A strange flickering bespeaks—what? Some distant megastructure, perhaps a Dyson sphere? Clickbait fodder. Idle speculation of the wonder-junkie. Yet the thing, whatever it may be, is not spherical, which is the whole point. Unless it be the remnant of some collision, a chunk of planet imperfectly strobing the starlight. Which is it, then—accident or design?
Must a taxonomy take the form of great chain of being, the God at the top, toward which all energy flows?
I remember learning about the kingdoms in biology, about the archaebacteria, who in their lately discovered existence had come to crash the party. Now I see, via the most cursory online research, that the once definitively demarcated territories of life have become only more contested, more embattled.
I remember the question of the virus.
A taxonomy is a living encyclopedia. Like all encyclopedias, it is a work of the imagination, a spell that requires constant attention, or it will break. An imposition on reality. A taxonomy is like a map, a political map, and it makes enemies of these disparate kingdoms: like all maps, it is an act of violence.
Borges: “If we explain (or judge) a fact, we connect it with another; such linking, in Tlön, is a later state of the subject which cannot affect or illuminate the previous state. Every mental state is irreducible: the mere fact of naming it—i.e., of classifying it—implies a falsification.”
Bear in mind that Tlön does not exist, but is part of a hoax, a fictional construct within a fictional construct.
Le Guin: “Many a mage of great power . . . has spent his whole life to find out the name of one single thing—one single lost or hidden name. And still the lists are not finished. Nor will they be, til world’s end.”
Bear in mind that magic is not real.
“Proliferating difference.” The universe as difference-generating engine. As a medium, a canvas, a page, on which mutations are to be written in nucleic acid. But what then is the quill, and whose hand holds it?
Taxonomy is the grammar of life, and like all grammars, it confounds itself. The language of Pirahã seems relevant here, the tongue of a very small indigenous Amazonian population, heavily intonated, such that entire statements can be whistled, requiring no further phonemic elaboration. As I remember, the problem of Pirahã was that it invalidated some previously unimpeachable Chomskian universal linguistic principal, therefore requiring that particular taxonomy to be revised.
A taxonomy is always under construction, like a body, like cybersecurity measures, like New Jersey.
If we discover life on other planets . . .
When we discover life on other planets . . .
If/when we discover life on other planets, will we become part of their taxonomy, or they ours? To what extent is technological sophistication relevant to this question? To what extent, moral, psychological, spiritual development? To what extent apparent physical ferocity, i.e., horns, tentacles, auxiliary protruding jaws, what have you?
Too many questions? How they proliferate, like horny paramecia!
The mind’s taxonomical impulse far outstrips the varieties of real life, however inexhaustible they may in fact be. Cue an explosion of mythological bestiaries. Sea serpents, dragons, unicorns, yetis. Enter speculative fiction and cinema. Aliens of all sorts, humanoid, reptilian, fuzzy, slimy, physically present, or abstract like viruses, concepts, informational processes. This is the representation and categorizing of life as it exists in the dream state. Even there, in that obscure country, we must articulate our taxonomies.
I watch as my metaphors bleed into each other and do nothing to stop it, because this is not a taxonomy.
What, then, am I doing here?
Two peculiarities. The first: these section breaks I use, Ψ, the Greek letter psi. I’ve chosen the character because it is the penultimate, that mark directly preceding the omega, which concludes the alphabet. I have chosen psi because it reminds me of the unfinished quality of the taxonomy, how it is never concluded, never truly complete. Always another beast comes crawling from the denuded forest, demanding to be accounted for, converted to use-value.
The second: these questions that keep popping up. Reading back, I see I have anticipated this sentiment. “I remember the question of the virus,” I wrote, and perhaps in that remembering I was also imagining the question itself as virus. The question marks seem to reproduce themselves across the page; the more questions I ask, the more curious I become.
The question of the virus, of course, is: is a virus alive? Does it deserve inclusion in our taxonomies?
I imagine an alien world with its alien ecosystem. Perhaps I go to the work of representing it in all its interdependent complexity, my own attempt at a Codex Serafinianus. How easy, then, it might become to lose oneself in such an obsession, to give oneself over to the schizogenetic act of naming.
Let’s get down to it. A “taxonomy” is an arrangement of names. To name is to attach a word to an object. A word, in the spoken iteration, is an arbitrary sound vibration. A taxonomy, then, is a reduction of the complexity of animal life into progressively encompassing sounds. What, then, is the most encompassing sound, the over-sound?
Answer: the one name to which all the names of the taxonomy belong is, in English, the word “life.” But the word “life” is not included in any taxonomy. It is the absence that endows the other words with meaning. It is the silence that gives meaning to the sound.
Le Guin: “For a word to be spoken, there must be silence. Before, and after.”
I see now that my etymology of “taxonomy” was false. It is not an arrangement of names at all: nomia means distribution. An arrangement of distributions, a distribution of arrangements. Something of a tautological ring, if you ask me.
A list. A list of lists. A list of lists of lists.
Sam Stoeltje is a writer and musician living in Brooklyn, New York. He grew up in Texas, and is studying the tarot and other forms of divination. His favorite fictional hero is Jesus Christ.