Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

A choice of categories

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A few weeks ago, The Economist published a short article with the intriguing headline “Michel Foucault’s Lessons for Business.” It’s fun to speculate what the corporate world might actually stand to learn from this particular philosopher, who once noted that the capitalist system severely punishes crimes of property while discreetly reserving for itself “the illegality of rights.” In fact, the article is mostly interested in Foucault’s book The Order of Things, in which he examines the unstated assumptions that affect how we divide the universe into categories. The uncredited author begins:

Foucault was obsessed with taxonomies, or how humans split the world into arbitrary mental categories in order “to tame the wild profusion of existing things.” When we flip these around, “we apprehend in one great leap…the exotic charm of another system of thought.” Imagine, for example, a supermarket organized by products’ vintage. Lettuces, haddock, custard and the New York Times would be grouped in an aisle called “items produced yesterday.” Scotch, string, cans of dog food and the discounted Celine Dion DVDs would be in the “made in 2008” aisle.

And the article argues that we should take a closer look at how companies define themselves—how mining firms, for instance, are organized by commodity type, when a geographical analysis would reveal “that their production is often in unstable countries,” and that many of them are inordinately dependent on demand from China.

Speaking of China, Foucault’s interest in such problems had an unexpected inspiration, as he reveals in the preface to The Order of Things:

This book first arose out of a passage in [Jorge Luis] Borges, out of the laughter that shattered, as I read the passage, all the familiar landmarks of my thought—our thought that bears the stamp of our age and our geography—breaking up all the ordered surfaces and all the planes with which we are accustomed to tame the wild profusion of existing things, and continuing long afterwards to disturb and threaten with collapse our age-old distinction between the Same and the Other. This passage quotes a “certain Chinese encyclopedia” in which it is written that “animals are divided into: (a) belonging to the Emperor, (b) embalmed, (c) tame, (d) suckling pigs, (e) sirens, (f) fabulous, (g) stray dogs, (h) included in the present classification, (i) frenzied, (j) innumerable, (k) drawn with a very fine camel-hair brush, (l) et cetera, (m) having just broken the water pitcher, (n) that from a long way off look like flies.” In the wonderment of this taxonomy, the thing we apprehend in one great leap, the thing that, by means of the fable, is demonstrated as the exotic charm of another system of thought, is the limitation of our own, the stark impossibility of thinking that.”

Critics have tried in vain to find the source that Borges was using, if one even existed—although it’s worth noting that Foucault never explicitly affirms that the encyclopedia is real. (Borges attributes it to the German sinologist Franz Kuhn, and it would be a pretty problem for a bright scholar to track down a possible original.)

But you don’t need to resort to fiction to find taxonomies that call all your usual assumptions into question. Recently, while revisiting Buckminster Fuller’s book Critical Path, I was struck by a list of resources that he generated for the World Game, an educational simulation that he devised to encourage ecological thinking:

  1. Reliably operative and subconsciously sustaining [resources], effectively available twenty-four hours a day, anywhere in the Universe: gravity, love.
  2. Available only within ten miles of the surface of the Earth in sufficient quantity to conduct sound: i.e., the complex of atmospheric gases whose Sun-induced expansion on the sunny side and shadow-side-of-the-world induced contraction together produce the world’s winds, which in turn produce all the world’s waves.
  3. Available in sufficient quantity to sustain human life only within two miles above planet Earth’s spherical surface: oxygen.
  4. Available aboard our planet only during day: sunlight.
  5. Not everywhere or everywhere available: water, food, clothing, shelter, vision, initiative, friendliness.
  6. Only partially available for individual human consumption, being also required for industrial production: e.g., water.
  7. Not publicly available because used entirely by industry, e.g., helium.
  8. Not available to industry because used entirely by scientific laboratories: e.g., moon rocks.

You can chalk some of this up to Fuller’s simple weirdness, which is inseparable from his genius, but there’s also something undeniably useful about classifying resources by availability, which isn’t far removed from the hypothetical grocery store proposed by The Economist. It’s also revealing that so many of these schemes center on problems of resource allocation, since the categories that we use in practice often amount to a way of tracking the distribution of some finite benefit, material or otherwise. Our cultural debates, in particular, frequently depend on how we position ourselves within the patterns of give and take between groups. (The question of whether someone like Bruno Mars can be guilty of cultural appropriation is either mildly irritating or curiously profound, depending on how you look at it.) And while the classifications of Fuller or Borges’s apocryphal encyclopedist can seem amusingly random, they’re no less arbitrary than others that have evolved over time for practical reasons. If you were designing a political platform from scratch, it might seem absurd to lump together gun rights, opposition to abortion, support of the death penalty, a hard line on immigration, tax cuts, and climate change skepticism, or—in the case of both parties—to want the government to keep out of certain private matters while involving itself deeply in others. These methods of slicing up the world exist to hold together unstable coalitions, or to serve powerful interest groups, and we’ve seen how fragile certain convictions, such as a belief in free markets, can really be. Much of the trauma of this political moment has arisen from the splintering of established categories, or a sudden clarification of which parts truly mattered. The process is bound to continue until we arrive at a point of temporarily stability, which will inevitably find itself shaken apart in the next convulsion. As Borges concludes: “There is no classification of the universe that is not arbitrary and speculative. The reason is quite simple: we do not know what the universe is.”

Written by nevalalee

July 3, 2018 at 9:05 am

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