Afternoon Dust

Classifying as Philosophy: AND Publishing Workshop

At the weekend I attended a workshop hosted by Birmingham’s Grand Union art space and led by Andrea Franke and Eva Weimayer of AND Publishing, with input from digital archivist Karen DiFranco. AND has amassed a sizeable number of pirated books to form their unique Piracy Collection, part of which has been made available to read at Grand Union over the past few weeks. The methods and intentions of the piracy differ from book to book, with artists’ modifications, unauthorised translations, commercial frauds, and publisher and printing house errors all represented. The task of the afternoon’s workshop was to begin to classify and catalogue some of these books. Established cataloguing systems were dismissed as ill-equipped to reflect the often unique provenance of the books in the collection. This left us with the alternative of simply beginning to classify them on a case-by-case basis, in the hope that a system would develop organically as we went along.

One question that arises from such an activity is whether the act of classifying or categorising is best thought of as a performative gesture, in which the act of assigning a book to a particular category makes it thus, or a descriptive one, whereby pre-existing innate qualities are identified. There are clearly instances where the performative takes precedence. For example, some of the books we looked at would require a court judgement to declare whether they infringed copyright or not; in the absence of such an act, they exist in a curious state of legal limbo. Other instances seem more obviously descriptive, such as when we used the word ‘facsimile’ to describe a copy that attempted to perfectly imitate its source — although upon reflection the performative again raises its head. The perception of a resemblance between two covers, for example, would seem to consist of at least two parts: the properties of each cover, and the judgement that they resemble one another. This is quite apart from the issue of whether one thing trying to resemble something else is itself a performative act.

All of this might give the impression that classifying books is brain-meltingly difficult, yet the workshop proved that with good discussion and an implicit agreement to avoid getting bogged down in details then progress can be made relatively quickly. We managed to come up with multiple terms to categorise seven or eight books, with the beginnings of what eventually may become a catalogue taxonomy tailored to the Piracy Collection’s unique needs. Categorising things is, of course, one of the basic things that philosophers do, so I guess you could say that as a group we were doing philosophy, and doing so in a way that was inclusive, inter-subjective, and open to different ideas (I hope I didn’t talk too much). Many interesting questions were raised for future thought and discussion; I’m particularly interested in this tension within resemblance between the descriptive and the performative, between what a thing is and what is done with, to, and perhaps by it. At some low level, it would seem that resemblance and the act of categorising are intimately linked.

AND Publishing’s Piracy Project runs at Grand Union until 8th February.