Notes: The Category Crisis

I HAD A CATEGORY crisis recently, and I’ll bet you’ve had your share of them too. A woman said to me—this was at a party, in a room crowded with men in suits—“You must be an Ivy Leaguer.” I was flattered, but she was wrong. That’s not the right category for me.

What would be the right category? I later asked myself. Realizing that each of the possible contenders—from Irish Catholic to middle-aged man to suburbanite—left off vital acres of me, I was led to consider not merely my category crisis but the crisis in categories.

Let’s start with Democrat and Republican. Here are two categories that don’t mean what they used to. Roughly one third of those who say they are Democrats in party-identification polls regularly vote Republican in presidential elections. So knowing that someone is a Democrat not only doesn’t tell you anything very interesting or profound about that person; more and more, it does not even tell you how that person will vote.

Middle class? I read somewhere that, according to an economist, middle-class income stretches from $15,000 to $125,000 per year. If that’s the range, then clearly you can’t predict anything significant about a person of whom you know only that he belongs to the middle class. And yet politicians and journalists continue to use the category without regard for its flagrant imprecision.

Today how many of us explain ourselves to ourselves by using those musty Freudian categories id, ego, and superego? “Defense mechanism” does still enjoy a vogue, but then we have a lot to defend against. As for thesis, antithesis, and synthesis, that trinity of class conflict hardly applies to all-middle-class America. Those two bearded nineteenth-century giants Freud and Marx —the Smith Brothers of modern thought —gave the twentieth century most of its major categories. But now those categories have lost their cultural centrality. I just read a sociological work that tried to apply Tocqueville’s categories for early America to the current republic. The effort failed: very few of them fit. There goes Tocqueville, I thought.

Now that the nineteenth century can’t do our thinking for us, the eighteenth century is making a comeback. Conservative economics is largely a gloss on Adam Smith, and our conservative political commentators would be mute without heavy buttressing from Edmund Burke. I mean no disrespect for these great thinkers, but how long will it be before they go the way of their nineteenth-century confrères, leaving us once again without categories to think by?

By way of cultural categories we have high culture/low culture and highbrow/ lowbrow. This typology of taste may have fit the fifties, when it was invented, but it is the wrong template for a cultural situation like ours, in which even the loftiest highbrow watches television and interpenetration between low and high, popular and elite forms, seems to be the order of the day. Once an aesthetic response of the few, “camp” is now for the millions who laugh with, and at, Dallas and Dynasty. In the early sixties Woody Allen worked small nightclubs before coterie crowds. Today, with largely the same act, he is an international sensation. Is he our first “highbrow” star? If so, then highbrow has about as much relevance to our situation as middle class.

If new categories had come along to replace old ones like highbrow and lowbrow, we’d have had a revolution in categories instead of what we do have, which, to repeat, is a crisis. The late Michel Foucault thought that this was in fact how new knowledge develops: the old categories don’t evolve into the new; they simply give way before the accumulated evidence of their inadequacy. Perhaps we’re nearing that stage now, but the old categories still bulk large on our mental horizons, barring our vision of the new ones that must, so we hope, be coming.

D. H. Lawrence thought that categories leach the surprise out of life. He wrote that the world “can pigeonhole any idea. But it can’t pigeonhole a real new experience.” Yet experience without a culturally shared idea—that is, a category—in which to embed it can seem disquietingly random, like the plot of one of those avant-garde French films of a generation ago.

We need categories to order experience, both ours and the world’s. When we say, “This is meaningless,” it’s often a sign that we lack the categories to turn a stubbornly opaque experience into something that we can understand. So while reliance on our increasingly ghostly categories may be intellectually disreputable, it may also be necessary for our peace of mind. “Never go against the best light you have,” Matthew Arnold, quoting one of Bishop Wilson’s maxims, cautions us, but “take care that your light be not darkness.” More and more, the categories we think by are forms of darkness. Yet wc keep using them as if fearful of the deeper darkness we’d inhabit if we had to front this life without them. Better that the world be wrongly intelligible than not intelligible at all.

Jack Beatty