There are ants in my reading group

I co-organise (with Joe Deville) the CSISP reading group, the CSISP Salon as we call it. We don’t recline on chaise longues but we do try to be nonchalant about it and offer, aside from the conventional academic texts, other kinds of “objects” like films or exhibitions. This year, we’re exploring troubles with and of scale. In July 2009, the Said Business School ran a workshop on scaleography so we decided to read our way through some of the texts produced for this. For the first salon, we chose the collective summary manifesto “Provocations on scale” (Woolgar et al 2009) which rehearses some of the key issues while throwing out a number of pertinent pointers to attach discussions to. The “other” object was an excerpt (the first 3 chapters) of Jean Ricardou’s 1968 novel Place Names. I came across this book when paying a timely visit or perhaps conducting a virtual pilgrimage to the Dalkey Archive Press website. It was Flann O’Brien’s 100th birthday on 5 October and that called for some sort of homage so I decided to get a new shiny edition of At Swim-Two-Birds, possibly the greatest book ever written. (The Dalkey Archive Press is named after a book by O’Brien and has republished his entire works.) Somehow I clicked my way to Place Names and lingered because the cover of the book featured ants. Lots of them. They appear inside the book too, in various forms and with varying degrees of agency. So naturally they were invited to come to the Salon. You can read my introduction below. For a more comprehensive take, visit the CSISP blog.

Provocations on ants and scale
In their conclusion Woolgar and others suggest to look at the “natural sciences” to escape the conventions of scale and learn about how to do scale somewhat differently. In this Salon, literature, or more specifically, Jean Ricardou’s Place Names (1968[2007]), shows us some interesting even inventive but certainly different routes into the lands of scale.

Jean Ricardou, born 1932, is an author of both fiction and theory. He is one of the key figures in the nouveau roman, a literary genre or rather movement that emerged in the

Place Names

This is what happens to my objects when I get excited about someone and forget to fasten the flask 2011, Book, wooden cloth pegs, coat hanger, window, night.

1950s in France. The new novel rejects – in some cases spectacularly ejects – such things as linear chronology, discernible plot and coherent characters. Readers learn very little about inner motives or the psychology of protagonists and so the nouveau roman collapses the panorama of the novel. There is no evident order, no rational space-time context or other intelligible frame of relations. It is thoroughly disorienting, for readers and characters alike, hence it is particularly apt that this book should offer itself as a guide book.

A guide book is of course a scalar device that allows acting at a distance and makes problems doable: a vast region, too big to take in, becomes neatly ordered for us to peruse. In our case however perusal quickly turns into fluster as this guide book offers little if anything in matters of direction and location. And the meagre bones it does throw quickly disintegrate without leaving even a spot of dust for triangulation. Rather than mapping a region and its sites and sights, Place Names unfolds strange worlds – in pictures, recollections, parks and antique shops – which it is only too happy to collapse at a moments’ notice. The valley’s chequerboard landscape introduced in the beginning pages, is reminiscent of another equally confounding chequerboard – the one encountered by Lewis Carroll’s Alice. Like her, we oftentimes feel as if we’re peering through a looking-glass, we’re not really granted the proper, proportional, proportioned vista. This is not necessarily detrimental to our travels: discrete things such as ants, white flags, mirrors, the crusades, red cars and slightly crazy park wardens enter into fanciful associations and demand of the reader too to entertain curious entanglements.

By denying us a congruous panorama, Place Names and the nouveau roman in general, constitute a provocation. So here we arrive at one possible intersection for Ricardou, Woolgar and others: They can all be considered as provocations. They provoke by confounding our expectation and experiences of scale. Scale requires a vantage point from where to put things in perspective and establish an order, a vantage point that Place Names denies us. Similarly, Woolgar and others provoke on multiple fronts, demanding, among other things, an end to imprudent use of adjectives of scale and an investigation, preferable ethnographic, of scale as an effect of scalar practices. Also, their provocation piece is written, as so many provocations (from Luther to Wittgenstein) were, as a number of theses. Scale is often associated with comfort: objects, relations and ratios of relations are scaled in such a way as to fit our bodies, please our senses and spare our minds. In both texts, scaling or the practices of doing scale perturb some convenient positions.

The second junction I’d like to suggest for the texts relates to their respective or mutual topography: The novel precipitates between two seemingly opposite poles, projecting a “garden of opposition”: On one hand, the belief that things emerge from words, that discourse is generative of reality, that the name precedes the object. On the other hand, the contrary: It is words that name things, and language is but a translation of a prior real reality. Ricardou’s book itself is a product of this very struggle, continuously changing from guide book to novel and back. Woolgar and others too begin by presenting an opposition. Here, this “fundamental split” is between those social scientists that study the macro and those who observe the micro. More fundamentally, this is perhaps the tragedy of scale, locked into a matrix that by default distributes value, worth and relevance unevenly.

Between the two camps, there is not much common ground but there are ants. Lots of them. We encounter them throughout the book. They’re usually in peril: encircled by raging, furious waters, encased in cellophane glued to a plane tree, or subjected to microscopic flamethrowers, they struggle and they perish. Yet they steadily re-appear, sometimes as non-ants as in the figure of the woman in the red car named Atta, a name which also describes leaf-cutter ants. Or the protagonist Olivier Lasius, Lasius referring to a

Ants on the 1972 documenta 5 catalogue

genus of boreal formicine ants. The ants then represent not so much an intractable opposition of scales but point to the fictitious nature of the split between micro and macro. This is not to say that this split has no material consequence. But it suggests some relevant questions, not least of which concern the possibility of ethical practice in incommensurable and incongruous entanglements with words, ants, wars and reading groups.

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