Two references define, like parentheses, the writing of this text. The first, taking the lead from Lisa Robertson’s insight into its Index, is Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy of 1621 (second edition 1624). Burton’s work is, as most of our creations tend to be, a product of the cultural moment in which he was living, a kind of signpost to the thinking of the time. Poised as it was on the cusp of Europe’s push towards scientific specialization, The Anatomy retains a sense of the previous age. It is a holistic approach to the subject matter, and melancholy, a pervasive affliction then as now, is treated with a kind of magical fluidity—an early modern precursor to the Age of Enlightenment. As Democritus Junior, the book’s enigmatic narrator attests:
“[T]ake melancholy in what sense you will, proper-
ly or improperly, in disposition or habit, for pleasure
or for pain,dotage, discontent, fear, sorrow,madness,
for part or all, truly, or metaphorically, ‘tis all one.”1
The Anatomy, as Robertson’s The Table beautifully illustrates, envisions the world as integrated in a way that seems radically different from our own. The text reveals a vision of knowledge that has not yet been made hierarchical—at least not in the way we have come to understand it. Faith, diet, talismans, mythical creatures, weather systems, gods and lovers; all these were viewed as having equal capacity to affect one’s medical diagnosis. The body, in this context, seems more an extension of the world surrounding us, and as having and begetting mysterious, wide-ranging possibilities of knowing and feeling. Objects were thus not entirely remote from us, but encompassed within the same principles of existence, with energies and currents flowing permeably from body to thing to thing.
The second reference might be, for some, a bit closer to the surface of our twenty-first century imaginations: a Japanese video game called Katamari Damacy.2 The premise is simple, but philosophically rich. The story goes: the King of All Cosmos has accidentally destroyed the universe and we must rebuild the stars, moon and sun with the aid of a magic, rolling adhesive ball. This ball picks up objects as it moves, starting with small particles of detritus, junk and flotsam, and, once it has gathered enough mass, begins to accumulate progressively larger things. Rolling spasmodically through cityscapes, harbours, countrysides and other familiar landscapes, the conglomeration of objects grows ever larger, eventually absorbing whole skyscrapers, giant squid, islands. Once the desired diameter is reached, the mammoth ball is catapulted into space, becoming, mystically, part of a new celestial firmament. It is a magical equation, where man-made mass transmogrifies into elemental matter; we fall off the edge of our own progress into a mercifully silent tabula rasa of a universe. It’s a succinct, if bizarre, manifestation of our contemporary anxieties around production and waste, and an imagined redemption of our excesses.
The Anatomy and Katamari Damacy employ a kind of existential “piling”, that is, a way of addressing the world and its contents as conglomerations, as related, equivalent matter. Both of them—Burton’s via the lens of history, and Katamari Damacy through the lens of imagination—provide alternative expression for our current relationship with things, as defined by late-capitalist modes of production (things as disposable), and a modernist obsession with the collection and cataloguing of objects (things as “possessing” the key to our identities, collective and individual). One might conjecture these two combatting influences as the ultimate source of our contemporary anomie; we invest in objects deeply, yet our modes of production have emptied them of their connective potential. Everything matters, and nothing at all.
Kara Uzelman’s work operates along this (incomplete, to be sure) trajectory.