Indexing It All: The Subject in the Age of Documentation, Information, and Data

 by Ronald E. Day. Cambridge, MA; London, UK: The MIT Press, 2014. 170 pp. ISBN 978-0-262-02821-9.  

Over the last two decades, Ronald Day has been a leading proponent of critical theory within library and information science (LIS). Informed by a background in Continental philosophy and literary theory, his work has taken several complementary paths. One has been primarily historical in orientation, for Day has endeavored to construct a genealogical account of the emergence of the notion of information and the strong cultural valorization that it came to enjoy in the latter half of the 20th century, most notably in his monograph The Modern Invention of Information.[1] Another has taken a more strictly philosophical direction, as he has sought to develop a new account of mind, self, and knowledge to counter what he sees as the overly mentalistic and representationalist understanding of these entities within the theoretical framework of LIS research and practice.[2] A third has led to socio-cultural analysis, centering on critiques of neoliberalism in relation to information culture in its various manifestations.[3] In his newest book, Indexing It All, Day brings together, and expands on, all these themes as he explores the ways in which indexes have come to shape subjects—understood both in the philosophical sense of personal selves endowed with intentionality (i.e., metaphysical subjects) and in the traditional sense of entities constituting the topics of discourse in documents (i.e., documentary subjects)—in a world in which documents, information, and, most recently, data have successively dominated the epistemological landscape not only of the information sciences but of modern society as a whole.

In Indexing It All, Day adopts a Hegelian dialectical framework to trace the epistemological development of what he calls the “modern documentary tradition” (p. xi). In his telling, this tradition—characterized by a positivist “epistemology of representation, correspondence, and mutual abstraction and reduction” (p. xi)—emerged in a cultural setting that presupposed a substantial degree of independence between persons and the texts that they read; the former understood to be metaphysical subjects and the latter to be objects. A second moment of the dialectic came with the valorization of information, which encouraged a tighter coupling of persons as subjects—now conceptualized as users—and the objects they were seeking in order to satisfy what were now identified as their information needs, namely documents containing information about subjects of interest. In the third moment, especially manifest in the recent ascendancy of data as a master informational concept in society, both persons as subjects and documentary objects are coming to be subsumed (aufgehoben) into “a subjective/objective synthesis as “data”” (p. 3), so that persons as subjects, no less than documents, become objects in information systems, be they organizational intranets or social media sites. As Day sees it, “the simultaneous subjectification and objectification in data” turns “both persons and texts … into documents that are ‘useful’ in terms of socially calculated needs”[4]—a process that has utilitarian value but that can hardly be characterized as benign from a humanistic point of view.  

Day’s story of convergence between subjects as persons and documents as objects relating to documentary subjects is intimately bound up with his understanding of the function of indexes and indexicality. His characterization of “modern indexes” as “lists of vocabulary that indicate their referents in ways that most expedite the finding and retrieval of those referents” follows the traditional LIS understanding of documentary indexes (p. 27). However, he integrates this definition into a broader, much more far-reaching account of what indexes are and do. Adopting the mid-20th century documentalist Suzanne Briet’s understanding of documents as “indexical signs” (indices)—that is to say, signs that “both reference a thing and gather together a universe of signification for the purpose of that referencing” (p. 7)—, Day argues that such signs—which include indexes no less than documents—function as “socio-technical devices that have technological and logics enfolded within them as meaningful functions for information organization and use”: as a consequence, “they give rise to and mediate the social positioning and information and knowledge values of texts and persons as documents, information, and data” (p. 9). On this view, indexicality—the property of referring to things as subjects and, at the same time, inserting them within a broader system of subjects—is a characteristic feature of information systems, or “information infrastructures” (p. 29). More fundamentally, according to Day, it is a defining feature of the human mind. Adopting philosopher Rom Harré’s metaphysically minimalist understanding of the personal self, he argues that the self is, in essence, “a psychological or experiential index” (p. 55): that is to say, each human being develops, over the course of his or her life, an “assemblage of references which link together experiences for [him or her]” and form the ground for the generation of meaning and value in his or her life.  

On the foregoing view, indexes not only provide a means of access to documentary subjects—be these the subjects of textual documents contained in a bibliographical database, the person-subjects contained in a social media site like Facebook, or the person- and documentary subjects algorithmically matched on commercial websites—but are reflections of determinate views of the world and the socio-cultural values connected with these worldviews. In virtue of their role as mediators between users of an information system and the documentary subject/objects for which they are searching, documentary indexes require users to reconfigure, at least partially, their own psychological indexes to align with those of the information system whose index they are using: that is to say, an index conditions users to assume the epistemic and axiological positions defined by the worldview that it carries (cf. pp. 75-84). In this way, Day argues, “documentary indexing and indexicality [have come to] play a major and increasing role in organizing personal and social identity and value and in reorganizing social and political life” (p. ix) within the information- and data-saturated society of the present day, one whose values, in his view, are unduly dominated by a neoliberal ideology of the market (pp. 124-132). 

Such, then, are the thematic leitmotifs of Indexing it All. Day develops these themes over the course of five densely argued chapters, each of which deals with a different historical moment in, and aspect of, the modern documentary tradition. These include a study contrasting the instrumental use of documents envisioned by the documentalist and information pioneer Paul Otlet and the reflective, hermeneutical encounter with texts espoused by Martin Heidegger (Chapter 2); an account of the development from documentation to information science, with an especial emphasis on citation indexing as an example of how the notion of information led to the conceptualization of persons and texts as users and documents (Chapter 3); an analysis of how the advent of social computing and social networking algorithms has led to the subsumption of both users—that is to say, persons as subjects—and documents (and documentary subjects) under the rubric of data (Chapter 4); a searching discussion of android robots as an attempt to turn documents—in casu, the codes through which the robots operate—into human-like subjects (Chapter 5); and a consideration of how the informational infrastructure of “big data” abets hegemonic forms of neoliberal governance (Chapter 6). The concluding chapter argues for the necessity of critique within information studies as a mode of counteracting the positivistic traits of the modern documentary tradition and the neoliberally inflected social order that it supports at a time that these are being enabled and intensified by the newest informational technologies. However, one may well wonder whether the act of critique alone is sufficient to blunt the effects of the forces against which Day is writing: one cannot escape the impression that his is a  Cassandra-esque voice.  

Indexing It All was recognized by the Association for Information Science and Technology (ASIS&T) as the Best Information Science Book for 2015 and deservedly so, for it is a thoughtful attempt to articulate a philosophically informed genealogy of today’s information culture through the trope of a significant informational mechanism: the index. It is not an easy book to read—Day makes few concessions to readers who do not have a background in Continental philosophy and his writing style tends towards turgidity—and some people opening the book may soon be tempted to lay it aside. Readers who persevere will find that it offers a stimulating and provocative, if somewhat tendentious, account of the epistemological bases of modern information culture. Even those who do not share Day’s philosophical beliefs and socio-political predilections will find much in its pages to ponder and profit from.


Thomas M. Dousa, The University of Chicago Library

[1]Ronald E. Day, The Modern Invention of Information: Discourse, History, and Power. Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press, 2001.

[2]See, for example, Ronald E. Day, “Clearing Up “Implicit Knowledge”: Implications for Knowledge Management, Information Science, Psychology, and Social Epistemology”, Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology, 56(6), 2005: 630–635; Knowing and Indexical Psychology, in Claire R. McInerney and Ronald E. Day, eds., Rethinking Knowledge Management: From Knowledge Objects to Knowledge Processes. Berlin: Springer Verlag, 2007, pp. 331–348; “Death of the User: Reconceptualizing Subjects, Objects, and Their Relations”, Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology, 62(1), 2011: 78–88.  

[3] See, for example, Ronald E. Day, “Totality and Representation: A History of Knowledge Management Through European Documentation, Critical Modernity, and Post-Fordism”, Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology, 52(9), 2001: 725–735; “Social Capital, Value, and Measure: Antonio Negri’s Challenge to Capitalism”, Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology, 53(12), 2001: 1074–1082.

[4] Ronald E. Day, “An Afterword to Indexing It All: The Subject in the Age of Documentation, Information, and Data”, Bulletin of the Association for Information Science and Technology, 42(2), 2016: 25–28, at 26. Accessed 20 June 2016 at:

[5]Ronald E. Day, Knowing and Indexical Psychology, p. 340.