Sunday, 8 June 2014

Writing and naming (2)

There is a beautiful sentence in the beginning of Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude:
“The world was so recent that many things lacked names, and in order to indicate them it was necessary to point.”
This is a world where humans enjoy the comfort of the index finger. The index finger is a guarantor of sincerity and of objectivity. Behind the index finger we cannot hide. It is too thin and too imperative to allow us such self-concealments. Most importantly, because it doesn’t contain an utterance, the index finger is true to nature. It does not represent anything; it only points out.
But once things become complicated in Macondo (in the world at large), once there is an inflation of objects, pointing is no longer sufficient. Language appears right here – at the moment when the index finger loses its referential power.

Of forgetting (again)
But the deluge of objects is not only the beginning of language; it is also the beginning of forgetfulness. A new problem appears along with the naming of things: how to remember what we’ve called this object, and this, and this?
When it is discovered that the sickness of insomnia had struck the town of Macondo, the Buendía men in One Hundred Years of Solitude devise a stratagem to impede forgetfulness (because insomnia, García Márquez explains, was not exactly about not-sleeping; it was about not-remembering: “a kind of idiocy that had no past”). This stratagem, this remedy is none other than the art and craft of Writing. In order to overcome the plague of forgetfulness, José Arcadio Buendía decides to brand the world:
“With an inked brush he marked everything with its name: table, chair, clock, door, wall, bed, pan. He went to the corral and marked the animals and plants: cow, goat, pig, hen, cassava, caladium, banana.”
And then he is struck by the reality of writing: the fact that writing deceives, the fact that it transforms objects into signs:
“He realized that the day might come when things would be recognized by their inscriptions but that no one would remember their use.”
And henceforth the inscriptions he hangs from objects become detailed descriptions, whereby future readers are told, for instance, what a cow is and how it is to be used (fed, watered, milked, slaughtered).
Here is presented, in a fictional guise, the fundamental problem of writing as a form of deceit. Brought about as a promise to cure forgetfulness, writing severs the ties between world and language. And the cut is so deep, the damage is permanent. The world will never be the same.

Of how little we know
A name makes apparent a lack of knowledge on the part of the one who’s doing the naming. In the naming of a place, we make apparent how little we know about the place in question. Captain James Cook calling a place in New Zealand ‘Doubtless Bay’ – an excellent example.

"This bay I have named Doubtless Bay": James Cook's journal entry
recording the naming of a place completely foreign to him (1769)
Source: The Doubtless Blog
This is how the story goes (for my non-New Zealand readers). December 9th, 1769; Sunday afternoon. Navigating along the eastern coast of northern New Zealand, Cook has this piece of land in sight. He comes very close but doesn’t land here, because he doesn’t know if the water in the bay is deep enough for safe navigation. Then some winds drag the ship away and he gives up. From a distance, however, he decides to call the spot Doubtless Bay, because this one thing is certain about the place: it is a bay. Simple as that. Trivial. Ridiculously uncomplicated, like the name itself. From the distance of a ship that never makes it to this shore, the place is given a name. The story is significant because it makes apparent the fundamental problem of distance: naming marks a separation between the place as a presence and the place as a document (the place as it exists and the place as it is written down).
Note: the bay was given a name not because James Cook was a professional baptizer, but because the gesture served the purpose of his expedition. Back in London, a few years earlier, he had been given the task of creating a map of the unknown (an imagined but much hoped-for southern continent). He had been sent to the Southern Seas to find a place invisible to the British Empire at home. He was to find this place and make it visible through writing. With the words ‘Doubtless Bay’ attached to its presence, the place becomes recognizable to the Empire, i.e. readable. Now, the place is written down. And as such, the name becomes a lie of the place (not to be mistaken for ‘the lie of the land,’ a technical term but not entirely exempt from a similar interpretation).
A doubt turned into a certainty; a lack of knowledge conveniently covered up by means of an arbitrary sign – a word. This is what naming is: a trick that helps us camouflage our inferiority.
Let’s face it: a place is far more than us; it is larger, it is smarter, it has been through what we can’t even imagine, it has come to us from aeons for which we don’t even have a proper means of calculation. So what do we do, when faced with this terrible embarrassment? What do we, humans, do? We cheat. We take a shortcut. We force the place to fit through the bottleneck of our language. We give the place a name for the record. So that it can be listed, catalogued, mapped, drawn, narrated, taught in schools, made into an encyclopaedia entry. In other words, we put the place to human use.
That’s why naming is lying.

Of babies and their curse
We name babies at a stage in their lives when we know absolutely nothing about them. And once the name has been approved, it becomes the label by which the child will be known for the rest of their lives. Through a mere word, we condemn the child to carry the burden of a lie in the telling of which he/she has had no part. We condemn them to carry about a sign of recognition: like a tag, like a yellow star, like a number tattooed on the skin. By means of this name, they will be easily told apart, isolated, policed, notified of their duties, slowly transformed into citizens. We tell them this name is their identity. And that’s a big fat lie, because their names are only words on paper. Their names are not the names of gods, which nobody is allowed to pronounce. And by the way, where is this interdiction coming from? Whence this fear of calling a god’s name? Not from some kind of dread that we might mispronounce the names of those we are obliged to venerate? That we might cause trouble among mortals by using a name where no name is possible other than the index finger?

Michelangelo, The Creation of Adam.
The moment when man dropped the index finger.
Source: Wikipedia
The names of citizens are meant to be known, because they are not subjected to the divinity; they are subordinate to the state. Citizens are vassals, and vassal-ness can only be communicated in written form: through sealed agreements or coercions, through codices, through official documents, through nomenclatures.
Names, like anathemas. Like stigmata. Visible, readable. Names, the facts of our identities that somebody else has decided we needed in order to fare well through life. And all for the sake of writing. It could only be for the sake of writing; because (remember?) pointing us out could have been done through the use of the index finger, which requires no stress, no need to differentiate. Baptized by the index finger, we would have had a chance of living with the gods; maybe of being gods.

If it hadn’t been for our attachment to signs…