Aces, kings, queens and scholars

Rankings, files, catalogs, the recycling of playing cards appears to be a pivotal moment in the transformations of scholarly practices of XVIIe At XIXe shekels.

Why would the history of science be concerned about playing cards?? The subject may at first glance arouse some perplexity. Certainly, we can imagine that playing cards could occasionally have served as a writing support for scholars at a time before notepads and other post it. But why linger? Would not the contemporary concern for the materiality of knowledge find here a somewhat excessive expression?? Is there enough to devote a book to it? a fortiori the first volume of a new collection of history and anthropology of knowledge? In around ten rigorous and stimulating contributions, the book by Jean-Franois Bert and Jrme Lamy easily dispels these doubts, vividly illustrating the extreme fruitfulness of an approach which takes seriously the material supports of scholarly activities and the body techniques which ones are calling.

Bibliographic files of literary deposits
Arsenal Library, Ms 6939. (p. 85)

The original science of reuse and recycling

Composite deck of 52 cards converted into bibliographic cards
France, end of XVIIIe century

For anyone interested in scholarly worlds, directly or indirectly, entry through playing cards quickly leads to questions that are all the more essential as they touch on research practices in their most ordinary and everyday aspects, which must be considered through the prism of a socio-material environment. made of obstacles and opportunities. Indeed, if playing cards have come to occupy an important place in the science of XVIIe XIXe centuries, it is first of all that a series of economic and political, ideological and technical factors made their use by scholars possible and relevant. The phenomenon presents itself as an incongruity to explain and to do this it is necessary to first study the economy of paper and its transformations.

go from XVe century opens in Europe a real re paper, it gradually asserting itself on a symbolic level, but also from a purely quantitative point of view as an essential consumer product of the modern era (p. 9). Among the mass of supports produced, playing cards are distinguished by several characteristics: their rigidity, their durability, and the quality of the paper used, in particular with regard to the backs of the cards. In several countries, we choose for practical and economic reasons to keep it virgin. In France, this is a requirement imposed until 1816 by the regulations applying to card games. This immaculate back focuses all the attention of the manufacturers: the cards must be strictly identical, free from any defect, to thwart the tricks and tricks of potential cheaters. Unlike pot paper on which points and figures are printed, the cartier paper reserved for the backs of the cards is pure white and without stain.

Playing card factory in a house on Place Dauphine, Paris
Anonymous, 1683 or 1684. Gouache on unmounted canvas, 25.4 x 47.8 cm; 32.2 54.7 4 cm (with frame). Paris, Muse Carnavalet, History of Paris, D.7778.
Paris Muses / Muse Carnavalet. (p.50)

As Claire Bustarret points out, these properties which make maps so suitable for their scholarly misappropriations also make them quite expensive manufactured products, because they involve a complex manufacturing technique (p. 70). The games are all the more expensive when production costs are added to taxes which are reflected in the sale price. How is it then that we find them by the thousands, even tens of thousands, in the collections of certain scholars??

In reality, there is hardly any conundrum: if maps are diverted from their original function, particularly for scientific purposes, it is essentially in the form of reuse or recycling. Incomplete or damaged games, with little or no more value, thus begin a new life. Certain maps are also affected by obsolescence, as the revolutionary period vividly illustrates. In 1793, the Convention banned from games any reference to royalty: kings, queens and jacks were replaced philosophers, virtues And Republicans. With the promulgation of these revolutionary maps and their repeal, there is a double harvest available for reuse. In addition to used or obsolete cards, there are also those which, in the workshops, have suffered from various cutting or printing defects and thus form production waste, sold by the pound. According to a contemporary estimate reported by Gwenael Beuchet, this could include up to ten percent of manufactured cards (p. 52).

Revolutionary picket game
The traditional figures (king, lady, valet) were replaced by geniuses, liberties and equality, symbols of the work of the Revolution.
muse of Vendme

The scholarly misappropriations to which playing cards may have been subject therefore above all demonstrate an art of large-scale recovery, taking advantage of the opportunities fortuitously opened up by other social practices. We can say in this regard that, if these uses exercise a specific power of fascination, it is also because they offer a particularly vivid testimony of what the material economy of knowledge could have looked like before our societies of abundance or rather, of waste.

Playing cards in file

When they only take advantage of their small format and their rigidity, the misappropriation of playing cards as supports for scholarly activity is of mainly anecdotal interest. Thus, Rousseau wrote part of the notes which would give rise to the Reveries of a solitary walker on playing cards. Easily slipped into a pocket alongside a lead pencil, suitable for writing without any support other than the hand, the cards could offer the scholar moving away from his work table a convenient means of recording his thoughts. To use a term proposed by Ann Blair, these jobs can be said opportunists: in such cases, the editor could have written on a piece of paper rather than a card, but a card was at hand and had all the advantages required (p. 229).

Notes taken on playing cards for the Reveries of the Solitary Walker (1776-1778)
room Rousseau of the Public and University Library of Neuchtel (Canton of Neuchtel, Switzerland)
Denis Trente-Huittessan

The crucial importance of playing cards for the history of scholarly practices lies rather in other uses, presenting on the contrary a significant systematic: practices of classification, cataloguing, assembly or cross-checking which will gradually lead to the generalization of the file as a major scientific device. The combinatorial possibilities opened up by the format of the cards make it possible to imagine scholarly techniques and forms of reasoning free from the fixity specific to the bound volume and the modes of writing associated with it. As Jean-Franois Bert and Jérôme Lamy point out, the cards and more generally the cards produced specifically for this purpose which will succeed them frees the writer from all the continuities imposed by the notebook (p. 14). They thus make possible the deployment of hierarchies and reconciliations that must be completed and revised, representing a flexible and evolving order.

The use of cards similarly disrupts the cataloging techniques used in libraries, where files gradually replace registers. In this context also, the files present on the devices they replace the remarkable advantage of plasticity: they easily reflect the successive growths and transformations of the collections. Playing cards provide excellent support for these emerging classification and indexing practices. This is because, as Patrick Latour notes, the materiality of the cards ideally meets the requirements of cataloging, combining the necessary rigidityA standard formatand an sufficient writable surface (p. 112).

Rousseau, text on playing card
My XVIIIeOlivier Marchal's blog

Given the importance of the file as a knowledge device, the use of playing cards appears to be a pivotal moment in the transformations of scholarly practices. It gives rise to research habits and methods of ordering knowledge which continue to a certain extent today. Handwritten notes remain an essential part of many teaching methods, and they still punctuate the daily life of numerous research projects. Above all, we can consider that the digital revolution has only relaunched work using index cardsthrough a plurality of software that “imitates” the mechanics of the file, while making it richer and more efficient.

For a more realistic description of scholarly work

From a socio-historical point of view, the learned uses of playing cards therefore bring to the fore major issues and questions which obviously need to be considered without getting lost in generalities. The history of writing has long left behind the temptation of technical determinism and a conception of innovation which considers it in the abrupt and definitive mode of revolution. The task that contemporary researchers set themselves by questioning the writing practices of scientists based on their materiality is both more modest and more demanding: the challenge is to access the daily and ordinary operations which make up scientific activity. There is nothing gratuitous about this gesture, since it allows us to bring to light the processes, habits and devices that led to such a connection, such reasoning, or such a conclusion.

Piquet game

Perhaps more painfully, such an approach also sheds harsh light on the wanderings and pathologies awaiting those who devote themselves to scholarly work. The trajectory of the physicist and mathematician of XVIIIe century Georges Louis Le Sage, which Jean-Franois Bert traces, offers a telling example. This gravity specialist based in Geneva has built up, over several decades, a formidable file comprising nearly thirty-five thousand playing cards. He records quotes and reading notes, but also reflections, hypotheses, and drafts of work. This system should allow the Sage to weave new links between the knowledge he accumulates and, ultimately, lead him to new discoveries. But before being a heuristic tool, its file is presented above all for the Genevan scholar as a crutch faced with the supposed failures of his intellectual faculties (p. 96).

Cassetin and cards
Cassetin (end XVIIIe century) containing playing cards organized by rating and set of cards. Archives of the Mazarine Library.
S. Nagy, 2009. (p. 122)

This is because the Sage feels continually confronted in the context of his scholarly activity with his own limits and deficiencies: the faults of his reasoning, the lapses in his attention, and above all the weakness of his memory. The files collected by the hundreds must compensate for these shortcomings which prevent him from reaching the intellectual stature to which he aspires. Very quickly, however, the creation of the file ends up absorbing most of his efforts and it becomes so vast and complex, reticular, that it loses all real value in advancing his investigations.

Incapable of reasoning, remembering or inventing, despite patiently accumulated artifices and ultimately even cause two. Through the case of Le Sage, it is the torments of scholarly activity and the neuroses that they arouse which appear in all their cruelty. This is the great merit of the book coordinated by Jean-Franois Bert and Jérôme Lamy: deploying subtle games of scale, it restores the experiential dimension, situates and incorporates learned practices inaugurated by the use of playing cards as well as the socio-economic conditions and policies that made it possible and encouraged it. The work thus asserts itself as a doubly significant contribution, to the history of writing and to the history of science, the study of a little-known stage in the evolution of the scholarly worlds.