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Sunday, March 19, 2006

Takin’ care of Borges

It’s here! At long last—the moment I have long promised, and long delayed.  Just look right down there beneath my one lonely BlogAd . . . it’s my all-new blogroll!

Yes, folks, after only one year, I have updated my blogroll.  I am no longer the Worst Blogroll Updater in the World, singlehandedly holding back the dialectical movement of Blogeistesgeschichte. Now you know what I’ve been doing down here in North Carolina with all my free time!  I have the National Humanities Center’s first-ever Blogroll Updating Fellowship, and I have used it wisely.  I can now goof off for the remaining twelve days of March!

(Actually, that last bit is not quite true.  I present my work-in-progress to the NHC’s fellows tomorrow afternoon, and have already had my very first fellow-presentation anxiety dream.  All I will say is that I am reading George Packer’s The Assassins’ Gate and writing a prospectus.)

Now, you’ll recall that when I last updated my blogroll in the spring of 2005, there were only fifteen or twenty blogs on the Internets.  Today there are over thirty million.  So, of course, the blogroll had to get longer, and I spent many many hours checking out many many fine new blogs.  But I didn’t want the blogroll to roll on forever down the right sidebar.  That seemed unseemly.  So Kurt Nelson, blessed be he, suggested that I group the almost-two-hundred blogs into categories, and he would get a hold of some of that “code” that allows the categories to unfurl before your eyes.

This was the moment I’d been dreading for months. Categorizing the blogs! I feared that every step I took would kill a living thing.  What if I classified someone’s blog as anarcho-syndicalist when in fact many of its posts were crypto-Maoist?  What if I designated “Sivacracy” as post-Impressionist when in fact its studied pointillism owes a great deal to Scott McLemee’s experiments with color and line?  And (this last question bedevils all of us literature professors) what was I to do with those damned medievalists?  Especially the ones whose blogs are full of thorns?

Well, after I culled through the old blogroll, fixing broken links and tracking down fugitive blogs that had undergone radical changes of name and/or identity in the course of joining the Blog Protection Program, I decided to place my faith in the best classification system in the world: the Borgesian taxonomy in “The Analytical Language of John Wilkins.”

Which reminds me of something.  About a decade ago, Keith Windschuttle, Australian Professor of Harrumphy in the Department of What’s All This Then, published a particularly stupid book titled The Killing of History: How Literary Critics and Social Theorists Are Murdering Our Past.  In it, he not only showed how literary critics and social theorists are murdering our past until it is dead; he also pointed out that although Michel Foucault was inspired by Borges’ taxonomy, and Marshall Sahlins and many other people cite it too, the taxonomy is in fact fictional, having been entirely made up by Jorge Luis Borges!

Gee, d’ye think?  As it happens, Borges (being Borges) has a great deal of fun embedding the taxonomy in a series of attributions and “attributions.” Here’s a taste:

Let us consider the eighth category, the category of stones. Wilkins divides them into common (silica, gravel, schist), modics (marble, amber, coral), precious (pearl, opal), transparent (amethyst, sapphire) and insolubles (chalk, arsenic). Almost as surprising as the eighth, is the ninth category. This one reveals to us that metals can be imperfect (cinnabar, mercury), artificial (bronze, brass), recremental (filings, rust) and natural (gold, tin, copper). Beauty belongs to the sixteenth category; it is a living brood fish, an oblong one.

These ambiguities, redundancies and deficiencies remind us of those which doctor Franz Kuhn attributes to a certain Chinese encyclopaedia entitled Celestial Empire of Benevolent Knowledge. In its remote pages it is written that the animals are divided into: (a) belonging to the emperor, (b) embalmed, (c) tame, (d) sucking 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.

The Bibliographic Institute of Brussels exerts chaos too: it has divided the universe into 1000 subdivisions, from which number 262 is the pope; number 282, the Roman Catholic Church; 263, the Day of the Lord; 268 Sunday schools; 298, mormonism; and number 294, brahmanism, buddhism, shintoism and taoism. It doesn’t reject heterogene subdivisions as, for example, 179: “Cruelty towards animals. Animals protection. Duel and suicide seen through moral values. Various vices and disadvantages. Advantages and various qualities.”

Just wait ‘til Windschuttle finds out where Freud got all that Oedipus stuff from!

Have fun with the new blogroll, everyone, and give many thanks and sucking pigs to Kurt.  Anyone who wishes to question his or her classification and seek reassignment may direct a Petition of Appeal to the Emperor.  The Emperor is, however, a very busy man, and may not be able to see you right away.

Posted by Michael on 03/19 at 01:40 PM
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