FRONT PAGE / POSTS
by Malcolm Evans| Brighton, UK
Saturday, 26 June 2010
tags: americas, asia, culture, fuzzy sets
If you gave someone a paragraph to complete, starting with the words “Animals are divided into…” various types of creature might immediately leap to mind – cats, dogs, elephants, male, female, tame, wild, edible, inedible, cold blooded, warm blooded, etc. A further refinement to this exercise might be to specify the number of divisions your contestant has to play with: just 2 (likely answers might include male/female perhaps or wild/domesticated, or vertebrate/invertebrate), 6 (mammals, reptiles, birds, fish, amphibians, insects). And so on. This is an interesting one to try out with young children. Human beings and cultures are always dividing things – animals, objects, people – into groups and sub-groups. The need to segment your market (“Consumers are divided into…”, or product/service offers, occasions, distribution channels) and target your offer to the appropriate segment(s) is a fundamental rule of marketing – just as understanding the time, place and kind of people you were talking to was the basis of classical rhetoric.
Jorge Luis Borges wrote of a Chinese encyclopaedia, The Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge, in which animals are divided into:
a. belonging to the Emperor,
d. suckling pigs,
g. stray dogs,
h. included in the present classification,
k. drawn with a fine camelhair brush,
m. having just broken the water pitcher,
n. that from a long way off look like flies.
This is an excellent text for flipping us out of the familiar daze in which the cut on reality our cultures and ideologies present us with seem simply given, natural, true. A great moment of defamiliarisation which gives us a glimpse into culture’s constructedness and relativity. In The Order of Things, Michel Foucault describes the effect this passage can have – of shattering “all the familiar landmarks of thought—our thought, the 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 definitions”, while evoking “the exotic charm of another system of thought” and “the stark impossibility of thinking that.”
The passage on animal types comes from Borges’s “Essay on the Analytical Language of John Wilkins”. Wilkins was the author of Essay Towards a Real Character and Philosophical Language (1688), an attempt to impose a mathematical certainty and objective scientific transparency on language and writing systems – in effect abolishing the distance and (often) cultural arbitariness in the divides between ‘things’, ‘thoughts’, ‘words’, and ‘characters’ or writing systems. Something akin to the Wilkins view of representation as strictly secondary to a world of concepts, reason and empirical reality became a Western cultural norm lasting well into the Twentieth Century. Borges’s response graphically summarises the turn from this to acknowledging the role of language and culture in producing meaning – and signals the re-emergence of semiotics in academic and cultural life from the 1950s and 60s on. With the application of semiotics to understanding and guiding the development of brands, the master methodology emerging from this “turn to language” engages with some of its most characteristic cultural expressions – in the new emotional, metaphorical and totemic meanings of contemporary consumer culture.
© Malcolm Evans 2010
Michel Foucault, The Order of Things, Tavistock, 1970, p.xv
J.L. Borges, Selected Nonfictions, ed. Eliot Weinberger, Penguin, 1999