I was looking at Pinterest co-founder Evan Sharp’s pinboards today and was reminded of a passage in Foucault’ The Order of Things. The fact that the French thinker Foucault popped into my head while looking at images of “Things that Look Like the Death Star” is sad. But it is also evidence that his text The Order of Things is intensely relevant, and, that somewhere during grad school I crossed a line and am now as much of a nerdy intellectual as I am artist and rock musician. Anyway, check out this list of classifications for animals from an ancient Chinese encyclopedia (presumably) and consider how closely this idea of order and organization resemble our contemporary Pinterest boards:
(from Foucault, The Order of Things)
This passage quotes a ‘certain Chinese encyclopaedia’ in which it is written that ‘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, (1) et cetera, (m) having just broken the water pitcher, (n) that from a long way off” look like flies’. In the wonderment of this taxonomy, the thing we apprehend in one great leap, the thing that, by means of the fable, is demonstrated as the exotic charm of another system of thought, is the limitation of our own, the stark impossibility of thinking that.
But is this system of organization such a stark impossibility today? Mr. Sharp’s Pinboards are typical in that each board groups images by personal, often invented, organizing principles. Granted, Pinterest pins are classified images, not “actual” things. But images as signs or symbols are essentially objects or ideas themselves, especially now that our “real” lives are so completely interconnected to our “virtual” lives online. I just pinned an image of buffalo looking like ants and another of an embalmed cat. I could keep going. But what does it mean? Foucault, again:
That passage from Borges kept me laughing a long time, though not without a certain uneasiness that I found hard to shake off. Perhaps because there arose in its wake the suspicion that there is a worse kind of disorder than that of the incongruous, the linking together of things that are inappropriate; I mean the disorder in which fragments of a large number of possible orders glitter separately in the dimension, without law or geometry, of the heteroclite; and that word should be taken in its most literal, etymological sense: in such a state, things are ‘laid’, ‘placed’, ‘arranged’ in sites so very different from one another that it is impossible.
If I told you I did some additional research and that there is no evidence that the original passage came from a Chinese encyclopedia but was instead from a story by author Jorge Luis Borges would it change the meaning? (I think not) I can accept the quote as hyperbole and the idea remains as potent. Foucault’s uneasiness with such seemingly irrational ideas of order has given way to an online celebration of new ways of organizing and seeing. Now I’m gonna get back to drinking coffee and pining some things to my own boards, possible orders, glittering separately in the dimension of the internet.