The Wild Profusion of Things

a news article titled A recent news story from India, and the way many here seem to be celebrating it as a victory over stifling binaries, prompted me to comment on Facebook:

a facebook comment regarding Russell McCutcheonSo, while not wanting to minimize the victory this court decision represents for those who feel excluded from the current male/female designation system in which much of our global social life moves and in which our identities are formed, my comment was a caution for those who might somehow think that we’ve finally transcended limiting binaries and arrived at the promised land of authentic existence and self-expression. For with the introduction of the novel third option we really have just arrived at a new binary — traditional gender designation vs. non-traditional gender designation — that will surely be defied by someone at some point in the future, in the interest of overcoming what they perceive as yet another stifling binary pair…

And on and on social formation goes…

Which brings to mind that delightful opening to Michel Foucault‘s The Order of Things, in which a fictitious classification system not only demonstrates the comfort we have with knowing a world via local systems of identification but, more importantly perhaps, indicates the crucial role played by etc.(Latin: et cetera, and other things) or “miscellaneous” in making our classification systems work.

For those unfamiliar with it, the passage reads:

This book first arose out of a passage in Borges, out of the laughter that shattered, as I read the passage, all the familiar landmarks of my thought—our 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. This passage quotes a “certain Chinese encyclopaedia” in which it is written that “animals are divided into: (a) belonging to the Emperor, (b) embalmed, (c) tame, (d) suckling 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”. 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.

For if we understand a classification system as itself being but one part of the world that it seeks to arrange — that is, it is not exterior to the world, not a self-evident way in which the world ought to be organized, not a neutral description of obvious states of affairs — then the taxonomy is bound to fail for no element of a system can definitively sum up or properly represent the system itself. For, as the old logic lesson goes, the class (or family) of all cars is not itself a car.

The point: we have to imagine a classification system floating outside the things it seeks to arrange in order to assume it will always work. But if, as suggested above, we instead understand classification systems as practical tools that we devise and use, for our purposes (which are bound to change, being historical and thus contingent objects themselves), then these system are bound to run up against people who don’t have just those purposes, and thus who don’t arrange the world in just this way. What’s more, those systems are also inevitably going to bump into something in the world that we didn’t expect when we divided it up between, say, males and females.

Simply put, without a third option — et cetera, miscellaneous, other, none of the above, not included in the present list — the system is bound to fail, producing what we could call anomalies.

The victory for some in India is that those who felt ostracized as anomalies no longer are. But this hardly signals the end of history (that is, that we’ve finally and definitively named all the ways of being human, finally taming that wild profusion of things that is existence). Who knows what new anomalies will arise in the future and how we will negotiate them.

But they will. And we will.

And then it’ll happen all over again.

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