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    Categories, genres and labels, oh my...
Thoughts on Art and categorization from a cognitive linguist.
By Eve Sweetser
II. Putting the "human" back into our understanding of human categories: it's not just in art that objectivist category theory has been wrong.

Portrait of an Artist: by Mark Wagner
When I say human categories, I mean human categories, as opposed to most of what gets talked about in Western philosophy, math, computer science, law, and so on. Scholars across various schools (not just Embodied Cognition folks) agree that the human neural system is a categorization system. It's evolved to take in stimuli and group them according to similarities and differences that have proven useful to human animals and their ancestors. If we didn't constantly categorize new stimuli relative to our extant category system, we'd be back to the condition of a newborn — most things would be brand-new every, time and we'd have to start over with identifying every new entity we encounter. It's categorization — and I mean routinized, established, unconscious categorization — which lets us know that a chair is a chair, a floor is a floor, a book is a book, so that we can get on with life instead of needing to grab (and probably lick) every new object to see what it's like.

The same is true of art and literature. If I didn't have genre expectations — and general expectations based on previously encountered texts — I would not be a sophisticated reader, able to notice intertextuality, enjoy creativity, differentiate expected from unexpected elements, and helpfully fill in background from traditional expectations about a genre. Caroline Stevermer once told me that male readers of her novel Sorcery and Cecelia (co-written with Patricia Wrede) expressed enjoyment of the book's wit and humor — but puzzlement over the fact that the authors made it so obvious, so soon, who was going to marry whom. To female readers, more familiar with the romance genre, the obviousness of Wrede and Stevermer's heroes as matches for the heroines was part of the spoof on that genre. When you see the tall, dark, fascinating but arrogant guy, and sparks flying between him and the heroine, the ending should be predictable. If we didn't have entrenched categories, we'd have nothing to play with, nothing to play off. It would all be starting over again, every time.

So entrenched categories are good. The problem comes when they don't deal well with new input. The human system can — here's the good news — be flexible enough to change when that happens.

Real human categories have fuzzy boundaries, and better and worse members. Most of us who were educated since New Math days know that set membership is a yes-or-no thing; any entity is a member of either set A or the complement set not-A. You can't be more or less a member of A: all members are equal. But all the evidence from cognitive psychology, linguistics, and social sciences in general says that that's not what most human categories are like.

Let's take an example. Is it the case that the world is divided into red objects and non-red objects, and all we have to do is categorize an entity as one or the other? Well, nobody really thinks that maroon is as red as fire-engine red; but everyone thinks maroon is redder than, say, lime green — and even that it's redder than royal purple. When do we stop saying something is red and start saying it's purple? People who know both words can fight about that — recognizing full well that that color range is both reddish and purplish, but is not the best possible example of either category. This is a normal, not a weird, situation in human cognitive categorization.

Or how about the category pet? Is an ant as good an example of a pet as a cat or dog? People do keep ant farms. But most people would agree that if a motel said "pets allowed," they might still not let you bring your ant farm — or your goat, your python, your chimpanzee — they might even object to your duck or your chicken. They were thinking of dogs, cats, gerbils and parrots — possibly iguanas at a stretch. Unlike Boolean sets, human categories quite normally have central and less central members. Art is a clear example of a fuzzy category. Ballet is art; is folk dancing? Are ballet classes "art"? A Faulkner novel is art; is a mystery story art? And so on. Literature is another such fuzzy category; for the moment I leave you to compute that one on your own.

Categories can overlap and/or include each other: boundaries don't need to be exclusive. Something can be blue and red at once (in fact, that's what purple is, a combination of visual response in the red and blue neural patterns). This is an area where humans often seem to be particularly persistent in denial, though. If something is a member of one category, people don't like to call it simultaneously a member of another contrasting category. Shirt and jacket, or cup and bowl, are examples of cases where one object may sometimes be used as a member of either of two normally contrasting categories. Drawing an immediate parallel with art and literature, it should be obvious that there are plenty of cases where an entity belongs to multiple artistic genres simultaneously.

It's OK to give two labels if the categories are not contrasting; for example, human is not in contrast with mammal at a single level of categorization, but mammal is rather a superordinate category of which human is a subclass. So nobody has trouble saying that she's both a human and a mammal, or both a human and a woman. This brings up other issues, though; I wouldn't call myself a mammal, a human, and a woman under exactly the same circumstances. Levels of categorization are important to construal: when I say "I'm a mammal," you know I'm comparing myself not with (let's say) male humans, but with fish or lizards.

It can also be OK if the categories are simply orthogonal to each other; for example, saying I'm a professor, an amateur painter, and a woman. All of these categorizations may say things about me, but what they say is largely independent, though all are subcategorizations of humanity. Of course, orthogonality of categorization is as culture-dependent as the categories themselves; if women couldn't be professors, then professors would just be a subclass of men, rather than of humans.

Returning to art (and specifically to literature, within art), there are of course literary categories with serious potential for contrast and conflict; some of them have quite fuzzy boundaries. Comedy and tragedy, for example: we're sure that the central examples are very different, but there's clearly fuzzy ground in between (and plenty of ink has been spent on that too — is Measure for Measure a comedy or a tragedy?). But in the literary and artistic world, as we know, it can even be a problem for a work to fit into two relatively orthogonal categories. There's no obvious problem in fulfilling the usual demands of category membership in both mystery and science fiction simultaneously. Asimov — who pretty much set out to prove that science fiction was compatible with nearly every other genre — made early sci-fi history with Lije Bailey, and others have followed. But should a mystery set in an imagined world be marketed as a mystery, or as a science fiction or fantasy novel? You might think the answer would be simply, "yes." But of course, in fact the answer depends on questions like whether the author has previously written mysteries or science fiction, which genre her editor can market best, and so on.

That is to say, although the literary categories mystery and science fiction, or romance and fantasy, may be (for the author) as compatible and non-competing categories as woman and teacher, the corresponding marketing categories, reader community categories, library categories, and literary review categories are complementary. Did Lije Bailey and R. Daneel mysteries reach those mystery shelves? — not very often, I imagine. And for better or worse, I haven't seen Sorcery and Cecelia on romance shelves, though I admit I don't track those as carefully as the fantasy shelves. It's kind of like a culture that has declared women can't be teachers; there's category complementarity imposed by causes other than the internal category structure itself. And it's not simple; if women can't be teachers, women won't get educated, so there'll be no women qualified to be teachers, so it'll be correct to say that the teacher candidate pool is men. If two separate communities with different reading experiences and preferences have been set up for mystery and science fiction, those communities aren't instantly unified by the book that happens to belong to both genres. And yes, in academia I've been asked whether I wanted a book to reach a linguistics audience or a cognitive science audience; it is still not easy for an interdisciplinary author to get the right response to the answer, "yes" in such a situation.

Of course, it's my opinion that we shouldn't give up in these situations; editors and publishers are often too accepting of such boundaries. Often there's more community overlap than they're willing to admit; mystery readers may be a community non-identical to the fantasy/sci-fi reading community, but they're by no means complementary. (The same is true of linguistics and cognitive science.)
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