists. In fact, there is a dizzying array: lists of saints, armies and medicinal plants, or of treasures and book titles. Think of the nature collections of the 16th century. My novels, by the way, are full of lists.

[…]

SPIEGEL: Why do we waste so much time trying to complete things that can’t be realistically completed?

Eco: We have a limit, a very discouraging, humiliating limit: death. That’s why we like all the things that we assume have no limits and, therefore, no end. It’s a way of escaping thoughts about death. We like lists because we don’t want to die.

[…]

SPIEGEL: You yourself are more likely to work with books, and you have a library of 30,000 volumes. It probably doesn’t work without a list or catalogue.

Eco: I’m afraid that, by now, it might actually be 50,000 books. When my secretary wanted to catalogue them, I asked her not to. My interests change constantly, and so does my library. By the way, if you constantly change your interests, your library will constantly be saying something different about you. Besides, even without a catalogue, I’m forced to remember my books. I have a hallway for literature that’s 70 meters long. I walk through it several times a day, and I feel good when I do. Culture isn’t knowing when Napoleon died. Culture means knowing how I can find out in two minutes. Of course, nowadays I can find this kind of information on the Internet in no time. But, as I said, you never know with the Internet.

A requirement for genuine expertise

David Foster Wallace in conversation with Dave Eggers, The Believer, 2003:

We live today in a world where most of the really important developments in everything from math and physics and astronomy to public policy and psychology and classical music are so extremely abstract and technically complex and context-dependent that it’s next to impossible for the ordinary citizen to feel that they (the developments) have much relevance to her actual life. Where even people in two closely related sub-sub-specialties have a hard time communicating with each other because their respective s-s-s’s require so much special training and knowledge. And so on. Which is one reason why pop-technical writing might have value (beyond just a regular book-market $-value), as part of the larger frontier of clear, lucid, unpatronizing technical communication. It might be that one of the really significant problems of today’s culture involves finding ways for educated people to talk meaningfully with one another across the divides of radical specialization. That sounds a bit gooey, but I think there’s some truth to it. And it’s not just the polymer chemist talking to the semiotician, but people with special expertise acquiring the ability to talk meaningfully to us, meaning ordinary schmoes. Practical examples: Think of the thrill of finding a smart, competent IT technician who can also explain what she’s doing in such a way that you feel like you understand what went wrong with your computer and how you might even fix the problem yourself if it comes up again. Or an oncologist who can communicate clearly and humanly with you and your wife about what the available treatments for her stage-two neoplasm are, and about how the different treatments actually work, and exactly what the plusses and minuses of each one are. If you’re like me, you practically drop and hug the ankles of technical specialists like this, when you find them. As of now, of course, they’re rare. What they have is a particular kind of genius that’s not really part of their specific area of expertise as such areas are usually defined and taught. There’s not really even a good univocal word for this kind of genius—which might be significant. Maybe there should be a word; maybe being able to communicate with people outside one’s area of expertise should be taught, and talked about, and considered as a requirement for genuine expertise.… Anyway, that’s the sort of stuff I think your question is nibbling at the edges of, and it’s interesting as hell.

A total devotion to hedgehoggism

Richard Powers in conversation with Jeffrey Williams, Cultural Logic, spring 1999:

RP: I was the kind of kid who really didn’t make great distinctions between different fields and who took huge amounts of pleasure in being able to solve problems in very different intellectual disciplines. If anything, I would say my problem-solving abilities in math and science were always a good deal stronger than my verbal skills. I always thought that I would end up becoming one kind of scientist or another. It wasn’t always physics. For a while it was oceanography. For a while it was paleontology.

JW: Unusual for a novelist . . .

RP: Well, I’m not sure what the usual novelist trajectory is! But my orientation was definitely empirical, a real bias toward the “non-subjective” disciplines. I guess the difficulty for me growing up was this constant sensation that every decision to commit myself more deeply to any of these fields meant closing several doors. Specializing involved almost perpetual leave-taking from other pursuits that I loved and that gave me great pleasure. I really resisted the process, as long as I could. I just wanted to arrive somewhere where I could be the last generalist and do that in good faith. I thought for a long time that physics might be that place.

We have this notion of physics—especially cosmology, I guess—as representing a fundamental kind of knowledge, and that it’s a great field to be in if you want the aerial view of how things work. In fact, in some ways, almost the opposite may be true. The enormous success of the reductionist program depends upon absolute applications of Occam’s razor on every level. You have to make yourself expert in a field that’s too small even to be called a specialization. The whole overwhelming success of physics as a discipline depends upon dividing and conquering, on separating fields of research into ever smaller domains. And so it became clear to me pretty quickly, to use Isaiah Berlin’s hedgehog and fox distinction, that rather than becoming a fox, I had in fact landed in a place that demanded of me a total devotion to hedgehoggism. I got pretty claustrophobic pretty quickly, and it made me look for other fields where I could preserve that sense of multiplicity, of generalism.

JW: So that induced your turn to literature?

RP: That’s right. Initially, I thought that in the study of literature, I’d really found that aerial view again.

JW: So you thought that you’d be a literary critic and a professor?

RP: Right, or at least that that’s how I would make my living. Since literature seemed to be about everything that there is—about the human condition—I figured that a good literary critic would have to make himself expert at that big picture. It didn’t take me long to realize that the professionalization of literary criticism has taken reductionism as its model, and that it too can lead to learning more and more about less and less until you’re in danger of knowing everything there is to know about nothing.