Symposium Notes 02

Today’s discussion about taxonomy and classification and analysis. And that weird botany example. Let’s rewind and do it all again. In botany we have species. Species are different types of plants, so for example we have over 700 species of gum tree in Australia. What defines a gum tree as belonging to one species or another generally consists of differences amongst bark, leaves, and most importantly flowers and gum nuts – the reproductive parts. Historically someone comes along, reckons that plant there is new, grabs a specimen, writes a very detailed description of it, and that becomes the benchmark for that species. Once another one is sufficiently different, it is a new species. What counts as ‘sufficiently different’ is, though, a point of debate. What the debate is doesn’t matter. What matters is that it is debated because there is not this simple ‘flick’ or ‘difference’ between species, but that there will always be examples where an individual will have some of the qualities of one, and some of the qualities of others. It is a graduated scale, analogue, not discrete and digital. Now, what matters is not whether this is a new species or not, what matters is to recognise that gum trees all vary and so what matters is the extent of the variation, not the fact of variation.

All classification schemes have to do this. They have to invent a boundary or rule that says ‘these qualities or attributes mean you are a part of this group’, and so by definition if you don’t have these then you’re either out, or in another group. Where that boundary sits is always an argument informed by power (whether this be politics, authority, evidence), so it isn’t neutral (which means it isn’t only about the things we are classifying). But this system also creates for us an understanding of the world where things live in particular categories, whether gum trees, dogs, gender, bodies, or interactive documentaries.

The risk and danger then with a taxonomy is that when you build your system what you take to be the ‘specimen’ becomes a centre, and distance from this centre comes to define difference, but why is that specimen (that particular documentary) the centre rather than another one? Similarly, what comes to matter is how that documentary is like what the taxonomy identifies, which risks not seeing, or noticing all the ways in which that particular documentary has other qualities, attributes and abilities too. It creates a world of boxes, when the world isn’t actually boxes. Of course everyone who uses these classifications will tell you that this isn’t the case, that of course the world is complicated and messy, but, well, this is useful as a method and what else can we do? It might be useful as a method, but a method, not the method. As I said today a more interesting approach, certainly right now, is to look at individual works and systems and software platforms and services individually and specifically in relation to what they are. ‘What they are’ is code for what they can do and what they do do. Not what they mean, that comes after, but what they do.

Why? Well as I outlined in the symposium, if I look at a person I can use large scale things (taxonomies) to make some crude assumptions, but that’s not a good way to understand who that person is. To understand the person I need to pay attention to them, to what they do, and then I can worry about or try and work out what that might mean (for you me). If I don’t then I fall into large categories that at best become stereotypes. The difference is significant and lets me build things (arguments, ideas, even taxonomies) from the bottom up. What things do is right now more interesting than what things mean, if only because when we go straight to what they mean we risk missing, not being able to see, what the things are – which surely is the point of classifying them in the first place. So the method I’m proposing is to begin from the understanding that everything varies, and to make that a first principle, rather than identifying what things have in common and making that our first principle. It’s about recognising a world of difference, change, movement, and variation as given and that taxonomies are (false) moments of imagined stillness.