Sunday, 13 May 2018

Naming is a serious business

I wanted to find an image to go with this post and I decided to reference William Blake’s ‘Adam Naming the Beasts’ of 1810. I bought a reproduction of the work in 2006 and wrote about it here at the time:
My impression of the painting, my visual image of it before opening the package, was different from the reality. For some reason, I had pictured in my mind Adam turned three-quarters on to the viewer, facing the marching procession of animals traversing the picture space of the middle ground. But, in fact, he’s facing directly toward the viewer, finger raised, eyes unfocused and aimed off to the left, into the distance, as he conjures up the mystical names from his subconscious. “Whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name” (Genesis 2.19). Of note is the fact that Blake painted a sister picture: ‘Eve Naming the Birds’. This is typical of Blake’s inherently irreverent attitude: although he was very religious, it was an idiosyncratic belief that he nurtured. He saw spirits. So he needed to embellish on scripture for his own ends. It’s fitting that he made a twin for his great painting, so that he could include women in his cosmology: the other half of the sexual equation.
The second picture shows a young, naked Eve pictured from the waist up and facing three-quarters on to the viewer, in the fashion that I had incorrectly conceived Adam had been positioned in the complementary painting in the set of two before I had received that image in the post in 2006. In her picture, Blake has drawn Eve with her hair down, and the fingers of her raised right hand are tangled in its strands. Above her shoulders, in the background, three birds are shown flying, their wings extended. The movement created by the birds’ wings, Eve’s hair and the spread fingers of her raised hands form a single dynamic motif that make you think that the wind is blowing in the scene pictured. As in the picture of Adam, her eyes are rendered in such a way that pulls your attention to them.

On 31 January 2013, I wrote a sonnet about Blake’s painting of Adam. The sonnet is reproduced here:
He stands, a faraway look in his eyes,
reviewing the beastly procession,
a hand raised as if impelled from the skies,
attendant on the human concession 
in Eden there, nature’s sovereign, Adam,
a busy man naming the animals.
A pen and tempera mise-en-abime
that illustrates your mind’s wondrous spirals, 
this later work might portray you a mage
thus: how you sought to engage with the world,
to manage it roundly with paint and page,
eternity on linen to remould. 
Unhappy man the artist who sits down
to happily fix jewels to the crown.
Blake was a proto-Romantic in that his works anticipated in their themes and style the work of the first-generation Romantics, Wordsworth and Coleridge. But he was a bit of an outlier as well, like Turner would be later. He was a true original, intently dedicated to his strange work, labouring away year after year in total obscurity until, in the years after the war against France ended, he started to be paid court to by young aesthetes who had grown up in the shadow of the first-generation Romantics. They had been taught to appreciate Blake’s strange art. The post-war moment also saw major political changes in the UK, with the franchise extended to a larger number of its residents (although not to women, of course). Later, the Pre-Raphaelites emerged in England, the first art movement. Unlike the Romantics, to whom the label was as often as not applied by their enemies in order to discredit their work, the Pre-Raphaelites took the name and applied it to themselves, in a self-conscious effort to change society.

Naming has always been a contested thing. I’m reading a book about the English Revolution of the 17th century at the moment and it depicts the struggles of often religious dissenters to impose the will of Parliament against that of the king. Charles and his followers would refer to such people, often apprentices employed in any of the large number of registered trades in the city, using derogatory terms. Naming is part of the political struggle, and it has always been so.

I saw a tweet by a man on Twitter who routinely criticises the media for being too close to government. He was retweeting a tweet by someone else that was critical of Latika Bourke, the Fairfax journalist, for this reason. In her tweet, which was included as an image in the tweet, Bourke said that she had on several occasions suggested to government members that Australia should set up an Asiavision Song Contest, instead of sending singers every year to Eurovision. I wondered how that would work considering the political sensitivities involved in the issue of Taiwan. Would China participate in such a contest if Taiwan was listed as a separate entity?

What you call things determines, to a significant degree, how they are viewed. In the study of history it was in the years after Blake died, in the Victorian era, that scholars started to use terms such as “Renaissance” and “Middle Ages” to talk about different periods that had passed by in time. Reform was in the air, and notions of progress were being fuelled by scientific advances. The world was changing and it suited people alive at the time to use new words to talk about it.

But that doesn’t mean that terms that are once used should be used in the same way forever. We need to occasionally revisit the nomenclature to see if it still suits our purposes. It might be that new terms are needed to replace the old ones. The notion of “intersectionality” which enters discussions of social relations, specifically with respect to feminism, is a case in point. Young people are apt to neologise as they struggle to mould the world according to their own ideas of how it should be structured and governed.

Getting to decide what things are called is part of the business of government, after all. We know this because of the large investments in marketing governments make for different policies that are introduced into the thorny thickets that often impede movement in the public sphere. Who gets to name things is the person who decides the terms of engagement and people fight bitterly over the right to assign names to things. “Fake news” is a case in point in contemporary discourse.

Naming has a symbolic value that converts to real power. The name that Prince Harry will be assigned by Buckingham Palace after he marries Megan Markle has real political relevance, for example. Will he be the Duke of Somerset? Will his wife be called the Duchess of Somerset? Such decisions remind us that giving names to things assigns them a value from the outset, even before people have started to use those names in their conversations.

In Blake’s case, it is hard to guess what he wanted to achieve in his paintings of Adam and Eve, though no doubt by 1810 the controversies about the role of the Church in the system of government in the UK had been comprehensively discussed in the public sphere. Being a Christian as well as a mystic, Blake may have seen it as his role to protect the originary mythology of the Bible, but he was also alive to discussions current at the time about the role of women in society. Blake wrote several original poems that posit a new mythology based on an alternative cosmogony and the unorthodox ideas he held about God. More study needed.

This morning I saw another tweet, this time from Cutter Streeby, an American who often tweets about poetry. The tweet said, “’On the whole, I don’t want to think too much about why I write what I write.’ —Joan Didion.” I responded saying, “I've heard that robots using AI are unable to describe the processes that lead to the conclusions they reach in their calculations ...” Streeby didn’t respond. Didion is one of my favourite writers, although not all of her works are equally good, in my estimation. She was certainly original in her heyday in the 60s and 70s.

It remains to be seen whether self-consciousness will be programmed into robots. For the moment, they seem to be under control, although some people on social media seem to be constantly on the lookout for signs of the legendary “Skynet” (the AI system that is in a war against humanity in the dystopian future of the 1984 movie ‘Terminator’).

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