When Categorizing Data Feels Like Borges’ “Certain Chinese Encyclopaedia”

The more I create categorical variables, the more the world reads like the preface to Foucault’s The Order of Things.

“This book first arose out of a passage in [Jorge Luis] 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.” – Michel Foucault, The Order of Things (1970, xv)

In other words, creating taxonomies of the world seems ever so random even when you know the data better than anyone else. And particularly unqueer to fit label and fit things into so many discreet boxes! Geesh.

At least, though, I have ruled out all things that have just broken the water pitcher. Om shanti to that.