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In 1956, psychologist Benjamin Bloom published his Taxonomy of Educational Objectives, a hierarchical ranking of thought processes, often recast as “Bloom’s Taxonomy.” It has been often revised and recast, but most often, at the bottom were simple tasks such as memorizing, at the top came creativity. 

My late wife, who was at least as smart as Bloom, had her own version of this taxonomy, and for her, the lowest level was “naming.” She taught school for more than 30 years and saw brain-burn at the individual level. Being able to say, “Horsie” or “Duckie” is naming. This is simple rote. Learn the name and repeat it when appropriate. 

Naming also shades into the second level — the level most people get stuck in — that of sorting. Finding categories and shunting the names into silos to contain them. As if that explained anything. 

The greater part of what we do with our brains is to sort things out. To put cats over here and dogs over there. When we learn, most of what we mean by that is to understand that Claude Monet was an Impressionist and that Luis Buñuel was a Surrealist. These are mere sortings. Important for a file clerk, perhaps, but more a form of busy work than of actual thinking. 

We learn a whale is not a fish, and that a spider is not an insect. We have separate categories for them, and when we recognize the categories, we believe we have actually said something meaningful about our whale or spider, when really, all we have done is play with words. 

Categories, are, after all, quite fugitive, quite fungible — squishy. When zoologists first tried to classify lions, for instance, they placed them in the genus “Felis,” for they are some kind of cat. But later, it was decided they were big cats, not small ones, and so they became “Panthera.” Oh, but that wasn’t good enough, and so a new genus was established, dividing them from tigers and leopards, making them “Leo.” New category, new silo. 

For a brief time, I worked at a zoo, and had the opportunity to walk behind the cages and get up close to many of the animals and I can tell you that standing with his zookeeper two feet from a male lion to feed him,(separated from Leo by the cage bars), the lion’s head seemed to be the biggest thing I had ever seen, shaggy and furry, with a very particular smell, and a sense that this beast could swallow my head as if it were an M&M. And then it “purred.” A low, gutteral roar expressing satisfaction at the afternoon meal, that made the ground rumble under my feet. It was one of the most impressive things I have ever witnessed and it mattered not a whit whether I was seeing a Felis or a Panthera or a Leo. The name was rather beside the point. The experience had a physical existence and it didn’t need a name. 

Language is not reality. And the experience — the feel of it in the palm of your hand, or in your nostrils, or under your feet — is worth all the words in the world. Words can be a barrier keeping us from what is real. 

And yet, we spend so much of our time arguing over these categories, as if they mean anything. As if they were a reality. Is Joe Biden a Socialist? Did Elon Musk actually reach outer space? Is a tomato a fruit or a vegetable? So much thought and energy to such meaningless ends. Think of all the dark money spent in political campaigns to paint the opposition into a category-corner that makes the opponent a one-dimensional boogeyman. The world and its things are infinite. 

My late wife took animals to class with her so her pupils would have actual experiences — the twitching nose of a bunny, the blank stare of a hen, the brittle carapace of a hermit crab — and then gave the kids paper and paints and let them express what they had experienced. If names were mentioned, they were the names the kids gave the animals — a rabbit named Tiffany Evelyn or a crab named Eloise. What mattered was physical reality of the experience. Anything else is just language. Names. Categories. 

Historians like to take big chunks of time and give them names: Classical, Postclassical, Late Medieval, Romantic, and so on. Then they argue over it all, because these categories are misleading and constantly changing — being redefined. But, as they say, whatcha gonna do?

Take the Middle Ages. Middle of what? Homo sapiens developed something like — in a common low-end estimate — 300,000 years ago, putting the start of the Middle Ages somewhere approximately in the last 15/3000ths of human history. Not exactly the middle.

But the dates we give the Middle Ages vary widely. It came after the Roman Empire. When did the Roman Empire fall? Well, you can say that the final collapse came in 1453 with the fall of Constantinople. For some people, that is already the Renaissance, squeezing out the Middle Ages entirely. But no one really believes the Byzantine Empire was genuinely Roman. They spoke Greek, for god’s sake. They were Christian.

Usually, when we talk of the fall of Rome, we mean the Western Roman Empire and the sad reign of Romulus Augustulus, which came to an end in AD 476. But really, the Western Roman empire at the time consisted only of most of Italy and Dalmatia (later aka Yugoslavia) and a tiny bit of southern France.

And you could easily argue that Rome ceased to be Roman after Constantine converted to Christianity and legalized it in AD 313. After that, the slow slide from Roman imperialism into Medieval feudalism began its ambiguous transubstantiation.

It is the great paradox of scholarship: The more you read, the more your ignorance grows: The more you learn about something, the more you discover how little you know.

Are Picasso’s paintings Modern art? His first big Cubist painting, Les Damoiselles d’Avignon was painted in 1907. That is closer in time to the reign of Catherine the Great in Russia than it is to us. Closer to George Washington’s Farewell Address. To the Louisiana Purchase. 

So, what do we mean by “modern?” and when did modernity take over? It is a slippery question. And really it is simply an issue of definition — words, not experience. We let the words stand in for reality and then let the debates begin. Reality flows uninterrupted and continuous. Categories are discrete and they start and stop. 

The more you attempt to define the categories, the more they slip away. The history of academic scholarship is often the history of proving the categories wrong. It is historians who argue over the dates of the Renaissance. Or the fall of Rome, or the birth of Modernism. 

Categories are a convenience only. They are a name for the nameless.

I am reminded of the time, some 40 years ago, when I first drove west from North Carolina with my genius wife. We had never seen the great American West and eagerly anticipated finding it. It must be so different, we thought, so distinct. The West is a category. 

We were living in Boone, N.C., named for Daniel, who trod those mountains in the 1700s, when the Blue Ridge was the West. When George Washington surveyed the Northwest Territory in the late 1740s, he was measuring out what became Ohio.

So, when I was driving, I knew I had already pushed my own frontier past such things, and knew in my heart that the West began on the other side of the Mississippi River. But, when I crossed the river into Arkansas, it hardly seemed western. It didn’t look much different from Tennessee, in my rear view mirror. Yet, Arkansas was home to the “Hanging Judge” Isaac Parker and where Jesse James robbed trains. Surely that must be the West. But no, James looked more like a hillbilly than a cowboy. 

Then came Texas, which was the real West, but driving through flat, bland Amarillo on I-40 was as exciting as oatmeal. The first time we felt as if we had hit the West was at the New Mexico line, when we first saw a landscape of buttes and mesas. Surely this was the West.

Maybe, but we hadn’t yet crossed the Continental Divide. All the waters of all the rivers we crossed emptied into the Atlantic Ocean. Finally, crossing the Divide near Thoreau, N.M.,  we felt we had finally made it.

Yet, even when we made it to Arizona, we knew that for most of the pioneers who crossed this country a century and a half ago, the desert was just one more obstacle on the way to California. In some sense it still wasn’t the West.

When we got as far as we could in a Chevy, and stared out at the Pacific Ocean, we knew that there was still something farther: Hawaii, Japan, China, India, Africa — and eventually back to North Carolina.

So, the West wasn’t a place you could ever really reach, but a destination beyond the horizon: Every point on the planet is the West to somewhere else.

When we look to find the beginnings of Modernity, the horizon recedes from us the same way. Perhaps it began with World War I, when we entered a non-heroic world and faced a more sober reality.

Modern Art began before that, however, perhaps with Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring in 1913, perhaps with Debussy’s Afternoon of a Faun in 1894. Some begin with the first Impressionist exhibition in 1874.

Politically, maybe it begins with Bismarck and the establishment of a new order of nations and the rise of the “balance of power.”

You can make a case that Modernism begins with the Enlightenment in the 18th century, when a rising Middle Class began to fill concert halls and Mozart became an entrepreneur instead of an employee of the aristocracy.

Or before that, in 1648, with the Treaty of Westphalia, and the first recognition of national boundaries as something more than real estate owned by the crown.

You can set your marker down with Luther, with Gutenberg, with Thomas Browne, Montaigne, Caravaggio — or Giotto.

For many, Modernism began with the Renaissance, but when did the Renaissance begin? 15th century? The Trecento? Or did it begin further north with the Gothic, which is really the first sparking of a modern way of thinking.

Perhaps, though, the Roman republic divides modern political organization from more tribal eras before. Or you could vote for the democracy and philosophy of ancient Greece. Surely the time before that and the the time after are distinctly different. We recognize the near side of each of these divides as more familiar than the distant side.

You might as well put the starting line with the discovery of agriculture in the steppes of Anatolia and the river plains of Iraq. An argument can be made for any of these points on the timeline — and arguments could be made for many I haven’t room to mention.

Perhaps the horizon should be recognized for what it is: an ever-moving phantasm. For those peasants digging in the manorial dirt in the Ninth Century, the times they were living in were modern. The first person recorded to use the term “modern” for his own age was the Roman writer Cassiodorus in the 6th Century. Each moment is the new modern.

These are all just categories, and spending our time sorting things into their file folders should not be mistaken for actual knowledge. It is words about the knowledge. 

Now, I will concede that the words help us discuss the real things, and that it is probably useful to know the difference between cats and dogs, or butterflies and moths. But categories and sorting are just a second level of thinking. After these baby steps, there is so much more that the human brain can begin working on, much more grist to be ground. And a good deal of thought that outreaches the ability of words to capture. 

The level I have been most thinking about recently is that of observing, of paying attention. Not deciding anything, or sorting anything, but just noticing. The world opens up like a day lily; so much that was invisible is made visible — things that the rush of daily life, moving things from in-box to out-box, have made too inconsequential to waste time with. There is a richness to the world that becomes a glowing glory when attention is paid. 

In the days before the transcontinental railroad, a Cheyenne father would take his 10- or 11-year-old son out into the prairie and have him lie down on his belly. “Just look,” he would say. “Don’t talk, don’t decide, don’t name, just look.” And he would leave his son there for the day, not moving a whit. And when he came back to retrieve the boy he would not ask, “What did you see.” He would say nothing. He would not need to. 

So much of value is beyond words, beyond category.

“What do you read, my lord?”
“Words, words, words.”

words words words

For 25 years, I made my living by writing words. In all, some two and a half million of them, writing an average of three stories a week. Yet, in all that time, I had an underlying mistrust of language, a sense that, even if I could still diagram a compound-complex sentence on a blackboard, the structure I saw in chalk did not necessarily mirror the structure of things I saw around me in the world before it is named. The one was neat and tidy, the other was wooly and wiggly.

A good deal of misery and misunderstanding derives from a failure to recognize that the logic of language and that of the real world are not the same.

tomatoWe find this in simple form whenever someone tells you that, for instance, “a tomato is not a vegetable, it is a fruit.” This is a sorry assertion. A tomato is neither animal nor mineral, therefore, it is a vegetable. But, of course, that is not what is meant. In common usage, we use the word, “fruit,” to name a sweet edible and “vegetable” to name a savory. But “vegetable” is also an umbrella word, describing all things vegetative. To aver that a tomato is not a vegetable is to confuse these two usages, and therefore to make an assertion both pedantic and ignorant.

More importantly, this doesn’t really say anything about the Solanum lycopersicum, but about the categories we use language to establish. It is an argument not about the berry (and that is the technical term for the red globe you slice onto your salad), but about the English language.

Whales GoldsmithOr consider this: “A whale is not a fish.” When such a statement is made, it does not discuss whales or fish, but rather, makes a claim about language. The whale is unaffected by the words and fish swim happily past it. But it is a discussion about the categories of nouns: We choose to make the definition of the two classes mutually exclusive. A whale is a mammal.

But it needn’t be so. Through the 18th century, a whale was a fish. Jonah was swallowed by a “great fish.” Anything torpedo-shaped that swims in the sea by the action of its fins was considered a fish. A whale was a very large fish, who just happened to be one that gave birth to live young and suckled them. It was an idiosyncrasy of the whale, just as it is an idiosyncrasy of the salmon that it swims upriver to spawn.

spinous and testaceous fish goldsmithgoldsmith crustaceous fishIn fact, if you read Oliver Goldsmith’s “History of the Earth and Animated Nature,” the best-selling nature book of its century, the category “fish,” also included many other things that live in the watery parts of the world. Whales were “cetaceous fishes,” flounder were “spinous fishes,” sharks were “cartilaginous fishes,” crabs and lobsters were “crustaceous fishes,” and clams and oysters were “testaceous fishes.” It was a perfectly natural way to divide up the various denizens of the undersea. It wasn’t till Carl Linne decided to slice up the world in a new way, based on a combination of skeletal morphology and reproduction, that the whale was surgically removed from the universe of fishes and told to line up on the other side of the room with lemurs, llamas and raccoons. Did the whales even notice?

The basic problem is that language is an intercessor. It sits between experience and understanding. When we approach language, we see only the intercessor — we mistake the priest for the deity.

Words always distort, they always lie. Yet, at bottom, we trust words more than we trust our own eyes. We judge politicians by the labels they are tagged with, not by paying attention to what they actually say or do: Conservative or liberal — when applied to reality, the labels are close to meaningless.

The case may be a little easier to understand in terms of Greek. The ancient Greeks were the first logarchs, they valued verbal meaning over experiential meaning; they actually thought language was a one-to-one descriptor of reality. Their faith is naive to us now. For instance, Zeno’s paradox is only possible in words. Set a tortoise and Achilles out on a race and see if Achilles can’t catch it. No problem. Set it in words, and suddenly, it can’t be done: The problem is entirely in the words, words, words.

sunspotsIt is the logic of language that frustrates Achilles, not the tortoise. It guided how the Greek thought about the world. Polarity, opposites, hidden ironies and surprising conjunctions,  it’s how the language is organized,  even before you even consult reality. So, when the Greek saw language as a mirror of the reality and language posits polarity, it must be because the world is polar. But is it? Opposites are only a linguistic trick. Hot and cold are just relative points on a single thermometer: Sunspots are “cold” places on the sun, even though they are thousands of degrees Farenheit; liquid nitrogen is “warmer” than absolute zero. Linguistic legerdemain.

Even liberals and conservatives are just guys in the same blue suits. They don’t look like a dime’s worth of difference to the Fiji Islander.

By the logic of language, the world is divided into nouns and verbs; look out the window, however, and what you see is the conflation of noun and verb: something very much closer to Ovid’s Metamorphoses: a constant velocity of things ever growing and changing. No noun is static; no verb without its referent.

Marble statue of the ancient greek philosopher PlatoThe issue I have with Plato — aside from his totalitarian fascism — is his faith in an “ideal” of things. The ideal bed, unlike any real bed, is a stultified noun, not a bed. To Plato, the world is cataloged with nouns, only nouns. The perfect human is a form of arrested development. For Plato, the perfect human form is a male figure, age of about 25, all muscle and lithe, with little fat. But a real person is born tiny, grows, ages, marries, has his own bairns, gains experience, grows feeble and dies. Just as a rose isn’t the pretty flower, but a shoot, a bud, a flower, a rose-hip bursting to seed and once more from the top. Over and over. All the world is at every moment changing, growing, shrinking, spreading, running, molting, squawking, collapsing, weeping and rising. It is a churn, not a noun. “Panta horein,” as Heraclitus says: “Everything changes.”

Language is this thin veneer, the shiny surface, the packaging we are cajoled by. Break open the box, and the reality is something else.

It is much like the belief that geometry transcends embodiment. In other words, a triangle is a universal possibility, no matter if one was ever built. It is one of Plato’s ideals. God himself cannot create a four-sided triangle. But to change this “truth,” all we have to do is change our definition of the word. We don’t need a deity to do that, all we need is a lexicographer.

Or better, we can look at the problem a different way: I have written elsewhere (https://richardnilsen.com/2012/06/24/artists-math) that a triangle is a five-sided figure — the three usual sides, plus the top, looking down on it, and the bottom, resting on the desk. You can turn any triangle over from its back and lay it on its belly. triangleIf triangles exist in the world of things, they must have five sides. Language, like the axioms in geometry, pales in comparison to the real world of mud and bricks. There are 300,000 words defined in the Oxford English Dictionary, but that is an infinitesimal number compared with the number of things, acts, colors and sizes in the phenomenological world. There are an infinitely large number of things in the universe for which there are no words.

Take this, for instance. Here, where two walls meet is a corner. But where the wall and the ceiling meet? What is its name? In English, it has none.

Or this place on the wall — it is named the “center.” But this point, just as real, only a few inches from the center, is nameless and so is the one a few inches beyond that.

starsNames are like the stars in the sky, only points, between which is an infinity of space, just as real as the stars.

Language is feeble. It is up to us to see the space between the words, to recognize the feelings between the signpost emotions of hate, joy, anger, sadness — this million slight inflections that are nameless.

Up to us to explore the confusing rush of sense data, the confusing signals of society and nature, the overwhelming input that we censor with our language, allowing only those portions that sport nametags, as if they were Shriners at a convention.

It is up to us to recognize and celebrate all the things, times, places, acts, flavors, feelings, breath and abysses that don’t have names, to enjoy the cold floor and sunlight coming through the window in the morning when the birds haven’t yet begun chattering.