Index Cards and the Analog Humanities. A Media Archaeology of Cultural Studies in Poland

paper, specified "long paper"
  1. 1. Aleksandra Maria Kil

    Uniwersytet Wrocławski (University of Wroclaw)

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A self-reflexive turn in the digital humanities, also referred to as the third wave, prompts us to critically examine interlocking media and epistemic changes, seeking answers to the intriguing question, posed by Lorraine Daston, of “how humanists know what they know” (Daston, 2004: 363). Addressing this issue would entail identifying the ways in which humanist thinking depends (and has always depended) on technocultural infrastructures, as well as laying out remediations, affordances, literacies, and shared norms and values pertaining to making knowledge in the humanities. Adopting a media archaeological perspective – in which insights of past and often obsolete technologies inform our understanding of the contemporary media age and vice versa – enables us to analyze the epistemological implications of both the digital and the analog. This paper will explore a yet unexamined archive of paper index cards created and used by Stanisław Pietraszko, the pioneer of cultural studies in Poland, and propose a media-specific and infrastructure-oriented account of knowledge-making in the humanities, especially in the Polish postwar reflection on culture.
In examining the artifact – dated back to the early 1950s – and revolving practices as revealed by interviews, narratives, and manuals, the following questions relating to technicality, instrumentality and creativity in the analog humanities come to light: How is knowledge crafted with a slip-box? What does this apparatus consist of? What is the genealogy of its format and standardization? Why were scholarly index cards resisted or criticized by some and, on the other hand, what made the cards so eagerly adopted by others (to an extent that they were later emulated by early-day computer programs, like Apple’s HyperCard, and still remain – in a somewhat skeuomorphic form – in a range of modern applications and interfaces)? What kinds of humanistic work was recognized as valuable thinking, as opposed to mundane, auxiliary labor? And, finally, can index cards affect the style of thinking, foster or even enforce any specific way of reasoning (structuralist, systematic, taxonomical, analogical, nomothetic)?
Building upon Lisa Gitelman’s idea of paper knowledge (Gitelman, 2014) and Markus Krajewski’s study of Zettelkästen as a storage medium and a universal paper machine (Krajewski, 2011), I investigate index cards as a knowledge-making device. Apart from its more obvious applications in bibliography and libraries, index cards can also be understood as a part of academic infrastructures (instructively examined in the works by Shannon Mattern and Patrick Svensson, see for instance (Mattern, 2016) and (Svensson, 2016)) or “epistemic surroundings” (to put it in terms proposed by Mario Wimmer (Wimmer, 2017)) typical of the humanities, especially in the fields such as philology and history. I am interested in what can be exposed through examination of the cards about intellectual work in the humanities, especially in the context of postwar Poland. While seeking to grasp a local context (notably, praxiology – a philosophical theory of efficient action, developed by a renowned thinker Tadeusz Kotarbiński – as a specifically Polish background of card indexing), my analysis encompasses a broader view of the tool, referring to working habits and file cards of the luminaries such as Roland Barthes, Niklas Luhmann and Claude Lévi-Strauss.
Framing my research in a media archaeology perspective, I propose to read the paper card index “alongside and against” digital media (Emerson, 2014: loc. 2127). A general trajectory of my thinking is threefold and goes from (1) the digital humanities and their critical insight into knowledge devices and epistemic infrastructures to (2) the analog humanities and their uses of paper technologies and (3) back to the digital again, looking into how the index cards have been repurposed by electronic media. This project is media archaeological in several respects. Firstly, it sets out to explore the materiality of scholarly production of Pietraszko, revisiting old and purportedly discarded technologies of intellectual labour. In a worm's eye view it concentrates on snippets, sketches and scribbles. Additionally, technological change is not viewed here in terms of imminent progress, i. e. boxes of paper slips, deemed an instance of cultural theorist’s mindware, are not simply the ancestors of the cutting-edge software employed nowadays by scholars. Last but not least, the nature of such an endeavour is in fact “an-archaeological” (as Siegfried Zielinski dubbed it (Zielinski, 2008)), since an interest in Pietraszko’s legacy is not particularly strong even in the Polish humanities and could be revived by this study.
I adopt a notion of the analog humanities, aiming to use it in a more rigorous, theory-laden sense rather than simply in a metaphorical way, usually signaled by the quotation marks around the term. I would like to instill a kind of reflexivity or a retrospective, pre-posterous logic in it (I borrow a notion of “pre-posterous history” from the Dutch art historian Mieke Bal). As Jonathan Sterne argues, “the analog humanities refers to a nexus of methodological, technological, and institutional conditions across the humanities that have only come into clear focus in retrospect” and in this sense the term serves as “a rhetorical before” (Sterne, 2015: 19). Elsewhere, in his entry on the analog in the Digital Keywords he claims that we should “return some specificity to the analog as a particular technocultural sphere” (Sterne, 2016: 41) and not treat this category as a blurry term denoting everything being not digital. Therefore, my paper follows a similar logic seeing the analog humanities as a concept facilitated by the digital humanities and identifying a concrete technocultural condition of scholarship. At the same time, I understand index cards as a constitutive element of the analog humanities, which is not everything that preceded the digital age, but rather a media ecology of print, typewriters, sound recordings, transparencies, overhead projectors, copiers and microfiches, etc., used in the humanities, especially in the second half of the 20th century, to which my case study points to.


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