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Published:August 9th, 2011 09:27 EST
By Putting Things in Pigeonholes We Lose Sight of The Big Picture

By Putting Things in Pigeonholes We Lose Sight of The Big Picture

By Djelloul (Del) Marbrook (Editor/Mentor)

Pitfalls of compartmentalized society

An herbicide designed to control pesky milkweed in cornfields may be decimating the monarch butterfly population in the Midwest, according to a July 11th article in the weekly science section of The New York Times. This beautiful butterfly is famous for its long-distance migrations.

On July 18th Media Roots published a fascinating essay about string theory, speculating that we don`t die and rot in the ground but continue to exist in mysterious ways. The essay, rooted in science, linked the many-worlds theory to other scientific notions about the nature of death.

Later in the week the U.S. Census Bureau released a videographed interactive population map of the United States, telling us a great deal about our demographics and the changing nature of our country.

Were these stories unrelated? Seemingly. In a culture obsessed by compartmentalization and categorization it was inevitable that no connection should be made between these stories or between them and the evolving nature of our society. String theory, of course, would argue that not only are they related but in fact everything is related.

But we are seized with a frenzy to pigeonhole subjects, events, people, ideas, and studies. Our news media compartmentalize the news. That is why there is a Science Times in The New York Times. That is why there is a sports section and a business section. There are, of course, business reasons, too. Advertisers are attracted to communities of interest. But these communities exist because we live in an anti-holistic culture.

In a more sensible society, a society highly aware that there are consequences to everything we do and say, scientific ideas about the nature of death would be much more important than the latest lies of the Murdoch empire of sleaze. Dramatic changes in our demography would supersede front-page news about a jerkwater politician from a New York City suburb calling for yet another round of tax-wasting hearings on the radicalization of American Muslims. And the mysterious life of the monarch butterfly would interest us more than the bad behavior of yet another spoiled loony.

Compartmentalization, so useful to the evolution of our knowledge, has a dark side. It can impede our understanding of ourselves. I`ve been contemplating this ever since, while researching a novel, I came on the fact that the word chemistry is derived from the Arabic word al-Khemya, which in Arabic is the word chemistry with its article. An interesting thing happened as the word, like so many Arabic words, entered the Anglosphere: al-Khemya became our word for alchemy and the idea of alchemy was relegated to the arcana pile.

Something surpassingly important was lost in this process. The Arabs, to whom we are indebted for much of our knowledge about Aristotle, the great proponent of categorization, did not distinguish between chemistry and alchemy. They made little distinction, in fact, between mathematics and religion or mathematics and poetry. Their world view was holistic. They believed in connecting the dots "the very thing our media are so incompetent at doing "and therefore the Media Roots essay is far more compatible with medieval Arab thinking than with contemporary Western thought. It conforms, in fact, with much that the Arabs thought about the relationships between mathematics and religion and the arts.

If you contemplate this dramatic difference in world views you begin to see how our culture is shaped by its compartmentalization. It seems notable to us that a poet of Marianne Moore`s stature should have been intrigued by baseball. But a more sophisticated, a more holistic culture would consider it likely that a sensibility attuned to elegance, attuned as baseball is to connecting dots, would only naturally be drawn to the game. We think it curious a politician or a race car driver might like ballet, but what is really curious is that we should think it so.

This disconnectedness makes it possible to marginalize a great deal of information and thought that should be central to our evolution. It makes it possible, for example, for the media to consistently fail to inform us that banks are the major beneficiaries of war because of the interest they collect on war indebtedness. It makes it possible to discuss health care without inquiring into the inefficiencies and high costs of our present system. Indeed it enables and empowers all sorts of evils by making the false claim that one thing is not connected to another.

Compartmentalization is ideally suited to political dishonesty, to shell games, to hiding facts. One way to contemplate my claim is to consider the worldwide web. Its mojo is that it exposes us to all sorts of ideas and facts and images that our mainstream media have overlooked. That is why jubilant Tunisians thanked Facebook, not the traditional media, for helping them topple their dishonest and greedy government. The web is a holistic idea, surprisingly compatible with the most advanced medieval Arab thought. The web inherently acknowledges that developments and ideas and people are connected.

It`s not a little bizarre that having created mythological star creatures by connecting the dots, having seen the efficiencies of reducing overlap and duplication, we should persist in a pigeonhole culture. True, not all consolidation and conglomeration is good. True, the Arabs might not make Orion out of the stars we connect to make him. But our inquiries, philosophical and scientific, have yielded much evidence of the connectedness of matter and sentience, and yet we doggedly celebrate our disconnections, sitting at our separate campfires, spouting bogus ideologies.

Surely fear is at work. What else is nativism and all our wacko notions about superiority? We have just shut down NASA`s inquiries into the heavens because they got in the way of our ability to kill each other. We`re shutting down our social programs in the belief that the misery of others is not our direct and pressing concern. This is a kind of compartmentalization at work. It`s also a kind of hubris. I count, you don`t. I`ve got mine, who cares about yours? When we put each other in pigeonholes, when we put our ideas in pigeonholes, this sort of squalid callousness is a likely outcome. Danger awaits us in our pigeonholes.


Djelloul Marbrook`s first book, Far from Algiers (Kent State University Press, 2008) won the 2007 Stan and Tom Wick Poetry Prize and the 2010 International Book Award in poetry. Artists` Hill, an excerpt from his unpublished novel, Crowds of One, won the 2008 Literal Latté first prize in fiction. Artemisia`s Wolf, a novella, was published by Prakash Books of India early in 2011. Alice Miller`s Room, a novella, was published in 1999 by (UK) as an e-book, and Bliss Plot Press of Woodstock, NY, recently published his novella, Saraceno, as an e-book. Orbis (UK),, Potomac Review (Maryland) and Prima Materia (New York). His second book of poems is Brushstrokes and Glances (Deerbrook Editions, 2010). Recent poems were published by American Poetry Review, Barrow Street, Oberon, Meadowland Review, The Same, Reed, The Ledge, Poemeleon, Poets Against War, Fledgling Rag, Daylight Burglary, Le Zaporogue, Atticus, Long Island Quarterly, ReDactions, Istanbul Literary Review, Arabesques Literary and Cultural Review, Damazine, Perpetuum Mobile, Attic, and Chronogram. A retired newspaper editor and Navy veteran, he lives in Germantown, NY, with his wife Marilyn, and has lifelong ties to Woodstock.

Del`s book, Far From Algiers:

New review of Far from Algiers:

Artists Hill, Literal Latté`s fiction first prize:

His blog:

His mother`s art:

His aunt`s art: