(We all knew that here is the place of ordinary objects, Anahita Norouzi, 2013)
Thank you for your letter about the Aja’ib al-makhluqat wa ghara’ib al-mawjudat (marvels of creatures and strange things existing). I did not know of such fantastic writing of cosmographic, ّencyclopedic knowledge from eight centuries ago. I looked into the book, assembled by Iranian-Muslim scientist Muhammad ibn-Mahmoud Hamdani, and found speculatively mapped features of the universe, with everything from minerals to different kinds of jinn, procreation to cohabitation, geographic myths, a History of Nature foreign to the modernist universal contemporary philosophy of science.
(illustrations from Aja’ib al-makhluqat wa ghara’ib al-mawjudat and Shan Hai Jing)
(Untitled (self-hating monkey), Houman Mortazavi)
I know of a similar book called Shan Hai Jing 山海经 (Classic of Moutains and Seas), a record of mythic geography, peoples and creatures. It is divided into eighteen chapters, each designated to ‘mountain’, ‘sea’, ‘region within the seas’ or ‘great wilderness’ from one of the four directions. In matter-of-factly language, each chapter narrates a certain natural environment populated by creatures at once real and fantastical. You probably know of a ‘Chinese’ bestiary by the name of Celestial Empire of Benevolent Knowledge, but that’s another story. Dating as far back as 4th century BCE, Shan Hai Jing was said to contain knowledge and codes of propriety in accordance with the divine order through which the ancient leaders ruled.
(Verisimilitudes, Chapter four: History founds, Mehdi Moghimnejad, 2011-2012)
I like how you describe that instead of presenting illustrated cases as exemplary of broader processes, which is the general function of the modern atlas, Aja’ib al- makhluqat brings precise individual instances in their unique story, touching unfolding body-parts of the running rotting flickering evaporating elephant in a poetics of description. Over a thousand years before Aja’ib al- makhluqat, Shan Hai Jing already amounts to an attempt of creating a universal atlas, but the atlas it creates has never separated itself from the realm beyond rational truth.
(‘fang’ and ‘dao’ in jiaguwen, source: zdict.net)
My concern here is, how can one simultaneously demarcate, categorize and parcelize knowledge from being, while at the same time undoing it. The first archivists who compiled Shan Hai Jing were ritual masters of supernatural power and were said to have differentiated the four orientations (in an order of amicability, south, west, north and east, coinciding the order of chapters in Shan Hai Jing). This later gave rise to a governmental functionary called fangshi 方士, or the keeper of geographical and cultural records of the world. Here fang 方 is interesting (shi simply means ‘a person’). In its earliest found form as jiaguwen, or inscription on bones or tortoise shells (up to 11th century BCE), it looks like a knife (dao 刀) leaning on a stand. The earliest form of dao clearly depicts a separation of things into two parts. Whereas in today’s Chinese language, fang generally signals ‘square’, and in its expanded sense, ‘territory’, earlier Chinese lexicon interprets fang as ‘joint’, ‘annex’ or ‘side-by-side’, thus suggesting reconciliation of separation and togetherness – not on the ground of dialectical reciprocity, but of shared root. It is no wonder that instances like Shan Hai Jing, perhaps also Aja’ib al- makhluqat, are contradictory to their ambition of delimiting the world.
(Pigeonhole, Huntinglines, Nader Koochaki, 2014)
This is maybe a bit far-fetched, but I’m thinking about how we deal with binary codes and systemization of everything, which is so much part of our occupation in the archive.
(My First Name Soldier, Mohsen Yazdipour, 2010)