On Naming

Jill Magi phrases my own impostor syndrome eloquently:

I am not at all certain of the currency of “small press publication” and “I am an experimentalist”—aspects of my biography that until now have felt somewhat normal […]I wonder, are there others around me who experience language as gangly failure, as plastic, as inconclusive, as desire? I send out this wish to meet them.

Sent and received.

I tell my students about the anthropocene and, like good scientists, they mostly wonder about its validity as a geological fact. I think about the word and how we are coming to agree or disagree about a word, a combination. Doesn’t this move them? Don’t they feel the shuffling of their tongues trying to say the word and, by saying it, admitting that something has happened, something has been named?

It might be more dreamy to look at facts in this case. More romantic to wait for some “truth” about time instead of accepting an abstract. How infrequently are my own experiments and abstracts more “right” than their concrete, hard, and researched facts. But this might be one case, one instance, of an abstraction of necessity. I’m reminded of Breton,

Our brains are dulled by the incurable mania of wanting to make the unknown known, classifiable. . .

Andre ́ Breton, First Manifesto of Surrealism, 1924 

If the word the anthropocene is a failure and we’ve already named it (ironically, the “it” being our own failure to do not harm), can we pretend it away again? Isn’t it enough that we desire to name what’s happening?

I think about naming Avery. I’d wanted to name him Bird, but gave him a name that’s “for the birds” (as I say), has the sound of birds, wind, and things that flutter. He was named before he was born and it made him more real before he was, well, real. It was a scary moment with language; it was the kind of moment where “the word is not the thing” echoed in my head and felt deadening. What was the thing? What did I name? What did naming it do?

My coworker thinks words are names we give things so we can just talk. I think that’s too simple. She says it’s my field, my own tie to Wittgenstein and I remember the day Albert said that the german word for sentence, der saltz, translates to also mean “leap” or the day Stephen drew the two worlds he imagined Plato envisioned on a napkin at BJ’s. It’s a leap to get from the thing to the description of the thing.

The fact that I think this and can’t pin it down leaves me lacking. I feel unqualified. I feel, again, like a philosophy 101 student or the way I felt my first day of grad school when Lisa walked in wearing cowboy boots and Aaron’s poem worked like a machine.

That might be the trick though, the trick to staying in my field: a constant renewal of inadequacy. I’m starting to think that feeling and the constant re-affirmation of needing to try, to keep up, to make, and to think through it all over again is the driving force.

I look at the students and they know so much more than they’ve been told they know. They know so much more than me and I know so much more than them. I wonder how we can start to talk about how dizzying it all is and how exciting it can be to seek a bit of focus, a bit of precision. They come again to “fact” and “how did you get there” and I come again to, “can you help me trace the way?” I wonder where we’ll meet during the research paper.

To feel a bit more adequate, I poem-ed. And, look, even won an award. Thank you SLAB.


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