21.319 Borges not Chuang-tzu

From: Humanist Discussion Group (by way of Willard McCarty willard.mccarty_at_kcl.ac.uk>
Date: Sat, 27 Oct 2007 10:58:35 +0100

               Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 21, No. 319.
       Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                     Submit to: humanist_at_princeton.edu

         Date: Sat, 27 Oct 2007 10:27:20 +0100
         From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty_at_kcl.ac.uk>
         Subject: Borges not Chuang-tzu

My thanks to the 11 members of this group who
answered my dazed query for the source of a
quotation I could not remember, about a
subversively bizarre way of sorting the world. My
thanks specifically, in no particular order, to
Hope Greenberg, Timothy Mason, Gray
Kochhar-Lindgren, Jean-François Vallée, Peter
Boot, Philip Hanson, Clai Rice, John Unsworth,
Christian Wittern, Marcus Bingenheimer and Wayne
Hanewicz. The source is, of course, Jorge Luis
Borges' story, "The Analytical Language of John
Wilkins" ("El idioma analítico de John Wilkins"),
to which Michel Foucault attributes the
shattering laughter that broke up "all the
familiar landmarks of my thought -- our
thought... with which we are accustomed to tame
the wild profusion of existing things" and so
began the rethinking that resulted in his book
Les Mots et les choses (1966, trans. The Order of
Things, 1970). A couple of people pointed me to
the Wikipedia entry dedicated to Borges' imagined
Chinese encyclopedia, the Celestial Emportium of
Benevolent Knowledge
where it is written that,

>animals are divided into:
>-- those that belong to the Emperor,
>-- embalmed ones,
>-- those that are trained,
>-- suckling pigs,
>-- mermaids,
>-- fabulous ones,
>-- stray dogs,
>-- those included in the present classification,
>-- those that tremble as if they were mad,
>-- innumerable ones,
>-- those drawn with a very fine camelhair brush,
>-- others,
>-- those that have just broken a flower vase,
>-- those that from a long way off look like flies.

But I was saved from the inevitable temptation to
medicalize my faulty remembering by another
couple of people who likewise had thought
Chuang-tzu was the source. Ah, if only we who
favoured Chuang-tzu had not spent all that time
reading Chinese philosophy! Indeed, Marcus
Bingenheimer (Director, Library and Information
Center, Dharma Drum Buddhist College, Taiwan), went on to comment that,

>This is not to say that the categories of
>Chinese encyclopedias are uninteresting.
>The 7th century Buddhist encyclopedia Fayuan
>zhulin (Forest of pearls in the Garden of the
>Dharma) groups for example under headings such as:
>- Shapechanges
>- Sleep and Dreams
>- Blossoms and Fragrants
>- Gentlemen and Ministers
>- Relics
>- (accounts of) good friends
>- (accounts of) bad friends
>- refutation of heresies
>- apocrypha
>- sun and moon
>and this is not a spoof.

Nor are the passages describing metamorphosis in the Chuang-tzu, e.g.

>The seeds of things have mysterious workings. In the water they become
>Break Vine, on the edges of the water they become Frog's Robe. If they
>sprout on the slopes they become Hill Slippers. If Hill Slippers get
>rich soil, they turn into Crow's Feet. The roots of Crow's Feet turn
>into maggots and their leaves turn into butterflies. Before long the
>butterflies are transformed and turn into insects that live under the
>stove; they look like snakes and their name is Ch'ut 'o. After a
>thousand days, the Ch'u-t'o insects become birds called Dried Leftover
>Bones. The saliva of the Dried Leftover Bones becomes Ssu-mi bugs and
>the Ssu-mi bugs become Vinegar Eaters. I-lo bugs are born from the
>Vinegar Eaters, and Huang-shuang bugs from Chiu-yu bugs. Chiu-yu bugs
>are born from Mou-jui bugs and Mou-jui bugs are born from Rot Grubs and
>Rot Grubs are born from Sheep's Groom. Sheep's Groom couples with bamboo
>that has not sprouted for a long while and produces Green Peace plants.
>Green Peace plants produce leopards and leopards produce horses and
>horses produce men. Men in time return again to the mysterious workings.
>So all creatures come out of the mysterious workings and go back into
>them again. (Section 18)

This is serious play!

John Unsworth pointed out to me that Michael
Sperberg-McQueen quoted the very passage from
Borges in his learned chapter in the Blackwell's
Companion to Digital Humanities, "Classification
and its Structures"
(http://www.digitalhumanities.org/companion/), where he says,

>Some principles for constructing classification
>schemes have evolved over the centuries; they
>are not always followed, but are generally to be
>recommended as leading to more useful classification schemes.
>The first of these is to avoid
>cross-classification: a one-dimensional
>classification should normally depend on the
>value of a single characteristic of the object
>classified, should provide for discrete
>(non-overlapping) values, and should allow for
>all values which will be encountered: perhaps
>the best-known illustration of this rule lies in
>its violation in the fictional Chinese
>encyclopedia imagined by Jorge Luis Borges...

It all depends, I suppose, on what you're after.
For me it comes down to the choice of the residue
over the well-crafted scheme that isolates it.
Recently I found myself sitting in yet another
kitchen in a visiting researchers' residence in
Leiden, where a theoretical linguist, having
heard me go on about my beloved residue and my
disrespect of rules, asked pointedly, "If the
residue is so interesting, why isn't the rule
that produced it?" A good question, I think.



Willard McCarty | Professor of Humanities
Computing | Centre for Computing in the
Humanities | King's College London |
http://staff.cch.kcl.ac.uk/~wmccarty/. Et sic in
infinitum (Fludd 1617, p. 26).
Received on Sat Oct 27 2007 - 06:18:50 EDT

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