Among the archival materials left behind by scholars and artists, mixed in with notes, manuscripts, and letters, we often find index cards. The cards are a curious artifact, for today, as a tool of research, they are largely obsolete. Extensive collections of tiny cards that once belonged to the great minds of the humanities are often displayed in museums (as in the exhibition on Roland Barthes at the Centre Pompidou) or on television programs (in the case of the collections of Niklas Luhmann and Tymoteusz Karpowicz).
Stanisław Pietraszko, founder of the Wrocław school of cultural studies, also had a habit of using index cards in his research. His card collection is part of his estate and is stored at the Library of the Institute of Cultural Studies and Musicology at the University of Wrocław. The material still awaits attentive study. What is worth mentioning is the artistic and curatorial “usage” of the index cards in the exhibition Experimental Course (Kierunek eksperymentalny) organized for the fortieth anniversary of Wrocław cultural studies at the WRO Art Center in October of 2012. It was at this exhibit that I first encountered Pietraszko’s index cards. I felt moved to write about them later, when I was outlining my doctoral thesis exploring connections between forms of knowledge in the humanities and the technological media used to produce that knowledge. In this text, taking my cues from media theory rooted in cultural studies and the philosophy of the humanities, I reconstruct the index cards as an apparatus. Existing research on scholars’ collections of index cards tends – while referring to these sources as an “archival” (or “archiving”) “technology” –to analyze the material as an instrument that simultaneously conserves and creates thought. The idea here is to recognize the medium as one that exceeds the archive as a generator of texts, dialogue partner, and creative machine. Their storage capacity, of course, also merits study.
Index cards and “media” alike are both entities often described in the plural. The individual card may well be of value, but its real potential is revealed in sequence, or within its larger system. The cards fulfil their destiny when their units exist in bulk – ideally as abundantly as possible – although this standard is not without its practical inconveniences
(storage) and obstacles for “building knowledge” (how to organize them, which ones to focus on, how to label them, how to avoid drowning in the flood of information). As Markus Krajewski has noted, the prolific nature of the cards is precisely what makes them a desirable research tool for facilitating the flow of thought. Krajewski distinguishes the card collection from other media used to aggregate data, like the codex. He identifies three features specific to this medium: its elements are (1) discrete and separable, (2) unified and standardized, and (3) mobile. By storing them in boxes, cabinets or binders, we can move the components of a collection, shuffle them and, most importantly, expand on them by incorporating new components in accordance with the logic of the whole. The card index, conceived as a single medium, is in itself not as readily mobile as its constituent parts. This may chafe against the nomadic lifestyle of the academic. Luhmann, for instance, has admitted that the enormous collection he accumulated in Bielefeld makes it difficult for him to travel.