The comment highlighted for me the way the we humans insist on pretending that the complexities and dynamics of life have to be evaluated by our linguistic and intellectual constructs. This tendency creates the implication that any discrepancies and problems that arise are due to how people are or how the world is—rather than any shortcomings or inadequacies in the way we think or talk. Indeed, we have it all backwards.
As an academic, I see this practice all the time: the way the university (and its affiliates: publishing/media/intellectuals) categorizes ideas and perspectives. Thus-and-such is “history,” and “political science” is something else. When I was at UC Davis, I took a class in economic history. It was taught by an economic historian, located in the “economics” department (i.e. economist who analyzed past events). He wasn’t part of the “history” department, and, even though the two groups’ offices were about 100 yards apart, they hardly ever talked with each other.
As a historian, I can look back on what we now label myth or religion. Dozens of varieties of cosmologies/epistemologies which—even when inconsistent with how the world actually was—would continue on indefinitely (and whose ultimate failure was due far more often to external conquest than incoherence). Modernity, with its handmaidens: science and bureaucracy, is the current prevalent version; but is no better. Insistence on comprehensiveness and coherence belies the rough nature of reality and the human limits in dealing with it (see “Centric,” 30 September 2022).
We can also see this in the way the media describe certain works of art or ideas as “genre-bending” or “-melding.” This year’s Oscar winner, “Everything, Everywhere, All at Once,” is a great example, pulling from various classifications. It is “boundary-defying” (as if these “boundaries” are anything more than convenient indicators of a general description). You could undoubtedly recall books, movies, and other art works which both were “boundary-defying” and which were branded in this way. Such characterizations seems to carry a connotation of either transgression or courage; which is more a signal of our general adherence/compliance with cultural and intellectual norms than a comment about the insight which the work provides.
In my current course on genocide, this has come up in several ways. Turks and Armenians argue over whether the events of 1915 constitute a “genocide,” as if the label would rather than deal with the horrors and fears and suffering that actually happened to people. Even using the classifications “Turk” and “Armenian” are, similarly, substitutes for thinking and living. The Nazis spent no small effort to define—precisely—who was a Jew so that they could classify and treat each person correctly (i.e., not murder more than they should). Lately, Israelis have been having similar debates.
As I’ve noted elsewhere (“How is Now?, 26 August 2022), the classification and order schemes of knowledge are part of the great project of modernity, principally developed in the 18-20C, to enable people to comprehend the sprawl of knowledge fostered by the scientific revolution, enlightenment, and widespread education. Our poor human minds have been overwhelmed by all this stuff and we struggle to deal with the information we need to live and operate in a bewildering, changing society. Categorization/classification is our tool of choice to give ourselves some epistemological breathing room; a way to acknowledge that there are great fields of information and ideas out there and we can’t deal with them all (or even list them) so we slap some labels on big bins and say “Oh, I’ll figure out the details later (if I really need to).”
The less attention/capability we each apply to understanding other people or aspects of the world around us—the “simpler” we make it—the further we are from seeing clearly and the more trapped we are in the conventions of language and society. When pushed to an extreme, this ends up as “us” versus “them,” or “good” versus “bad.”
The price we pay for a better chance at sanity in this sea of information is that we tend to think that these categories/classifications are real. Nationality/ethnicity/race, religion, and gender are the most common examples (no wonder that’s the main list of constitutionally-suspect classifications); political beliefs/characterizations are pretty regularly abused too. There is nothing “real” about any of these; they’re all socially created/defined.
Now, there’s nothing inherently wrong with classifying and ordering. But, as with many aspects of modernity, the issues are: how far do I take it? What do I give up by stopping my thinking once I have applied a label and put someone/thing in its appropriate box?
If the goal of classifying/categorizing is merely the production of a label, then it risks being a distraction from actually understanding what the underlying phenomenon is. We risk thinking that reality is only important insofar as we can put it in the appropriate box. Much of contemporary identity politics seems to fall into this trap; indeed, much of our current domestic political clusterF&%# is a manifestation of this fixation on labels and an inability (refusal?) to see what’s really going on.
1 Children of Earth and Sky, Guy Gavriel Kay (2016). I have read a bunch of Kay’s books lately. He is a lovely writer of historical fantasies, with rich language, charming characters, and engaging stories.