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Narrative and Classification

Most histories of classification place the origins of the art in the hands of Aristotle. His discussions of “being” in his metaphysical works certainly are among the earliest recorded attempts of making sense of the whole by parsing its parts. However, as Geoffrey C. Bowker and Susan Leigh Star point out in Sorting Things Out: Classification and Its Consequences, it is likely that homo sapiens have always classified:

To classify is human. Not all classifications take formal shape or are standardized in commercial and bureaucratic products. We all spend large parts of our days doing classification work, often tacitly, and we make up and use a range of ad hoc classifications to do so. We sort dirty dishes from clean, white laundry from colorfast, important email from e-junk.
Though their examples are modern, it is not hard to project Bowker and Star’s reasoning into the distant past. Surely ancient civilizations sorted their laundry, too. And even if they did not, their nomadic ancestors at least had to sort edible plants from poisonous ones, or else we would not have survived as a species. Even that word, species, is a testament to the human drive to classify. For it was the Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus who, in the eighteenth century, helped to unify the study of biology around his hierarchies of plants and animals grouped by similar physical traits—and in the process became known as the father of modern taxonomy.

In short, it is safe to say that since humans developed the use of language and other communication systems, we have classified, because to classify is to label and the means of labeling is communication. Language and classification coexist as complementary paths to meaning. They are the tools with which we seek to understand our environments, and like all good tools, they facilitate the building of more specialized and refined tools to further aid understanding. This process explains in brief the existence of the sciences, both hard and social, and it explains why such things as taxonomies, thesauri, ontologies, and indices exist.

Aristotle, it seems, was a busy man, for the roots of narrative analysis are often said to be in his Poetics, which explains the human need for fictions by our equally human need to imitate. Why this need for fictions or, in Aristotle’s word, mimesis? The literary scholar J. Hillis Miller answers in his essay “Narrative,” published in Frank Lentricchia and Thomas McLaughlin’s Critical Terms for Literary Study:
We learn the nature of things as they are. We need fictions to experiment with possible selves and to learn to take our places in the real world, to play our parts there. . . . A story is a way of doing things with words. It makes something happen in the real world: for example, it can propose models of selfhood or ways of behaving that are then imitated in the real world.
In other words, narratives help us to make sense of the world. Narratives are yet another aid to our anticipation and understanding of our environments and our reactions to them. Put that way, narratives and classifications have much in common on a broad scale. Both grow out of our experiences with our surroundings, yet both likewise inform our future interactions with those same surroundings. Given these broad commonalities, I argue that the study of classification as it is practiced by cultural arbiters both in the for-profit sector—most visibly in Internet commerce—and in the nonprofit sector—most visibly in libraries—would benefit from some of the basic methods of narratology.

A field of inquiry that formed out of Russian formalist and French structuralist literary criticism, narratology coalesced into its own in the 1970s. Although there are myriad approaches and methods to its practice, at its core narratology is the theory and study of narratives and narrative structure and the ways they affect our perception. As M. H. Abrams, himself a relentless taxonomist of literary theories, explains it in his A Glossary of Literary Terms:
The general undertaking is to determine the rules, or codes of composition, that are manifested by the diverse forms of plot, and also to formulate the “grammar” of narrative in terms of structures and narrative formulae that recur in many stories, whatever the differences in the narrated subject matters.
Because narratology is fundamentally structuralist in nature, narratologists tend to categorize to break a narrative down into its most basic constituent parts.

The most foundational and top-level of these narratological breakdowns was devised by Mieke Bal, who identified three levels of narrative in her book Narratology: Introduction to the Theory of Narrative:
  1. Fabula, or the sequence of events or raw information.
  2. Story, or the structure and possible paths through the fibula.
  3. Narrative, or the final rendering of the chosen narrative path.
As we see, this process closely reflects the process of taxonomists working within any subject domain.

Viewed from the reverse angle, a taxonomy has all of the necessary elements of a narrative. Taxonomies are built with representative descriptions that exist in defined relationships to other representative descriptions. If one thinks of the representative descriptions—the terms—as nouns and their relationships—how they exist in relation to each other, or their state of “being”—as verbs, then it is easy to see how the collective taxonomy presents meaning in a manner not unlike a narrative. Using Miller’s phrasing, a taxonomy “is a way of doing things with words” through which “we learn the nature of things as they are.”

Viewed in this way, taxonomies and narratives share common DNA.

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