Cursive Hand in a BlackBerry Field: A Poetics of the List

In the age of the BlackBerry, my August-to-August black vinyl covered pocket-sized book is already a relic. Like the sight of a clunky Sony Walkman at the gym, its function is still recognizable, but it’s more likely to be read as an artifact than as a tool of information management. In classrooms and meetings, my day-timer and ritualized relationship to this book is even a topic of discussion. Colleagues and students remark upon my refined but seemingly inefficient system of information management. Why would someone with my schedule and range of administrative duties resist the temptation to adopt a more efficient technology? Why not splurge on a BlackBerry or iPhone? Of course, my day-timer is only a system of information management on the surface. Far more than a list of tasks, it’s a deeply personalized altered book. Read closely, it tells the story of a life. Its guts lay bare a body torn apart by the need to live in many worlds -- or more accurately, many institutional contexts -- and because there is no delete function, there is no way to obscure the messiness of this life. On the inside front cover, a litany of numbers:

8 MTWF 3 10 11:40 MTWTF 6 W. Break F 8 or 12 (M and W) Winter (T and Th. M ( MTWTF 3 3000 4000 / Enr. # 2010000014367155 /gn.2019 Northside 7000 Berry and N. 1st 4000 USER ID + Part 1 (5000 + 24000) Part 2 (15000) rend deduc. $500 . . .

Times, dates, street addresses, pins, passwords, financial figures—as much as the names by which we are interpellated, these sums, codes and coordinates call us into being in a world where being itself is deeply entangled in a cycle of being accounted for and accountable to the institutions we invariably navigate in our everyday life. These numbers are part of what sociologist Dorothy Smith describes as the “textual realities” that both define who we are and place our actual experiences of everyday life under erasure: “Textual realities are not fictions or falsehoods; they are normal, integral, and indeed essential features of the relations and apparatuses of ruling.”[fn value=1]Dorothy Smith, The Conceptual Practices of Power: A Feminist Sociology of Knowledge (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1990), 83.[/fn]

Beyond the cover of my day-timer, the reader discovers other layers of the factual surfaces that structure my textual reality: places to be, people to meet, things to do. But here too is evidence of how I manage to “make do” within the institutional contexts I navigate on a daily basis. Completed tasks are marked by an exaggerated checkmark. Incomplete tasks are crossed out but usually rewritten, or simply circled and transferred with an arrow to another block of time or day. During especially chaotic periods, a day or entire week may be covered up with a new scrap of paper or series of sticky notes (sometimes one has no other option but to begin again). Finally, in the tradition of altered books, my day-timer is also an archive of other documents. On the occasion of writing this essay, I discover a dental insurance card, a sticker featuring the code to a long lost combination lock, an advertisement for a multifunction printer, three business cards, two invoices and a printed Google Map from here to somewhere else.

As evidenced by my day-timer, my life is one deeply mediated by texts and the textual realities of institutions, but day-timers and their lists may also tell other stories, including those that may on the surface appear to have little or no connection to texts at all. I grew up in a house with few books and with a father who appeared to rarely if ever write. Nevertheless, there were tiny notebooks stashed around the house. Small enough to fit in the pocket of a grubby pair of GWGs and not fall out into the field, these notebooks contained few if any words—they simply contained lists of numbers. Only years later while researching the history of ledger books would I come to appreciate that these cryptic lists of numbers were an archive of temperatures and yields and prices—an invaluable record of what was grown, with what results and at what cost. Writing this essay, a reflection on my own cursive hand in a “BlackBerry field,” I again recall these miniature notebooks with their cryptic numeric lists, but now understand them not simply as archives of work but also as lists inextricably linked to the fields in which they were written and meant to document, reminding me that lists can and do document all kinds of labor, including labor that appears to be carried out beyond the institutions and textual realities that govern my own life. Writing this essay has also given me occasion to reflect on the surprising ways in which these mysterious notebooks with their numeric lists overlap with my own day-timer. Neither the cryptic notebooks I recall from my childhood nor my day-timer constitutes a form of writing or an artifact with any obvious aesthetic qualities, but they are both deeply reflective of the poetics of everyday life. Lists, whether composed in institutions or fields, are marked by a specific rhythm, visuality and structure of feeling, and in either case, they reveal much about the writer’s operativity in the world.

The concept of everyday life is ubiquitous, but its referents are as varied as life itself. The everyday has been used to theorize everything from the history of home appliances to television. While such objects or phenomena may be part of the everyday, I maintain that the everyday, as a conceptual category and something we actually experience, may be far less concrete despite its rootedness in material culture. To begin, “The everyday is that which is most familiar,”[fn value=2]Highmore, Everyday Life and Cultural Theory, 2.[/fn] “what lags and falls back, the residual life with which our trash cans and cemeteries are filled: scrap and refuse.”[fn value=3]Maurice Blanchot quoted by Michael E. Gardiner, Critique of Everyday Life (New York: Routledge, 2000), 1.[/fn] It is “talking, reading, moving about, shopping, cooking.”[fn value=4]Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, Vol. 1, trans. Steven Randall (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988), xix.[/fn] It is “profoundly related to all activities, and encompasses them with all their differences and their conflicts; it is their meeting place, their bond, their common ground.”[fn value=5]Henri Lefebvre, Critique of Everyday Life, Vol. I, trans. J. Moore (London: Verso, 1991), 97. [/fn] Everyday life is “objectification in its entirety.”[fn value=6]Agnes Heller, Everyday Life (London: Routledge, 1984), 48. [/fn] It is “an actual material setting, an actual local and particular place in the world.”[fn value=7]Dorothy E. Smith, The Everyday World as Problematic: A Feminist Sociology (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1987), 97.[/fn] Everyday life is “the commute, the errand, the appointment”[fn value=8]Alice Kaplan and Kristin Ross, “Introduction to Everyday Life” in The Everyday Life Reader, ed. Ben Highmore (New York: Routledge, 2001), 78.[/fn] and “what holds us intimately, from the inside.”[fn value=9]Paul Leuilliot, preface to Guy Thuillier, Pour un historie du quotidian au XIXe  siècle en Nirvernais (Paris Mouton, 1977), xi-xii, as quoted by Michel de Certeau, “The Annals of Everyday Life” in The Practice of Everyday Life, Vol.2, trans. Timothy J. Tomasik (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1988), 3.[/fn] “Polyrythmia from the first listening,”[fn value=10]Henri Lefebvre, Rhythmanalysis: Space, Time and Everyday Life (New York: Continuum, 2001), 16. [/fn] it “harbors the possibility of its own transformation.”[fn value=11]Alice Kaplan and Kristin Ross, “Introduction to Everyday Life,” 78.[/fn] It is “ways of operating” and “making do.”[fn value=12]De Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, Vol. 1, xii. [/fn] It is “lived on the level of surging affects, impacts suffered or barely avoided. It takes everything we have.”[fn value=13]Kathleen Stewart, Ordinary Affects (Durham: Duke University Press, 2007), 1.[/fn] Quite simply, “everyday life is right here.”[fn value=14]Guy Debord, “Perspectives for Conscious Alterations in Everyday Life” in The Everyday Life Reader, ed. Ben Highmore, 238. [/fn] Read through these discursive traces culled from only a few of the theorists by whom my own understanding of the everyday is informed, the everyday evokes affects and desires, struggles and constraints and a certain degree of tension—productive tension. The everyday is not simply what is, then, but also what is forced to the surface, spills-over, bubbles up, makes itself known. The everyday is the banal that paradoxically insists upon being heard and seen, and the list is one of the places where this visible and audible banal is most apparent.

On this basis, I maintain that lists are not simply reflections of what we intend to do, carry out or fail to accomplish, but forms that map the flows, fits and starts, violent interruptions and gaps that mark our everyday lives. Form, as Charles Bernstein argues, may be simply understood as “ways of putting things together, or stripping them apart . . . how any one of us interprets what’s swirling so often incomprehensibly about us.” If we further adopt Bernstein’s definition of poetry as an “aversion to conformity in pursuit of new forms,”[fn value=15]Charles Bernstein, A Poetics (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1992), 1. [/fn] without necessarily conflating the list with the list poem, it is possible to appreciate lists as a minor but ubiquitous form that offers itself up as a primary site of textual intervention—the most basic, most immediate, most familiar form available for manipulation, repetition, aversion and invention in the relentless flow of the everyday.

Michel de Certeau and Luce Girard maintain that culture “is not information, but its treatment by a series of operations as a function of objectives and social relations.”[fn value=16] Michel de Certeau and Luce Girard, The Practice of Everyday Life, Vol. 2, 254.[/fn] Recognizing that “[t]he first aspect of these operations is aesthetic,” they further emphasize that “an everyday practice opens up a unique space within an imposed order, as does the poetic gesture that bends the use of common language to its own desire in a transforming reuse.”[fn value=17]Ibid.[/fn] If “everyday practice patiently and tenaciously restores a space for play, an interval of freedom, a resistance to what is imposed from a model, a system, or an order),”[fn value=18] Ibid., 255.[/fn] a poetics of everyday life is no more or no less a theory of how we make do, how we carve out small spaces of pleasure within the constraints of our daily grinds. Perhaps, if I hesitate to abandon my inefficient day-timer for a more efficient electronic prosthetic, it’s because I have yet to understand how these new devices will adequately serve me not simply as tools of information management but as forms ripe for aversion, play and pleasure—not mere mnemonic devices but palimpsests of everyday practice and innovation. What better companion and accomplice for one’s labor, after all, than a messy, corporeally embedded scene of operativity?


Kate, this is a beautiful essay.  I like the way you draw attention to the quantitative and the laborious at the heart of lists and notes, the way they point to various fields of work in the world.

One thought I had while reading your piece was on the different "imbeddedness" of books versus blackberries, with which you start your reflections.  One of the key features of the notebook, and I suspect it has a lot to do with why you hang on to it, is that it is also crucially limited in how it intersects those fields of work to which it refers.  Notebooks close off the world as much as they open us out into it, or make us functional within it.  Blackberries, by contrast, are, in Naomi Baron's words, "always on," not just in terms of electricity or signal, but in the way they open our textual (and labor) fields to everyone else.  One of the things I consistently recoil from is the vogue for electronic calendar sharing at my university.  Sure it would make everyone's life easier, but I see it as a kind of last stand of interiority, the right not to be integrated calendrically with the bureaucratic mob.  I suspect your (our) affinity for the notebook calendar versus the digital kind is part of our ambiguous relationship as academics to the category of labor itself.

Anyway, thanks again for your thoughts,


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