classification image

The Madness of Naming the Names

28 August 2013:   Have become  briefly possessed by the unlikely subject of classification.  It is all the fault of Linnaeus, the 18th century Swedish classifier of plants, who – I have just discovered – defined a category of human beings called Homo Sapiens Monstrosus, that included the Patagonian giant and the ‘agile and faint-hearted dwarf of the Alps’.  He also defined another sub-species called Homo Sapiens Ferus, that included wolf boys.  Sometimes mistakes are as interesting as successes.  Imagine a world, not that long ago, in which men (no, scientists) believed in the ‘agile and faint-hearted dwarf of the Alps’.  It’s the mix of myth and science that’s so startling.

The Victorians were great classifiers, but the subject has fallen out of fashion these days. It doesn’t match the free-spirited 21st century and anyway we can see all too easily how it led to the 19th century obsession with racial types (and look where that took us).  Nonetheless classification is deep in the DNA of museums – somehow you have to group the artefacts – and for some museums, such as natural history museums, who identify the species and the steps in the evolutionary process, it is one of their major functions.

But there is something about the classificatory mind that is hopelessly eccentric.  Look at Melville Dewey, creator of the classification system by which most American libraries ordered their books and a man driven by a hopeless passion to make order in the universe.

As a child he made an inventory of his mother’s pantry and then set about re-ordering it. As an adult he not only devised a new system for classifying library books – the Dewey Decimal Classification; he also campaigned for spelling reform, writing crossly that ‘Speling skolars agree that we hav the most unsyentific, unskolarli, illojikal & wasteful speling ani languaj ever ataind’.  When he created the Lake Placid Health Club he persuaded the restaurant to serve up ‘Hadok, Poted beef with noodls, Parsli or Masht potato, Butr, Steamd Rys, Letis, and Ys cream’.

Any classificatory system has to figure out how to divide up intelligently the total of everything that human beings know. (Encyclopedias are different. They are organized alphabetically, a system which is easier because it is also meaningless.)  Dewey’s solution was clever – up to a point.  He divided up all knowledge into ten fields, then divided each of these fields into ten more fields, and then divided the ten more fields once again by ten.  After that comes a decimal point and then the process of division starts again.  In terms of content, he makes knowledge descend from the general to the specific in ways that feel natural and that are infinitely extendable, at least downwards – although going sideways is another matter.  Suppose you believe that all human knowledge begins with eleven or twelve fields of thinking, not ten? Sorry, that’s not possible.

And as always the system is a product of its times with all the inherent biases and prejudices that this suggests.  (See, as you would expect, various discussions on where Dewey – or Dui, as he called himself – put women.)

But what I love about this kind of thinking is how rapidly it moves from an absurd pedantry to a beautiful metaphysics (which is something that museums do continually).  For, as lots of people have observed, all library cataloguing systems have to  –

‘ . . . be hospitable to all knowledge, including things that never were, such as phlogiston; things that never shall be, like utopias; and things that are impossible, like the square root of minus one.’

Which suddenly shifts the library from somewhere pedantic into somewhere fantastical.

The classificatory mind is eccentric, pedantic, occasionally beautifully metaphysical, and also sometimes startling and funny – see the famous quote from the novelist Borges in which he says that in ‘a certain Chinese encyclopedia entitled “The Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge’  it is said that –

‘Animals are divided into (a) those that belong to the Emperor, (b) embalmed ones, (c) those that are trained, (d) suckling pigs, (e) mermaids, (f) fabulous ones, (g) stray dogs, (h) those that are included in this classification, (i) those that tremble as if they were mad, (j) innumerable ones, (k) those drawn with a very fine camel’s hair brush, (l) others, (m) those that have just broken a flower vase, (n) those that resemble flies from a distance.

There is no evidence that ‘The Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge ever existed – and the more Borges buttresses his prose with footnotes that more likely it is that he made the whole thing up,

But the point is that as a concept it’s beautiful, isn’t it?  And perfectly captures the idea that all classificatory systems – and therefore all museums? – are hopelessly but (sometimes) poetically subjective.

The image is from the Museum National d’histoire Naturelle in Paris.

By Rachel Morris