Monday, October 31, 2011

Naming Names

Zimbabwe is the only country named after an archaeological site, yet although Great Zimbabwe itself dates back to 13th-15th centuries CE, the country has only been officially called by that name since 1980.  From 1923 until 1965, it was a self-governing British colony known as Rhodesia.  Then, in 1965, the country’s white minority declared independence from England illegally, and operated as the Republic of Rhodesia - reinforcing the association with Britain’s chief colonial industrialist, Cecil Rhodes, who founded the British South Africa Company in 1889.  Under the prime minister Ian Smith, and despite UN sanctions, it remained a white supremacist state until 1979, when the black majority came to power under Robert Mugabe.  It was only then that the new country was named after the great pre-colonial ruins that more than anything symbolized the ancient connection to the landscape of the native African population.

The need to name and classify is essential to humans; there is even thought to be a gene for it.  Whenever naming is required, the wheel is reinvented in order to precisely reflect the essence of what the thing or idea being named is.  Fixing its place and defining its identity with specific clarity is essential in order to ensure that when the thing is called by whatever name it is given, no other hands rise in acknowledgement.  In theory, a name reflects the discrete individuality of that which is named; thus Americans saddle their children with badly spelled invented names, although they refuse to amend the Constitution which is seen as written in stone, while France formally regulates the use of the French language through the Académie française and had, until quite recently, an enforced national policy governing acceptable and legally permitted given names.    

Names signify specific individual things.  Churches, temples and mosques are all sacred spaces first, then houses of worship, and then buildings.  But not all buildings are houses of worship, and not all houses of worship are either churches, temples or mosques, and, of those, not all are sacred spaces.  The old nightclub, Limelight, on 18th  street and 6th Avenue was an Episcopal church that was deconsecrated, and repurposed, so that although it remains a building that appears to be a house of worship -indeed, it’s a rusticated brown stone Gothic church with a typical pointed arch door that looks like dozens of other Episcopal churches-  it is no longer the latter, since it is not a sacred space.  Recent developers have made it into an indoor mall while maintaining the church exterior.  Now it is a building that looks like a church -is a church- but functions as an agora, and is neither a house of worship, nor a nightclub, although it could still become a sacred space if the shopping is good enough.  Names and nouns represent things and ideas that are concurrent interdependent parts of both greater categories and smaller groups.  Since these relationships can be of incalculable number, and are simultaneously fluid yet permanent, it is essential that names and nouns maintain their fixed and discrete autonomy.  If one word is changed, everything linked to it is transformed through kinetic reaction.

Assigned names maintain order.  Otherwise, it’s like writing about musicians such as , the Artist (Formerly Known as Prince),  Prince,  or TAFKAP,  and Sean Combs, aka Diddy, P. Diddy, Puff Daddy and now Diddy-Dirty Money.  But that was his name in March.  After that it was Swag, the first expiration-dated name, to be used for one week only starting 5/24/11 and reverting to Diddy  on 6/1/2011.  This analogy is not merely cute, it’s appropriate.  If naming reifies that which is named, then changing its name transforms it to some degree into something else.  Whether it changes so subtly that the shift is invisible, or completely to the point of unrecognizability,  it is nevertheless made fundamentally different.  The act of  of renaming causes uncertainty, shifting the point of view by destabilizing the taxonomic equivalent of the lowest common denominator of language, which is the noun, be it proper or common.

The geographical area currently known as the State of Israel has formerly been known as, in no particular order, Palestine, the British Mandate, the Palestinian Mandate, the Roman Province of Palaestina, Παλαιστίνη, Israel, Canaan,  Philistia, and the Kingdom of Jerusalem, among numerous others.  It has been in the possession of  the empires of Egypt, Greece, Rome, France, Syria, Turkey, Germany, England, and of the Hittites, Assyrians, Babylonians, Mesopotamians, Holy Romans, Byzantines, Ottomans and Mamelukes, at one time or another, and sometimes more than once.  These nomenclatures represent different rulers, their assorted points of view,  and the various desires of past and current territorial occupiers.  Each different name in each different language describes a separate perception of what that landscape represents to the speakers of that language; how it defines the conception of the named place in relation to the observer-speaker.  The names given to the area are not mere translations of the same word and identical ideas, but subtly and profoundly different interpretive identifiers of the same place as viewed by different parties and subject to the idiosyncratic characteristics of the language as well as the time in which the words themselves were forged.

The French named the Eastern Mediterranean le Levant to signify it as the place where the sun rises.  Levant means rising, and the sun really does seem to rise from there, especially if you’re viewing dawn from Western Europe.

1 comment:

  1. It’s interesting how our desire to name often frustrates us--you mentioned examples including ridiculous childrens’ names that have to be endured one’s whole life long, and of course a more grave example is the the destructive power of naming to create derogatory classifications and slurs, which can be deadly when labeling is motivated by a political, religious, or other power with an agenda. It can also be less violent but equally counterproductive when referring to the Linnean system of biological classification--there being a common misconception that animals and plants can be organized into neat, progressive strata; indeed, that they can be organized into species at all. Species function more as sliding scales than discreet nodes, evolutionarily speaking, but I think few outside a biological anthropological field know how fuzzy these named categories are.