Being a Few Fragmentary & Intertextual Notes on The Encyclopedia Project A–Z, Three Hardcover Volumes of Experimental Prose & Art Laid Out as Entries for a Newfangled Encyclopedia Composed by Hundreds Of People, Compiled & Published by Three, Latterly Two, Lady Editors.
Encyclopedia is an “economoddity” to borrow a term invented by Robert Kocik. An economoddity is a commodity for an odd sort of economy, such as a gift economy, or any economy that isn’t very economical, so to speak. The Encyclopedia Project, which runs in the red; is rather hard to find, use, or understand; has maintained editorial independence from institutions; and despite never making a profit has never become a nonprofit, could, before it manifested, have been a candidate for Kocik’s “Annotated List of Various Missing Social Services and Omitted Agencies” in which he coins the neologism economoddity to describe those communitarian objects athwart capitalism, things non-monetized, things for whom market value is stubbornly not the final rationalization, things that circulate as material through which other values may be tended, stoked, proposed, animated.
I like to think of the economoddity of Encyclopedia in relation to Howe’s description in her essay “Bewilderment” of an ambivalent sort of signal:
A signal does not necessarily mean that you want to be located or described. It can mean that you want to be known as Unlocatable and Hidden. This contradiction can drive the ‘I’ … into a series of techniques that are the reverse of the usual narrative movements around courage, discipline, conquest, and fame. Instead, weakness, fluidity, concealment, and solitude assume their place in kind of dream world, where the sleeping witness finally feels safe enough to lie down in mystery.
Both the economoddity and that entity, whatever it may be, that feels safe enough to lie down in mystery signaling “Unlocatable and Hidden,” entail, as Howe puts it, “the reverse of the usual narrative movements around courage, discipline, conquest, and fame. Instead, weakness, fluidity, concealment.” She says of this (as it were) signal-contradiction, that it can “drive the ‘I’ … into a series of techniques….” Here technique is something we are driven toward, rather than some place we’ve been (received), resulting in forms contingent, uncertain, and unwilled (like dreams, or life).
In composition there is, of course, an oscillation between the full-on adoption and continuance of whatever may be the prior genres (short stories, poems, encyclopedias, bibles) of your mortal moment, and the impulse to détourné, upend, satirize, explode, or ramify such formal arrangements to see how they tick or how else they could be made to tick. Appropriation as close reading. “Strange returns and recognitions” as Howe puts it, “and never a conclusion.”
“Never a conclusion” should be the subtitle of any encyclopedia; it’s also a bit of technical advice and an ethos for storytellers – don’t over-determine your endings. It intimates an intimate relationship to composition in which “technique” is at once knowing and blind, Cf. this inexhaustible line of non-sight by Hélène Cixous: “Even with my eyes open at noon I am able to not see.” Able to not see…
Usually not seeing is a disadvantage. Describing the limited perspective of characters in fiction Howe writes, “The look of the daily world was governed only by which point you happened to be focused on at a particular time. Everything was occurring at once. So what if the globe is round? The manifest reality is flat.” Inside of the story they are as “uncertain at the end as they were at the beginning.” She is not just describing the contradiction, the narrative problem of time and sequence (“everything was occurring at once”) but the necessity for the author to see, unlike her characters, like a spider, that is, as Cixous has it, to be able to not see, so as not to be “governed only by which point you happened to be focused on at a particular time,” which is to see both too little and too much. To practice seeing things from multiple angles, one must be able to not see, to harness uncertainty, call it the suspension of belief, as a technique.
The refractive encyclopedia format is an ideal non-site for such spidery, contradictory, determinedly indeterminate sighting, starting with the pluralist, liberation-oriented labor of the encyclopédistes against the odds – poor Diderot! – even as the classificatory tome is historically imbricated with the disenchantment of the world. Contradiction, Simone Weil wrote, “is the criterion of the real.” Appropriating the form of the encyclopedia has been a way of contradicting the contradiction while taking hold, you might say, of the means of production of truth, using the signifying machine of canon and expertise, the emblem of the desire to navigate, master, encompass infinitude – the definition of definitions, the source of sources, the comprehensive book of comprehensions – in order to particularize differently, to “re-think our classifications” as Robin Coste-Lewis put it in her entry for fable, at once mining and undermining, respectively, the epistemological wonder and imperial freight of the reference book.
Adorno and Horkheimer wrote that enlightenment thinking contains “the germ of regression” (its undoing). For “truth refers not merely to rational consciousness but equally to the form it takes in reality.”i Call the encyclopedias, then, not works-in-progress, but works-in-regress, or egress: uncertainty as technique. Uncertainty shouldn’t be a default setting though (that’s avoidant), but it’s the only place from which to begin. To end, then, by returning to our uncertain beginning (“strange returns and recognitions and never a conclusion”): your editors’ first meeting happened in 2003 in Providence Rhode Island, where we three, Tisa Bryant, Kate Schatz, and myself, were graduate students in fiction in the MFA program at Brown. One night we found ourselves having a drink with visiting writer Gail Scott on which occasion she suggested, “Theorize your own work.” This inspired us to make a publication. But rather than theorizing fiction or fictionalizing theory, I wanted a form, like layered transparencies, that would laminate fictional, factual, and theoretical apparatuses without being an internet. At our first editorial meeting I proposed that we make our publication an encyclopedia, and it was agreed. There weren’t quite so many détournéd encyclopedias and alphabet books then. We liked the way McSweeney’s had begun to use their prodigious resources to bring the obscurer sensibilities of book artists and experimental fiction writers to mass publishing, but we’ve never had the income for such reach. So why we didn’t publish it online? We were book fetishists. So much so that we decided we’d make our books hardbound, to mimic beloved encyclopedias of childhood.
Our extended index of inspirations also included Georges Bataille’s Encyclopedia Acephalica, Codex Seraphinianus (an illustrated encyclopedia of an imaginary world created by Luigi Serafini, 1981), the TimeLife books, and Cabinet Magazine, then also in its early years (it was founded in 2000). Our first (but soon abandoned) logo was a tangle. Our cross-references would be a tangle of poetic, subjective free associations. We wagered on archiving out of print and neglected works and lineages; on the practice of feminist process and consensus in our meetings and decision making; on explicit commitments to anti-canonical aesthetic registers not geared to pedagogical or commercial utility; and on selecting experimental writing and art with an emphasis on work by of color, female, and queer writers and artists to create a proactively inclusive, intersectional “training in a circle” – enkuklios paideia in the Greek. Treating the politicized fractions of affirmative action as poethical formal constraint, we aimed for reparative proportionality – a numeral accord which we have tried to live up to, though we have not succeeded on, so to speak, every count. Art is long; ethics is longer. Politics and aesthetics are inseparable.
All of these procedures and practices allowed us to curate our books richly and productively, though we have struggled to circulate our economoddities to the extent our contributors truly deserve. It is a joy to announce, therefore, a long overdue partnership with a publisher. Before long, second editions of all three volumes of encyclopedia will be available in soft cover and POD from Publication Studio.