David Herrstrom: Sorting Things Out
Sorting Things Out and Putting Things in Their Place
A Dictionary for Those Who Suffer from Acute Classificator Anxiety
To classify and thus simplify the multiplicity of objects we perceive in our environment is a substantial thing to do. One could hardly imagine even the most profane interaction with the world (eg taking a seat) without classification (eg calling the wooden object in front of me a chair, although it differs slightly from all other chairs I've seen before). We would stumble and become paralysed due to an over-whelming complexity we would not be able to grasp. Naming things means domesticating them, allowing us to make use of them. Admittingly, most of that happens in a very implicit and non-verbal way. Young kids may take a seat without knowing the word 'chair'. Still, they must trust their perception telling them this object is apt for sitting on (some other objects certainly are not, they know that). They have made an act of classification, an act of dividing the world.
At some point, though, one might get the feeling the things themselves hide under their names. The stabilizing mechanism of convention that allows us to communicate by ever-adjusting the references of words, might become a danger. One might get the feeling that references to objects, which connotate with terms like stable, haptic, trustworthy, are replaced by positions in a semantic network shifting and fragmentating, by signs just referring to other signs or perhaps just to themselves.
Surely one possible answer to those questioning the validity of words could be, "Look them up in a dictionary". It's just that answer David Herrstrom mocks at.
(Impossible things: Synonyms)
zigzag: things possessing edges features among other items |
The brushstrokes of Van Gogh suns
His dictionary is a parody of transparency. It's first screen promises a clear structure, featuring a geometric figure of boxes piled on each other which conveys the impression of hierarchy. Now when you click the box on the top, it will lead you to 26 words, beginning with A – Z. The entries to each word consist of a definition and listings of items which might be subsumized under this definition. There is only a loose connection between word and its entry with the word re-appearing in different, unexpected contextes. Sometimes, the list and the category share similitaries.
Yet this logic coherence dissolves in other cases, leaving the reader to make his or her own associations to create coherence. The piece of art (one has a hard time finding a genre name for it) opens up. To say it in Barthes' words: It can be written, not only read. Yet the material to be written upon is a palimpsest. All over the text one faces obscure references. Have a look at the category
In the Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge, Things Belonging to the Family of Animals
- Those that belong to the Emperor.
- Embalmed ones.
- Those that are trained.
- Suckling pigs.
- Fabulous ones.
- Stray dogs.
- Those that are included in this classification.
- Those that tremble as if they were mad.
- Innumerable ones.
- Those drawn with a very fine camel hair brush.
- Those that have just broken a flower vase.
- Those that resemble flies from a distance.
The starting point for Foucault's epistemologic studies was a list featuring the animals in the Garden of the Empereor of China which had a totally different logic than that we would have applied to a listing. Having this in mind, a somewhat ambiguous reference to academic knowledge shows up. The allusion to Foucault's list is still discernible, but this all belongs rather to scholar trivia. It is hardly part of any canonic knowledge.
Therefore, it is not clear whether this reference should function as a coded signal for people with insights on Foucault or just bear general associations with doubts concering categorizing objects. The signal would need a stable context of canonic academic knowledge. It requires categorizing of some extent, a structured memory where non-canonic knowledge is ruled out. This, however, interferes with the epistemologic doubt displayed. Moreover, there is a whole network of obscure references spread out and waiting to be filled by the reader's associatons. "Mermaids" are non-existent objects, a fact which leads to a semiotic problem. If we say the word "Mermaids", what are we referring to ? Nothing ? A mere construction of mind ? A variable in a cultural semantic network including shared imaginations ? (one would probably tend to this).
So it's all about shifting signs mocking us with their obscure references ? There's more to that. The objects themselves, the things, have not vanished. Their poetic quality – their ability to evoke imagination by them being unexcepted – broadens their presence, allowing them to just stand there, glimmering:
Those that have just broken a flower vase.
Those that resemble flies from a distance.