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The Politics and Possibilities of Naming

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Organizer: Edith Adams

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In My Garden (Book), Jamaica Kincaid reflects upon her relationship to her garden and its inextricability from dynamics of control that have characterized colonial histories. At one moment in the text, Kincaid recalls the practice among early botanists of (re)naming plants, an exercise that she links with other forms of colonial violence. According to Kincaid, gestures of (re)naming in colonial contexts not only “emptied worlds of their names,” but also endowed explorers with the power to possess those worlds by (re)naming the land and its peoples in their image (Kincaid 160). In this way, “this naming of things is so crucial to possession — a spiritual padlock with the key thrown irretrievably away — that it is a murder, an erasing” (122). As scholar Julietta Singh describes it, what emerges here is a gesture of “naming others as if they exist for oneself” (Singh 166).

This panel takes Kincaid’s and Singh’s reflections as an invitation to consider the onto-epistemological ramifications of naming, particularly as it relates to coloniality. What is the relationship between naming, power, and violence? Who has the power to name something or someone else, and from where does that power derive? And how, exactly, do names not only wound but also, as Kincaid suggests, murder or erase the very existence of another?

At the same time, this seminar is interested in reflections that consider not only the violence of naming, but also the power and possibility of naming anew, differently, or otherwise. How might naming as a power and activity square with an attempt to retrieve a sort of ontological possibility, a different means of thinking about the relationship between language and being? If, as Cristina Rivera Garza wrote in a recent Words Without Borders essay, “We can only fight against what we can name,” then what kind of naming practices might bring about liberation or survival as opposed to violence? And if certain kinds of names can “murder,” then how might alternate or heretofore unimagined naming practices allow us to think otherwise about categories such as the Human, the Subject, or Identity?

With these questions in mind, this seminar invites papers that explore literary and cultural texts that help us to reimagine the politics and possibility of naming. Topics of interest include, but are not limited to:

Colonial naming practices / Decolonial naming practices
The relationship between naming, control, and possession
Literary and/or comparative approaches to the theorization of the proper name in analytic philosophy
Naming and violence
Naming and language
Naming and power 
The intersections of naming/names and translation
(Im)proper names, metamorphosing names, translated names, multiplying names
Naming and patriarchy, naming and gender 
Naming and race
The relationship between the (proper) name and Identity, Subjecthood, and/or the Human
Naming and alternate futures

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