Putting things in Order

I’ve been re-reading Foucault’s The Order of Things (in the hopes that I’ll understand more of it the more times I read it – which I’ve usually found to be true, among the many, many philosophers whose work I struggle to understand), and came across something great. I remember, the first time I read it, I had so many feelings – but the biggest one was wonder.

In this book Foucault introduces a taxonomy of animals, supposedly from a Chinese encyclopedia, but more likely from the fantastical mind of Jorge Luis Borges (Edward Siad might have something to say about the way this list has been taken up in the west, but we won’t go there). The list is a proposed classification system of animals, that divides them into 14 categories, and it goes like this:

  • Those that belong to the emperor
  • Embalmed ones
  • Those that are trained
  • Suckling pigs
  • Mermaids (or Sirens)
  • 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
  • Et cetera
  • Those that have just broken the flower vase
  • Those that, at a distance, resemble flies

What I (and maybe Foucault, but again, I’m struggling) think is great about this list, is how it draws our attention to the ways we classify and arrange, and reminds us that many of the things we think are natural, are actually constructions.

For example, inside the museum, historically we classified artifacts according to their materials, and where along the spectrum of progress that artifact belongs. This way of thinking assumed that there were people called “savages” and people called “civilized” and an artifact could tell you where between those two points, a group of people belonged. Many museums have rethought this perspective, and today arrange, display, and classify artifacts according to the cultural group. This sounds a lot more thoughtful, but in practice it’s complex and messy. Who gets to decide that an artifact is indexical of a group of people? If not the museum scholar (anthropologist, archeologist etc.) then maybe the community of origin? But who among them? Most communities don’t have an internal process for describing and categorizing their own culture just waiting for a museum to come ask - and if you don’t believe me, ask a few folks you know what Canadian culture is.

In a museum, the idea of a “scientific” taxonomy is naturalized. You come to a museum for knowledge about the world, so of course the museum “knows” – we’ve already built this idea into our culture. There are devices in the museum that help reify this too, from the architecture of the building (museums are intended to look grand, to make you feel small and the importance of the collection, and it’s state collector, large), to the tiny labels on all the artifacts. These labels are often called tombstones in museum parlance, which is interesting because it implies that the object is dead, and that the key information about it’s life is what it was, who contributed to its meaning, and when it was made. As a scholar recently pointed out to me, reading labels is iterative; you might read hundreds on a single trip to a museum, which is a practice that entrenches their meaning and value. When you read one, you might think “huh, interesting!” But after a day of reading labels that tell you what something is, you walk away trusting the knowledge of the museum more deeply.

While in western culture it’s common to see artifacts as non-living, many of the items in a museum come from communities  that have very different ideas about personhood. Likewise, there are many different ways to describe an artifact. Marnie and I were imagining re-writing labels according to new taxonomies the other day – thinking about what information might be most helpful for understanding something or relating to it. Here’s some of ours:

  • classification based on what was in the artists/makers heart at the time of making
  • classification based on who an item was made for (self-other)
  • classification based on the types of reasons things are made according to the maker
  • classification based on resemblance to a dog… ;)

I’m not trying to suggest that a museum designed and organized based on all artifacts proximity to dogs would be a better way to know the world (although, I would absolutely go to that museum if it existed), but it’s kind of an interesting thought experiment to examine the ways we classify. It’s also important to helping us bring empathy to a museum, because the ways I classify are much different than perhaps the ways other people would. So I’ll leave you with a few questions, just for fun: How would you order the world? How might your ways of seeing, be impacted by the order itself?

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