Paul Otlet

By: Matthew Battles
August 23, 2011

Seen from the vantage point of an airship, the city is a nebulous region of light, glimmering and vast, a prodigy of obscure mass strewn with stars and firewheels. Peering through the sweet night air, the aviator discerns movement among its luminous parts — a subtle shifting, tremors and oscillations, patterns within patterns. There is a heedless and comprehensive circulation, a steady pulse of moving phosphors, but also ricochets and concussive schisms like the forking of lightning or the trails of shorn particles in a cloud chamber. Descending, the aviator picks out details: amidst the burgeoning light he discerns objects and embodiments, heroes and implements, weapons and fools. The city, he realizes, is an all-but-inconceivable encyclopedia, an exhaustive congeries of invention. And it is promiscuous — the light-limned forms of humane ideas popping and adhering, uniting and dividing like animalcules in some steaming bog from the dawn of the Earth. Just then a great wind comes up, the airship is buffeted; a shock wave sifts across the city’s surface, a spreading tide of shadow. In flickering light, the flier sees that all these forms, these inventions and improvisations, are really only cards, the city a house of cards now collapsing and whirring in the storm. He spies a great square in an eddy of wind, safe harbor for his craft. Landing, he sees a figure shuffling amidst a tumult of dust and spinning cards: a man bearded and hunched, dressed in black, his coattails and lapels flickering in the wind, the serifs of some forgotten glyph. As the aviator approaches, the man’s arms rise in a gesture at once sovereign and apologetic. The city is gone, he moans — my city, my Mundaneum. Removing his spectacles and blotting them with a kerchief, he introduces himself as PAUL OTLET (1868–1944). With an air of melancholy detachment he pronounces his vision: a city of peace, a city for the world, and a vast system linking all human knowledge, a framework for intellectual cooperation and invention on a global scale. But all that is gone now, he says, taken by the wind.—The aviator wants to appease him; he wants to tell him that his vision is not entirely gone. He wants to explain to him the networks and protocols, the tags and elements, the great web of knowledge strobing invisibly in the air elsewhere. But as he looks up to watch torn cards whirling in the night, this mollification fails him. Yes, he agrees. It’s all taken by the wind.


On his or her birthday, HiLobrow irregularly pays tribute to one of our high-, low-, no-, or hilobrow heroes. Also born this date: Clifford Geertz.

READ MORE about members of the Anarcho-Symbolist Generation (1864-73).


Activism, HiLo Heroes, Utopia