Documentarity: Evidence, Ontology, and Inscription

By Ronald E. Day, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2019, 200 pages, $35.00 paperback (ISBN: 9780262043205)

Documentarity cover

A book about the philosophy of evidence should be best evaluated by taking stock of the evidence it presents in support of its argument. Ronald E. Day’s newest manuscript, his third installment in a series on the metaphysics of information, compiles a sprawling docket of evidence, striking in its scope and variety. Like a steadfast detective, Day follows promising leads and gathers clues from all corners of the academic humanities, weaving together a convincing case about the unsteady ontological identity of information. But while Day deftly dances between comparative literature, the philosophy of language, critical animal studies, human rights law, semiotics, science and technology studies, art history, and phenomenology, there is relatively little handholding offered along the way. To this end, Documentarity is an ambitiously and holistically conceived book, clearly driven by the inclinations of a generalist, but a book whose constituent parts will likely find greatest resonance with the domain specialist already steeped in one of the many distinctive discourses Day engages across each chapter. Ironically, however, this lightest of criticisms accords nicely with Day’s overarching argument regarding our shifting informational paradigms, which have tended to increasingly privilege “powerful particulars” as the catalyst of meaning-making, as opposed to universal, transcendent, or essentialist frameworks (30). 

Day’s eponymous coinage—documentarity—refers to the processes by which entities, ideas, and other discursive objects come into presence and render themselves evident. Evident to who, or to what, remains, for the most part, an open question. This characterizes Day’s project, however, which is far more attentive to questions pertaining to the how of evidence, insofar as questions of this nature tend to trouble easy ontological boundaries. But the study of documentarity, as Day is quick to point out, not only is premised on assessing the modes of inscription that produce evidence, but also is focused on historicizing the modes of interpretation which render that same evidence meaningful. Accordingly, processes of judgment—by humans and machines alike—emerges as a central topic of contestation and inquiry throughout the text. These inscriptional and interpretational processes, however, are historically contingent, and have undergone a protracted evolution from what Day calls a “strong documentarity” to a “weak documentarity,” as evidenced by his many case studies plucked from the past two centuries of intellectual history. Strong documentarity—typified in Plato’s metaphysics as well as Paul Otlet’s early twentieth-century documentary practices—begins with the assertion of a priori categories, or ideal types, under which one filters, sorts, and classifies observations and data in order to produce evidence. The nature of things, or the truthfulness of propositions, therefore, is to be determined strictly according to a preexisting schema, be it based on Platonic forms or the Universal Decimal Classification system (40). Weak documentarity, on the other hand, inverts this formulation by emphasizing the empirical and the immanent, suggesting that experienced particulars should be taken as sufficient evidence in and of themselves, no necessary recourse to any predetermined taxonomy. Day draws much inspiration from the philosopher of science Rom Harré, whose “critical realism” stresses the unique expressive powers of individual entities. Individual entities like, for example, Suzanne Briet’s famous antelope, a recurring character across Day’s work, which manifests as a “powerful particular” in and of itself under the aegis of weak documentarity—no zoo necessary (60-64).  

For Day, documentarity is a useful concept inasmuch as it is situated at the nexus of ontology and epistemology, without allowing one to subsume or take precedence over the other, as a partisan philosopher might be wont to do. This allows Day to reframe and reinterpret the “history of representation” as such—a tall order to be sure, but one Day shrewdly manages (56). To this end, Day highlights examples as disparate as nineteenth-century realist literature (Chapter 4) and contemporary information technologies like machine-learning (Chapter 7) as waypoints in the evolution of evidentiary standards. Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary and Google’s PageRank algorithm, according to Day’s analysis, both partake in an emergent theory of meaning in which conditional truths blossom out of the collection, arrangement, and processing of evidential particulars. Both, therefore, evince the principles of “weak documentarity” and can be understood as superseding the “strong” predecessors in their respective genres: Honoré de Balzac’s literary naturalism and Yahoo!’s ontology-based search engine, both of which mobilized ideal typologies to generate meaning. 

Day’s book may at times prove vexing to readers given the breadth and depth of its inquiry. Likewise, the pace at which Day pivots between the presentation of his evidence and the development of his argument is, at times, jolting—see, for example, the fourth chapter’s extended blockquotes that are bookended by a comparatively pithy analysis. Nevertheless, Documentarity inarguably excels at situating the multifaceted discipline of Information Studies at the crux of many ongoing debates that have riddled Western philosophy for millennia. This book, therefore, is a daring, if imperfect, endorsement of the humanities writ large—an admirable intervention in stark contrast to the burgeoning iSchool movement and its overriding emphasis on practicality and professionalization. 

Brian Justie, University of California, Los Angeles