The Battle of Proper Names

In Of Grammatology, Jacques Derrida’s most influential work regarding linguistics and writing, he spends time describing a story of anthropological warfare between French anthropologist Claude Levi Strauss, and the Nambikwara people of Brazil, whom he studied. Derrida refers to a scene called “The Writing Lesson” from Strauss’s book The Savage Mind, in which he describes a forbidden interaction between the young girls of the Nambikwara and Strauss. The Nambikwara people do not use “proper names” when they refer to each other; they instead use a set of designated nicknames, which preserves a sense of structure within their community. The forbidden interaction occurred when Strauss discovered that he could get the proper names of the tribe from the young girls in the form of a game. Strauss admitted to manipulating the youngsters in order to gain access to the information that the Nambikwara had always kept private. After the elders discovered the alliance between Strauss and the girls, his “sources off information dried up”. As I read the account of the violation that occurred to the Nambikwara community and Derrida’s understanding of their ability to “obliterate” or “arche-write” (discussed below) their own language, I instantly began to think about the various naming rituals that occur within the queer, trans and performance communities. Performing a chosen name or identity is an opportunity for that person to embody a persona that mimics or represents who they really are, and this performance timeline can be flexible.

If a non-ally asks a trans person for their “real name”, this is a cultural violation and is viewed as highly offensive. Surely if Strauss were to study transgender people today, his sources would be dried up and his funding reneged. Within queer culture (which includes trans identities), names and nicknames – given and taken – are swapped and appropriated at a rapid pace. It can be difficult to keep up with a community who values identity fluidity as a Christian might value their relationship with God. That is to say, naming within queer communities is taken very seriously, even if comical, or highly unusual names are taken by a queer or transgender individual. The process of taking on a new name or a moniker occurs within drag communities as well. For drag performers, assigning or receiving a name can (and often does) include a tongue and cheek reference to historical and pop-cultural events or can be a derivative of a celebrity name. Often a drag queen will pick a name or be given one by a friend or “drag mother” , not too unlike the naming purposes described by Strauss.

Theorist Erving Goffman wrote about self-representation in our daily interactions in the 1959 essay Presentation in Everyday Life. He describes the various ways we may alter our behavior in order to 1) conform to society’s expectations based on our presentations and 2) to elevate our social ranking amongst our peers.

“I have said that when an individual appears before others his actions will influence the definition of the situation which they come to have. Sometimes the individual will act in a thoroughly calculating manner, expressing himself in a given way solely in order to give the kind of impression to others that is likely to evoke from them a specific response he is concerned to obtain…This kind of control upon the part of the individual reinstates the symmetry of the communication process, and sets the stage for a kind of information game-a potentially infinite cycle of concealment, discovery, false revelation, and rediscovery.” (5-6)

Certainly one, who inhabits a trans identity, enters this “infinite cycle of concealment, discovery, false revelation, and rediscovery” beyond what Goffman refers to as daily interactions. This calculating manner, this self-expression takes on more gravity and necessity when one’s generic daily interactions have the potential to put one at risk of discrimination. Adopting a new name is critical to navigating and simplifying these daily interactions. For transgender people, changing one’s name and pronouns presents a rupture to the various systems and institutions that monitor identity. This process bares a striking resemblance to the obliteration of language that Derrida refers to in The Battle of Proper Names. “Arche-writing”, which to him is a notion of writing that insists that the violation that “the written” introduces between what is intended to be conveyed and what is actually conveyed, is typical of the violation that affects the status quo, including the notion of self-presence. Taking on a different identity, name or nickname that does not categorically fit anywhere (eg, names/identities like Gender Trash, Pigeon and Home Fries) an “infinite referral” – it never arrives at meaning in of itself. These nicknames can be for play or for real and their intention is to disrupt the preconceived notions of who a person is and can be.

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