Monday, August 19, 2013

Borges, Foucault, and Perec on Lists

Jorge Luis Borges relates in his essay on "The Analytical Language of John Wilkins", in La Nación, 8 February 1942 of a certain list ascribed by "Dr. Franz Kuhn to a certain Chinese encyclopedia entitled Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge. On those remote pages it is written that animals are divided into
(a) those that belong to the Emperor,
(b) embalmed ones,
(c) those that are trained,
(d) suckling pigs,
(e) mermaids,
(f) fabulous ones,
(g) stray dogs,
(h) those that are included in this classification,
(i) those that tremble as if they were mad,
(j) innumerable ones,
(k) those drawn with a very fine camel’s hair brush,
(l) others,
(m) those that have just broken a flower vase,
(n) those that resemble flies from a distance.”[1]
He also cites other, less memorable, examples of classification, and concludes: "Obviously there is no classification of the universe that is not arbitrary and conjectural. The reason is very simple: we do not know what the universe is. “This world”, wrote David Hume, “...was only the first rude essay of some infant deity who afterwards abandoned it, ashamed of his lame performance; it is the work only of some dependent, inferior deity, and is the object of derision to his superiors; it is the production of old age and dotage in some superannuated deity, and ever since his death has run on...” We must go even further; we must suspect that there is no universe in the organic, unifying sense inherent in that ambitious word. If there is, we must conjecture its purpose; we must conjecture the words, the definitions, the etymologies, the synonymies of God’s secret dictionary."

Michel Foucault was very much impressed by this classification. Indeed, he tells us that The Order of Things (Les mots et les choses) arose from the laughter "that shattered, as I read the passage, all the familiar landmarks of my thought—our thought, the 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." Inedd, 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."

Georges Perec correctly thinks "the abundance of intermediaries and Borges' well-known love of ambiguous erudition permit one to wonder whether this rather too perfectly astonishing miscellaneity is not first and foremost an effect of art."[2] He then produces another mind-boggling list of kinds of animals from government publications that I won't repeat here. More importantly, he also seems to think that such lists show that there is something inherently wrong with classification. But he is just as wrong as are Borges and Foucault. These lists do not show that classification is per se problematic, but only that any attempt at classifying presupposes a certain point of view and thus makes only sense from that point of view.[2]

Borges' list is so astonishing because we cannot imagine any possible point of view from which this classification would make sense. The same holds for his list of animals based on what use of animals is prohibited by the government (though once you realize that this is the unifying principle it is so much less astonishing.[2] Lists are just very basic ways of ordering things from a certain perspective.[3] This has nothing to do with the way the universe is, but only with what Kant would have called "necessary conditions of the possibility of thinking," i.e. with general logic.

1. Jorge Luis Borges, Selected Non-Fictions. Ed. Eliot Weinberger (New York: Penguin Group, 1999), pp. 229-232.
2. Georges Perec, Species of Spaces and Other Pieces (New York: Penguin, 1997), p. 196. I will have more to say later about the essay "Think/Classify" in which this claim occurs.
3. See also The List.

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