Tag Archives: culture

The Power of Names

Shakespeare invited us to consider, “What’s in a name?  That which we call a rose, by any other word would smell as sweet.”  The Bard’s musings on the subject notwithstanding, the truth is that names do hold a fair bit of power in forging our perception of other people, as well as ourselves.

If you are a foreign-born individual who goes about in your adopted land of residence with a first name that points clearly to your nation of origin, you immediately know how vital a role a name can play when trying to integrate yourself with the local population (so much so that many foreigners will give in, and change their foreign-sounding names to something more palatable to the culture they aim to assimilate in).  Although few of us will readily admit to it, we are all susceptible to making generalizations about people we come across in our daily life based on superficial features.  Names are definitely one such feature.  That is not to say that every assumption made about someone based on such features is either wrong, or malicious.  It’s not wrong (factually or morally) to deduce that a person with an obviously Asian sounding name is in some way culturally connected to Asia.  Same with a man named Hans Gunterkind most likely being of some kind of Germanic heritage,  Jean-Pierre Neauvoix being French.  So on and so forth.

(It goes without saying that the contemptible part in forging a preconception about someone isn’t the initial preconception itself, it’s what you do with it from there on forward.  If on recognizing you’re about to speak with Chen Huiyin leads you to assume she is probably Asian before seeing her, no sensible person will raise an eyebrow for that assumption.  If, however, you further take your preconception to assume she is in some way personally inferior to someone who isn’t Asian, that’s where we run into issues of bigotry that will rightly be condemned by much of the public at large.)

Issues of what might be called ethnic names aside (are not all names relatively ethnic to different cultures, one might be inclined to ask here?), there are naming norms within American culture that occasionally shape our interactions with each other.  When you’re in the middle of everyday America and come across the name Kevin, it is unavoidable that you will imagine a man.  Unless you just happen to know a woman named Kevin, but even then you are likely to ascribe it to a rare anomaly.  What if over the course of the next three decades a swarm of new parents decide that Kevin makes for a great name for their baby girls, and the social paradigm shifts so that suddenly you run into more female Kevins than male ones?  Would you easily adjust to the new cultural trend, or still stick to the norm you had been accustomed to of Kevin being a predominantly male name?  If this sounds like an unlikely scenario to happen, think about how the name Ashley in America at the start of the 20th Century changed from mostly male to predominantly female by the start of the 21st Century.

Not to belabor a point past my humble reader’s generous patience, but it would feel disingenuous not to touch on my personal experience here.  Growing up in continental Europe as a boy named Sascha/Sasha the social assumption about it was that my parents must be bland, unimaginative, and possibly even a tad bit conservative in their leanings, precisely because boys named Sascha/Sasha are so common to come across there.  At the time, it formed a personal impression of myself being just another average lad going about my business, similarly to how I imagine an American youth named Michael or David would feel on the matter in contemporary American culture.  When I moved to the U.S. in my early teens I came to find out that my name was somewhat of a peculiarity to my peers; one that definitely demanded further explanation on my part.  Suddenly, I was no longer merely a random guy with an average-to-boring name, I was a random guy whose androgynous-to-feminine name invited further conversation (occasionally schoolyard taunts, too, but I’m pretty good at deflecting unkind commentary and rolling with the punches, so I bear no negative grudges from it).

I would argue that your name is the most basic qualifier of your identity, and people’s reactions to it forms a great deal of your learned behavior when interacting with others.  I can honestly say that the change in perception in how people reacted to my name on moving to the U.S.–as opposed to the reaction I received for it back in Europe–did affect how I carry myself and interact with others to some non-trivial extent.  At least in that I know when I introduce myself to others, I can be sure of two things:  1. I will be pegged as foreign regardless of my citizenship status, 2. I may be asked an awkward follow-up question regarding my name (to which, when I’m feeling lazy, my typical response will be either “My parents were really hoping for a girl, and were surprised when I popped out, dick-swinging and all,” or “I wanted to be able to better relate to women, but Nancy Sunflowerseed sounded too butch, so Sascha had to do”).

Believe it or not, the purpose of this post was not to regale anyone with anecdotes about naming cultures, as a clever ruse to sneak in a dick-swinging joke.  It’s to touch on a greater point about forging better writing habits and being mindful of one’s intended audience’s social palate.  Sooner or later, just about all writers find themselves fretting over picking out the perfect name to convey their characters’ personalities and backgrounds effortlessly to the reader.  And there are definitely right and wrong names one can decide on, for the roundabout reasons stated above.

If you’re writing a story about a street-wise, inner-city black kid, born and bred in the Bronx, but is named Hans Jorgenson Gunterkind, well you better be ready to explain how the hell that came to be.  Same if you’re writing a story about a 15th Century Samurai named Steven.  While clever names can add exotic intrigue to characters, and piece together unspoken–unwritten?–context about their personal interactions with their environments, it can also needlessly distract the reader if it’s not really meant to be a focal point of the narrative.

It’s perfectly fine to be bold and go for something unconventional when you’re crafting your written world, but don’t bend over backwards to convey uniqueness unnecessarily, to the point that it hinders the readers ability to become immersed within the narrative.  A story that has five characters named Mike to show the absurd commonality of the name can be witty and fun, or it can end up confusing and frustrating to the reader.  Take a moment to consider how the greater world you have created interacts with this dynamic, and whether it helps or hurts the story you’re setting out to tell.  Reading practicality should not be dispensed for the sake of creativity; they should operate together to form a coherent story that can be enjoyably read.

You can’t please everyone, and someone will hate your work no matter what or how you write.  Which is why the starting point for all my writing advice is to always start with being honest with every story’s first reader: its author.  And if, as you put pen to paper (or, more realistically, fingers to keyboard), what seemed like a great name in the first outline is becoming harder to work with as the story progresses, rather than forcing the narrative to conform, there is no shame in revising the basics–character names included.

Suck on that, Shakespeare, is what I’m really trying to say here.

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Oscar Wilde’s Preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray: The Threat of Art

To mention the word controversial in the same sentence with Oscar Wilde is to be repetitive.  And the Irish writer’s The Picture of Dorian Gray–his only published novel–is nothing less but a testament to the man’s gift for astute social observation and spectacular prose.  If you have not read the work, I would advise you to do so immediately, as it stands as a superb contribution to the ranks of both romantic and gothic literature.

Upon its initial publication in 1890, The Picture of Dorian Gray was instantly denounced by critics for its espousal of homoerotic and hedonistic indulgences.  So much so that Oscar Wilde saw it necessary to add a Preface to the original text as a defense of his work.  But the short Preface should not be seen as just a rebuttal to Wilde’s critics, instead it reads as a promulgation of art as a whole, and a denunciation of the cynic whose mindset is too narrow to grasp the fact that even though great (as well as bad) works of art are on display for the public, the true power lies in its strength to move the individual’s heart and mind.

Wilde begins the Preface by stating, “The artist is the creator of beautiful things.  To reveal art and conceal the artist is art’s aim,” adding, “Those who find ugly meanings in beautiful things are corrupt without being charming.  This is a fault.”  Here, Wilde is addressing the specific critics of his novel, noting that it is not he, the writer–the artist–who is to blame for the offense taking by the audience of his work.  For, any perverse imagery that is elicited by the sensitive reader is a demonstration of the perversity of the reader’s own mind, and not necessarily that of the author or his prose.  Wilde’s further scoff against the fault of being corrupt without being charming is clearly an allusion to his title character Dorian Gray, who through all of his moral corruption at least manages to remain charming (and beautiful) to the world, something that his real life critics–who see fit to designate themselves as his moral superiors–don’t manage to do, in Wilde’s eyes.

“There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book.  Books are well written, or badly written.  That is all.”  It must have been telling for Wilde how all the critiques being leveled against his novel only focus on what are perceived to be obscenities within the text, and never the text itself.  If a book is rubbish than let it be shown how it fails to meet the value of worthwhile literature, and we can move on to better things.  But to deride a novel because it presents a topic a person does not wish to be discussed, or raises issues the public would rather be kept out of sight, is to reveal more about one’s own flimsy convictions than that of the author’s.  Or, as Oscar Wilde put it, “No art is ever morbid.  The artist can express everything.”  Any moral foundation that is distraught in the process couldn’t have been too sturdy to begin with.

“All art is at once surface and symbol.  Those who go beneath the surface do so at their peril.  Those who read the symbol do so at their peril.  It is the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors.”  We are the arbitrators of the mediums we choose to entertain ourselves with, thus when we feel repulsed by a piece of art, it is our responsibility to step away from it in bad taste–not to dictate to others about the need to stifle the offensive material.  If I shout out a cry of fear that something will corrupt society, you can rest assured that what you’re hearing is nothing more but a deep-seated panic that something will corrupt me.  But if a person is already at this stage, then he is already completely corrupted by the source of his worry.  He has already embraced the splendor of the art’s power, drawn into it to the point of drowning within it, and is now paddling anxiously to get back to the safe shore–away from the sea of unknown euphoria.

“We can forgive a man for making a useful thing as long as he does not admire it.  The only excuse for making a useless thing is that one admires it intensely.  All art is quite useless.”  Unlike other disciplines, art holds no immediate pragmatic worth to the structural progress of human societies.  Buildings are not art for the sake of being art, they have an intended use.  Same goes for nonfiction books, whose goal is to inform, and not necessarily inspire the reader’s imagination.  Wilde was right that art, created solely for the sake of being admired and revered, is objectively useless.  Because its use resides within the subjective mind of those who care to indulge within its beauty.  And for those who don’t, any harm perceived is only made viable by the internal recesses of one’s own depraved mind.  That is the real threat of art.

Bibliography

Wilde, Oscar.  The Portrait of Dorian Gray.  “The Preface,” Barnes & Nobel Classics (New York: 2003), pages 1-2.

“Intelligentsia is Dead! Hooray!”

Historically, the word intelligentsia refers to someone occupying a murky upper-class status on the basis of their intellectual contributions to culture and society.  These select few would (more often than not) share two major criteria amongst themselves:  1. They were rich.  2. On account of criteria 1, they didn’t have to work for a living, thus could spend all their time philosophizing about life and its hardships (unlike those philistine farmers who were too busy collecting crops for the village to sit back and reflect about what really matters to people).  Since the end of feudalism, and the laughably archaic status of aristocracies, intelligentsia can come to refer to just about anybody who writes a book that educated people hold in high regard, whether it contributes anything to our social consciousness or not.

Admittedly, the notion of what is, and is not, to be deemed intellectually worthy is quite subjective.  Speaking for myself, I would rather read the worst dime novel imaginable, than the most academically praised book on anything political.  Regardless, I have no issues with the diverse opinions people hold about good and bad writing or art.  What I’m getting at is how intelligentsia, as an applicable term, is  entirely nonsensical in any contemporary meaning.

Whether it was genuinely well intentioned, or the product of a corrupt system, the artists and writers that made up the intelligentsia of the past did produce works that creatively immortalized pieces of human history.  Gave a frame of reference to a past culture; something we can nostalgically look back and draw inspiration from to progress forward through moments of social gridlock (for example, the way the Renaissance was inspired by the intellectual contributions of ancient thinkers).  I can’t imagine such a thing happening with any of the works being produced by the public intellectuals of today.  That’s not to say that there are no good books being written in literature, or that modern art is devoid of aesthetic skill (though my septuagenarian neighbor would beg to differ).  But none of these are truly capable of sparking the imagination of the people as they once did, partly because we would have to be removed and forget about them first (which in today’s information age is impossible).

It is noteworthy that the title of the public intellectual has never been assigned on the bases of popular opinion, but on the basis of what other public intellectuals promote amongst each other as just too brilliant and sophisticated.  And everyone goes along with it, because its assumed that these people must know what their talking about (and nobody wants to risk looking unsophisticated and lowbrow).  This is just the nature of the animal; unlike the sciences, Arts and Humanities studies have no such thing as a decent peer-review process, largely because the peers themselves are removed from the broader social culture they reside in.

The intelligentsia of society used to be polymaths, whose expertise would roam across academic disciplines.  That is no longer a viable position to occupy.  Our knowledge and data is too broad to be encapsulated by any one mind; specialization is a necessity.  The era of the intelligentsia is dead and gone, and I for one welcome it as an important testament to our educational progress as a society.  We have accumulated so much data, raw knowledge, that it cannot be confined to the few.  Despite the pessimistic nature of these posts, some words do deserve to die.  When a word because too rigid to be properly applied in any meaningful way, the responsible thing to do is to retire it, and let it rest in peace.  Now, all we need to do is let the self-styled public intellectuals in on this fact.

The Measure of a Man

One hundred years from today, I will be long dead.  This is a fact whose veracity exists completely independent of my attitude or concern towards it.  Before I am accused of youthful nihilism, let me make it clear that my guaranteed death sometime in the coming decades does not cause me much grief, or fear, or pessimism; after all, the way I see it, once I’m dead I will not have the capacity to even care one way or the other.  The only intent I have with mentioning my own mortality is to focus my young mind on the way in which individuals are remembered by succeeding generations.  Or, more fittingly, how they are not remembered.

In history, very few individuals are ever really remembered.  If one was to compare the names of individually known figures, to the names of the unknown masses, the former would not even tip the scale in ratio to the latter.  Which is why, I suppose, we have a tendency to often define eras and concepts in history by the measure of their most imposing personalities (i.e. Pre-Socratic philosophy, Napoleonic Era, Darwinian science, Keynesian economics).  In times where no single individual can quite reach the notoriety needed to be the zeitgeist’s neologism, the individuals who make up the era are left to be defined by the perception later generations have of them as a collective mass (i.e. the Dark Ages, where any individual accomplishment that may have been produced is overshadowed by the popularly understood inaction of the historical era as a whole).

This bit of information leaves me with little doubt that, as a content member of the unknown masses, the faults (and, of course, the strengths) that will come to define the age I happen to live in, will eventually be the standard by which future generations measure my merits and contributions as an individual (on account that my individuality is entirely tied in to the merits of the social structure I happen to have been born into).  This means that just as we today may pitifully look back at the anonymous peasant of the 11th Century–who thought the sun revolved around the earth and that witches were ruining his crops–long after I am dead, I will continue to exist in the consciousness of the yet-to-be-born public, as a pitiful, anonymous representation of all the bigotries and delusions that are too prevalent in my current society for me to even fully acknowledge; regardless of whether I personally subscribed to such sentiments or not.

Some might see this as a compelling reason for why one must speak out against perceived errors of one’s day, but I’m skeptical to how much of a deterrence this has against the prevailing generalizations of history.  Certainly speak out when you see fit, new media forums have made that easier now than ever, and the chance exists that your voice will stand out from the crowd.  But it should be kept in mind that back in the 11th Century, there must have been at least one peasant who did not hold to witchcraft as a plausible phenomenon, and perhaps didn’t even subscribe to a geocentric model, but her/his voice is still irrelevant to the greater historical narrative of her/his social era.  Because even when dissenting voices are acknowledged to have existed within the nameless public, they are usually treated by history as minor anomalies in the larger framework.

Maybe this should give us reason enough to collectively strive to do better as a society, so that the faults of our generation don’t become the eventual measure of us as individuals.  But such worries can seem almost too laughably idealistic to even the most astute observer (how on earth can we correct faults we don’t even notice we have, yet?).  Not to mention, this is only a concern to me because I’m still alive (and plan to stay so for some time to come).  If I was dead…well, I refer the reader to my statement on mortality at the beginning of this post.

Conflating Cause and Identity

When we care enough about a particular issue (be it social, political, religious, cultural, or recreational) enough to devote a noteworthy amount of our time and energy into addressing it, we naturally start to relate with said issue on a deeper level than mere interest; in short, it becomes a cause for us to identify with.  And, in and of itself, this is not a point at which I would raise objections.  People looking to find and promote remedies to a problem they feel is serious enough that it needs to be addressed, and are willing to invest themselves into finding reasonable solutions to address it, can all be very praiseworthy (depending on the issue and the sort of solutions being proposed, of course).  The concern for me is when the adoption of an issue (the promotion of a particular cause) starts to take on an omnipresent tone in a person’s life.

When someone stops being “John, who happens to be an environmentalist” and starts being “The Environmentalist John”; or going from “Jane, who cares about tax reforms” [either conservative or progressive, it makes no difference in this scenario] and becomes “The Tax Reformer Jane.”  When the issue being discussed takes precedent over the individual/s promoting it, that’s where I believe people’s judgments are liable to being skewed and easily misled due to an emotional investments in their favored cause.  (Even if the cause itself remains a laudable effort.)

One can look to the revolutionaries of the 19th and 20th Centuries, and deduce how the majority of average persons who made up the ranks of these movements were people who truly, genuinely, cared about promoting an issue, whose benignity they wholeheartedly believed in.  Even the precursors to what would eventually become the Bolshevik faction did not begin under the assumption that it would institute a repressive regime as its end goal.  It began as a movement looking to (in their eyes) elevate the dignity and ensure equal prosperity for the hitherto oppressed segments of society in Imperial Russia.  However, somewhere along the way, for the people driving and participating in the cause, it seized being about addressing the legitimate issues of the cause, and more about upholding the perceived righteousness of the movement inspired by the cause.  This happens when the advocacy of a particular topic stops being just one attribute (amongst many) of a person, and becomes an extension of the individual her/himself–the individual identity gets sacrificed for the benefit of a greater Identity Movement, where identifying with a cause serves as the primary function of the cause itself.

The severity of this depends largely on the scope and power of the Identity Movement in question, but regardless of its impact on the population-at-large, its affect on the perception of the persons who partake and become engrossed with the prospect of having a message with which they can empathize–moreover, with which they can identify–works to create a false impression of the issue which they were originally seeking to address/remedy, as it causes the participants to internalize what is essentially an external problem.  Making the likelihood of ever achieving a solution to the initial issue unfeasible as a development that will be noticed by participants in the cause, because by this point their interests have already (unbeknownst to them) shifted from promoting answers to a cause, to just simply having a cause.  And having their individual identities defined by it.

To avoid charges of plagiarism (and indulge in shameless narcissism), I’ll summarize my own interests in this topic by quote myself from a previous post  when I first wrote my thoughts on “The Sacrifice of Identity”:

Perhaps, this trend is not widespread enough to cause alarm for most people, but I shutter to think about the great minds the world may have lost to such misguided reasoning.

Not to mention, those that it may still end up losing.

The Sacrifice of Identity

Identity is a flimsy concept.  Most people encompass a wide variety of viewpoints, which hardly fit into one concise narrative or another.  However, many people also seem to go out of their way to adopt (at least externally) specific traits for the sake of living up to ideals of a particular identity.

It starts with a cause and/or message that appeals to a person.  Subsequently, this will lead to a desire to seek out like-minded individuals who are equally enthusiastic about the topic at hand.  The next step is direct involvement; an active participation in the interests of the cause/message.  At this point, it is safe to deduce that you’re involved in an Identity Movement.  The nature of Identity Movements range from hobbies, to cultural and political pursuits, but they all share the characteristics of forging a sought after niche for the individuals who wish to partake in its subcultural communities.

Something that is unavoidable in Identity Movements is the emergence of groupthink.  A clear example of this can be witnessed by looking up any piece of music that has been uploaded to YouTube (in particular the lyrics videos), and read the cohesiveness of the comments that follow.  The vast majority of them will follow along a similar tone of, “This is what real music sounds like, not that other shit that most people listen to.”  What has made these individuals the arbitrators of “real music” is their identification with one particular genre or another, and nothing else.

Often adopting a particular identity can lead to the adoption of other interests that one would personally enjoy, and this seems perfectly reasonable, in and of itself.  But, I can’t help wondering how many are truly adopting interests and attitudes that suit them, and not just adapting to the interests and attitudes that surround them.  In other words, are they taking on an identity simply because they feel they need to, in order to be part of a greater movement/cause/culture?

The problem I see with all of this is the potential it creates in individuals (especially adolescence) to habitually sacrifice certain aspects of their personalities that do not fit in with the narrative of the Identity Movement they wish to uphold–a form of self-conditioning for the sake of representing a pure ideal (an ideal, which, of course, does not exist outside the Identity narrative being adopted).  This becomes most worrisome in Identity Movements that encompass a cultural or political message, because it works to counteract the original desires that led up to the need to create the identity; the goal of achieving normalcy within popular opinion.  However, the more of a subculture an Identity Movement becomes, the more antagonistic it gets towards mainstream opinion.  And without the strive for recognition and acceptance in greater society, Identity Movements become insulated in their own narratives, with little divergence of thinking allowed.  At this point, the individual has been sacrificed for the sake of an identity.  Perhaps, this trend is not widespread enough to cause alarm for most people, but I shutter to think about the great minds the world may have lost to such misguided reasoning.