Learning in Island Ecologies: Aina Pomar, Andrea Ragno, Andrew Dobson, Anna Mikkola, Ashley Lewis, Cameron Alexander, Chris Fussner, Himanshu Halve, Jacob Meher, Jasmine Grace Wenzel, Mariah Reodica, Marie Klinger, Marjolijn Kok, Sindi-Leigh McBride, Richard Hames PDF
Island utopias tend, thanks to their isolation, towards involution: they evince customs and values that the continental visitor considers bizarre. The substance of utopian narratives consists in the description of this strangeness. The description is a fantasy, yet the process of describing leads to the remarkable recurrence of a remarkably banal form: the list. Utilised in these texts as a vehicle for describing an unreal plenitude, with the rise of the realist novel the list takes on the drastically anti-utopian function: as the inventories and tabulations of Robinson Crusoe.
1. Utopia (1516)
In Thomas More’s genre-founding Utopia, the list is already a central structuring principle. The text is organised as a kind of loose list in which everything is enclosed under headings of varying specificity: “Of the Magistrates”; “Of their Living and Mutual Conversation Together”; “Of Bondmen, Sick Persons, Wedlock, and Divers Other Matters”. This enumerative structure is replicated in the main body of the prose itself. The paragraphs tend to begin like this: “The island of Utopia containeth”; “There be”; “As for their cities”; “The streets be”; “In this hall”; “Every thirty families or farms”; “In the meantime all gold and silver”.
It is difficult to decide to what extent this loosely thematic sequential structure can be understood as a part of the political-ethical arguments of Utopia: the list form seems to gain a certain autonomy in the text, communicating information in excess of any other textual function. This may be part of the text’s pretense: Utopia presents itself as part of an epistolary exchange among More’s humanist friends, and More clearly takes travel accounts written by European explorers of the ‘New World’ as source material. Yet by dint of this informational, quasi-enumerative quality, Utopia already bears the seeds of the distinctly non-utopian future of narrative prose: the realist novel whose rise to hegemony would kick off two centuries later with the list-laden island narrative Robinson Crusoe.
2. New Atlantis (1626)
Roughly a century after Utopia and before their incorporation into realism in Crusoe, information and the list still play a decidedly utopian role in Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis. Presenting itself as a “model or description of a college instituted for the interpreting of nature”, the text describes the island of Bensalem, a panoptic island base for a totalising project of Enlightenment. Bensalem is the centre of a secret, globe-spanning network of informational flows, a system of exchange on a far greater scale than the fledgling colonialism of its European visitors: “we maintain a trade,” a Bensalemite announces to them, ‘not for gold, silver, or jewels; nor for silks; not for spices; nor any other commodity of matter; but only for God’s first creature, which was Light; to have light (I say) of the growth of all parts of the world”.
Soon the Europeans are introduced to “the very eye of this kingdom”: Salomon’s House. This “college” is the focal point of the Bensalemite accumulation of light, the seeing point at the centre of their invisible network of visual capture. Yet the ambitions of Salomon’s House go beyond the capture of the merely visible: “The End of our Foundation”, announces a representative, “is the knowledge of the Causes, and secret motions of things: and the enlarging of the bounds of Human Empire, to the effecting of all things possible.”
Here Bacon’s narrative decisively departs from its model of Utopia: Bensalemite utopia is not yet completed (the main body of the text even ends with the note: “The rest was not perfected”). The imperfection of the Bensalemite project is also registered on the level of form: the final quarter of the text consists exclusively of two lists, increasingly unglossed and fragmentary. The first enumerates the resources, personnel and capabilities at the House’s disposal: “We have large and deep caves of several depths […] We have burials in several earths […] We have high towers […] We have also […] We have also […] We have also”, etc. This is followed, as a kind of postscript, by another list, written in note form and not ascribed to any particular speaker:
Versions of bodies into other bodies.
Making of new species.
Transplanting of one species into another.
Instruments of destruction, as of war and poison.
Exhilaration of the spirits, and putting them in good disposition.
Force of the imagination, either upon another body, or upon the body itself.
Acceleration of time in maturations.
Acceleration of time in clarifications.
The list juxtaposes isolated elements without making their connections explicit, proceeds vertically without imposing hierarchy and is -- for a form whose primary use is organisational -- remarkably open to the coincidences of association and recall. What is apparently supposed to function as an exhaustive demonstration of the Bensalemite’s power and ambition is, formally, an apparently arbitrary arrangement of frequently ambiguous phrases. This is a to-do list: a form in-itself always incomplete, its referent always beyond it.
Thematically, the list meanders from biology to war, to the metaphysical manipulation of physical bodies, and finally to chemistry. The relations between the listed items can be drawn multifariously and multidirectionally, each one moving differently. Although the pronounced intentions of the Salomon’s House are the most obvious context for this list, this list is strictly pure addendum, a textual orphan without gloss or title. Its relation to the main body of the text is never entirely determinate; it is not so much vertically subjected to another piece of text as associated with the entirety of the main text sequentially, almost paratically: it simply comes after it; it is not clearly subject to it. Its role, however, is vital, for it is here that the “fable” of the utopian encounter becomes model: imperfect, complete only in relation to a reality that it orients itself toward but is not identical with. Through this list the text gestures toward the future: addenda awaiting perfection.
3. Robinson Crusoe (1719)
An interesting countertext to Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe is Henry Neville’s Isle of Pines, published in 1668. Neville’s text is a kind of robinsonade; the castaways however are multiple and in mixed company: one man, three women. The island they wash up on is not dissimilar to Crusoe’s: deserted of human life but rich in flora and fauna. Like Crusoe, these castaways are also initially overcome with horror, yet ease into the natural comfort of the island quickly, ultimately populating it through a prodigious amount of reproductive sex.
Crusoe, meanwhile, can neither relax nor multiply. He fills his solitude with lists, records and constructs. The relationship between human bodies and human products on the two islands is more or less neatly reversed: while Neville’s islanders eventually number in the thousands, they produce only one written record (an autobiographical account from the original male islander) and one hut. Crusoe, on the other hand, surrounds his lone self with the products of his labour: a calendar, a diary, multiple dwellings, multiple goat pastures, multiple boats, fortifications, maps, lists, tools and equipment, all meticulously enumerated and described.
When another person -- the occasionally sighted “cannibals” are discounted from personhood -- eventually does arrive, he is summarily added to Crusoe’s inventory: his gestures are interpreted by Crusoe as a “token of swearing to be my Slave for ever”. This other person is not only incorporated as extra labour in Crusoe’s projects, but also serves as a surface of inscription: Crusoe teaches him English, ‘converts’ him to Christianity, teaches him to abhor ‘cannibalism’ and names him, in reference to the day of their first encounter, ‘Friday’. Interestingly, this designation turns out to be based on a miscalculation. It is revealed upon Crusoe’s return to ‘civilisation’ -- the vast network of lists, time-keeping and specialised equipment that Crusoe has spent decades trying to reconstruct in miniature -- that his calendar was off by one day: Friday was first encountered on Saturday.
The objective accuracy of Crusoe’s records is not necessarily the point. His lists, diaries and records stem from the same impulse as his enormous capacity for labour: fear. They are technologies of self-preservation; their goal is to order the world to make it liveable, rather than ordering themselves in accordance with a world indifferent to the list-maker’s survival. The reader of Crusoe encounters a dazzling array of lists, as varied, improvised and intricate as Crusoe’s building projects: “1. [...] 2. [...] 3. [...] 4.”; “First of all [...] 2ndly”; “Bread, Rice, three Dutch Cheeses, five Pieces of dry’d Goat’s Flesh”; “how we liv’d, how we worshipp’d God, how we behav’d to one another; and how we traded in Ships”, etc. -- and fulfilling various functions: several inventories, a list of demands, a spiritual reckoning with providence (“Evil: I am cast upon a horrible, desolate island, void of all hope of recovery. / Good: But I am alive; and not drowned, as all my ship's company were”).
Messy and banally useful, one could read these lists as reality effects, part of the realist novel’s suffocation of the romance, as famously staged in Catherine Morland’s bathetic discovery of a laundry list in a supposedly spooky cabinet in Northanger Abbey. Yet it is difficult to say what the substance of Crusoe would be if enumeration were merely an effect: lists are the soul of this text, accumulation and information made manifest. In ‘Desert Islands’, Deleuze writes that “Robinson's vision of the world resides exclusively in property; never have we seen an owner more ready to preach”. Defoe’s novel is the imprint of Crusoe’s experience of the world as an ever-shifting inventory of things that might be useful, that could be called upon to face off whatever terror comes next.
Thus the descriptions of the island in Crusoe have a substantially different quality to the description of Utopia or Bensalem: this is not description as argument; Crusoe’s island does not exemplify or model. The description here nears the quality of pure information: things are registered because they are there, because they swarm around the isolated subject, who continually improvises different combinations according to the exigencies of the moment. That Crusoe is isolated is a crucial requirement to produce this kind of vision: his isolation obliges him to orient his life entirely around the labour of survival. While the isolation of Utopia and Bensalem permit elaborated flow, his forces the ceaseless production of provisional structures.
 Susan Rice. Three Early Modern Utopias. 55, 62, 88
 ibid. 49, 50, 52, 54, 65, 51, 70
 ibid. 151
 ibid. 168
 ibid. 159
 ibid. 177
 ibid. 185
 ibid. 177-8
 ibid. 186
 Daniel Defoe. Robinson Crusoe. 172
 ibid. 203, 44, 187, 57-8
 Gilles Deleuze. Desert Islands and Other Texts. 12
Bacon, Francis. New Atlantis. In: Three Early Modern Utopias, edited by Susan Bruce, p. 149-186. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.
Defoe, Daniel. Robinson Crusoe, edited by Thomas Keymer. Oxford: Oxford World’s Classics, 2007.
Deleuze, Gilles. ‘Desert Islands’. Desert Islands and Other Texts 1953-1974, edited by David Lapoujade, translated by Michael Taormina, p. 9-14. Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2002.
More, Thomas. Utopia, translated by Ralph Robinson. In: Three Early Modern Utopias, edited by Susan Bruce, p. 1-148. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.
Neville, Henry. The Isle of Pines. In: Three Early Modern Utopias, edited by Susan Bruce, p.187-212. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.