Classification and Desire

Found this very nice, short post from Missive From Marx, which picks up the Durkheimian interest in social classification and then draws upon Mary Douglas (a good Durkheimian) and Melanie Klein (a very good psychoanalyst and absolutely not a Durkheimian) to make the following point. MfM is elaborating on the notion that incompatible conceptual schemes (social classifications, I presume) make ‘sense’ as long as our desires don’t overlap the schemes.  Then, MfM says this:

Concepts and knowledge are always, I allege, related to desire—we create concepts because we want something.

In How Institutions Think, Mary Douglas suggests something similar. In her discussion of how classification gets off the ground, so to speak, she uses Melanie Klein’s claims about the development of infants:

For the infant, such classifying is the only method for gradually differentiating the other and the self. … It needs to know whether the source of milk, if external, is one breast or several, and if several, how to distinguish allies from enemies? Is this the good breast or the bad breast? Is it for me or against me? The earliest social interaction lays the basis for polarizing the world into classes. Survival depends on having enough emotional energy to carry this elementary classificatory enterprise through all the hard work needed to build a coherent, workable world.

Her conclusion? “Social interaction supplies the element missing in the natural history account of the beginnings of classification.” We don’t classify for fun! We classify while interacting with others in order to get fed.

Very nicely put indeed.


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