Dumb Ideas About a Smart Subject

I just finish a rather dim essay in an otherwise excellent book Living With Shakespeare. Most
of the essays are written by actors, directors, and producers. Overall, the collection is a refreshing, insightful, non-"literary" look at Shakespeare by people who basically keep pointing out that Shakespeare needs to be performed in order to be appreciated.

A few of the essays towards the end of the book are written by academics. They are in all honesty not quite as good as the previous essays although some are okay. One of the not so great ones starts going on and on about the danger of "naming" things.

This is not a completely ridiculous subject--even if it falls into the but-we-couldn't-even-have-this-argument-if-we-didn't-do-it category (like arguments about democracy and free press). A named thing can be forced into a category it doesn't deserve. My third grade teacher decided I was Disruptive and made my life unbearable. So the topic deserves consideration.

Where this author's essay falls to pieces is when he argues (1) "naming" is a masculine activity, to which feminists are, according to the male author, rightly opposed; (2) naming things takes humans away from nature.

Adam Naming All the Animals
(1) The dopey argument that naming is a masculine activity rests on backwards reasoning. Adam named things in Genesis and/or male scientists have usually named things (because historically, there have been more male scientists than female ones); therefore, women--who have been left out of all this naming--are not namers.

This is just silly--like arguing that because most published scholars (historically) have been male, women prefer oral accounts (which are supposedly more "real" or valid or something).

These types of arguments ignore context, as in, What happens when the playing field is leveled?

For example, I occasionally run into Humanities-type people who argue that because so many Humanities instructors are liberal that proves that conservatives aren't interested in the Humanities. But it's backwards reasoning--which came first? Do people remain in programs where they are made to feel inherently unwelcome? (I did when I got my master's because I already had very strong ideas about literature; I was prepared to disagree with people who thought they knew better. If I hadn't . . . ?)

Rather than reasoning backwards, all anyone has to do is observe: it is clearly human nature to "name" things (and one of the funner parts of being human!). For me (a female adjunct), 70% of teaching is figuring out the best way to explain a concept. Often that means pinpointing the best example or activity or media clip. But much of the time it comes down to honing the best definition: How can I explain this thing so the majority of my students will understand it?

A fascination with "naming" things, people, ideas, and fantasy worlds has absolutely nothing to do with gender.

(2) The author is all in favor of supposed feminist anti-naming because naming things takes us away from nature. When we categorize and name things, we stop being a part of the great circle of life.

There's some validity to the idea that certain situations have to be dealt with instinctively rather than intellectually. Cesar Millan and Thomas Phelan both argue, individually, that one should not try to intellectualize discipline with either dogs or small children. Cesar continues the argument by requesting that owners stop thinking, "Don't do that, Spot (my cute little dog that I treat like a child)" and start thinking, "Tssst, animal."

But removing the name from consideration isn't some kind of instantaneous the-forest-now-loves-me magic trick. Go ahead and hug a tree; the bear will still eat you, whether you call him something or not. ("I'm an animal too! I have no name for you! We both live in nature together!!" Chomp chomp chomp.)

Yes, Shakespeare does tackle the problem of "naming" and how it can unfairly define us--like Juliet pondering Romeo's name--but Shakespeare never pretends creating names and words for the world around us isn't absolutely necessary to survival and, for that matter, to being human. He is far more likely to ask (the far more interesting question), "What do we do with names?" than the far less interesting question, "O why must people name and categorize?!" (insert beating of the brow).

As the book's essays collectively point out, You want to understand it? You've gotta let it sweep you up, name and all!

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