The exhaustiveness imperative

The annals of Burton Abbey (Staffordshire, England), showing the entries between 1154 and 1189 AD. Each entry is preceded by a coloured ‘pilcrow’ or paragraph sign and the chronological year in Latin numerals, British Library, Cotton MS Vespasian E III, f. 5v.

Writing is a choice. What gets written is the result of a choice. Writers make choices, reducing the field of possibility, which is endless, into form, structure and finiteness.

Fiction does that, and almost every other genre. Focusing on one item takes the focus off thousand others. There is no way of addressing the range of information, the width of the data spectrum, than by deciding to put something in and leave something out. Our cognition does the very same thing, making some things salient while ignoring others. Inclusivity is not the path to adaptive intelligence.

And yet, there was one way of writing which proved completely inclusive, to the complete abandon of the principle I’ve just described. That was the medieval annals. These were the books of history which Western medieval authors, usually but not exclusively monks, came up with and defined the peculiarity of the way history was being written in the medieval period.

The principle was simple. Build a chronological framework and then populate it with data. It took the form of annals, year-by-year accounts, ranging from a few words to long paragraphs.

The strange thing about these works is that they aspired to be exhaustive. Under each annal, the annalists included pretty much everything their knowledge happened to capture. To a modern reader, they appear random, unrelated and bizarre. But that is to misunderstand the whole project. The exhaustiveness of medieval chronicles was the result of an abundance mindset which sought to capture all that could be known as worthy of knowledge and transmission. The metaphysical frame under which these works operated depended on an understanding of the universe as emanation and disclosure of the divine mind. The human mind can only take in so much, but the human hand can make it its mission to bring all information and all data under the imperium of human cognition.

In a sense, the medieval annals announced big data in a non-immanent way. Most information collected today doesn’t find an immediate use, and that was also true of medieval history writing. It was collected because it was there, it was extracted because the universe, understood as a breathing and speaking organism, threw them under our perception through discovery. We may not have moved too far goff that project, though the logic of data collection today works under a completely different logic.

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