In 1758, Swedish botanist, zoologist and physician Carolus Linnaeus published the 10th edition of the ‘Systema Naturae’. This book presents a scientific system of nature; a rank-based classification of all the organisms known to mankind at that point in time. As part of this zoological nomenclature, Linaeus described human beings as a species and named them Homo Sapiens. Furthermore, he organized this group in a diversity of subgroups. Linnaeus named four geographical varieties of Homo sapiens to which he introduced “some anecdotal behavioural distinctions in line with then current European notions about their own superiority.” (Notton & Stringeron, 2015). Linnaeus’ four subspecies, where geography is connected to behaviour are: ‘Europæus’ — governed by ‘laws’ ‘Americanus’ — governed by ‘customs’ ‘Asiaticus’ — governed by ‘opinions’ ‘Afer’— governed by ‘impulse’
Classification, a precarious practice
Classification is basically an activity of inclusion and exclusion. Classification is more than just organising data into categories. The act of classifying deals with creating order through hierarchy. It thus creates power relations between groups; one group is above the other or belongs to a more appreciated group. This is where being included or being excluded become a precarious practice. When it comes to the classification of humans into groups, this method becomes toxic. Because the so-called ‘data’ —that which is classified— is as human as the one who classifies.
Western European society has an extensive history of using the system of classification to propagate difference. In order to justify racism, colonialism and imperialism, this mechanism is used to create an hierarchical system that makes one group superior and dehumanizes these other groups. By connecting ‘objective’ measurable data —in the case of Linneaus’ taxonomy ‘geography’—
to ‘subjective’ observations, there are ‘arguments’ (“white is superior”) made that lead to ‘actions’ (“white should teach the other groups civilization”). This research project investigates how this mechanism of human classification still influences the construction of cultural identities today, in the Netherlands of the 21st century.
Visual identity politics
Educated as a graphic designer and more than fifteen years active in the profession, for me everything is about identity. I am interested in how identities are constructed and how this works. One of the expertises of the graphic designer is that of having the visual and conceptual tools and knowledges to create identity for corporations and institutions. Moreover, I am interested in the concept of ‘cultural identity’; socially driven behaviour of having things in common; of wanting to belong to a group or of labelling individuals into groups. Within this cultural identity, we need symbols, events and people that play a crucial role in manifesting this identity. Consequentially, I am fascinated by how identity is used to create or affirm power structures. On the one hand, how we –as social groups- can identify ourselves and, on the other hand, how we are labelled by others. So, from corporate to cultural and from cultural to political, I am interested in how identity works.
Next to the construction of identity, I am fascinated by the notion of ‘representation’. As a designer I am a producer of media; I create meaning by designing a (series of) logos, posters, websites, animations, videos, exhibitions etc. So, my designs live in a media-world, where they represent reality. In media my designs give form to meaning.
Today this world of media is of great power. The mediated reality is an imaginary one in which a body transforms from an individual to an image, from a person of flesh and blood to a symbol of a culture. Where this body becomes an embodiment of a group and where this singular body gets to represent. It becomes a type. Or the normal. Or the not-normal. Perhaps the ‘difference’ (Hall, 1997, p.234). That’s when the image becomes part of the ‘system of representation’ (Hall, 1997).
This mediated reality, where identity is constructed and becomes a representative of a group, is the world I am part of as a designer. This is a position of power that I am aware of, feel responsibility for and want to critically engage myself to. This notion is the motivation for engaging myself to start a research project on the politics of classification.