How do we think about categories? This anthropologist started drawing sketches to find out
Lochlann Jain is an illustrator and anthropologist who has no time for restrictive categories.
In a new book of drawings called Things That Art: A Graphic Menagerie of Enchanting Curiosity, Jain uses whimsical interplays of words and images to interrogate the order of things.
The book is a series of illustrations of various categories of things — from "things that are not a hippo" to "things recommended not so long ago for the resuscitation of the drowned."
The lists — and their associated drawings — can be funny, amusing, sobering or unsettling. And ultimately, they invite us as readers to question our taken-for-granted assumptions about how we make sense of the world.
Lochlann Jain is a professor of Anthropology at Stanford University, and teaches Global Health and Social Medicine at King's College in London.
Here are some highlights from Jain's conversation with The Sunday Edition's Michael Enright, edited for clarity and condensed.
On the idea for the book
It started off in this very playful sort of way; and the drawings, I think, themselves are cartoony and playful. And then, as I started the collection, it started to become apparent to me that I was working out some of my intellectual questions in the drawings, vis-à-vis the categorizations. So the playfulness of it became both an inspiration and something I wanted to maintain. It then also became a way to draw people into questions that were maybe more serious or would lead to places they weren't expecting. Or at least that's my hope.
The critical focus of the book is how do we think about categories? How do we learn that? How has that been constructed as a mode of knowledge by natural historians through their ways of building taxonomies? How have we learned and been taught to think of those as systems of knowledge? And when we bring our own sense and sensibility to that, I think we realize that each of us makes very different kinds of categories that can curiously reflect back on how we learn about systems.
On the danger of categories
I think that once one sets up categories, one sets up systems of knowing. Categories have been produced and harnessed in a historical way with such specificity. I'm thinking specifically of categories in natural history, for example. I find it very difficult to think about categories separate from that.
And I think from the very get-go, from the second we're born, we start to learn categories — even I think about gender, for example. Typically people are immediately addressed as he or she at birth; before you even get to any question about the person themselves, they're characterized through this category.
I think we don't have a choice but to think through categories. But I don't know how an alternative thinking might look or might work. I think the best we can do, maybe, is to bring attention to the ways in which categories and labels work, what kind of politics they bring with them, and how we might start to unpack those or think differently or even just bring them into new categories.
For example, in my work on cancer, I'll even think about the term "cancer" and the way it works differently in, say, a court of law, or in a clinical visit, or in an early detection campaign. And what one finds often is that these words or concepts we completely take for granted. We all know that cancer is a set of cells that's dividing too fast. But it actually has all of these different meanings in these different social, political and economic systems that are worth taking apart. Because once we start taking them apart, we can see how they're used differently and mean different things to different people in different contexts.
On why Jain loves the platypus
I love the platypus because I identify a little bit with the platypus. The poor platypus. They were taken from Australia, removed from all their friends and their special mud patch and so on. They were brought to London. And nobody believed that they exist; that they could exist. Were they a mammal? Were they a reptile? And because they couldn't tell, they basically threw it into a different kind of category. They had to invent a category. They thought it was maybe some kind of a paradox. They didn't believe in it.
To me, the platypus is kind of a thread to a hope that there are things that we're not seeing or that we can't see, or that our categories cannot grasp but that nevertheless exist. And they are amazing and magical in their own way.
The reason I think I identify with that is because I'm a biracial person. I was born in Britain and then came to Canada. I identify as non-binary, gender-wise. There are a bunch of ways where I feel like I can't quite fully buy into some of these categories and yet I still feel like a real person.
On drawing "Things at the Farm"
I was spending that afternoon, I remember very vividly, drawing this one on a fantastic farm owned by a friend in France. We had just had the best day walking around. And I started drawing in front of the fireplace and before I knew it there was a cartoon figure with a pitchfork in their head and blood coming down. It's something that came out of the depths of my mind. I think that's a great example of a place at which I've been a little bit surprised at what's come out of my pen. So I draw it and I think, gosh Lochlann, that is dark or strange or I wonder where that came from. And I think that's part of what's interesting about doing these drawings and about the kind of approach of just "let's do it without judgment and see what comes out." Sometimes things come out that one doesn't expect. And one may not be totally thrilled that that's what's behind their social facade.
On drawing versus academic writing
Definitely one of the things about doing drawings, as opposed to academic arguments, is I feel like when you write in a paper or a book academically you try to close off other readings. You say this is my argument, this is why it works, this is my justification for it. But the drawings are much more open-ended, much more of a conversation.
Click 'listen' above to hear the full interview.