01 September 2006

Of Naming

This evening I re-watched Dark City, which must certainly be one of the finest films in science fiction history. The premise of the film is that a race of dying aliens that have the power to reconfigure matter through the power of will alone have abducted humans so as to find the secret of human immortality and escape their fate. To do this, they inject humans with new identities nightly, erasing all their previous identities, hoping to find that one element of the human being that remains invariant through all these changes (thus suggesting a process of "free variation" similar to Husserl's methodology for discovering intentional essences). One of the curious features of these aliens is that they're all named after general nouns, such as "Mr. Hand" or "Mr. Book" or "Mr. Quick", thereby underlining their lack of singularity.

One of the unique features of my personal development is that I did not know my true name until I was 9 or 10 years of age. Prior to this age I knew myself as "Levi", yet one day at school a teacher informed me that my name was, in fact, "Paul", after my father. When I informed my sister of this after school, she was tremendously upset, argued with me vigorously, and insisted that this was my father's name, not my name. Consequently, not only did I experience an erasure of what I had previously believed to be my name, but I also experienced myself as being named by an institution (the school) and as existing in a state of confusion between my father's identity and my own identity and seeming to be personally hurt that I was not "Levi". Years later, when I decided to re-assume the name of "Levi", after using the name of "Paul" for many years, those about me reacted with a similar outrage (no doubt thinking me a bit mad), and I recently had an uncle strangely express admiration that I am using the name "Levi" professionally (why would this be admirable or impress him?). This odd relationship to the symbolic has reverberated ever since in my psychic structure in all sorts of odd and unexpected ways, as I palpably experienced myself as void or absent. For instance, sometimes I've thought to myself that if I ever had a child I would want to give him or her a name that they could do a lot with, generating a number of different nicknames and variations, and creating a free space in which the child might make their own name or name themselves out of variations on a name like "Elizabeth" ("Beth", "Betsy", "Ela", "Liz", "Lizzie", "Liza", etc.), not realizing until recently what desire the expression "make one's own name" might indicate. Similarly, it's not unlikely that my ambivalence towards publication has to do with this erasure, as it was an agent of the symbolic order (my teacher) who first stole my name, thereby rendering me forever suspicious of the symbolic order.

It seems to me that one of the most intimate and potent acts one can engage in with respect to another is the act of naming (especially common in love). I have only been named in this way on a few occasions, but each time I experienced it in an incredibly powerful way, which might just have to do with my odd psychic structure and my search for a name. Why is this act of naming so potent and singularizing? Is it an act of domination (owning another by naming them) or something else? Why is it that names serve such a central function with regard to the symbolic... A role that can be experienced as so deeply traumatic when losing a name?

6 Comments:

Anonymous pebird said...

To be named is to be important enough to require a name. It is the beginning of identity and start of the move into the symbolic. Creating one's own name is establishing identity beyond the intimate into the social - immortality.

Allowing another to rename you is powerful - your identity transforms through their act - the reciprocal act (naming another) is contrasted with one's initial name - you can't name (nor pick) your parents.

I'm surprised at the question: "why is it that names serve such a central function with regard to the symbolic..." Is it possible to have language without names? Without language what is the symbolic?

Your sister's reaction is telling - there are stories.

September 02, 2006 2:02 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Why are names given in love so often nonsense words? Does calling the beloved "pookie" work because it points to the divide between signifier/signified? Does it suggest some need to become a point of resistance in the symbolic, an attempt to revel in a living bond, an impossible and fleeting 'parole' between lovers?

September 02, 2006 2:20 PM  
Blogger Sinthome said...

pebird, I take it that names are unique in that they designate without signifying (as another poster points out), which almost seems to mark them as being at the edge of language in a strange way... Hopefully Bobo will have a bit more to say about this in the context of Kripke. I'm not convinced that names and signifiers are at all the same thing.

September 02, 2006 4:02 PM  
Blogger Sinthome said...

Interesting observation about "nonsense names". All names seem to be nonsensical in the sense that they can't be elaborated in a series of S2's, yet at the same time there seems to be a sense in which the names chosen by lovers push this to even further extremes. A proper name is also a legal entity (sign your name on the dotted line) and function as indexicals marking a locus where law focuses itself with regard to the individual, but the nonsensical names of lovers seem to subtract themselves from legality in a strange way, or perhaps institute a different legality outside of the ordinary names. Somewhere Zizek talks about how love is indicated at precisely that moment where the lover cannot say why it is that they love the beloved. Here I think he's getting at the Hegelian point that you cannot say the singular, that whenever you employ language you're already in the order of the universal, yet love repudiates the universal in favor of the singular. Perhaps, following Levi-Strauss account of the "mana-signifier", the nonsense-name marks and underlines this truth?

September 02, 2006 4:07 PM  
Anonymous pebird said...

Sinthome, I'm thinking this through for myself - I'm trying to understand how language established itself, what founding trauma(s) transformed animal vocalization into symbolization - the relationship between consciousness and language, etc. So, I welcome your post, it stimulates my speculations.

Naming is the starting point of language - if there is no one to address, one cannot speak. Names are nonsensical in that respect - the initial name can have no meaning, no reference to another symbol. Once the chain returns to the initial word (through a transaction, an exchange, a founding relation) the name transforms from non-sense to reference, albeit through a circular kind of reasoning.

When parents name children, a context is intended - but this founding/non-sense function of naming must remain in some hidden fashion. Perhaps this is what lovers are doing? I initially was thinking that there is signfication in all these pet names - even "pookie" - but that is a surface appearence. I like anon's suggestion of the need to move beyond the symbolic - the sense that the lover is more than what can be symbolized, so that the name is an empty placeholder.

Names function as the initial quilting point - binding the subject into the social order. Nicknames are generated with friends to create a new tribes, etc.

The loss of a name loosens the quilting point - one becomes adrift - wondering where the anchor went, perhaps the social order isn't there, or is different than was promised, as your experience indicates.

September 03, 2006 10:52 AM  
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