Violence of Names

It’s often observed that creation does not take place without destruction, that there is no life without death, and so on. Theories of redemptive violence aside, there is truth to this. And this truth would hold for names as well. Strangely, though, we rarely seem take the time to clean house, to throw away names. Or maybe we do throw them away, or replace them with new ones … but still, what about actively calling out, critiquing, and destroying names that hold us down? A slave revolt against master names… 

I got to thinking about this from an essay by Tronti in The Italian Difference. Here’s the key passage (p.99): “Real socialism did not indicate a particular realisation of socialism that left open the possibility of another socialism, the ideal one. For socialism incarnated itself in that realization to such an extent that at this point, in my view, ‘socialism’ is what took place there and then, and nothing else. There is no possible recuperation of the symbolic order that was evoked by this word; it is not possible to detach it from the reality that embodied it. The same I think can be said of contemporary democratic systems, which should not be read as a ‘false’ democracy in the face of which there is or should be a ‘true’ democracy, but as the coming-true of the ideal, or conceptual, form of democracy.”

I think this is accurate with regard to democracy, and I’d also like to propose that the same be said of Christianity, and religion. So, just a small point I guess.

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7 Responses to “Violence of Names”

  1. dbarber Says:

    p.s.: One of the reasons for destroying these names is the very fact that they dissemble, i.e. that they _engender_ the ideal v. actual split. In other words, it’s not that the ideal / actual split is a generic criterion to be applied to all names, it’s rather that this split is the effect of which the cause is Christianity, religion, democracy, etc.

    Notice how often we are instructed to distinguish between “true Islam” and “its fundamentalist version,” etc. — the ideal / actual split gets exported … but why do we need to split?

  2. Anthony Paul Smith Says:

    I like it. Sort of radicalizing nominalism.

  3. ken oakes Says:

    Doesn’t the split come from within the ‘symbolic orders’ or ‘systems’ themselves, inasmuch as they are always naming an undesirable state of affairs or way of life and a desirable one maybe attainable with some struggle, maybe unattainable? I don’t think the split is too suprising given that some concept of salvation or redemption always seems to be work in these symbolic orders, and I don’t think the split is necessarily an outworking of ideology. I do think, however, that this split can often become a site for ideology (meaning that our failure to obtain the desirable way of life only proves more strongly how undesirable the state of affairs we’re in are, entailing that we need more of the unattainable salvation being offered), and so identifying a system with its historical effects without remainder serves as a healthy shock for these orders. I think this shock opens up the the possibility of an order recognizing this split-cum-ideology and in turn developing novel splits or salvations, a concept which I think is inevitable for these systems.

  4. dbarber Says:

    Yes, radicalizing nominalism, i like that. We can create names, some might call it fabulation, just as we can (some have said) discard the name. The maintenance of the name is a transcendental both in the classical sense and in the more modern sense — the former because it maintains a real unity, the latter because it maintains a split between the condition and the actual.

    Ken, i do think that the split comes from w/n the symbolic orders themselves, absolutely. That’s what i want to get at by saying there’s something specific to Christianity, or to democracy, that creates the split. Which is also to say that such a split may not be operative in other symbolic orders. (“other symbolic orders” = both already existent symbolic orders and yet to be created / named symbolic orders)

  5. Adam Kotsko Says:

    This post has been haunting me the last few days. I think of it particularly in connection with the accusations that Levi Bryant used to hurl at me, that I was de facto carrying water for fundamentalists by identifying as Christian in any way. (Of course, he’d then clarify that he wasn’t really saying that, that of course liberal Christians exist and are good, that my work is very important and interesting — then two minutes later I’d be carrying water for the fundamentalists again.) Levi’s accusations were easy to dismiss, but this isn’t.

    Milbank seems to be an example of how advocating for the idealized version of something collapses back down into the actual-existing version — he views Western modernity as a nihilistic abberation, etc., but when it comes down to it, he’s happy to defend that against Islam or whatever.

  6. dbarber Says:

    Levi sounds like Dawkins there, with the idea that liberal Christians lend legitimacy to the “fundamentalists.” Problem with that, in my mind, is that the name of secularism Dawkins (and Levi?) want to advance is also in need of destruction. That is, from a certain perspective, one could claim that secularism is a covert way of lending legitimacy to Christianity (that being my claim, following in many ways Anidjar’s). All of which is to say that we need new names (of which I’d like to say diaspora is one, or at least is the path to one or more).

  7. David U. B. Liu Says:

    Very provocative in several directions for being such a pithy entry. Of course one could say that this is, inter alia, Dan’s way of following a path never clearly blazed by Derrida (though certainly gestured at in the latter’s last works). So if we need new names, and Dan’s new name to replace “Christianity” is diaspora (one could ask why only Christianity and not, at least for others, other traditional pieties), I wonder what he would propose for democracy (does “multitude” do it for him, or does he need to invent something else?). At the same time, it seems to me that different temporalities intersect on the urgency to overthrow certain names. What ails “democracy” in the older democracies may not apply to what’s happening right now in Myanmar, Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, and Syria (just as Scandinavian socialism was never Soviet) though I am happy to hear an argument that even there new terms may work better than “democracy.” My point is that, although immanence makes sense in the valuation of terms, it may also too quickly collapse the diversity of simultaneous manifestations and moments. To invoke Tip O’Neil’s dictum about the “localness” of all politics, do we decide to overthrow certain master names for purposes of “local” needs? If so, then it becomes clear that what Dan’s advocating is a revolutionary STRATEGY for this particular time and place that we the discussants inhabit.

    On a cultural flip side, let me bring up the Confucian notion of the rectification of names. Though presumably based on an anti-nominalist (I don’t say essentialist) position, it sought to perform a task not entirely unlike Dan’s revolt against the tyranny of names. That is, it rebels against the tyrannical usurping of certain (relational and ethical) names, doing so from a certain fidelity to the interiorized “authenticity” of such names, which was in turn capable of opposing any “real” use. In this way, and ironically, the rectification of names performed its own “diaspora.” The Daoists also were “into” diaspora, but in a more patent way. They thought that if you get rid of all these unobtainable terms of virtue, then people would behave and perform better – of an unforced nature. Again ironically, they were more essentialist than the Confucians…


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