The Generative Possibilities of the Wrong Box

Martina Schlünder

Fig. 1.1 Excerpt of Linné’s classification of the animal kingdom, 1735

(source: Carl Linné: Systema naturae 1735, Internet Archive, https://archive.org/details/mobot31753002972252/page/n11/mode/2up)

In their darkly comic novel The Wrong Box (1889), Robert Louis Stevenson and his step son Lloyd Osbourne tell of the itinerary of a wandering corpse. Hidden by different people in varying containers (a barrel, a piano) the always less than honourable intention to get rid of the body by secreting the box or sending it to uninvolved parties triggers a potentially endless plot revolving around the wanderlust of a body that is always in the wrong box, at the wrong place, or delivered in the right box but to a wrong recipient. Stevenson and Osbourne, who shortly after the novel’s publication moved from London to Samoa, where they entangled themselves in colonial politics (Colley 2004), paint a pitiless portrait of an imperial, colonising society that cannot contain its systematic, endemic greed, and instead unsuccessfully tries to hide it. The Wrong Box enacts a scheme of complex, systematically failing relations between the practices and materialities of doing dead bodies. Never do container, content, owner, sender, or recipient of the container match. It is this tension that keeps the story going.

In a similar vein this book investigates the (non-matching) relations box practices produce. It enacts a new field of analysis – box studies – and serves as its first field guide. By studying the relation of practice and materiality, the book explores the impact of boxes as epistemic tools in ordering, containing, and classifying the worldly mess. The book goes about this in a performative way: as naturalists of the eighteenth century tried to order, contain, and control the abundance and overflow of nature, this book explores a cornucopia of boxes and box practices by mobilising elements of natural history like the interplay of images, taxonomies, and identification keys. In contrast to naturalists of the past, however, the goal is not to establish an encyclopaedic order. Whereas taxonomies are based on detailed descriptions of isolated items, our intention is to explore boxes, not as singular objects, but rather as emerging material that is enacted in specific practices. Thus we are not interested in a taxonomy of boxes; we are striving for classification, working typologies of box practices.

In the Pandora myth, the opening of the box is the moment when all evil spreads over the world and mankind. In contrast, this book identifies the closure of knowledge production into the boxes and dogmata of western epistemology as the true evil, as a true epistemic crime. In following Pandora’s gesture of opening a forbidden box, this book begins to lift the lid on the box of western epistemic infrastructures. The ‘god’s trick’ (Haraway 1988, 583), the ‘modernist settlement’ (Latour 1999,14) managed to pacify the violence of the religious wars over the one truth (god) that had raged over Europe in the seventeenth century (Shapin/Schaffer 1985). Our disclosure recognises the high price others paid when this violence was exported to the colonial projects of European countries. The hard-won epistemic unity unleashed unprecedented violence in the encounters with non-Christians and non-white people, who were devalued as nomads, barbarians, and savages. And such devaluing continues, alas, too close for comfort. This is a book that delights in odd juxtapositions; it is not a book which comforts.

Our focus here is not the black box so beloved of STS scholars. Opening the lid on the box of western epistemic infrastructures is not the same as opening the black box of the scientific method, as so many science studies scholars have done before. Neither does the new field of analysis we articulate here seek to add another layer to the academic in-fights setting constructivism against positivism. Nor does it want to add and release new things into the box, or suggest how a black box could be used in a different way. Following Stevenson and Osbourne, this book is about the ins and outs of a complex system, the practices of hiding, excluding, and hierarchising knowledge in systematic ways. It follows those who want to intervene in the fabric, the very grid of modernity and its ordering tools. How to detach, uncouple, and dissociate classifications from the modern constitution, its universal claims and its colonial pasts and presents? How to bring taxonomies and boxes into a different terrain? How to cross the shallows of the modern settlement and make an impossible natural history of boxes possible? If we understand the sealing of the box of knowledge production as the epistemic crime of the modern settlement, what kind of epistemic wrongdoing, misdeeds, delinquencies, and transgressions do we need in order to open the box, to change the grid, to render different cosmopolitics possible?

Western epistemology hides its rules, its limits and exclusions in its infrastructures of thinking, in the ways that things and thoughts, materials and concepts are ordered or boxed-in; by boxing-in and formatting not being part of a critical epistemic discourse; by formats and narratives being taken for granted, like infrastructure’s transparency (Star and Ruhleder 1996). I am thinking here of the order of an academic paper, the hierarchisation of concepts and theories over materials and methods, and the unanimity of an introduction even in multi-authored and edited books and papers.

This book does not argue through new theories and concepts. Rather it intervenes in a performative way. Its interventions are on the level of formats and methods. It pushes the limits and the hidden rules of western epistemology: what counts as object or subject, as living or inorganic, as nature or culture. In doing so it also serves as a user’s guide to committing epistemic counter-crimes: by breaking epistemic rules, by contesting the boundary between the content and the container, between nature and culture, and by subjecting the ordering device – the infrastructure of ordering – to the same rules that usually only apply to the content and the contained.

Our book commits minor crimes: it has opened, after all, by comparing a mordant British novel – later made into an entertaining film comedy – to a serious academic epistemic challenge, and it goes on to offer three introductions that contest and connect with each other. And there are also more major transgressions: we try to do a natural history of things that the modern constitution has declared as non-nature, as inorganic, and as non-living and abstract.

The slapstick of our little and not-so-little epistemic crimes helps us avoid an iconoclastic critique. We do not mean to purge all classifications and taxonomies just because they have been part of an imperial, still hegemonic epistemology. Instead, we seek a generative critique (Verran 2001) that implies keeping present, i.e. not purging, the tensions that have emerged as result of historically contaminated classifications. Keeping the tensions between container and content, keeping the boxes open, allows ‘generative disputes’.

Instead of critiquing wrong boxes in a way that often reproduces the epistemic tools, methods, and infrastructures it wants to critique, we strive for a metabolic account that starts to digest and decompose epistemic infrastructures through the generative critique. The metaphor of metabolism contains the practices of generative critique we pursue with this field guide. It connects the practices of decomposing (Verran 2001, Kenney 2015) with those of the ‘Cannibal’ movement in Brazil in the 1920s (Járaugui 2015). Digesting colonial stereotypes instead of purging modernity from its colonial remainders generates the unexpected. How to decompose and digest, for instance, a contaminated theory of civilisation that praises the box as an icon of civilisation in contrast to the cultures of so-called nomads, barbarians, and savages? How to compost a reactionary cultural theory that has been used to justify racism, colonialism, even genocides for centuries, making sure that all the seeds from which life might spring anew are well and truly cooked in the process? How to metabolise the antifeminism that the Pandora myth epitomises, accumulated over centuries, and still effective? How to develop the epistemic dissensus embedded in the here and now of a multiple introduction? How is the epistemic potential of a multiple introduction operationalised in ways that do not silence and purge, but make epistemic tensions visible and tangible?

This book does not provide finished solutions, but rather wants to cut a path. The taxonomies of box practices that open each paper are not ironic, since they do not want to ridicule western epistemology. They do not want to add a little bit of playfulness and imagination to the iron rules of reason. Instead, the taxonomies move epistemology to a terrain where it finds its plural. Western epistemology still uses its alleged singularity to make objects comparable. In traditional field guides, for instance, this is done by taking the concept of species for granted, hiding the complex histories and structures of this concept in its infrastructure of thinking.

By committing epistemic counter-crimes, by pushing against Western epistemic rules and norms, the book wants to transform epistemology into a field that thinks of itself as one box among others (a box species, if you will), that makes its infrastructures available for comparison in a true comparative epistemology (Fleck 1935/1979). By exploring the box more generally as the epitome of relations, and as a form that might contain other forms and other possibilities of relation, this field guide might help us to reveal new box practices containing new relations that we still do not know, even though we are in urgent need of them.

We want to study boxes as ‘snap-shots’ of specific encounters in the field. Thus a field guide seems to be an appropriate companion. Florence Merriam (1863–1948) is credited with writing the first of its kind. Merriam’s interest in birds was not only fed by academic curiosity; it was rather her activism against the bird feather trade and the fashion industry that sparked her passion for bird watching (Dunlap 2011). Historically, field guides have been situated between activism and academy, amateurs and experts, modernity and its others. Field guides are heavily imbued with the values of modernity. They transfer scientific knowledge into the hands of amateurs, who again feed their knowledge of the field back to experts, taxonomists, biologists, and geologists. Imbued with modern scientific knowledge (its classifications and taxonomies), they also evoke non-modern ideas of nature. They do not follow, for instance, the boundaries of biology, since they also study the inorganic parts of nature like minerals.

What do field guides usually do? They help the novice cut a path into the undergrowth and into the ubiquity of the ordinary, where everything seems to look and behave in undifferentiated ways. They help to rethink and freshly perceive formerly unremarkable objects and actions. Their use demands a change in habits of valuing, observing, and in modes of involvement and connection to our environment.

A field guide is not made for a coffee table or a study. It is a portable book that you can take with you into the field. But the guide also projects the field into your hands (or into your pocket). The book is also part of the field, as it helps to establish it. Its main task is to help to identify a specific element in the field, to gain certainty of an object under scrutiny. Traditional field guides work through abstractions and categorisations. They apply taxonomies and biological systems that were created in studies and natural history museums, where researchers had time to study dead objects in detail. Observation and comparison are key methods of identifying species. In the field, however, looking for a match, (back and forth between the bird in the wild and those in the guide) has to happen quickly, since the bird under scrutiny might fly away at any moment. The interplay between image and text, and especially captions, are crucial for the moments when birders actually compare and try to identify specific kinds of bird. In field guides, taxonomies provide the pattern for recognition, but identification in the field relies on directed attention, experience, and trained intuition: it all happens at a glance. Field guides are part of an assemblage, a complex practice of simultaneously looking, observing, perceiving, listening, writing, and sometimes drawing. This assemblage includes different tools like binoculars, books, paper, pencils, and all of the senses.

To consider boxes as part of modern classifications is to look at the nature of containers, and to offer a way of unpacking the boundaries between nature and culture that boxes help to contain as part of the modern constitution. We like field guides’ focus on practice, how they are made for lively ‘outside’ encounters (i.e. in the field and beyond disciplines) in which those outside are not mere observers but rather involved participants whose attention is crucial for making such encounters possible. We also appreciate the pragmatic use of different ways of knowing incorporated by the field guide genre, the awareness of time constrains, and the worldliness in which encounters may happen.

But we also have to modify specific features so that implicit orders become more visible. We want to avoid, for instance, the typical strategies of traditional field guides that use social analogies and cultural stereotypes in their descriptions of nature (Schaffner 2008: 408–09). Law and Lynch (1988: 277–78) describe the field guide’s common denominator as a commitment to naturalistic assumptions. Their epistemology relies on references to a universal taxonomy as authoritative power, reliance on a representational image theory, strategic use of text and interplay between captions, stylised pictures, and nature ‘out there’. These elements are the ingredients of modernity that this book wants to challenge. In fact, this book is an exploration of the legacy and the future of wrong boxes.


Colley, A., Robert Louis Stevenson and the Colonial Imagination (London: Routledge, 2004).

Dunlap, T., In the Field, among the Feathered: A History of Birders and Their Guides (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011).

Fleck, L., Genesis and Development of a Scientific Fact (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1979; translated from the German original Entstehung und Entwickung einer wissenschaftlichen Tatsache. Einführung in die Lehre vom Denkstil und Denkkollektiv, Basel: Schwabe, 1935).

Haraway, D., ‘Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective’, Feminist Studies, 14.3 (1988): 575–99.

Jáuregui, C., ‘Oswaldo Costa, Antropofagia, and the Cannibal Critique of Colonial Modernity’, Culture & History Digital Journal, 4.2 (2015): e017 (doi: <http://dx.doi.org/10.3989/chdj.2015.017>).

Kenney, M., ‘Counting, Accounting, and Accountability: Helen Verran’s Relational Empiricism’, Social Studies of Science, 45.5 (2015): 749–71.

Latour, B., Pandora’s Hope: Essays on the Reality of Science Studies (Cambridge: Harvard University Press 1999).

Law, J., and M. Lynch, ‘Lists, Field Guides, and the Descriptive Organization of Seeing: Birdwatching as an Exemplary Observational Activity’, Human Studies, 11.2–3 (1988): 271–303.

Merriam, F., Birds Through an Opera-Glass (New York: Chautauqua Press, 1889).

Schaffner, S., ‘A Response to Ursula Heise’, American Literary History, 20.1–2 (2008): 405–09.

Shapin, S., and S. Schaffer, Leviathan and the Air Pump: Hobbes, Boyle, and the Experimental Life, (Princeton: Princeton University Press 1985).

Star, S. L., and K. Ruhleder, ‘Steps Toward an Ecology of Infrastructure: Design and Access for Large Information Spaces’, Information Systems Research, 7.1 (1996): 111–34.

Verran, H., Science and an African Logic (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2001).