4.0307 Borges and Foucault (1/100)

Elaine Brennan & Allen Renear (EDITORS@BROWNVM.BITNET)
Fri, 20 Jul 90 19:09:42 EDT

Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 4, No. 0307. Friday, 20 Jul 1990.

Date: Fri, 20 Jul 90 17:22 EST
From: "Peter D. Junger" <JUNGER@CWRU>
Subject: The Ubiquity of Borges

In my original inquiry wondering where in Borges's writings there
appears the passage about the various types of animals that Feinman
quotes Foucault as quoting from Borges, I quoted the passage as it
appears in Feinman, The Jurisprudence of Classification, 41 Stan. L.
Rev. 661, 662 (1989). Yesterday, after the members of HUMANIST had
informed me that an English version of the passage appears in the essay
"The Analytical Language of John Wilkins" at pages 141-43 of E.R.
Monegal and A. Reid, Borges: A Reader (New York: Dutton, 1981), I
picked up a copy of that collection. The translation there, by Ruth
L.C. Simms, varies slightly from the version that I quoted. That slight
variation strikes me as a great improvement and so I take the liberty of
now giving Simms's English version, which has the advantage of not
having been filtered through the French of M. Foucault, that appears in
Monegal and Reid at page 142.

But first let me remind you of the context in which the passage appears,
since the essay reminds me vividly of a recent scholarly discussion in
HUMANIST (a discussion that I appreciated, but could hardly understand).
Borges is discussing Wilkins' effort to generate a general language
"that would organize and contain all human thought."

Wilkins divided the universe into forty categories or
classes, which were then subdivisible into differences,
subdivisible in turn into species. To each class he assigned a
monosyllable of two letters; to each difference, a consonant; to
each species, a vowel. For example _de_ means element; _deb_,
the first of the elements, fire; _deba_, a portion of the
element of fire, a flame. In a similar language invented by
Letellier (1850) _a_ means animal; _ab_, mammalian; _abi_,
herbivorous; _abiv_, equine; _abo_, carnivorous; _aboj_, feline;
_aboje_, cat; etc. In the language of Bonifacio Sotos Ochando
(1845) _imbaba_ means building; _imaca_, brothel; _imafe_,
hospital; _imafo_, pesthouse; _imari_, house; _imaru_ country
estate; _imede_, pillar; _imedo_, post; _imego_, floor; _imela_,
ceiling; _imogo_, window; _bire_, bookbinder, _birer_, to bind
books. . . .

_Idem_ at 141-42.

Borges is not totally satisfied with Wilkins' universal language, and
that is where the passage that originally caught my attention appears:

These ambiguities, redundancies, and deficiencies recall those
attributed by Dr. Franz Kuhn to a certain Chinese encyclopedia
entitled _Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge_. On those
remote pages it is written that animals are divided into: (a)
those that belong to the Emperor, (b) embalmed ones, (c) those
that are trained, (d) suckling pigs, (e) mermaids, (f) fabulous
ones, (g) stray dogs, (h) those that are included in this
classification, (i) those that tremble as if they were mad, (j)
innumerable ones, (k) those drawn with a very fine camel's-hair
brush, (l) others, (m) those that have just broken a flower
vase, (n) those that resemble flies from a distance.

_Idem_ at 142.

But what is interesting is the way that Borges seems to have prefigured
the entire content of this HUMANIST list. Thus in discussing the
notation used by Wilkins, Borges had already noted (at page 141) that
"Descartes had already noted in a letter dated November 1629 that by
using the decimal system of numeration we could learn in a single day to
name all quantities to infinity, and to write them in a new language,
the language of numbers." And then he adds, in a footnote, in what
strikes me as the perfect marriage of humanism and computer bits:

Theoretically, the number of systems of numeration is unlimited.
The most complex (for the use of divinities and angels) would
record an infinite number of symbols, one for each whole number;
the simplest requires only two. Zero is written 0, one 1, two
10, three 11, four 100, five 101, six 110, seven 111, eight
1000. . . . It is the invention of Leibniz, who was apparently
stimulated by the enigmatic hexagrams of the Yi tsing.

And this, in turn, should, of course, lead us--at least those of us who
have read Quine's variation on the theme in his "Quiddities"--to Borges'
"The Total Library" (which appears in Monegal and Reid at pages 94-96)
where it is proposed that, by the use of twenty-five symbols (twenty-two
letters, the space, the period, the comma), left to chance recombination
and repetition, one could write "everything it is possible to express:
in all languages." But, of course, we know--and surely Borges already
knew--that only the two binary symbols of Leibniz are needed to express
that universal library, though whether the coding should be ASCII or
EBCDIC is a matter perhaps best left unresolved. (It was Quine who
pointed out--or so it must appear in one of the books in the Total
Library--who pointed out that one would need only two books, one
containing just the symbol `1', the other just the symbol `0', plus some
simple rules for stringing them together, to represent all the
information contained in that library.)

Now, if this is true, then I have in my head--like Funes the Memorious
(who appears in "Fragment on Joyce" in Monegal and Reid at pages
134-36), but more so--the contents (or, at least, the means of
generating the contents) of every book that could ever be written. And
if that is so, then this message has, sub species aeternitas, been
written by Borges, or by me, or by Pierre Menard, and need not be
repeated here.

Peter D. Junger--Case Western Reserve University--Law School