Classification as conceptual Container

Last week’s topic, as you might remember, was about containers: boxing and shelving of physical objects and their impact on the material that can be stored and archived. The furniture and boxes therefore not only determine what can be stored but also serve as a reference to what we consider worthy of being stored and assigned value in a certain culture. And what says more about a culture than which objects it considers valuable and its ways of preservation.

In the following short presentation I want to look at a different kind of container. I want to look at conceptual containers and more specifically at classification systems. Therefore I will draw on the introduction of Foucault’s order of things (1966) firstly for a theoretical framing and secondly to take a closer look at Carl Linneaus as one of the examples Foucault mentions in his introduction. I want to impose the same questions we had concerning the physical boxes and containers to the system developed by Linneaus. And I’ll focus on one example where the system becomes most visible — when it fails.

Foucault starts off writing about Jorge Luis Boges – we heard about him and his ideas of the Library of Babel last week. Foucault references Borges’s own references to a “certain Chinese encyclopedia”. Footnote: Actually there is no evidence that this encyclopedia ever existed, most likely it was an invention by Boges himself, who is considered to be the father of magical realism in Latin America. Anyway in this “Chinese encyclopedia” “is written that ‘animals are divided into: (a) belonging to the Emperor, (b) embalmed, (c) tame, (d) sucking pigs, (e) sirens, (f) fabulous, (g) stray dogs, (h) included in the present classification, (i) frenzied, (j) innumerable, (k) drawn with a very fine camelhair brush, (1) et cetera, (m) having just broken the water pitcher, (n) that from a long way off look like flies’.”

Of course Foucault is mentioning this classification in the beginning of his book because it is challenging our own classification system of animals by the “… exotic charm of another system of thought, is the limitation of our own, the stark impossibility of thinking that.” Taking this taxonomy seriously for one moment, from my perception at least, I can not understand that this classification could be useful. One class could easily be applied to two kinds of animals, like “belonging to the Emperor” or “having just broken the water pitcher”, not to mention “included in the present classification,” which would apply to every animal. And what does “et cetera” say about an animal? What does it show you when you look though this classification at animals? What first struck me is that it seems to be recklessly time based. A “stray dog” could be “tamed” and would move therefore from (g) to (c). Or the “just” in “having just broken the water pitcher” is clearly referring to some sort of process and timely sequence. In my eyes these classes look unstable and way too unspecific.

What Foucault draws from this list is its listness. Animals classified in this list are linked only through the alphabetical series, which is in itself completely random, as we probably all read in the Georges Perec piece. In a fully structuralist argument Foucault draws the conclusion that things could just meet in language, and since thought is fundamentally linked to language, these concepts, taxonomies and classifications are a learned structure through which humans, at least in the European context that Foucault is writing in and about, perceive things.

To explain this he takes up the notion of tabula, a table, a grid, “…that enables thought to operate upon the entities of our world, to put them in order, to divide them into classes, to group them according to names that designate their similarities and their differences.” The table upon which, since the beginning of time, language has intersected space.” Language is the fundamental classification system; it constitutes itself through difference.

This sounds almost like an inventory of objects, which are each assigned a specific place in the grid (like libraries do with their books) to be identified and found again. That is quite similar to the project of Carl Linneaus.

Carl Linneaus was born in Sweden 1707 and died in 1778. He was a botanist, physicist and zoologist and most of all the founder of the modern taxonomy for botany and zoology, which is still, with some additions, in use today. The taxonomy he introduced for the first time in 1735 in Systema Naurae, is an hierarchical system that makes it possible to place a certain entity on the “tabula” gathered into “taxa” groups that have similar characteristics among each other and differ from other groups. These groups are assigned a certain rank, which then forms the hierarchy we all know from our schoolbooks: domain, kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus and species. The easiest way to demonstrate is to show an example: Picture!

Here you can see the classification system and the seven taxa Linneaus developed. Above Kingdom there would be the “chaos-group”, I will call it, frankly: the group of all growing things on the planet. From there one class is extracted through the characteristics of being organized bodies, living and feeling and moving spontaneously. That seems like a reasonable classification for us, because we can already see how such a class differs from plants and minerals. So, kingdom is Animalia, Phylum is Chordata, which means all animals with a backbone, that excludes for example spiders or jellyfish. You see, we are getting more and more specific here. Then class is Mammals, animals with fur and milk glands, clearly focused on how the reproduction works, which would exclude all the birds. I won’t have time to go through all the categories en detail but let’s take a quick look at the most specific category: Species. This category is reserved for a single group of organisms that can only reproduce among themselves. “Canis lupis” might be, interestingly, not the best example, because it can reproduce with “Canis lupis familiaris”, the common dog, which is also classified as its own species. Thist shows that the differences which must be emphasized in order to build such a classification system are in some cases much more permeable.

Another great example of the failing of the grid and academic fights during Linneaus introduction of his taxonomy is surely Homo sapiens. How to classify the classifier? But that would open up a much broader field and would extend this talk even more!

Just a last quick note on the binomial nomenclature, Linneaus’s naming system. “Canis lupis,” for example, is the combination of the Genus, which can be assigned more than once, and the species-specific name, which is exclusively assigned to this specific group of organisms. That way he established a taxonomy, a classification system and a system of naming as well, so all zoologists using this system knew which animal the other zoologists are talking about. In this project he somehow fulfilled the desire of an academic universal language rooted in latin, like an academic esperanto, that distributes not only how to name organisms but also how to perceive them.

This taxonomy, and lets cite Foucault here again, “enables thought to operate upon the entities of our world”, which means that through this classification humans can operate, set themselves in a certain position according to the classification and see living organisms through that tabula, this grid. But what does this world look like?

Firstly, as  is illustrated nicely in the graph I just showed to explain the Linnean taxonomy, is that every species is standing next to each other like in an euclidean space. They get assigned a certain position in the hierarchy, which isolates them from their surroundings. It is no coincidence that in the midst of the enlightenment, the beginning of the industrial revolution in England and the birth of capitalism, a classification system is invented. As mentioned above, it is the attempt of an inventory of what is on earth. The word “inventory” is derived from business language; one does an inventory to check which resources are available and in stock. Perceiving nature as bare resources is tightly connected to a capitalist worldview. Scholars like Jason Moore (Capitalism in the Web of life) have gone into this thought a lot further than I can do here.

Secondly, the Linnean Taxonomy can not display interrelations. It kind of over-layers the fact that life is dependent on life, that the tree cannot live without the fungus at the tip of its roots and vice versa. A classification of flowers by their sexual organs makes sense only if one connects it to the insect and their co-evolution. There is more interspecies crisscrossing, exchange and dependencies than Darwin’s later evolution of species, which derived from the Linnean classification system, tried to picture. The tabula structure, with its columns, rows, cells, or the “tree structure of evolution”, tends to support orderly mental models that don’t always allow us to appreciate flows and cross-pollinations between those cells and branches. Recent discoveries like the “Wood Wide Web” challenge this orderly thinking of columns and rows. Here we become aware that through this order one tree was seen as a single individual, despite the fact that it is now clear that talking of a tree involves at the same time talking about the forest.



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