May the most intractable meme win! How words take advantage of our categorization bias

by phil on Thursday Jul 1, 2004 7:20 PM

Behold mankind's categorization instinct run amok! (this is from the official description of a Stanford course titled Sex, Self, and Subterfuge):

Desire is individual, the most deeply private aspect of self--or is it? Can desire transcend one's culture, time, and even gender? If Virginia Woolf asked this question, what novel would she write as a kind of answer?

In this course we will explore the ways various writers imagine an experience both profound and intractable: desire at its most subversive. "The unconcious [sic] is a brilliant writer," observes theorist Catherine Clement, and the unconscious is nowhere more resourceful than in facing the resistance and repression with which cultures attempt to erase "unnatural" aspects of gender or sexuality. Whether it occurs in Freud's consulting room (in "Dora") or in a small midwestern town ("The Folded Leaf"), whether it is enacted by a time-travelling poet ("Orlando") or by Virginia Woolf herself ("The Hours"), the clash between ingenious psyche and sexual convention is rich in tension and revelation, not least for us, as readers quesitoning [sic] the interplay of sex, identity, and destiny, priveleged [sic] to see how trauma and desire shape the lives of these creatures lightly known as "fictional."

What is this crap? Is anything described really there there?

Humans in large part are a labelling engine. We tag everything: "this is my best friend, my girlfriend, my second cousin, my freshman roommate." We are obsessed with categories: "this is post-industrial indie rock in the spirit of the Velvet Goldmine but not too psychedelic that it gets lost in its own harmonic wall of sounds."

The powerful labels are the ones that are complex and abstract enough to beat listeners into submission. This happened in my Existentialism class. It was toward the end of lecture, when our minds were already exhausted. The lecturer then fields a challenging question, but manages to volley back with a sorta-sensical response such as, "But if one were inauthentically living, then bad faith would be present, thus rendering the agent ineffectual." Then swoosh, an aura of placebo satisfice swamped the room. Somehow, we collectively felt he was right, despite most of us lacking a good understanding of the terms "authentic" and "bad faith."

It's this over-emphasis on abstraction and labelling things that I'm railing against. The number of degrees between a concept and a real-world referent should be small!

I get frustrated with writers who take something simple and over complexify it with their language. It gets to the point where the added complexity becomes an object of study itself. I wonder how many departments in Universities exist only as an echo chamber for analyzed concepts that were invented by those same departments.

I am sometimes peccant myself in this area. I over-plan and over-analyze things, such that the analyzed reality gains a throne above the true reality. I can sometimes box myself in by an idea. Since I am an idealist, things HAVE to be a certain way, or else! idea-list. list of ideas, that is what we have become. What is the optimal list of ideas? If I had less ideas, would that mean less standards? I think my mind would be calmer if my mental hamsters had less neurons to jump through to get from thought to action.


felix said on July 2, 2004 12:45 AM:

I agree that we're obsessed with labelling.

I'd add that labelling is not just about the labelee. It's also relating the labelee to other things, to the external world.

This is a rock = it's like other things we call rocks

This is my cousin = she has a relation to other people (her parents) who have a relation to ...

peter said on July 3, 2004 2:34 PM:

but labels are like variables in programming.. they map associations of content/action/relationships brought into the language to limit or enhance true thought. Labels evolve, expire, and are resurrected by cultural DNA (codes).

Philip Dhingra said on July 3, 2004 3:05 PM:

And now, I would like to introduce Peter, the nemesis star of Philosophistry.

The Nemesis star theory is about the causes of the periodic mass extinctions every 65 million years. The theory goes that there is a hidden star that partners our Sun, who's orbit causes gravity changes that bring craters to Earth when it passes by every 65 million years.

This is the first time in a year that Peter has commented on my blog, and yet he has probably read every single post here and on most of my other blog-properties from day one. I talk to him a lot though, and he seeds, indirectly or directly, a lot of the content here.

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