The Analytical Language of the American Sociological Association

In a comment to a post re: Borges being the best over on Union Street, Andrew suggested the creation of what would truly be the most excellent* section of asa: “Borgesian Sociology”. This truly inspired suggestion led me back to a discussion at ASA about sections and section identities.

First, to Borges. In the oft-cited, “The Analytical Language of John Wilkins”, Borges discusses the elimination from the Encyclopedia Britannica of the entry concerning John Wilkins**, a sad oversight given his pioneering attempt to create an analytical language whose structure held within it the definitions of its words:

He divided the universe in forty categories or classes, these being further subdivided into differences, which was then subdivided into species. He assigned to each class a monosyllable of two letters; to each difference, a consonant; to each species, a vowel. For example: de, which means an element; deb, the first of the elements, fire; deba, a part of the element fire, a flame.

Borges notes the difficulties in such an endeavor and goes on to tell us of other attempts at classification:

These ambiguities, redundancies and deficiencies remind us of those which doctor Franz Kuhn attributes to a certain Chinese encyclopaedia entitled ‘Celestial Empire of benevolent Knowledge’. In its remote pages it is written that the animals are divided into: (a) belonging to the emperor, (b) embalmed, (c) tame, (d) sucking pigs, (e) sirens, (f) fabulous, (g) stray dogs, (h) included in the present classification, (i) frenzied, (j) innumerable, (k) drawn with a very fine camelhair brush, (l) et cetera, (m) having just broken the water pitcher, (n) that from a long way off look like flies.

A few things to note about this: first, I love how we do not have the encyclopedia itself, only a second hand account. Second, note the inclusion of “(h) included in the present classification”, a hat-tip to paradoxes in the style of Bertrand Russell (e.g. “If the town barber shaves every man who does not shave himself, who shaves the barber?”). Lastly, some of the categories are just neat.
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When Life Feels Like a Borges Story

This post has nothing to do with Sociology, but everything to do with my favorite author – J.L. Borges. Borges is sort of the best, and this best-ness has been recognized by Sociological authors as diverse as Goffman (in a footnote in Frame Analysis), Foucault (in the motivation for the Order of Things) and Hirschman* as well as others on the outside.

Today’s Borgesian moment comes from the NYTimes book review section, by way of Ammon Shea, who is perhaps one of the coolest people I’ve ever read about. Shea decided to read the entire O.E.D. end to end, skipping nothing, and write a book about it. Here’s a bit of the review:

Book Review – ‘Reading the OED,’ by Ammon Shea – Review – NYTimes.com:

And the lovely-ugly words, words that Shea didn’t know existed, leap up to his hand. Acnestis – the part of an animal’s back that the animal can’t reach to scratch. And bespawl – to splatter with saliva. In Chapter D, Shea encounters deipnophobia, the fear of dinner parties; Chapter K brings kankedort, an awkward situation.

Months in, Shea arrives – back-aching, crabby, page-blind – at Chapter N. “Some days I feel as if I do not actually speak the English language,” he writes, his verbal cortex overflowing. “It is,” he observes, “like trying to remember all the trees one sees through the window of a train.” Once he stares for a while, amazed, at the word glove. “I find myself wondering why I’ve never seen this odd term that describes such a common article of clothing.”

By Chapter O there is evidence of further disintegration. Is he turning into, he wonders, one of the “Library People”? The bag-toters and mutterers who spend all their time there? “Sometimes I get angry at the dictionary and let loose with a muffled yell.” At night he hears a deep, disembodied voice slowly intoning definitions.

“A deep disembodied voice slowly intoning definition” sounds like a situation/character straight out of Borges’ central casting, so to speak. I also love the way in which the familiar can be seemingly strange, and also the idea of finding more and more specific words for things. It’s like an inductive version of the analytical language of John Wilkins.

I especially love that Shea is not trying particularly to get much out of reading the OED – he’s not trying to become a better poet or writer of fictions, but rather “He just wants to identify and savor, for their own sweet sakes, malocclusive Greek and Latin hybrids that are difficult to figure out how to pronounce. He is fond of polysyllabic near-homonyms — words like incompetible (outside the range of competency) and repertitious (found accidentally), which are quickly swallowed up in the sonic gravitation of familiar words.”

*See what I did there? I actually did cite Borges in at least two papers, both times citing “Of Exactitude in Science”, a short story that deserves more acclaim in academia, I think. Umberto Eco wrote a 20 page essay just trying to explain, understand and carry through with this one paragraph story.