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Sara Beth West

(@fiftytwowest)

is a reader and a writer, offering book reviews and interviews with leading writers and thinkers.

The Lexicon - Fissiparous

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Word: Fissiparous

Definition: (adj) tending to break up into parts: DIVISIVE

Origin: L fissus, pp of findere + E -parous

Source: Sorting Things Out: Classification and its Consequences by Geoffrey C. Bowker and Susan Leigh Star, quoting Saul Dubow's Scientific Racism in Modern South Africa.

The conception of race as "type" encouraged a belief in the existence of ideal categories and stressed diversity and difference over similarity and convergence. This was overlaid by binary-based notions of superiority and inferiority, progress and degeneration. One of the many problems associated with the typological method was its fissiparous character. The search for pure racial types could not easily be reconciled with the evident fact that, in practice, only hybrids existed.

This text, a standard in the field of Information Sciences, concerns itself with the ubiquity of classification. Its opening pages declare with confidence, "To classify is human." And maybe Bowker and Star are right in this assertion. Maybe the earliest humans were as prone to sorting as we are, driven to dividing and grouping as a means of survival.


I would argue classification has always been a tool, a utility employed for a specific purpose. Hence the bibliographic organizational systems (like the Dewey Decimal System) that were developed within the existing parameters of physical books in need of physical shelf space to be interacted with physically by users. Hence also the wild variation employed by book lovers in the organization of their home libraries. There is no need for a broad, standardized classification scheme when the collection is local and known intimately by its users. There is also no need for classification when there is no storage, no multiples, no need for search and retrieval.


When classification schemes get applied to humans, those, too, are tools, likely employed to secure or maintain power and profit. This word, fissiparous, arrives during a discussion of apartheid and the mental gymnastics that must be performed in order to construct an ideological concept of "race." Though the word was new to me, it wore its definition in its parts: fiss- (see: fission, fissure) always refers to splitting or division, -par (see: parent, apparition) denotes a bringing forth or making visible. In biology, the -parous prefix refers to the means of reproduction - ovaparous (by egg), viviparous (by live birth), or in this case fissiparous (by division).


To describe a classification scheme used to create policies that will subjugate and dehumanize as fissiparous is to say it will produce something repeatedly by division, which is to state the obvious. In no way would I dismiss the atrocities of apartheid, but when we apply a critical eye to foreign systems of racism that have been ostensibly defeated, it is all too easy to pat ourselves on the back and say, "look at that horrible thing we did," with a wry shake of the head. But there are countless classification systems in place in the United States today that are just as fissiparous and just as damaging, quietly doing their sorting work to preserve and protect power structures.





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