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LanguagePrintCritical dictionary

Name

Tito Cardoso e Cunha

 

 

Everyone has a name and (almost) everything also has a name. That is the purpose of language, amongst other functions: to name things. But why do people or things need to have a name? The most immediate response would be: in order to be able to call upon them and therefore make them present when they are absent. That is how a child calls for its Mother when she is absent. The name “Mother” (it is not all the mothers but the very specific one, it is like a given name) makes her present not only because its utterance makes her remember, but also because the call has the intention of making her appear, one more time. A name therefore contradicts the anguish that the fear of abandonment causes. A child, who learns how to use a name, also learns how to have some power of control over reality. S/he understands that his/her Mother, when she left, did not disappear forever but will return and that this arrival may be brought upon by the calling of her name.

 

Keywords: law; language; performative act


Everyone has a name and (almost) everything also has a name. That is the purpose of language, amongst other functions: to give things names. But why do people or things need to have a name? The most immediate response would be: in order to be able to call upon them and therefore make them present when they are absent. That is how a child calls for its Mother when she is absent. The name “Mother” (it is not all the mothers but the very specific one, it is like a given name) makes her present not only because its utterance makes her remember, but also because the call has the intention of making her appear, one more time. A name therefore contradicts the anguish that the fear of abandonment causes. A child, who learns how to use a name, also learns how to have some power of control over reality. S/he understands that his/her Mother, when she left, did not disappear forever but will return and that this arrival may be brought upon by the calling of her name.

Similarly, in religious language, the calling upon the name of God makes him present even when ritual determines the precise circumstances in which that may or should be done and that it is never done in vain. The interdict that obliges silence is not only about the name of God. It is also about given names, in some cultures, like for example, those of Guayaki studied by Pierre Clastres [1]. And why shouldn’t given names be said? In these cases, why does the interdict impend of them being pronounced and an obligation of silence? As always, an interdiction is simultaneously an order but the reason why this occurs is because a name is seen almost as a thing, unique as when it is said that it is a cherished object that can not or should not wear out by its excessive use.

There are words that contribute to the clarification of this issue at the end of Claude Lévi-Strauss’ book, Les structures élémentaires de la parenté [2]. He states, “exogamy and language have the same fundamental function: the communication with others, and the integration of the group” (p. 565). But throughout time they have diverged. Language has lost its density; it has turned into something so ethereal that it is almost unnoticed, relegated it is to the role of “ inert intermediate … passive support of ideas” (p.566).

Archaic societies still had the idea of an ecology of language. Hence the idea of the value of a name that can not be worn out, in contrast with the relationship we have today with language. We do not feel it as something that can be worn out and much less be scarce like water or air.

Names are signs and also a value. They were because today its value side lost importance, except for the poet who probably still lives this primitive density of the word in the name of things.

To the point where the Australian aborigines imagined songs in the origin of things, as Bruce-Chatwin [3] reminded us. As they were being pronounced by the Songlines, they would continue to be created.

The anthropologist Lévi-Strauss uses the expression “symbolic efficacy” [4] to designate this capacity of the word and of the name to interfere in the non-linguistic processes of reality: “Symbolic efficacy would consist precisely in that “inductive property” that they would possess, some in relation to others,  being able to build themselves with different materials, in different stages of life: organic processes, unconscious psyche, reflexive thought.” [5]

Naming things, being able to find the words to say them, is one of the biggest efforts that human reality is confronted with and that it tries to solve through the artistic activity, but not only. At times, it is through words and adequate names that survival depends on. In psychoanalysis, another privilege field of symbolic efficacy, everything depends on the names given to things in order for a cure to be possible. One of Freud’s first patients, Ana O., was not wrong when she described the therapeutic process to which she was submitted as a “talking cure”.

It is precisely in a parallelism with the analytical cure that Lévi-Strauss analogically bases his notion of symbolic efficacy. While the subject submitted to psychoanalysis narrates his story, his individual myth, to the person who hears it in silence, the shaman, in “savage” society, is the one who narrates the collective myth to the patient who listens to it in silence. Both speeches use words and names to cure, if one could say that, or at least maintain a world alive that in another way, without the possibility of nomination, would be condemned to die.

But it is not only by action that a name becomes essential to human societies. A name does not only serve to create a world. It is also needed to maintain order and classify it, that is rationally comprehensible.

As Claude Lévi-Strauss reminds us once again, knowledge is essentially a classifying and ordering enterprise, “possessing a classification, whatever it may be, a virtue in its own as opposed to the absence of classification” [6]

A name, in the sense of both first name and surname, is what allows us to avoid confusion and therefore contribute to the stabilisation of each person’s identity. It is able to do this by distinguishing and opposing to correctly classify. To name allows the establishment of a system that, from oppositions and differential deviations, finds each element in a grid where it gets an identity.

Therefore, very briefly, the Silva family distinguishes itself from the Fontes family by the difference in the surname and within the Silva family the brothers António, Joaquim and Manuel distinguish themselves by their first names. The system also allows António Silva to be distinguished from António Fontes and so on.

To sum up, it is not by chance that our identity card, even when nowadays the technological sophistication allows it to include so-called biometric data, continues to represent, in an outstanding position, all the names that are given to us and that distinguish us, by identifying.

According to anthropologists, this particularisation of the individual by his name at times amounts to projecting the social totality on the individual, as for example in an Australian tribe that names its five categories of kinship by means of terms that designate the parts of the human body: the social body is projected on the individual body. But this anatomic de-totalisation, that gives each class of kinship a name of a part of the body, results in an organic re-totalisation in that the social body is seen as an integrated totality, an organism.

On the other hand, an individual’s name, who is part of a class, gives him a position of individual difference in this class we call family.

There are naming systems that try to account for the passage of time and the consequent difference in identity. In this case, brothers may call themselves “first born”, “second born”, etc. and change the name in the classification by one of their deaths. They therefore change names and start to have not a patronymic (surname) but a necronym, using the technical term which is what also happens with us when we speak of the “widow Silva”. Before that she was “Mrs. Silva” and conceivably even further back she was also the “daughter Fontes.”

 



[1] Chronique des indiens Guayaki. Plon, 1972.

[2] Paris, Mouton & Co, 1967.

[3] O canto nómada. Quetzal, 2000.

[4] "L'efficacité symbolique" in Anthropologie structurale. Plon, 1958, pp. 205-226.

[5] Idem p. 223

[6] La pensée sauvage. Paris, Plon, 1962. p. 16.

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