One of us just returned from The Garden of Total Vision, or Prospect Garden, as David Hawkes translated the name of the Kaleidoscopic Garden at the centre of Cao Xueqin’s The Story of the Stone, also known as The Dream of the Red Chamber.[1] It took five months to traverse that universe, where space and time expand and contract depending on who is telling the story, or on whose thoughts we are allowed to glimpse. Five months of daily refuge during which our other reading excursions had to do with what was going on in, and around, the Garden: secondary sources helping us to understand, and visualize, a monumental object of knowledge.[2]

We report: it was delightful.

What kind of time do we have that we can give a book this kind of attention? In fact, what kind of time do we need to give proper attention to other objects of knowledge that require continuous concentration? What do we gain from this process? What does it mean to slow down, now, in 2008, and listen for one hour and a half to Eliane Radigue’s Jetsun Mila, Luc Ferrari’s Far-West News, Robert Ashley’s Improvement, or Sun Ra’s Life is Splendid?[3] Or to engage with U.S. TV series The Wire, five seasons, where we are prompted to Listen Carefully? What do they give us that we surrender?

We – ccindex – produce information. We spend our days with computers, querying remote databases, reading and indexing journals and periodicals. Current periodicals, deceased journals. We are creating a database. Can we call it an archive?

Upon reading about archives this heading came to mind: Everything / Nothing: Negation in Abundance. Particular examples of attempts at collecting and the subsequent ordering of masses of material–including fictive attempts–led to a feeling not merely of bewonderment, but also of fatigue, attention deficit. Negation in abundance can be read as the cancelling out effect which is possible when confronted with more than is comprehensible, that which is mind-numbing, more than one can bear. It can also be read as a multitude of negation, many minuses. What I’m referring to as a cancelling out effect can also be thought in relation to absences, lacunae, holes which occur in the midst of densities of information, as well as amidst their lack. The lacunae referenced in this text are those which allude to that which is beyond understanding, and understanding can be thought here in terms of how it might be possible to perceive as well as the boundaries of such. It is exactly at these locations of limit and even fatigue where it may be necessary to search. What impossibility is faced beyond the more superficial fatigue?[4]

But we are not the archons. We do not have “hermeneutic right and competence,” we do not have “the power to interpret the archives.” We might present materials, give directions or hints, but we are not guarding anything. Contrary to archives which could not do “without residence,” we exist anywhere there’s an internet connection. We are not under “house arrest.”[5]

We live in global times, we are told. How did that happen? Were there local processes that we are already forgetting? What new lacunae have been created during this process? How did we get here? And what tools do we need to understand the shifts that have occurred, and our current condition?

The great modernist notions of culture–the literary sense of culture as arts and letters and the anthropological sense of culture as habits and customs–were entirely inadequate to understand the culture industries and ideological state apparatuses that dominated the age of three worlds. So new concepts, new frameworks were forged.[6]

A bibliographical database as a new concept, a new framework? Or is it a tool to trace their creation and current state?

One of us wrote this paragraph to Raqs Media Collective, while preparing our participation in “The Rest of Now”:

I am especially attracted to the slowing down and concentration aspects of your proposal, as ccindex spurs from an acknowledgment of a lack of attention: to materials, to contexts, to discourses, to histories, to the past and to the present. One of the paradoxes I find myself in is how to address it through what might be considered yet another instance of information overload. How to address it? I gather that it is important to make a distinction between knowledge and information and its access, but this is something that the tool itself cannot do. The database is only activated by the intended user, and its purpose fulfilled only if what is retrieved from it can be accessed, seen and read. And this takes us back to concentration and time, which I would imagine to be one of the required characteristics of scholarship and of the curious mind.

Of the curious mind? How do curious minds get formed?

A Growing Organism

What prompts us to ride a train to Queens to locate a British periodical published at the end of the 1970s in London, Black Phoenix: Journal of Contemporary Art & Culture in the Third World?[7]

We are prepared. We have previously made an appointment to use the library. We sit there, in a dark space, for hours while we go through the periodical, read the articles, type the contents and the details, assign subject headings, find links that direct you to the source, and then we post it in our database for you to go and encounter it. This same process has been repeated in Vienna, Frankfurt, Barcelona, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Santa Barbara, Paris and Lisbon, and we are willing to expand our network further.

We didn’t know about Black Phoenix a few months ago; we don’t know many things. But we are learning, and driven to diffuse what we encounter.

What has happened, the process of labour described above, was a fairly common practice for librarians before they were transformed into digital content managers. Engagement with materials, physical or digital, a slow process of accretion with hardly any final results; these practices existed before us, and will continue after us. A process of refinement.

A process of loss? Are we complicit in the fetishization of information, or are we producing knowledge?

In our case, we are exempt from this fetishism. We are not calling attention to our process, to our labour, to our product. We want to become a discreet threshold, to welcome users somewhere else.

Return to the Garden: Footnotes

Typically, the entire literature of China, say, is represented by a couple of chapters of The Dream of the Red Chamber and a few pages of poetry.[8]

Attention, readers of details: minutia. The footnotes accompanying this essay could be read as a portrait of our Garden traveler. What could be discerned from them? A physical location? Language proficiency? Musical tastes? Attention to detail? Thought processes?

That could be one reading. But these footnotes also are information, which can be used to gain more knowledge, to access materials. Primary information, secondary sources.

In both instances, one would need to care. A curious mind, trained to read entry points, able to navigate thresholds.

A threshold is defined as “any place or point of entering or beginning.” Librarians, documentalists, archivists: we are engaged in the creation of thresholds, abstract distillations, most of them of arid beauty. Tools to take us somewhere else.

To compile these footnotes a multitude of resources have been used, most of them digital: bibliographical databases, collective library catalogs, public libraries, image databanks, and bookstores. And the texts themselves. Time was spent circulating through masses of information, applying and learning new and established thought processes (i.e. cataloguing rules) that would allow us to find what’s desired. No library catalog or database is alike. Fortuitous encounters are the norm, as thought processes are always subjective. In a bibliography or in a library catalog different times collide: records made last century co-exist with records made last week. For us, these layers are beautiful, threshold details, but nonetheless minutia in the path to somewhere else.

What might be the difference between the time of research, and the time of engagement with the work, the object of knowledge? What kind of wonder can arise with the realization of a network of thought, a history of inquiry surrounding and emanating from these objects? How might this form of pleasure differ from that derived from an actual engagement with the work?

Could we think of these forms together? The Object of Knowledge, its hermeneutics, and the processes that allow encountering both. Would their combination allow us entrance into The Garden of Total Vision? And what could be the benefit?

In its Penguin edition, The Story of the Stone’s last volume is the only one using an action verb in its title: The Dreamer Wakes. An indication of what knowledge and its processes can ignite.

[1] Cao Xueqin, The Story of The Stone, also known as The Dream of the Red Chamber. Translated by David Hawkes. London: Penguin, 1973-1986. The Penguin edition has five volumes: Vol. 1 The Golden Days; Vol. 2 The Crab-Flower Club; Vol. 3 The Warning Voice; Vol. 4 The Debt of Tears; Vol. 5 The Dreamer Wakes. Vols. 4-5 edited by Gao E; translated by John Minford. Published in French by Gallimard in La Pléiade collection, Le Rêve dans le Pavillon Rouge is described as follows: “La richesse de la matière a poussé la critique marxiste à qualifier le Hong Lou Meng ‘d’encyclopédie du monde féodal à son déclin.’” Another reading.

[2] A selective list: Dore L. Levy. Ideal and Actual in The Story of the Stone (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999); Anthony C. Yu. Rereading the Stone: Desire and the Making of Fiction in Dream of the Red Chamber (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997); Cécile and Michel Beurdeley. Giuseppe Castiglione, a Jesuit Painter at the Court of the Chinese Emperors (Rutland: C.E. Tuttle, 1971); Henri Maspero. El taoismo y las religiones chinas (Madrid: Trotta, 2000); J.J. Clarke. The Tao of the West: Western Transformations of Taoist Thought (London: Routledge, 2000); Confucius; Mencius. Los cuatro libros (Madrid: Alfaguara, 1995); Luis Racionero. Textos de estética taoista (Madrid: Alianza, 1983); Chinese Philosophy in Classical Times. Edited by E.R. Hughes (London: Dutton, 1942); Sunflower Splendor: Three Thousand Years of Chinese Poetry. Co-edited by Wu-chi Liu and Irving Yucheng Lo (Garden City: Anchor Books, 1975); Maggie Keswick. The Chinese Garden (New York: Rizzoli, 1978); Xiao Chi. The Chinese Garden as Lyric Enclave: a Generic Study of The Story of the Stone (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, 2001); and, The Threefold Lotus Sutra: Innumerable Meanings; The Lotus Flower of Wonderful Law, and Meditation on the Boddhisatva Universal Virtue (Tokyo: Kosai, 1986).

[3]Jetsun Mila (Lovely Music, 1987, 2007); Far-West News (Blue Chopsticks, 1999); Improvement (Elektra NonSuch, 1992); Life is Splendid (Total Energy, 1999); The Wire (HBO, 2004-2008). A cursory list of areas of knowledge opened by these works could be: Jetsun Milarepa, Tibetan Buddhism, The Spotless Practice Lineage, Arp synthesizer, land sound art, from Page to the Grand Canyon, musique concrète, from Prescott to Los Angeles, Florian Hecker, United States subconscious’ soundscapes, Black Panthers, White Panthers, free jazz, The Solar Myth Arkestra, Saturn, The Magic City, Baltimore...

[4] Renée Green. “Survival: Ruminations on Archival Lacunae. Adaptations, Re-readings, and New Readings. Introduction to the Following Accretive Process.” In: Interarchive: Archival Practices and Sites in the Contemporary Art Field. Beatrice von Bismarck et al., ed. (Lüneburg: Kunstraum der Universität Lüneburg; Cologne: Walther König, 2002). An edited excerpt is published in: The Archive. Edited by Charles Merewether (London: Whitechapel Gallery; Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2006).

[5] Words in quotations are extrapolated from Jacques Derrida’s Mal d’archive. English translation: Archive Fever (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996).

[6] Michael Denning. Culture in the Age of Three Worlds. (London: Verso, 2004).

[7] ccindex database. Browse Journal = Black phoenix

[8] Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. Death of a Discipline. (New York: Columbia University Press, 2003), xii.