Situated Description

Picture 3The other day I was at the Field Museum of Natural History, in Chicago, and noticed that on the descriptions of a number of the bird specimens there was printed the following simple message:

Sexes look alike

But it occurred to me that the birds probably have no trouble telling who’s who — after all, they keep making baby birds… — indicating that the seemingly disinterested, factual description on that exhibit card is a rather interested prescription that normalizes the particular place, the situation, of this one observer, i.e., us. For we’re the ones to whom “they all look the same.”

What a breath of fresh air it would be to see that card amended, to read:

Sexes look alike…, to me.

For, with that little addition, the emphasis is now on the observer, the observer’s criteria of distinction and the observer’s choice of focus, and not on the apparently factual nature of the observer’s viewpoint.

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