Fall 2017–Winter 2018

The Power of Naming

Cecilia Sjöholm

In Genesis, Adam is given the task of naming the animals. God sends them to parade before him, and he gives them names. This ur-scene of naming is at the heart of the European grand debates over the origins of knowledge. Adam’s task cannot just have been performed randomly. The names would have had to mean something, and would have had to come from somewhere. In Milton’s epic Paradise Lost, Adam discovers, as the animals pass before him, that he already knows their names—God has already planted this knowledge within him. In the Kabbalistic tradition, however, the act of naming is perceived to have been more performative: the sounding of names is divine and blows life into the species.


Whichever reading one opts for, there is something unsettling about this image of Adam, whom William Blake depicts wide-eyed in his painting of the scene. It is simply impossible to conceive of this endless parade of animals in our limited imagination. One could summarize the biblical ur-scene with a quote from Deleuze, following Leibniz: “Tout n’est pas poisson, mais il y a des poissons partout” (“Not everything is fish, but there are fish everywhere”). The act of naming represents a principle of universality that will nevertheless fail to capture the abundance of everything that is alive. Fishy indeed. As we name, do we not capture, represent, and domesticate the world? Are we not—as human beings, the namers of all other species—masters of the universe, and reflected as such in our own knowledge? As we look closer at the secrets of naming, it hardly seems coincidental that animals—rather than, say, stars, planets, or rocks—are the objects of the originary act of naming.


In Genesis, the act of naming is what separates Man from animals; Adam proves his humanity through his capacity to give names. To the thinkers of modernity, from the sixteenth century up to and including the period of the Enlightenment, naming became a sure sign of humanity through the way it made claims for intellect, voice, and culture. Some of these philosophers would concede that all human knowledge is innate, and expressed by language; how we name would thus be secondary to the ideas that are already in us. This standpoint was represented by Descartes and his rationalist followers, for instance. Another standpoint would claim that language is the origin of knowledge, rather than the other way around. This idea was put forward by Condillac in his Essay on the Origin of Human Knowledge (1746), which posited human language as a creation with an ancient origin, continuously evolving in the same way that knowledge evolves. Here, the capacity of naming is socially acquired, and the difference between Man and animal appears to be one of degree rather than of kind.


For scholarly speculation, one needed examples. The best were often those that showed what happens when language is inhibited or made dysfunctional, when humans are isolated, incommunicative, or socially inept. Here, animals creep in, eerily. The speculative literature on the origins of language and knowledge flourished with haunting examples of desert states, indicating what happens when humans become like animals. Condillac tells of a boy who was found in the forest walking on all fours. Raised by bears, he had no language, and when he acquired one, the memories of his life with the bears gradually disappeared. We also hear, from Herder in his Essay on the Origin of Language (1772), that the Lapp will learn to communicate with his reindeer, the Arab with his camel, the hunter with his stag, simply out of the desire to communicate that persists even in the absence of other people.


No story captures the lonely act of naming as a truly human capacity better than Daniel Defoe’s novel Robinson Crusoe (1719), where it saves the shipwrecked Crusoe from disintegration. Here, the logic of naming acquires a new twist. Friday—not an animal, but an aboriginal from a nearby island—becomes the center of his universe, the saving grace of his dwindling powers of perception, the focal point in his attempts to restructure something that at least looks like a society. Friday is not particularly responsive. But Crusoe invents a whole new kind of mastery, one in which Friday, in fact, becomes wholly redundant. Crusoe does not need Friday to confirm his powers. He does not need such affirmation because he has invented the technology of naming. Friday is named after a day in the calendar, and not according to a higher principle. He is named according to a certain principle of contingency, an operation of chance that can be repeated, serially, in as many varieties and forms as one likes. The question is no longer if names come from God or not, but rather how we are to produce them in the most efficient manner possible.


One can easily miss the revolutionary novelty of this technology, given that in Robinson Crusoe there was not much around to name, and thus the sheer abundance it makes possible is not fully evident. But if Man proves his humanity through the act of naming, it is reasonable that he should want to name as much as possible, as quickly as possible. This is a natural consequence of naming becoming the hallmark of human powers. In the wake of Robinson Crusoe, Linnaeus and his traveling pupils mobilized the revolutionary consequences of this technology of naming. In fact, Linnaeus understood the power of naming better than any other scientist of his day. His Systema naturae, the first edition of which appeared in 1735, staked out the principles for naming every living organism. Using a technology, just like Robinson Crusoe, Linnaeus invented an infinite principle of naming. He did what Adam did in Genesis, but unlike Adam, he did not have to sit and let the animals pass before him. Instead, he took his cue from the same principle as Crusoe: once he was able to work out a technology, he was in a position to name all the species of the universe, without having to pronounce their names or even, for that matter, to see them.


With Linnaeus, Man becomes a master embarking on an entirely new journey. There are no innate ideas, no sounds, and there is no origin of language or knowledge. There is no longer any paradoxical conflict to ponder between the universality of the fish and the infinity of the fish. The infinity of knowledge begins with the principles of universality, with the name fish, or something like it, producing endless series of the same. With the technology of naming, Man truly becomes the master of all the species. Rather than being worried by all the fish, he makes his way through them, like a fish in water, at home in his element.


Cecilia Sjöholm is a professor of aesthetics at Södertörn University. Her books include The Antigone Complex: Ethics and the Invention of Feminine Desire (Stanford University Press, 2004), Kristeva and the Political (Routledge, 2005), and Doing Aesthetics with Arendt: How to See Things (Columbia University Press, 2015). She is currently working on a project on Descartes’s pictures.