Next time I run into a library scientist, I'll ask him where exactly in a library he'd put a book/encyclopedia/curatorial project/object gallery/idea catalog/how-to manual/publication like Encyclopedia Volume I, A-E (Providence: Encyclomedia, 2006). Granted, the book claims to be an encyclopedia, a book that compiles and classifies information via neat, alphabetically-organized entries that define, describe and give examples of the world's marvels and minutiae. But I'm not sure this book would fit in the reference section very well; it might snarl at all the other encyclopedias, laugh at them, make them edgy. It would parade its sense of humor and assert that it's the boldest and spunkiest of them all. What other tome could boast a list, several pages long, of the titles of entries that were intended for publication by the editors, but never realized in print? Or a page whose only entries are Courage, Cracker, and Crime Fiction? Or an entry for Encyclopedia that's just Borges's story, "Tl√∂n, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius," copied-and-pasted ?
The Encyclopedia Project (www.encyclopediaproject.org) and its sister press Encyclomedia were started in Providence in 2004 by then-Brown Literary Arts MFAs Tisa Bryant, Miranda F. Mellis and Kate Schatz. They sent lists of five words--beginning with A, B, C, D and E--to writers and artists. The instructions? The writer/artist should pick a word and provide an encyclopedia entry for it. The entry should take any form the writer/artist wanted. The entry should be less than 4,000 words but more than one sentence. The entry should address the editors' initial question for the project: "What occurs under the sign of fiction?" The resulting volume is an encyclopedia built on fiction that playfully reveals the potentially fictional nature of all information.
The entries are written by such writers as Brian Evanson, Eileen Myles, Matthew Derby, Carole Maso, Diane Williams, and Keith and Rosemarie Waldrop, as well as filmmakers, artists, theorists and academics. There's a predominance of Providence folk and professors (mostly of writing) at Brown. There's also an impressive mix of writers and artists working out of Oakland, CA, where the Encyclopedia Project recently relocated.
The current volume is only the first of five projected editions; the next will cover letters F - K and is due out later this year. The entries are a hodgepodge of short stories, interviews, line drawings, prose poems, photographs, "See _____" directives, blog excerpts, charts, screencaps, aphorisms, photocopied letters, etymologies. Yep, nearly every form but the haiku and the laundry list finds a representative instance in one of these 325 pages. There's even a Color Art Portfolio in the back showcasing color slide illustrations of topics like "Empty" (a dot and wave grid by Xylor Jane) and "Catalogue" (manila envelopes).
If an encyclopedia predicated on the guiding question, "What occurs under the sign of fiction?" seems counterintuitive, contradictory or possibly shameful to the reference section, that's because it's probably at least two of those. Wikipedia's standards for encyclopedic entries uphold "Reliable Sources" and "Notability." They bar "Profanity" and "Conflicts of Interest." Encyclopedia adheres to very few, if any, of the Free Encyclopedia's regulations, or the regulations of other more traditional print encyclopedias.
The Encyclopedia project seems weird, but in fact, it's no stranger than the accepted model for a 'reliable' encyclopedia. Any act of encyclopedism is, from the start, a quixotic effort to amass information in such a way as to, quite deceptively, suggest order (A, B, C, D, E, F...) where there probably is none (the world is a sticky jumble of words and things; the alphabet is downright arbitrary). In this light, the Encyclopedia Britannica is humorous in its ascetic and highfalutin placement of Hohman transfer orbit (a concept in orbital mechanics) direcly above Hoisin Sauce (the kind on your Lo Mein) in its H volume. The alphabet as an organizational scheme is a chance arrangement--ostensibly free from ideology and dogma--but often leads to a hilarious juxtaposition of categories and images.
Which isn't to say that dogma doesn't seep into in any dictionary or encyclopedia. Look at men of reason Denis Diderot and Jean D'Alambert's 1751 Encyclop√©die ("a systematic dictionary of the sciences, arts and crafts"), whose entries probably say more about the neuroses of the Enlightenment elite than they actually relate the "general" information the Encyclop√©die claims to aggregate:
From the Encyclop√©die entry on Chocolate (Diet): One nation practically lives on it: to lack chocolate, among the Spanish, is to be reduced to the same point of misery as to lack bread among us.
From Opera (literature): a chimerical assemblage of poetry and music in which the poet and musician mutually torture each other.
Magot (grammar): Huddled, misshapen bizarre figures in clay, plaster, copper, or porcelain that we regard as representing Chinese people or Indians. Our apartments are decorated with them. These affected knick-knacks have gone to the nation's head and driven out of our apartments ornaments in much better taste. This is the reign of magots.
Systematic, objective, n'est-ce pas? When Encyclopedia Volume 1, A-E gives us an entry like Ephemera, that presents a 32-item list of found crap (7. rusty gilette rasor blade; 32. Small temporary tattoo of a bat; 28. Big button that says "I saw e.t."; 12. New York state driver's license of one Allison landberg"), we might come across the list of junk with the same mix of skepticism, wonder and amusement as we do when we peek into the Encyclop√©die of another era.
In light of all this, it befits the Encyclopedia Project that the word "Encyclopedia" is an historical misinterpretation. The Oxford English Dictionary gives the origin of the word as an erroneous reading of the phrase enkuklos paideia (roughly, 'a general education') in the manuscripts of Quintilian, Pliny and Galen. Later commentators misread the phrase as one word, from which we get the Pseudo-Greek enkuklopaideia.
Nevertheless, there's a surprising sense of honesty underlying the Encyclopedia Project. Both despite and as a result of its farce, exaggeration, clumsiness and humor, the project is explicit and performative in its whimsical process. Rather than make invisible the editorial functions of determining article topics, soliciting entries, setting formal guidelines, editing responses, standardizing presentation and regulating the objectivity, the Encyclopedia dramatizes its medium by exaggerating all of these. The guiding question, "What occurs under the sign of fiction," deliberately mocks the attempt of dictionarists, encyclopedists and curators, for example, to collect and present their objects with humble and grave self-effacement (as if to say, "we didn't put this here; it came on its own"). In playing with the form, it renders the fundamental absurdity and futility of any encyclopedic project.
In their editorial statement, Bryant, Mellis and Schatz explain their process, embracing the cyclical false-etymology of the word: "We worked circuitously, spiraling forward, circling back, seeking to open up rather than over-determine the terrain," later calling the encyclopedia an "unpredictable gathering," "excessive"; the project, they write, is an "impossible idea." The project may verge on being thematically aesthetocentric: entries such as Bildungsroman, Betty Carter, Dandy, and George Bataille are clearly geared toward a specific, cultured audience. Yet even this predomination of entries on arts, artists and literature, illustrates a deliberate attempt to reorganize information in a way that embraces, rather than minimizes, its fictionality, illusoriness, and figuration. If the Britannica has no room for play save for its accidental run-ins of orthography and meaning, the Encyclopedia Vol. 1 always has a clever grin.
PABLO LARIOS B'10 is the boldest and spunkiest of them all.