Charted Territory

I found this chart of the Rungus spirit world from a paper entitled Conservation as an unintended outcome of cultural practices, by Ashley Massey, Shonil Bhagwat, and Paul Porodong.

At the time I found this particular chart, it felt very rigid. My experiences didn’t match up with the shape of it, so I couldn’t make a similar Poesy Spirit World chart. Now I think that might have been because I had filters on those experiences that I kept switching out: anthropological theories about animism and anthropomorphism on a spectrum of personification, psychological interpretations for something that must be interfacing with my psyche (as each experience left less corporeal evidence than a corporeal experience), and a sort of instinctive mental dissection because if something beyond me wasn’t happening in corporeal spacetime with energy-matter then how does it imitate or deviate from that? And if I intuited associations with these almost-sensory experiences, then why would one confer the other?

As much as I tried to notice what was happening before taking a stand for What’s What in the worlds, all those interpretations would feed back on the experience. To make a chart of flowing movements, media, agents, contexts or planes where those applied…that might lock me onto one filter of something happening, that was organic, that invited multiple approaches.

I didn’t like the idea or the feeling of being mode-locked, but eclecticism makes a mess. I was comfortable with that mess, maybe even as comfortable as I long ago would have been with a chart like that (because it’s visual! Spatial! Labeled! So much sense and accessibility! Awesome!)

I’m still comfortable with the eclectic mess, but I’m beginning to see the appeal of charting something like that again. It doesn’t lock the approach any more than writing out an experience does, or making drawings of guisers. Those are not the experience, yet they refer to or serve as signifiers of the experience. But for some reason, I had considered the writing and drawing as matters of utility and creative expression, whereas something like a chart had come to represent pretensions to authority: it announces that I Know What’s What and this is It.

Really, a chart can just be another way of writing and drawing. I’d managed to forget that writing can be put forward as What’s What, but I never hesitated to write as long as I kept to descriptions rather than explanations, and descriptions of the abstract turn into explanations anyway. There’s always going to be the glue of sense-making, the connections that make the whole thing more than its separate parts.

And there’s always going to be categorization. Recently, I read about something called ethnoscience, which recognizes that people make categorizations that are useful to themselves, and that categorization has value. Ethnozoology (for one example) isn’t taxonomy, but rather than be disregarded as not up to taxonomical standards, the ethnozoological categories remain worth noting for their cultural value. Categories of “large game, small game, livestock, vermin, pets, human-eating predators,” can be considered ethnozoological, and prove more useful in some contexts than “kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, species, sub-species” of the taxonomical categories. This doesn’t even mean that one or the other approach must be eliminated (or even diminished) in a culture, just that it’s important to keep clear that pets aren’t an order under the class livestock, that a pet in one culture can be a pest in another, and that most taxonomists can’t be bothered with sub-species (breeds, races) unless they’re really desperate to name something after themselves.


I keep going back to the categories that I use most often: corporeal, otherreal, surreal, sidereal. These are shortcuts for a quality of experience that I have, so I hesitate to say that they are literal otherworlds. I don’t even use “sidereal” that much because I don’t feel a strong conviction or justification for the definition of it, or maybe that lack of conviction-justification means that I use the word less.

This chart (from Marcel Danesi‚Äôs A Basic Course in Anthropological Linguistics) might be closer to the messy eclecticism and comparative categorization that I’m comfortable with:

When I look at a rainbow in the sky, I usually only see three colors. It stands to reason that where those colors blend would generate at least two more colors in a rainbow (four more, counting the outside edges of a rainbow band, which shouldn’t count), but if I hadn’t been told what to look for, my natural categorization instincts would take that there were three colors.

I’m taught to name seven colors in a rainbow, but also to have suspicions about “indigo”. Isaac Newton named seven colors because seven was a sacred number in whatever mystical tradition it was he followed. Indigo was shoehorned in. Most people who aren’t colorblind don’t bother to make the distinction between indigo and violet as routinely as the other colors (red distinct from orange, orange from yellow, yellow from green, green from blue…)

I should say, most English-speaking visual people who aren’t colorblind, because the following chart makes a case for language shaping perception. Aqua in the Shona language is a color all its own, rather than a shade of blue or green actually blue or green would be a shade of aqua.

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