Beyond Taxonomy

We humans use labels to classify things.  The chaos of life freaks us out, and we create systems and order, to comfort ourselves with illusions of control and understanding.  Sometimes, these labels are useful.  They help us focus.  Without labels, we would be completely overwhelmed all the time.  Labels allow us to limit the scope of our study.  They allow us to remove certain possibilities and focus in greater detail on others.  In this way, labels are useful tools.  But they are dangerous.

Too often, we forget that labels are merely inventions.  That they are simply temporary structures.  That they are shortcuts. When we allow labels to take on importance beyond shorthand, we risk much.  We lose sight of complexity.  We ignore anomaly.  We enforce homogenization.  This is boring at best and violent at worst.

Over-emphasizing labels enforces an “Us/Them” framework.  For example, I could describe myself using these labels:
Female
White
College-Educated
Straight
Married
30-something
New Yorker

Likely, while reading that list, you were comparing your own labels to my labels.  Where we “match,” you perhaps thought, “Oh, she is like me.”  Where we “differ,” did you judge me?  Did you close a mental door to me?

Labels are conversation-stoppers.  They seduce us into thinking we know what lies underneath.  We don’t ask questions.  Sarah is a New Yorker.  I know what that means.  Do you?  Do I?  What the hell is a New Yorker?  This is a label that has gone beyond identifying the location of my current apartment.  It’s developed into an ethos – a point of pride.   It has become divisive, and it often turns what could be a conversation between people from different cities into an exchange of personal attacks.

The same is true for terms like “Performance Art,” “Live Art,” “Dance-Theater,” “Experimental Performance,” and on and on and on.  When was the last time you had a conversation about a term like that without arguing?  When was the last time you had a conversation about a term like that, which included any complexity about the actual art that you are making?  When we focus on the names, we lose track of the substance.  We end up fighting to feel included and railing against exclusion, rather than discussing the actual ideas we’re exploring.

On the other hand, the more we elude labels, the more effective we can be at driving the conversation towards complex questions, and efforts towards deeper understandings of each other and our worlds.  When we have no labels, we are forced to look at each work of art on its own terms.  We are forced to come to our own conclusions about its value, and we are forced to chart our identities based on ideas, rather than categorization within a certain school, mode, method, or medium.  If we have no labels, we are challenged to think more specifically about what it is that we actually do and why.  We are challenged to invent new tools for communication.

Perhaps it could go something like this:

I am approximately 70% fluid.  I change.  A lot.  I experience a variety of feelings.  I think a variety of thoughts.  Many of these thoughts and feelings I express through action.

Frequently, these actions are executed in the presence of others.  Generally, I intend that these others experience feelings and/or think thoughts in response to my actions.

I am interested in energy.  I am interested in exchange.  I am interested in honesty and risk.  I am interested in the unknowable depths beyond the labels.

I recognize that we share air.  That keeps us alive.  You and I.  We share air.  We are fluid.

We are different and yet we are the same.  I am pleased to meet you.  I would like to know you.

Thank you for listening.

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