Every once in a while you come across a concept that puts in words something that’s been on the tip of your tongue for years but which you’ve never quite been able to articulate. Ian Hacking’s concept of interactive kinds is, for me, an example of such a concept. In his discussion of social construction talk in The Social Construction of What?, Hacking is careful to emphasize that such talk generally refers to the construction of our categories (kinds), not the individuals or entities that are grouped under these categories. It is not, for example, my cat Tabby that is constructed, but the kind or category “cat”.

What is interesting here is not the construction of categories or kinds themselves, but rather the relationship between the constructed kind and the entities that fall over them. Hacking distinguishes between two different kinds: indifferent kinds and interactive kinds. In the case of indifferent kinds, the entity or individual falling under the kind is indifferent to the categorization that, for lack of a better word, names the entity. Take the example of trees. In his Prolegomena to Linguistics, Hjelmslev teaches us, in good nominalist fashion, to discern how different languages classify trees and shrubs in different ways (cue Monty Python). What is classified as a tree in one language might be classified as a shrub in another language. The important point, however, is that the entities being so classified are indifferent to the classification. The classification makes no difference to them. This doesn’t mean the entities are passive. Plants are active in all sorts of ways. It only means that plants take up no stance with respect to how we classify them.

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By contrast, interactive kinds are kinds where the entity classified take up a stance or respond to the manner in which they’re classified. There is an interaction between the classification and the entity. A person classified as an alcoholic by a doctor can take up a stance with respect to this classification. They can contest the classification. They can begin to emulate features of the alcoholic (“Hi, I’m Regi and I’m an alcoholic!”) and so on. The classification doesn’t merely describe but begins to influence the behavior of the person classified, thought, and self-experience of the person classified.

Lacanian psychoanalysis is particularly sensitive to how classifications function as interactive kinds. In “Position of the Unconscious” Lacan argues that the unconscious has a history and changes in response to psychoanalytic interpretation. Here he’s not talking about individual analyses, but collectively. Symptoms take different forms at different points in history (eg, we no longer see the dramatic symptoms of hysteria witnessed early in the last century. Hysteria now produces new symptoms). Lacan hypothesized that the unconscious collectively responds to the manner in which it’s theorized such that it finds new ways to repress desire when desire is brought out in the open. Similarly, standard interpretations become stale and no longer produce shifts in symptoms. Oedipal interpretations no longer produce the dissapative effects they once did. Likewise, Lacan elsewhere suggests that analysand’s have dreams in line with the theory of their analyst (as a result of transference). Patients of amLacanian will have linguistically structured dreams, Jungian patients dreams rich in symbolism, Adlerians…, etc. Finally, if Lacanians do not reveal their diagnosis to their patients (“you’re an obsessional”) then this is precisely because diagnostic categories are interactive in this way. The diagnostic category risks becoming as an impediment to analytic progress as it becomes a script for the patient as well as a universal causal explanation (“I do x because I’m an obsessional!”), thereby delaying or foreclosing an encounter with desire.

Nonetheless, it would be a mistake to conclude that the interactivity of interactive kinds is restricted to the stance a person takes up with respect to the category. Classifications are social entities, material realities, embedded in both people and institutions. When a child is categorized as ADHD this activates all sorts of institutional protocols, leading schools and insurance companies to behave differently towards that child, but also family members and other persons in that child’s social world. That child might not have the faintest idea that he’s been classified in this way, but nonetheless the classification has all sorts of effects on the child because of how others relate to him.

The most appealing feature of Hacking’s analysis of interactive kinds is that it doesn’t treat persons as passive bearers of the classifications that descend upon them. It’s a two-way and interactive street. In critical theory we talk a lot about subjectivization, suggesting that persons, subjects, are just effects of classificatory system in which they’re enmeshed. Here we repeat the Aristotlean hylomorphic model, conceptualizing persons as passive and unformed matters that are given form or structure by classifications. However, while we can certainly internalize classificatory schemes, thereby being subjectivized, more often than not classifications or kinds are a bit like a sticky web that poses all sorts of constraints on how we navigate the world without fully forming us. We can push back in all sorts of ways,leading the schemes themselves to change and shift. In Lacanian terms, this would be the difference between the university discourse and the discours of the hysteric. The university discourse dreams of perfect subsumption under the signifier or knowledge, producing a divided subject as a result (the individual becomes enmeshed in categories that structure their life while exceeding their ability to master them). In the discourse of the hysteric, the categories (S1) are contested by the alienated subject. What’s produced? New categorizations. The Butcher’s Wife has a dream where her wish is not satisfied. What’s she saying? “Take that Dr. Smartypants! How can your wish-fulfillment account for a dream where the wish is not fulfilled!” Freud thereby finds that he must create new signifiers to account for this anomaly.