Things Worth Categorizing
21 March, 2016
Four months later, I’m still thinking about Løchlann Jain’s index cards. I came across them at last year’s 4S conference in Denver: dozens of cards laid out on a table, each card covered with a series of tiny, colorful sketches. The cards were there to be peered at and handled, and mounted lights and magnifying glasses allowed for an intimate examination of the texture and detail in each.
The mise-en-scène of the cards figured them as specimens, and us as naturalists. Yet the task of the naturalist—to organize specimens into coherent relations—was also the work being done by the cards themselves.
Any given card depicted multiple scenes, each one neatly labeled and arranged among a group of conspecifics. A title, written above each gaggle of sketches, gathers them under one family name:
“things that are institutionalized,” or
“things that transduce sound,” or
“things to do with babies”
Each card is a play of kind and kin, with figured family members stretching and respecifying the meaning and tone of the crest under which they are gathered. “things that are institutionalized,” for example, includes insane people (depicted as eyes peering out of captivity), children (at a desk, practicing their A’s), and food (compartmentalized in a cafeteria buffet).
One hundred illustrated cards, all titled “things that…,” are part of a series Jain calls “Binomial Nomenclature.” Jain, an artist, medical anthropologist, and author of the award winning monograph Malignant, is well aware of the performative potential of pushing against categories, not least against those that inform her own scholarly work. She is interested, as she explained, in how “minds make jumps through the logical systems that we often take for granted.” The categorical assertions presented by the cards were not merely an interruption of sublimated logics, but stage different logics by reimagining the bases for relation.
In “things to do with babies” (below), I am struck by how the blurring between actions and entities (burp and smell, next to coat hanger and perambulator) respecifies the meaning of “do” in the title. By jumping through logical gaps between the descriptive and performative senses of “to do with,” the card captures momentarily the ways that words are actions, and objects are relations.
While this series could comfortably appear as drawings in an art gallery, its presentation at a 4S conference became a disciplinary performance. A significant thread in STS is deeply concerned with the categorizations underlying knowledge production; at the same time, STS scholarship itself draws connections, unearths orderliness and gathers sets of relations.
Last year’s 4S conference in Denver made a concerted effort to create an institutional space for projects exploring non-traditional STS methods. This effort was formalized through the Making and Doing Program, which invited conference participants to present scholarly projects that “extend beyond the academic paper or book.” To facilitate the inclusion of a wide range of modes and methods, program organizers set up a flexible 4-hour event during which all the makings and doers were in the same room, available for engagement, interaction, and conversation.
It was in this context that Jain’s cards appeared, and I would argue that Binomial Nomenclature is exemplary of the type of performance work that is both deeply relevant to STS as a discipline, and could not have been realized in a traditional panel talk. It could only have happened given the institutional roaming space made by Making and Doing. Each card and its corresponding world of relations must be picked up, discovered, and made sense of. It is in the conference-situated and embodied encounter, in that intimate process of making sense, that the cards’ argument unfolds.
What are things worth categorizing? Halloween candy, race, Gross National Product, cost, season, IQ, gender, cuteness, height, age, danger, taste, bounciness, bowls of porridge, color, changing bellies (all illustrated in the card below). The attempt to bring all these things into coherence requires thinking again, and thinking about the way you think. But doing this at an academic conference—well, that’s argument and artwork. The fragility and complicity of making sense in the world = things worth categorizing.
“Making and undoing categories, a well-justified obsession in STS, takes seriously the etymology of the word thing,” writes Jain in an artist statement, “Thing’ once meant ‘assembly.’ Indeed, how do we know a thing, except by noticing who it mingles with and what dialogic results?” For me, the reason that the Binomial Nomenclature cards were such an indelible part of the conference—a site where mingling and dialogue produce networks of power and meaning—was in their suggestion that other resources and logics can mobilize assemblies.
To see more of the Binomial Nomenclature series, check out this recently published piece on Public Books.