Today We Had a Lecture

Gum tree on my car.
Today’s discussion about taxonomy and classification and analysis of interactive documentaries, and my weird botany example. 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 for speciation is the extent of the variation, not the fact of variation.

All classification schemes have to do this and have this problem. They have to invent a boundary via a 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. (In modernism you were out, excluded, the lesser of the validated half,in post-structuralism you were not excluded, but different, and the world was thought to be about the politics and understanding and policing and epistemology of these boundaries.) Where that boundary sits is always an argument informed by varieties of power (whether this be politics, authority, evidence), so it isn’t neutral and also must mean that classification is never just about what we are classifying. A plus though is that such a system creates for us an understanding of the world where things exist 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 itself (let alone the much smaller universe of interactive documentaries) does not actually consist of discrete boxes. (Of course everyone who uses these classifications will tell you that 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 works and systems and software platforms and services individually and specifically in relation to what they are. Where ‘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. This happens largely because what they mean is not the same thing as what something does, mainly because meaning is such an anthropomorphic (and language centric) conceit. 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 a beginning. It’s about recognising a world of difference, change, movement, and variation and that taxonomies are (false) moments of imagined stillness. In a media world currently defined by change, surely we need to develop methods that address this, rather than methods that seek the solace of stasis?

By the way, that picture at the top of this post? It’s a gum tree branch that fell on my car while out bushwalking one day in the Grampians. This is one of the things that gum trees can do, which is quite a different thing to what a gum tree, even that gum tree by that car park, means.