Taxonomy Domine

by Marie Marshall


It’s funny how my own mind works, never mind anyone else’s. When I was invited to read Michel Foucault’s The Order of Things, basically a study of how our assumptions about the way we think do not depend on a continuous, recognisable rationalism, and that all periods of history have possessed certain underlying epistemological assumptions that determined what was acceptable as, for example, scientific discourse, I didn’t know how many harmonic strings would be plucked in my own mind.

In the Preface to the book, Foucault cites a piece by Jorge Luis Borges in which Borges pretends to have found in ‘a certain Chinese encyclopaedia’ a classification of animals into the following categories:

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, l) et cetera, m) having just broken the water pitcher, n) that from a long way off look like flies.

This taxonomy is, of course, fictitious and there is no such encyclopaedia – totally in keeping for Borges’s love of literary hoaxes, and his ‘magic realism’ – and Foucault knows it is. However that doesn’t stop critics of post-modern thinkers – critics such as Keith Windschuttle – from accusing them of ‘murdering our past’, on the basis that a few lazy post-modern thinkers don’t realise Borges was joking. Hmm… aye, right.

Anyhow, it got me thinking about how we decide to list things. Does the way we define an animal, for example – by phylum, class, order, family, genus, species – have any objective basis, or is it a product of human perception? No-brainer? Well that’s the point! Take the images at the head of this piece. How would you split them up, if you were asked to group together two that were most alike? This isn’t a trick question, there isn’t a right or wrong answer. Maybe before you read the all the foregoing you were already sorting them in your mind. It could have been by biological family (two dogs, one cat), but it could equally have been by mood (two placid, one angry), by direction (two looking right, one left), or by the chromatic value of the images (two monochrome, one coloured). There might be other influencing factors, such as the pre-existing order of the images along the conventional left-to-right reading path, so would there be any difference in your sorting process if I changed the order?


How about size?


Or if I inverted one of the images?


Perhaps if you now went back to the first set of images you would split them up differently. Like I said, there are no right or wrong answers here.

Why do I mention all this? Well it’s because, as a poet and author, I like to play around with meaning, beating the use to which we put words into a new shape which, even though it might be battered by my hammer, makes a reader sit up and take interest. I like to play with perception and challenge what we think we see. Some people like to see science as the final frontier, but for me it’s human consciousness, our perception, and the shifting ground on which it stands. Yes, there is an objective reality out there – let’s face it, we have to move beyond solipsism to be able to survive – but it ain’t necessarily what we think it is. Maybe not, anyhow.