thinking about the letter W
I have been thinking a lot lately about words beginning with the letter w, especially women, Wikipedia, and writing—because I have spent a good deal of time over the past two years writing articles about women for Wikipedia. So I have just finished a letter-W-driven trawl through my Wikipedia pages to see what else I could find there besides women— a fictional town called Wallencamp, as it happens, and whiteflies. I could have sliced through using other letters (B would be a good one) or concepts (botany, brains, boldness), and they would all be equally arbitrary and equally useful.
One of the fundamental problems of research and writing is that it involves a narrowing down; you may start by casting wide or at random, but as you begin to form something that can be called a subject, you start to exclude things from consideration. And if you get to the point of having something neatly assembled—and certainly not all research winds up in this way—its very aura of completeness, though totally false, makes it difficult to really see anymore, like trying to peer through a window when the angle of light keeps pulling you out to the surface reflections. But this metaphor invokes the idea of depth, which assumes that hermeneutics is possible: that there is always a thing to be known, a thing that is hidden and that your research and writing has somehow found, dusted off, possibly reconstructed, and exposed to view. (Though there will probably be new concealments created in the process for the next code-breaker who comes along.) Your job is just to hand your text off to the reader, but suppose that is an unsatisfactory requirement? How do you place yourself in the reader’s position, the new position of power over the text? You can cast yourself as an interpreter and write about it, but that can be very stultifying because of the difficulty of navigating between the shoals of self-praise and disclaimer. Another possibility is to find mechanisms of temporary disassembly and recombination that return the text to the mess of raw materiality, and an arbitrary taxonomy is a very good tool towards this end. It’s a sorting mechanism that creates new neighborhoods where all the ideas are equally uncomfortable until they find ways to bridge out to each other.
Even the phrase ‘arbitrary taxonomy’ suggests that there is some kind of taxonomic structure that is not arbitrary. But what would that even mean? A taxonomy is always logical and always partial. The first time I awoke to this fact was in reading a counter-taxonomy constructed by Jorge Luis Borges, which he claimed to have taken from an ancient Chinese document called the Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge. This list taxonomizes the animal kingdom into 14 categories, among which are to be found “those that are trained,” “innumerable ones,” and “sucking pigs.” Foucault took up this list and offered it back in The Order of Things as a kind of thing that can break up “all the ordered surfaces” we use to try to tame actuality and align it in ways our minds can cope with. A taxonomy, in other words, is in part a recognition of our mental deficiencies vis à vis the world we inhabit. In writing for Wikipedia, I am trying to be the tamer, the bringer of order, but I cannot ever forget that the Celestial Emporium of Wikipedian Knowledge would divide knowledge differently, perhaps into these 14 subject areas:
things found in drops of water
things of which there are wax models
things of which there are watercolors
wit and wisdom
subjects of stained glass windows
people whose names begin with W
Umberto Eco points out that “every discourse about the encyclopedia casts in doubt the previous structure of the encyclopedia,” and I would count among these discourses new versions of the encyclopedia itself. The fundamental problem here is what Eco refers to as the hermeneutic circle: the process by which a text, in being read and interpreted, becomes a special kind of object whose existence and importance are validated by this very process of making up stuff about it, all of which changes the object in ways that call for a further round of readings and makings-up. It is also true that texts derived from other texts are part of the hermeneutic circle, but these have the interesting possibility of both validation and betrayal.