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    Categories, genres and labels, oh my...
Thoughts on Art and categorization from a cognitive linguist.
By Eve Sweetser
I. Facing up to the problems with pigeon-holing — in general, as well as in Art.

Nature of Technology: by Mark Wagner
Literary categories are strange beasts, to put things mildly. It would be quite depressing to seriously consider the number of trees killed, and the quantity of ink chemicals dispersed, in order to publish writings on topics such as "what was really the first novel," or "what Romanticism (or Modernism, or...) really is." Such authors normally seem to proceed by (1) presenting their new and different definition of the category in question (the Novel, Modernism) and then (2) showing that — surprise! — with this new definition, there's a new answer to the question of whether some crucial work is Modernist, or a Novel. Explanations of what makes their definition more profitable than others seem optional; but even if they are present, they don't change the basic circularity of this kind of argument. (How can you "disprove" someone else's claim that X is a Modernist work, when you admit that you're not using the same definition?) But the oddest part of these debates is that they continue as if sure that there is a yes or no answer to such categorization questions. They never seem to stop and wonder whether the problem lies in the fact that some entities may not fit the repertoire of standard categories well.

In general, humans are oddly rigid — and oddly flexible too — about categorization. In some respects, the rigidity makes sense: after all, physical objects like books and CDs can only be on one physical shelf at once. And it's not a great deal of help in finding one, to be told that there's a huge "unclassified" shelf area — category labels do help shorten search time. For this kind of purpose, I need to decide whether X is really a science fiction novel or a mystery, a romance novel or a "legit" historical fiction novel, if those are the available categories. On the other hand, digital databases can readily search directly by author or title without any intermediary genre, or access a given work via multiple genres if desired — as long as humans are flexible enough to tell them to. The problem lies not in our tools, but in ourselves.

I'm neither a fiction writer nor a literary scholar. I'm a linguist, specializing currently in the relationship between language and cognition. My daily bread includes current scholarship on human categorization — which goes a long way towards explaining how categories are formed, how they change, and why people are rigid about them (and sometimes flexible instead).

Before I get into summarizing some of the categorization research, let me add that my professional empathy is entirely with the Interstitial Arts movement. Academics can be worse about "boxes" than non-academic editors (IMHO, as they say!). I happen to work for the Linguistics Department, the Cognitive Science Program, and the Celtic Studies Program at UC-Berkeley. I'm lucky to be at Berkeley, where all these things can actually happen; but you try getting anyone to claim Celtic Studies as theirs. And most Linguistics Departments don't teach courses on metaphor at all (I do so regularly). To make matters worse, I also work on language-accompanying gesture — which nobody thinks is inside their box. And my Celtic work has been largely on early Welsh poetic texts; at last count I was the only person on the large Berkeley campus who was bothered by the conflict between the CogSci Colloquium talks and the weekly Medieval Studies lunch. As I was saying to one of my students recently, we ought to start the Interstitial Sciences movement.

The views I'll be presenting here are not just mine. But they are controversial in the scholarly community. They belong to a school of scholarship which treats cognition as essentially embodied. That is to say, our body's neural system and dynamic perceptual interface with the world are essential in shaping not just emotion or aesthetics or cognition, but also rationality, logic, mathematics and the rest of the "objective" aspects of cognition. In such a worldview, imagination and reason, or art and everyday life, are not opposing categories, but deeply interwoven with each other. Metaphor is seen as a major building block of human thought. Yes, this is really different from most "objectivist" science. But it's mainstream, even if it's controversial; over the last twenty years it has become a major school of thought, distributed world-wide, though the Berkeley and San Diego Cognitive Science communities remain major centers for such work.

(Note: I will be restricting myself to the subject of categorization, and I will not be giving footnotes and references as I go. But interested readers can find a brief list of potentially interesting works from the Embodied Cognition school at the end of this essay; and those works contain thousands of references.)
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