The Necessity of Categories

I’m interested in exploring two important points that Lewis and Wigen make that I feel are a bit overshadowed by their otherwise enlightening undoing of the logic of the geographical divisions we often take for granted today.

The first is that “the main problem with abandoning a set structure of nonproblematic geographical entities, in exchange for an open-ended mélange of overlapping and incommensurable distribution patterns, is the danger of losing our ability to talk about the world effectively.” This was something I felt acutely in our first class as I tried to articulate thoughts on cultural or racial difference while trying to avoid essentialist names and identifications like “China,” “Black,” or “Asian” (13). How do I talk about how “that-region-of-the-earth-and-its-inhabitants-that-we-know-today-as-China-but-wasn’t-necessarily-China-back-then-because-there-were-no-nation-states” saw itself without constantly bringing up our associations of contemporary China? In order to articulate thoughts clearly, we need names and categories for objects and ideas. An intelligible referential code and categorization system is crucial for knowledge production.

The second point is that “while macroregions are imperfect intellectual constructs, they are not entirely made up; real patterns in the world precede the attempt to understand them” (14). Certainly, these categories are not meant to be “natural or suprahistorical,” but understanding their construction and consequences lends to a deeper understanding of human movements (in both the sense of migration and development of technologies) and the repercussions of conquest. It is important to recognize the boundaries of the nation-state, however artificial, because those demarcations came into being through specific political motives and have very real impacts on the people “arbitrarily” bound within its confines. For example, Lewis and Wigen write that the “Islamic, Turkish-speaking northwest quadrant [of China] more properly belongs with the south-central portion of the former USSR” (13). Yet, it’s important to understand this demarcation less as cultural incongruity than as an aggressive assimilation effort by the Chinese state—whose control is itself only the most recent in a series of complex shifts in control over the region—in its attempt to maintain rule over the acquired territory.

Moreover, though geographical features certainly do not dictate the aptitude of the people, the perceived presence of resources does unwittingly and unfortunately provide the rhetoric for justifying exploitation. Andrés Bellos’ “Alocución a la poesía” is an example of common discourse in literature about America that focuses on the abundance of its natural resources, ripe for replenishing Europe’s worn stores.

In light of these two points, the issue is not so much eliminating categories as it is critically assessing how certain categories came to be and knowing there is the possibility of reworking the categories that are given to us. While categories are an indispensable part of knowledge production, they become temporarily dispensable infinitely so that we can critically question the limits of our knowledge and representations. As inaccurate as the TO maps were, they existed as a temporary marker of knowledge, objects open to the further markings and edits of future cartographers.

The last question I want to ask is, if we are really to think without borders, what happens to “liminal space” or “interstitiality” or “hybridity”? What happens to reclaiming or self-claiming geographic labels, such as Asian, African, and Latin American intellectuals’ deployment of a politically unified “Third World” (not saying that internal divisions didn’t exist) to mobilize an agenda against imperialism? Rethinking geographical boundaries must not overlook the reasons why we take these lines for granted in the first place.