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Lists of Life: Workshop organized by the ERC Starting Grant project LISTLIT

Life Writing and the Poetics of List Making

Article by Anne Rüggemeier


Since July 2018, the ERC Starting Grant Project LISTLIT – Lists in Literature and Culture, investigates the cultural practice of list-making and its literary manifestation throughout the centuries. Principal investigator JunProf. Eva von Contzen and her team (two postdocs: Dr. Anne Rüggemeier and Roman Alexander Barton; two doctoral students: Sarah Link and Julia Böckling) are located at FRIAS.

On Friday, January 18th, 2019, the group organized a workshop to explore and discuss lists and list-making in the context of life writing. Under the title “Lists of Life – Life Writing and the Poetics of List Making”, M.A. students, early career researchers and senior scholars discussed the list’s function as a literary device, a cultural tool and a means of auto/biographical sense-making and self-fashioning in life narratives across the centuries.

In her keynote with the ambivalent title “Erledigt!”, Judith Kasper, Professor for Comparative Literature at Goethe-University Frankfurt/Main critically reflected on the list in postwar French literature as a means to evoke the memory of extinction. Taking Serge Klarsfeld’s Mémorial de la Déportation des Juifs de France (1978) – a 650 page collection of the names and dates of 80,000 Jewish victims of the German occupation – as a point of departure, Kasper convincingly demonstrated how the presence of the list in e.g. George Perec’s oeuvre is not just an instance of formal playfulness (contraint) as it was typical of the Oulipo group, but a compulsive, even obsessive way to keep on writing despite and against the background of extinction. Also drawing on texts by Sarah Kofman and Patrick Modiano’s Dora Bruder (1997), Kasper traced the influence of the Gestapo transport lists and Klarsfeld’s Mémorial in post-Holocaust French literature. She illuminated how literary lists in life writing texts show the obsession with the list as an administrative practice that served both as a tool behind the organization of a genocide and as a means to collect and remember the lives and losses of the murdered Jews of France.

In the subsequent discussions of lists in contexts of life writing – that ranged from early modern diaries to strategies of listing in YouTube Narratives – listing became visible as a practice that documents rhythms and routines, sums up and reduces the excess of lived experience and, both as a practice and as a form, relies on and (sometimes misuses) the reader as a co-constructor of life stories, memories and autobiographical selfhood.

At the end of the workshop – that started with a list of questions that were eagerly taken up and discussed – we arrived at a new list of questions that will provide further food for thought:

  • the list and its position with regard to narrative and episodic ways of sense making
  • the lists and how it challenges our notion of “text” (which is inextricably connected to questions such as: Why are certain lists skipped and others devoured and enjoyed?)
  • the list and affect: How can the list simultaneously be devoid of affects while it strongly evokes them?
  • the list as a mimetic and a performative device: the list not only represents, it also does something


The LISTLIT group plans to publish the results of the workshop; and it will continue the hitherto strongly productive scientific exchange with old and new experts in the field. For more information on the workshop and the research project LISTLIT, please visit the project’s webpage. If we have sparked your interest in lists you might also want to visit the listology blog.