Monday, January 5, 2009

Borges: Pathways of the (Postmodern) Mind

I got an email from a reader recently asking me if I knew of a story that (s)he'd read in college, and was wondering if I knew it:

"'s a passage about taxonomy, an inventory of posessions belonging to an emperor or king. The things are themselves fantastical, but are made all the more fantastical by the ways they are grouped. The collection is divided according to rules, but not consistent rules."

I wrote back to say that I didn't immediately know the passage (s)he was talking about, but I'd ask around.

Later that night I suddenly sat up in my chair and thought, "I'll bet that was a story by Borges." It had been years and years since I read anything by him - The Library of Babel being the only one I knew of, back then - but phrases of it still came back to me now and again, out of the blue. There is a rhythm and a meter to the story which cannot be shaken, imagery which boggles and sticks; and even though I found it a very difficult story to read, I'm thinking now that it was worth it. When, fifteen years after reading it, a student of mine did a very beautiful web-design project based on that story, the memorable-ness was enhanced: her choices of excerpt, combined with extraordinary graphics which she created specifically for the project, echoed and amplified Borges' own obscure qualities. It was an extraordinary effort. I wish now I could remember that student's name.

In any case, there was something lying beneath the email's words, some quality of rhythm or description, which stirred up that part of my brain where Borges lurked. So I started Googling "Borges" and "Collection," among other things, and came up with a possibility. I wrote the person back:

There is one story by Borges called The Analytical Language of John Wilkins, which I haven't read, but seems like a fake essay. It mentions a "certain Chinese encyclopedia" that breaks things into these 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."

What a list! How fabulous! Grateful for the mind-bend, I sent the person a link to the full text.

The list continued to intrigue me, and I began to read about the piece, which does indeed appear to be an essay, written in impeccable academic style. The fact that John Wilkins and his Universal Language are real doesn't clarify exactly what the piece is, either. I was all question marks, trying to understand if it was a real essay, or a faux essay, or what? And then I came across the beginning of a serious academic article by Keith Windschuttle, adapted from his book The Killing of History: How Literary Critics and Social Theorists Are Murdering Our Past:

"MICHEL Foucault opens his book The Order of Things with a paragraph that has become one of his most famous. Foucault describes a passage from "a certain Chinese encyclopedia'' that, he claims, breaks up all the ordered surfaces of our thoughts. By "our'' thoughts, he means Western thought in the modern era. The encyclopedia divides 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.'' Foucault writes that, thanks to "the wonderment of this taxonomy,'' we can apprehend not only "the exotic charm of another system of thought'' but also "the limitation of our own.'' What the taxonomy or form of classification reveals, says Foucault, is that "there would appear to be, then, at the other extremity of the earth we inhabit, a culture . . . that does not distribute the multiplicity of existing things into any of the categories that make it possible for us to name, speak and think.'' The stark impossibility of our thinking in this way, Foucault says, demonstrates the existence of an entirely different system of rationality."

Weird. Foucault writing about Borges as if he was dead serious, all the way through? Both Borges and Foucault are marked for their love of words and play, so it seems odd. But it got better. Mr. Windschuttle goes on to say:

"In May 1995 I gave a paper to a seminar in the Department of History at the University of Sydney, Australia. Although most of the postmodernists in the department declined to attend, they deputized one of their number, Alastair MacLachlan, to reply and, they hoped, to tear me apart. My respondent opened his remarks by citing Foucault and the Chinese taxonomy. Didn't I realize, he chided, that other cultures have such dramatically different conceptual schemes that traditional assumptions of Western historiography are inadequate for the task of understanding them?

"There is, however, a problem rarely mentioned by those who cite the Chinese taxonomy as evidence for these claims. No Chinese encyclopedia has ever described animals under the classification listed by Foucault. In fact, there is no evidence that any Chinese person has ever thought about animals in this way. The taxonomy is fictitious. It is the invention of the Argentinian short-story writer and poet Jorge Luis Borges.

"This revelation would in no way disturb the assumptions of the typical postmodernist thinker, who believes that the distinction between fact and fiction is arbitrary anyway. Foucault himself openly cites Borges as his source. The example is now so frequently cited in academic texts and debates that it is taken as a piece of credible evidence about non-Western cultures. It deserves to be seen, rather, as evidence of the degeneration of standards of argument in the Western academy."

At first glance, I was fascinated by the idea of so many academics being fooled by a supposed misquote. But then I saw: in these three paragraphs there are multiple levels of story going on. First of all, academic infighting: "they hoped to tear me apart." Then the philosophical differences between Modernists and Postmodernists, which is interesting in itself, because really, their conflict is all about ways of thinking about reality. Which is, of course what Borges' works all played with. And this man Windschuttle wrote a book about (I'm guessing here) how Postmodern thinking is destroying academic culture. And on and on, subtexts spinning off in different directions like Borges' library.

You see, this guy is clearly a modernist of the first order. Modernists, to attempt a nutshell description, are all about the importance of authorship and individual owning of ideas and works. With this, of course, come such things as credibility and provenance - in other words, knowing where you got your facts, quotes, information, etc. and making sure to list them carefully so that credit is given where it is due. Copyright is an intensely modernist concept. Postmodernists, on the other hand, are more multivocal in their viewpoint, holding that the ownership of concepts and words is less important than their relevance to culture-making; in art, for example, postmodernists will "appropriate" from anywhere and everywhere, and by redefining the context of the works or snippets, create something new (Andy Warhol's soup cans, above: using "fine art" painting methods to appropriate canned soup). In postmodern ideals, this kind of appropriation is - well, appropriate, fitting, part of the continual process we all go through of assimilating culture and creating new culture based on that assimilation. Don't forget, postmodernists believe in the virtues of play, which means you can fool around with the stuff you find around you.

So in this context, Mr. Windschuttle is complaining about postmodernists' apparently slipshod authoring (using Foucault's fictional example to define a concept under discussion), while the postmodernists themselves are busy discussing, not the provenance of the quote, but how it captures some essence of the way cultures interact (in other words, the postmodernists are acting like postmodernists). If you read Foucault's introduction, you'll find that him referring to Borges' fictional categories this way: "where could they ever meet, except in the immaterial sound of the voice pronouncing their enumeration, or on the page transcribing it? Where else could they be juxtaposed except in the non-place of language? Yet, though language can spread them before us, it can do so only in an unthinkable space." In other words, what Foucault himself is interested in is the way in which the categories exist in our minds.

Modernist thinking: hard and fast lines

It's interesting, too, how Mr. Windschuttle has so missed the boat on the discussion surrounding Foucault's piece: I seriously doubt that this discussion takes Borges' enumeration as "real," in the sense of scientific proof. From what I have seen, the discussions address the interesting issues of language and the meaningfulness of traditional categorization. Foucault's quote, curiously, is exactly applicable to the situation between Mr. Windschuttle and his postmodern rivals: he is a person from a strong cultural tradition, having trouble understanding the language of another culture's logic - in other words, trying to apprehend "a culture...that does not distribute the multiplicity of existing things into any of the categories that make it possible for us to name, speak and think." A dinosaur, some might say; but though I think it is an issue of cultural evolution, it is also a matter of vision, of the flexible apprehension of a thing which is foreign to what we have been taught. The postmodernists, in other words, think sideways to Mr. Windschuttle, and he cannot (or will not) derail his thinking in order to go where they are going.

Postmodernist thinking: playful (image courtesy of Marian Bantjes)

This problem with misapprehension is very familiar, with overtones of those people (you know who you are) who think of the Internet as a bunch of "tubes," for example. It smacks of the tendency of those older people, who use email sparingly, to condemn young peoples' desire to publicly document both the internal and external parts of their lives. No sense of shame or privacy, the older people say, too much dependence on interactive devices and formats, never allowing themselves to be alone or silent. While I agree that there is too much chatter out there, too many dead Facebook pages and dull blogs about inane activities, and in the end, not enough silence, these artifacts are nothing more than virtual paper-piles with old scribblings on them, and can be ignored. But if you take this phenomenon as a whole, you will see there is the beginning of something new, a more fractured, yet curiously wholistic, perception of the universe. A more Postmodern sensibility, if you will. Something multivocal, multivisual, multilinear. A creation of new culture based on assimilation and re-definition. Something much more like Borges' library, which:

"...consists of an endless expanse of interlocking hexagonal rooms, each of which contains...four walls of bookshelves....Though the majority of the books in this universe are pure gibberish, the library also must contain, somewhere, every coherent book ever written, or that might ever be written, and every possible permutation or slightly erroneous version of every one of those books." [wiki]

Or, perhaps, it could be something like the way the brain processes information from the eyes: we glance, and glance, and in fact move our heads around; but the brain is able to take all these fractured, moving, disjointed parts and stitch them into a coherent reality in which we live quite happily, unaware of the complexities of its creation.

The cubists were aware of this, and tried to represent "true" reality in their paintings - the reality of motion and change - by painting in glances, fragments, the bits seen in all those quick takes of the world we look at. They were breaking with the tradition of perspective, which approaches an image as if the viewer is seeing it from one, and only one, point of view. In a way, then, perspective is the less realistic of the two, given that we have binocular vision and never sit still with our head glued to a point in space. And yet, though cubism is more like how we actually use our eyes to look at things, it can present a rather nightmare vision of the world.

The difference, I think, is in the incorporation. The views we get through cubism are solely visions from the eyes, without the magical intervention of the brain; while perspective is better at fooling us, giving us a semblance of the reality our brain creates for us, which is much more comfortable and familiar.

But what if our brains began to stitch things together differently? What if, instead of either discombobulated glances or falsely cohesive systemization, we saw something which no longer hid the multiplicity of our visual intake, yet made sense of it, unfolding our sense of sight into something huge, something we could not have imagined before?

What if all the devices in our lives were to help unfold our brains into something bigger? Louder perhaps, and busier, but potently dynamic? It is no coincidence that Postmodernism and technology's multiverse have developed hand in hand, nor that the same folks who are horrified at the lack of authorial stricture tend to be the same folks who don't understand what's happening with technology. And who, perhaps, might be horrified at Borges' irreverent use of academic style to toy with our understanding of reality.

...And the reader? Well, to my great joy (s)he wrote back to say:

"Yes, yes, yes!!! I half remembered it being Magic Realism and a depiction of something Asian although I misremembered it as a collection--this is definitely it. Thank you so much...How did you find it?"

How? Hmm. Perhaps the Internet is Foucault's 'unthinkable space,' after all.


Phiala said...

Careful. The Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge is fictional.

John Wilkins and his Universal Language are not - he was the first secretary of the Royal Society in the seventeenth century. While he made a number of discoveries in astronomy and mathematics, his pet project was the creation of a universal philosophical language.

I think Borges was serious.

Heather McDougal said...

Ah - thanks for the catch! I did actually know that John Wilkins was real, but didn't notice that it didn't come through in the post. The fact that Borges uses fiction and reality together actually reinforces what I'm saying, though it's a little hard to get your brain around it. Perhaps that's what this post is -- me trying to get my brain around the apparent contradictions...

I will reword a little, and hope it makes sense.

Heather McDougal said...

It seems interesting to me that with all the discussion of provenance and credibility, I should turn out to lose my footing here in exactly those ways. Ah, well, anything for art!

Edward Vielmetti said...

There are some very good accounts of words and worlds with categories other than what you and I would call normal; an accessable one is George Lakoff's "Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things" .

Anonymous said...

I really really enjoyed this. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

I really enjoyed this. Thank you.

Sam said...

"That's not the way the world really works anymore.... [W]hen we act we create our own reality."

I thought of this quote immediately upon finishing this article. Here is the entire quote, with context, from Ron Suskind:

"The aide said that guys like me were 'in what we call the reality-based community,' which he defined as people who 'believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.' I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. 'That's not the way the world really works anymore,' he continued. 'We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality -- judiciously, as you will -- we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.'


There are some perils to the post-modern approach to life.


Unrelatedly, the idea of opening up one's brain has it's own perils. There is, according to the scientific discourse community, evidence that early development has a lot to do with learning to filter an immense stream of perceptions, and sort them into categories. Synesthetes (you know who you are), on this reasoning, have imperfectly learned to sort perceptions into the appropriate categories.

Oliver Sacks, in "An Anthropologist on Mars", has a splendid description of the tremendous difficulties that a fifty-year-old man blind since childhood experiences when his vision is restored.

Heather McDougal said...

Interestingly, I was thinking about that Oliver Sacks story a lot as I wrote this. In a way, it's exactly what I mean: the pathways we set up in our brain as we grow are what make us able to categorize things properly. Therefore, it's the people who are growing up using these devices and ways of communicating who are truly at home with this new version of reality. They are native speakers. Older people can participate, but I suspect they will never truly live in that way of thinking.

Another thing I thought of while writing this post is an Ursula LeGuin story (which I can't locate) in which some colonists are struggling to cope with life on a new planet. They take metabolic meds and do all kinds of things to make their lives more like Earth. As it transpires, one child, who like many of the children is sickly, loves to paint, and all the other children think his paintings are beautiful. The narrator thinks they look like mud. Later we find that he is sickly because of the meds, and when his paintings are brought into Earth-like light, they are indeed beautiful. In other words, he and the other children were adapted to the planet - but the adult narrator couldn't appreciate the beauty of the place, nor assimilate its proteins. I see something similar happening every day between young and old, all around me.

As for your quote, I would hope that most people wouldn't be so arrogant, nor twist things so hard in the interests of imperialism. I can't see a true postmodernist being that worked up about making the world do his will. To be honest, it sounds more like the bad parts of Neitzsche than most postmodern authors I've read. Existentialist imperialism! Yum!

Dave said...

I enjoyed this post. "Order of Things" is my favorite Foucault work, and I always thought the Chinese Encyclopedia was hilarious. I always read Foucault's use of Borges as a kind of serious joke that works as a ad absurdum model of his argument about how deeply different thinking can be across cultures. So then medieval, early modern, or enlightenment ideas about things like language or wealth aren't incomplete versions of our own thought, but are actually as strange and wonderful as this imaginary encyclopedia. So its about de-naturalizing common sense. Which is, I guess, to say that I agree.

C.S. Lewis's last book, Discarded Image, is another book that gets at a similar idea (although I'm sure the two wouldn't get along). His idea is that medieval mindset is so different from modern thought that the very experience of the world is different. So he wants to reconstruct what a medieval person would experience looking at the stars at night. Rather than imagining one's self standing on a speck with in a vast, uniform and lifeless space, the medieval person experienced themselves as part of a perfectly constructed architecture completely alive with meaning, and with metaphors reflecting metaphors. While we look out at space, the medieval person looks up at the heavens.

Which is all, I think, a much less destructive and nihilistic approach than the sort of "postmodernism" folks like Windschuttle worry about.

Jurie said...

That list is one of my favorite bits of writing ever, because it is so nicely mind-blowing. However:

Foucault writes that, thanks to "the wonderment of this taxonomy,'' we can apprehend not only "the exotic charm of another system of thought'' but also "the limitation of our own.'' What the taxonomy or form of classification reveals, says Foucault, is that "there would appear to be, then, at the other extremity of the earth we inhabit, a culture . . . that does not distribute the multiplicity of existing things into any of the categories that make it possible for us to name, speak and think.'' The stark impossibility of our thinking in this way, Foucault says, demonstrates the existence of an entirely different system of rationality."

I assume that Borges' intention in writing this classification
(and I realize postmodernists might cut me off right there) was to intentionally devise a taxonomy that would confound all typical taxonomies, that is paradoxical, and deliciously so. Borges achieves a certain literary effect. It seems an absolutely bizarre mental step to conclude that there must BE a culture that uses a taxonomy like this, that has an entirely different system of rationality. It is good to remind ourselves of the unspoken assumptions underlying our ways of thinking, but if I take this quote by Foucault at face value (and maybe I shouldn't), he argues that because Borges wrote this taxonomy, there must be a culture using it. Which is, frankly, Borgesian. I cannot conclude that there is a culture which has been drinking from Klein bottles for millenia.

Jurie said...

Or, better: I cannot conclude from the invention of Klein bottles that there is a culture which has been drinking from them for millennia.

Well, I hope the analogy is clear.

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