What Kind of Thing is This Thing of Kinds?
(First Things First and Last Things)


A dictionary of predicaments.

Levers of the mind, a classification scheme called "dictionary," the alphabet in all its aleatory and determinate glory, no doubt the most powerful tool invented since the codex. And within every dictionary is a dream of encyclopedia, the dream of plenitude. Within every dictionary is also the dream of ultimate order, making sense of the world by a last classification.

A "predicament," that is, as Aristotle termed the relation of things plus substance. He maintained that there were exactly nine (quantity, quality, relation, action, passion, where, when, situation, clothing), dreaming that the entire world could be comprehended by these categories, though they appear to us now as powerful and arbitrary as the alphabet. As Kierkegaard comments in his Repetition, "When a classification does not ideally exhaust its object," which we know to be true of all taxonomies, "a haphazard classification is altogether preferable, because it sets imagination in motion."

Sorting Things Out extends the dream of the reference tool to all thought experiments, a "Catalogue of Ideas" like Eduardo Paolozzi's set of names, such as "Two nudes squared, Felix lux solo and Mars consolidated," which explodes the very notion of catalogue. Do these items name sculptures, parts of the body, or musical compositions? (And each in turn names a set with infinite elements.) Who knows, given one who devoted his life to "metallizing" dreams. But we must make up, then change our minds, and make them again.

Unlike the list in a Whitman poem or on the refrigerator door, Sorting Things Out invites the reader to invent the organizing impulse of the set. The tension between the set's name and its members forces the reader to oscillate between cause and coherence, flitting from one tentative equilibrium to another. And this act leads to sorting out or inventing the world, a puzzlement of certain knowledge.

A fundamentally democratic act because it's part of the habit of living. And its assumption is the poet's, whose "working attitude," as the philosopher Justus Buchler observes, is "an acceptance of ontological parity." The poet is unwilling to deny being to anything perceived. Like a dictionary, Sorting Things Out revels in chance juxtapositions at all logical levels of existence. Each class or category is equal, as are its elements, and hypertext enables such radical equality. It levels phenomena; it reinforces the lack of privilege given to a single thing--no being, that is, being superior being.

On this ground we name again. We can restore the Edenic state where no thing is more important than any thing. Then we name, identifying and classifying according to necessity and wish. Such a project is within our powers, coming as naturally to us as language. Anyone can sort things out; everyone does. Anyone can make their own Sorting Things Out. A communal project that promises ultimately to become a "collective history of the things of the mind," as Paul Valery dreamed, that sees things as they are, breaking out of tradition and habit, and replaces "all the histories of philosophy, art, literature, and the sciences." Or it promises "The History of Nothing" (the title of a Paolozzi film) which is, of course, something. ~ Both/And ~