From a young age, names preoccupied me. As a child I didn’t like my name and I would often daydream about changing it. Na’ama (in Hebrew, נעמה) was too heavy for me. The lips must be open for too long to speak it, the tongue pressed to the floor of the mouth, held down by the weight of the letters. ‘Na’ama’ requires work. It weighed on my small child body, too old-fashioned, too long, too heavy. I wanted something lighter, a name one can speak with ease. As a pastime, I’d try other names for size. When I read a book, I would sink into the sound of the protagonist’s name. Most often I would dream about being called ‘Shir’ (Hebrew, שיר), which, in Hebrew, means ‘song’. Shir is light and short; it doesn’t demand the same contortion of lips and mouth as Na’ama does. It can be spoken with tenderness. One can’t say ‘Shir’ without breaking into a smile.
These childhood whims are now gone but my preoccupation with names remains. Even more so in Australia where my foreign name doesn’t roll off the Australian tongue with grace and ease. Here, my name doesn’t carry the same meaning as it does back home. While common among Muslims and Hebrew- or Arabic-speaking Jewish communities, in Australia this name is rare. Here, my name’s rich heritage, which is anchored in Jewish mystical and biblical traditions, is lost.1 In Australia ‘Na’ama’ carries no meaning, but instead it stands for foreignness and difference.
• • •
In ‘Difficult Names’ the Kenyan-born Somali-British poet Warsan Shire writes: ‘give your daughters difficult names. give your daughters names that command the full use of tongue. my name makes you want to tell me the truth. my name doesn’t allow me to trust anyone that cannot pronounce it right.’
This poem resonates deeply with me. A difficult name gives pause, it commands presence. A difficult name demands immediacy in its challenging sound. Consequently, it runs the risk of embarrassing others should they mispronounce it. A difficult name makes the person who speaks it—the other—responsible for accuracy, so difference is conducive to anxiety. The Australian news cycle recently spent a week debating SBS World Cup presenter Lucy Zelic’s pronunciation of soccer players’ names. To justify her decision, Zelic invoked beloved journalist Les Murray, who would pronounce players’ names in the accent of their respective countries. This attempt to pacify angry viewers—by associating her own practice with an iconic football presenter—indicates something of the challenges of unfamiliar names. I see this when people try to read my name out loud—the confusion, the difference, perhaps there’s been some mistake? They think, surely this isn’t a real name …
Choosing for your daughter a difficult name doubles as a gesture that demarcates a place for her in the world. A difficult name commands the presence and attention of those who speak it, for fear they will get it wrong. Warsan Shire’s sentiment reminds me of the words of historian Henry J. Perkinson: ‘naming is always a political act’. Naming is political because it contributes to the production of meaning and power—it determines where one belongs, and more often than not to whom one belongs. We see this manifest in the practice of taking a husband’s name. This tradition traces back to a time when a woman was seen as property—first her father’s, then her husband’s. While some choose to break with this social convention, they are in the minority. More than 80 per cent of married women and around 96 per cent of children take the husband’s name.2
If we take a generous approach to the matter of ‘the name’ we might say that names have something to do with identity, as names define and identify, while simultaneously functioning as markers of culture—our belonging to culture, the rituals we participate in, the values and codes of conduct we follow.
Names are bound up with and operate on social and cultural spectrums as well as an individual one: a name is meaningful because it represents social and historical ties and is culturally situated. Recall Warsan Shire’s call to ‘give your daughters difficult names’, which entangles individual and community. How we address one another and how we respond to each other are signs of care.
Some of us may have chosen our name but largely they are chosen for us, often for a specific reason. It’s likely many of us once asked those who named us the origin of our name—in a way, this feels like self-discovery. Perhaps your name symbolises the future they wished for you, or an attribute they value. You might find out your name is a family heritage, a symbolic thread linking generations. Maybe they loved someone with that name, or it was taken out of a favourite work of fiction, a poem or a song. Before we grow into it and learn it, a name already has life attached to it. A distant memory or something yet to be known that you carry with you. A name is ours and not ours; us and others.
Life becomes known to us through the frame of our name. This is the first thing we seek to know when meeting others, and the first piece of information about ourselves that we disclose: ‘Who are you?’; ‘I am my name.’ In this encounter so much is exchanged—culture, language, heritage, whether shared or different. Names function as a code that enables us to decipher who this person standing before us is. They demarcate us at once as foreign or familiar. And, of course, this fluctuates depending on where in the world we stand. Relations are fluid, experiences vary—yet our names remain unchanged. But here is the thing. A name is just another thing to identify with, often bestowed by someone else before they even knew us. Yet we hold onto our names, we learn about their origin, we grow into them, we identify with them and their heritage, their secret meaning. They mediate our existence.
• • •
In her famous 2010 performance ‘The Artist Is Present’, Marina Abramović installed herself in a room at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. She sat on a chair and across from her, an empty chair, to be occupied by anyone. Hands folded in her lap, she didn’t move, eyes gazing ahead. Thousands of visitors swarmed to the MoMA, some waiting in line for hours, some even staying overnight, all for the opportunity to sit opposite Abramović for a fraction of the 750 hours she spent seated at the museum. Abramović’s curious performance was at once captivating and odd. Critic Jerry Saltz wrote that this was a ‘narcissistic, exhibitionist work, and it has brought out the crowds’ own narcissism and exhibitionism’.3
I think that such criticism fundamentally misunderstands the power of the show. In other words, it argues that what drew thousands to sit opposite and stare at the silent and motionless Abramović was narcissism. Implied is the notion that Abramović was only there to be seen, and that attendees only showed up to be seen as participants in her performance. But herein is the fundamental mistake. Abramović wasn’t there only to be seen, she was there to see, and to allow others to be seen by her. Conversely, participants didn’t stare at Abramović. Rather, they were present with her.
Footage from the performance reveals people experienced a range of reactions—irritation, discomfort, fascination, anger, sadness, none of which were stimulated by conversation.
When Abramović and her audience met, neither spoke. Names weren’t exchanged, no-one poured their heart out or told of their thoughts or pain, yet something deeply personal was shared. People seemed to know who was sitting before them, and even more profoundly, seemed to reveal something of themselves. If you observe scenes from ‘The Artist is Present’ you can see an unravelling of deep-seated, tender or confronting moments. A spectrum of human emotion unfolded in this place and time, by being present in the present, simply through a gaze.
I’m interested in ‘The Artist Is Present’ not only for its artistic value, but because it does something that is, to my mind, powerful: despite its public location, it provided intimate conditions for utter strangers to enter a special space. This space is the moment of meeting. ‘The Artist Is Present’ allows us to see what it takes truly to meet another. It requires of us to be present. The simple act of being present with someone, even a stranger, facilitated the conditions of possibility for emotion to unfold and for a person to let go, even briefly. It was enough that Abramović was there, and her respondent was there, for them to meet each other and allow the moment, the experience, to pass through them.
Every meeting is pregnant with potential, the outcome of which hinges on our response to the person facing us. True, this seems like a small and insignificant thing, but like a door hinge—the small mechanism that enables an opening or closing—we too carry the potential to let a person in or lock them out. So, what’s in a meeting? What does it take to meet another? My suggestion is that it takes letting go of our attachments, of the things we believe make us who we are and of the assumptions we make of others. In one sense there’s violence in meeting another because identities clash and boundaries are reinforced. In a way, it takes letting go of identity (what we identify with) to be ourselves.
French philosopher Paul Ricœur considers how violence and identity converge when he writes about ‘experiencing the other as a threat’, which brings the fragility of identity to the surface. This sense of threat, Ricœur suggests, is derived from our encounter with the other. The word encounter is particularly meaningful here, as it comes from the French encontre (preposition), based on the Latin ‘in’ and contra ‘against’. The French meaning of rencontre (a noun) includes the potential for danger and threat. ‘Encounter’, Ricœur suggests, does not refer simply to a ‘meeting’, but rather a ‘meeting of adversaries’. The ‘other’ comes to be seen as a threat, a danger, to the ‘true’ nature of our identity. So, identity is tied in with defence, intervention, confrontation and threat. If we follow Ricœur’s logic, we can say that the simple experience of meeting the other, an ‘other’ different to me, presents itself as a threat to my whole self.
Is this what happens when we meet others? This sense of dread, confrontation and menace? Is this what happened in ‘The Artist Is Present’?
The Jewish philosopher Martin Buber gives us another angle from which we can approach the problem of meeting. Buber claims that ‘To man the world is twofold, in accordance with his twofold attitude.’ This ‘twofold attitude’ refers to the primary binary frameworks through which we perceive the world: ‘subject’ (I) and ‘object’(It). Put simply, for Buber, we never exist in the singular, but our existence is always in relation to. We thus have a choice—to meet a person wholly (meaning as an ‘I’) or see them as an object (meaning as an ‘It’). Throughout our lives, we have the experience of seeing—and being seen as—both.
I have the experience of being seen as object/It when waiting for a diagnosis. The doctor lists blood tests, symptoms, treatments. In this moment, I exist as an amalgam of pathologies. In your annual review, you are measured against key performance indicators. While you are more than your work, more than you at work, what matters is whether the right boxes can be ticked, the criteria satisfied. You are seen as object/it. This way of seeing and being seen isn’t malevolent, but we’re so used to it we forget there’s another way. In ‘I and Thou’ Buber outlines what is to me a pivotal statement about relation. He writes:
I perceive something. I am sensible of some-thing. I imagine something. I will something. I feel something. I think some-thing. The life of human beings does not consist of all this and the like alone. This and the like together establish the realm of It. But the realm of Thou has a different basis. When Thou is spoken, the speaker has no thing for his object. For where there is a thing there is another thing. Every It is bounded by others. But when Thou is spoken, there is no thing. Thou has no bounds. When Thou is spoken, the speaker has no thing; he has indeed nothing. But he takes his stand in relation.
I think that we can extend Buber’s words here to the events of ‘The Artist is Present’. Participants were present with Abramović. They entered a space that allowed them to consider someone not as an it or a thing, not in terms of KPIs, or as a condition or diagnosis, but as a whole being, boundless—what Buber terms Thou. In turn, and because we exist in relation, they too were considered as Thou, not as ‘thing’ or ‘object’. We are, in this respect, so much more than the things we identify with—body, skills, illness, trauma, even names. Yet these have a way of taking over, asserting dominance in the ways we think of ourselves, the way others see us.
What do we say when we identify with our traumas, our wounds, our various IDs, our given names? Who is the ‘I’ who speaks? To me, we risk something by identifying with things—identification provokes an internal violence, whereby we restrict ourselves as objects, categories, symptoms, ‘It’. But what’s the alternative? We’re so used to leaning into categories of identification, in fact, in life we move in systems that are based on categorisation and on ascribing identities. ‘Name’ is such a category. But what happens when we identify with something that digs deeper into our core, something more difficult to detach from? This is the question I keep asking myself whenever depression returns.
Depression takes over like a fog. It creeps into your life until one day, you look up and see the skies as if through dust-stained glass. Too vague to see a future, you can only focus on what’s right ahead of you. Darkness, hopelessness, lack of vision. If you have experienced depression for as long as I have—lengthy episodes spread out across decades of life—there’s some perverse comfort in the heaviness it brings. Days just happen, and you’re removed from them, the greyness overcomes.
I’ve had depression for decades. It feels weird to place ownership on something such as that, as at times it feels the opposite—depression has had me for decades. Like long-lost lovers at times we forget, and then we reunite—me, fantasising plans to end my life; depression, providing sufficient apathy to allow me to remain in my own bed and not take action.
The things I cannot do when I’m depressed are varied. For example: read. Words carry no meaning. Just opening a book is an inconceivable task. To begin a book is to finish one—a commitment to a future self I cannot envision. Here is what I can do: survive. Regardless of the depth of darkness that envelopes me, I wake up the next day. It may take me longer to get out of bed, may take me longer to fall asleep, but still, I live. Until, one day, I almost didn’t.
The Emergency Department was crowded that Friday night. So crowded that they discharged me. Physically I was in no risk, and I just wanted to close my eyes. I knew I would live, but I wasn’t sure how I felt about it.
A few years later, the fog returned. This time I returned to a coping method I had practised in adolescence, at a time of immense trauma. I’d starve myself, my wish to disappear manifesting in a concerted effort to deny myself the joys of food, or even basic nourishment. My weight dropped, my body entered a state of ketosis, I hoped I’d be gone soon; every meal I didn’t eat felt like a small victory over the things I couldn’t control. Strangely, this is a familiar space and all too comfortable and known, so I leaned in to it, and let it take over.
Years of managing depression at various times can result in a dangerous outcome—‘my depression’, ‘my anxiety’. This sense of identification becomes deeply entrenched. I began to wonder, why am I identifying with depression? Is this productive at all? I had reached the point of identifying with depression, such that it becomes part of how I define myself. What are the implications of this, or of identifying with anything else for that matter, to the point where this thing becomes something you define yourself by? I haven’t finished exploring these questions, but I think that they have implications for how we see ourselves and, more broadly, for social relations.
This isn’t to say that I wish to ignore depression as part of my life, but it is just that—a part of a whole, and not the whole. It is quite easy to forget this when one is so used to identifying with things, so used to seeing and being seen as ‘It’. For me it’s depression, for you something else. Names, experiences, memories, traumas, symptoms—we tend to identify with them because it is so much easier to pathologise. There’s safety in thinking about ourselves as a compound of diagnoses, attributes, names, characteristics, skills, simply because these are definable, they are known, they are relatable. The reality is that we’re so much more than what we identify with—‘Thou has no bounds’, Buber writes. Indeed, we are boundless and contain infinitude of potential, we contain worlds and multitudes. Placing boundaries on ourselves by identification seems so restrictive, so containing, so … violent.
I don’t know how not to identify, but I know that we could try to allow ourselves the space to let go of all the names, markers, memories and pathologies we think make us who we are, and can pause and look at those around us—truly look—and let them look into us. We should take our stand in relation. And then we can breathe in the world and live. •
Na’ama Carlin holds a PhD in sociology from UNSW. She’s an educator, writer and commentator. The memoir here is dedicated to Andrew Metcalfe, with love.
- In Hebrew, Na’ama translates as ‘pleasant’. Na’ama is a biblical character who is mentioned by name, and not only by genealogy (sister of, wife of). Some interpretations of Genesis suggest Na’ama is Noah’s wife. In the Zohar, the foundational work of Jewish mysticism—Kabbalah—Na’ama appears as a demon.
- Sara Garcia, ‘Most Australian women still take their husband’s name after marriage’, ABC News, 31 March 2016, <https://www.abc.net.au/news/2016-03-31/most-australian-women-still-take-husbands-name-after-marriage/7287022>.
- Jerry Saltz, ‘In the end, it was all about you’, New York Magazine, 23 May 2010, <http://nym.com/arts/art/reviews/66161/>.
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