I’m afraid of the words

5 08 2019

So, there are a couple of different types of naming-power.

There’s the power to determine what it is to be a part of a group. This is so common a form of naming that we often don’t call it as such; instead, we call it ‘defining’ and defenses of such definitions, ‘boundary policing’.

Examples: Who is American? Who’s Christian or Muslim? Who’s a Democrat or Republican? Conservative, liberal, leftist, etc. Such defining is a basic part of any society, and any politics, and, really, any commentary on society or politics. We seek to make sense of a jumble, and so sort things into “this” (and “not-this”) and “that” (and “not-that”) and “the other thing.”

This matters in politics, not the least in determining whether something counts as political as all, and conflicts over such definitions can lead to great anger and, in the worst cases, violence. Who’s in and who’s out and who gets to decide is a foundational set of political questions.

There’s also the power to name oneself: I am this, and this, and this, and not that, or the other thing. This self-naming can set eyelids to twitching; asking or reminding or demanding that others recognize one as this, and this, and this can, yep, set others off.

Coupled with this is the shrugging off of what others have named you: You have said I am this, but, no, I am not-this. Not only are you claiming the power to name yourself, you are denying the power of others to name you. Ditto on the off-settings.

Now, what can also happen in the process of claiming a name for oneself is the unearthing of the history of names, and how what was assumed, should not be.

This last bit sounds abstract, but it’s not: Consider how “the race question” in the US was so often about [white people discussing and defining] black people. Then black people said, loud enough for white people to hear, No, we’ll define ourselves, thank you very much. Oh, and by the way, we have a thing or two to say about white people. And over time something known as “Critical race studies” emerged, and race was jostled out of its convenient eternal meanings and historicized, with one result that whiteness was no longer a timeless standard, but just another historical artifact.

This is an utterly incomplete and not-accurate account of the evolution of the study of race in the US, but you get the point, yes? Whiteness had been claimed as the default, worthy only of defense and otherwise off-limits to the commentary of those who were deemed not-white. To take whiteness out of the assumed and into the studied is to destabilize it. It’s not that whiteness has no power—christ, no—but that it is contingent means that it is not, strictly speaking, necessary.

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I don’t quite know where I’m going with this, and I definitely want to hit on gender-identity issues, but this is enough for tonight.

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Oh, and you absolutely should listen to this.

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