Names and Naming

Names and Naming
The Nazar Boncuğu, or evil eye talisman, is a signifier of protection against everyday forms of surveillance.

Required Secondary Reading for UMN-TC

Jenny Rice, "The Rhetorical Aesthetics of More"

  • Among other topics, this essay addresses how “nothing” may serve as evidence of “something,” and how conspiracies prey on the affective habitus of those that they pull into their orbit. As we discussed earlier in the semester, conspiracies are not so much reasoned as experienced and fulfill certain functions for those who invest in them. Is the appeal to "more" a convenient but insufficient substitute for actual transparency? What is the difference?

What's In a Name?

Names are an important part of the American secrecy spectacle. The spectacle has copious titles, comprising a long procession of false-flag operations, cover-ups, allegories, heroes, and scapegoats. Sometimes, secrets have names that situate exemplary moments of hiddenness and revelation as part of a specific historical moment or rhetorical context, which circulate widely and long after the events they reference.

Names attune us to secrets in discourse because they mark places where information has been hidden from view or remains undisclosed. A password, like double-entendres and dog-whistles, are words with a secondary, double meaning only available to insiders. Returning to the ancient, forgotten of commonly used terms exposes what is hidden in their histories of use. The name is in discourse because it always signifies more than one thing, it is a signifier with a number of meanings, primary among them the fact that not everything is known, something still remains hidden. When forbidden or taboo, names exercise an almost mystical power.

"We Don't Talk About Bruno" from Encanto (2021)

Whereas names are the signifiers attached to secrets, naming invokes an interpellative process that constitutes secrecy’s focal subjects and their relationship to spectacular events. When issued by authority figures like the police or the settler, names make a person into a governable subject within the bounds of a hegemonic power hierarchy. Often, names and naming conjure subjects as objects by denying them the agency of self-definition.

  • For instance, when Frantz Fanon describes the white gaze, he recounts the experience of walking past European colonizers who hurl racist epithets at him. These repeated encounters bring forth an open secret: that his recognizability to white passers-by is predicated upon reducing his humanity to that of a colonized subject. (Fanon, "The Fact of Blackness" in Black Skin, White Masks).
  • The infamous “hey you!” of the police described in Louis Althusser’s essay, “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses” likewise describes how governable subjects are constituted through a sequence of naming, turning, and misrecognition. (Althusser, "Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses") The operation of interpellation is also tropological in the literal sense of a movement or turn. When the subject first turns to face the origin of the hail, their response (“who, me?”) is tantamount to a jarring turn in their consciousness in which they (mis)recognize themselves as the addressee.

Like the adrenaline shock of slamming on the brake pedal after passing a stationary police car, the moment of the hail is a horrifying revelation: this is who I am to the (colonial/policing) authority; this is the way things are, have been, and will be while under the hegemon’s watch. Both constitutive and tropological, naming forces the named subject to assume a subject-position imposed as they turn to face the surveillant gaze.

What is "interpellation"?

Names also constitute the relationship between governable subjects and key moments of the secrecy spectacle.  After all, the spectacle has copious titles, which form a procession of false-flag operations, cover-ups, allegories, melodramas, and scapegoats. Sometimes, whistleblower names like “Snowden” and “Assange” mark a specific leak or pattern of leaking, and the journalistic impulse to spotlight the whistleblower as a contemporary parrhesiastes[1]makes the name an easy shorthand.[2]The Me Too and #MeToo movements likewise illustrate how whistleblowing against the open secret of sexual violence becomes attached to specific individuals.[3]Other times, names mark exemplary moments of hiddenness and revelation as part of a specific historical moment, allowing the memory of secrets to remain long after the events they reference have transpired. In the United States, some names-of-the-secret might include the Gulf of Tonkin Incident (1964), the Watergate Scandal (1971), the Iran-Contra Affair (1985-1987), Don't Ask, Don't Tell (1994), and the Benghazi Attack (2012). Secrets may also be memorialized by a medium that documents them, such as the Pentagon Papers (1971), the Watergate Tapes (1973), the Sixteen Words (2003), the Cablegate Leaks (2010), and the Mueller Report (2019). The titles given to many films[4]and books[5]are names that similarly commemorate state secrecy as fictional fantasies and actual disclosures. And for every fictionalized account of official secrecy, more actual events remain un- or under-publicized.[6]Similarly unnamed and unacknowledged are the ubiquitous forces of surveillance that accord constant suspicion to Black, Brown and transgender people, subjecting them to the state’s monopoly on violence.[7]The proliferation of some names – and the conspicuous absence of others – demonstrates how secrets require signifiers to circulate and stick in public memory.

[1]See also: Ronald Walter Greene, Daniel Horvath, and Larry Browning, “Truth-Telling and Organizational Democracy: The Rhetoric of Whistleblowing as an Act of Parrhesia,” in Whistleblowing, Communication, and Consequences(New York: Routledge, 2021).

[2] A list of famous whistleblowers in the late 20th and early 21stcentury might include Mark Felt, Daniel Ellsberg, Jeffrey Wigand, Linda Tripp, Karen Silkwood, Brittany Kaiser, Christopher Wylie, John Kiriakou, Edward Snowden, Chelsea Manning, Reality Winner, Natalie Mayflower Sours Edwards, Daniel Hale, and Trisha Newbold.

[3] A list of the women whistleblowers and activists whose identities were widely publicized in conjunction with the Me Too and #MeToo movements might include Tarana Burke, Ambra Battilana Gutierrez, Zelda Perkins, Stormy Daniels, Summer Zervos, Alva Johnson, Linda Culkin, and Ari Behn.

[4]See also: The Manchurian Candidate (1962/2004), The Conversation (1974), Three Days of the Condor (1975), All the President’s Men (1976), The Philadelphia Experiment (1984), Wag the Dog (1997), Enemy of the State (1998), Spy Game (2001), Minority Report (2002), The Good Shepherd (2006), Fair Game (2010), Argo (2012), Zero Dark Thirty (2012), The Fifth Estate (2013), Citizenfour (2014), Kill the Messenger (2014), Vice (2018), BlacKkKlansman (2018), Official Secrets (2019), and The Report (2019).

[5] See also: The Craft of Intelligence, The Nightingale's Song, In the Shadows of the American Century, Legacy of Ashes, Spy Schools, War on Peace, and House of Bush/House of Saud. James Bamford.

[6] One example is the US Public Health Service Syphilis Study at Tuskegee. Although this report is prominent in American public memory, the widespread nature of anti-Black eugenics programs and the many children murdered Indigenous residential schools often goes unnamed and underreported, making the emergence of burial sites and the names of the dead into moments of public revelation accompanied by profound experiences of horror and grief.

[7] See also: Toby Beauchamp, Going Stealth: Transgender Politics and U.S. Surveillance Practices (Durham: Duke University Press, 2019); Simone Browne, Dark Matters: On the Surveillance of Blackness (Durham: Duke University Press, 2015); Mia Fischer, Terrorizing Gender: Transgender Visibility and the Surveillance Practices of the U.S. Security State (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2019).

The Nazar: A Name for Surveillance

A nazar boncuk or "eye-bead" talisman

This object, the nazar boncuk,  göz boncuğu, or “eye-bead,” is a frequent adornment in Persian, Turkish, and Palestinian homes. It is something I recall from my first childhood home, although we never called it by the name nazar. My mother described it as the “evil eye protector” although I later came to realize that this naming was more about the bead’s purpose than its meaning. The charm wards off the evil eye by bringing Allah’s watchful gaze into the home. When I was in middle school, the charm hung next to our front door and was meant to turn away people who would have bad intentions toward us. At a young age, I was not aware of why we would be so unpopular as to need to deter jealous people (who would be jealous of us, I wondered). As time went on, I began to suspect that the Nazar might not be doing the trick.

The Nazar boncuk is rooted in the Islamic tradition. Importantly, it is not considered heresy or even cultural practice. Instead, the belief in the evil eye is regarded as absolute truth. When someone cares deeply about an object or person -- whether a home or a newborn child -- you place an evil-eye-protector upon it. The Q’uran references “the unbelievers who are bent on denying the truth, would all but kill you with their eyes,” as well as “the mischief of the envious one as he practices envy.” (68:51; 113:1-5) Such bad intentions are transmitted when someone is in your house and possessed by jealousy or something evil. The charm protects from ill wishes by reminding the viewer that appreciation for anyone or anything must begin with the acknowledgment and praise of Allah. It is a mode of religious authority exercised in ethics, policy, and property law. It is so attached to the Islamic faith that the gaze is understood as a fundamental mode of self-filtration and mental censorship.

Of course, my middle-school expectations were misguided. For the nazar boncuk to have a felicitous effect on everyone involved, everyone must be ‘in’ on what the charm means. It relies on the visual affirmation of those who have encountered the symbol and thereby triangulates the relationship between the one who is watched and the one for whom the eye watches. For the individual protected by the charm, the eye is vigilant and watches so that they may be a gracious host without having to wish for eyes in the back of their head. For the one whose gaze is deflected, the charm is ideally a reminder that they are being watched, and that the space they visit is not their own. The deflection is so important that meeting the other with a direct gaze can be perceived as aggressive, or as demonstrating an inappropriate lack of humility. The evil eye protector signals that one employs internal surveillance coupled with mistrust of others’ intentions. They secure refuge from this distrust in the faith that Allah will protect them through remembrance, prayer, and reading the Q’uran.

Architectural historian Mohammed Hamdouni Alami confirms this explanation when he explains that the term nazar is one of two ancient (CE 809-77) Arabic terms for “the look.” The noun al-bashar, “the sense of vision,”  refers to the lucid spirit that is reflected in the eye of the other, or in the mirror. He explains that al-nazar is better translated as “gaze” or surveillance, and refers to a primal staring contest or the fact of being caught in the other’s look. (4) Unlike al-bashar, al-nazar “implies power and human will.” (223) The nazar boncuk introduces elements of power and will by mediating a hierarchy between host and guest. Once its function is known, moreover, it cannot be un-known because something new has been introduced into the visual field. At stake in the nazar is both the eye it represents and the relationship it symbolizes.

The example of the nazar boncuk illustrates a “god’s eye view” that does not belong to an unmanned aerial vehicle, as well as an organizing metaphor. The eye introduces a symbol to mediate between interlocutors and to thereby keep the peace. Foregrounding the constitutive function of the symbol and the order it installs pushes back against the orientalist tendency to characterize Islamic art and culture primarily in terms of a lack of representation. Inviting Allah’s gaze into the home resists, for instance, the reduction of Islamic aesthetics to the prohibition upon representing the prophet or revealing the body. (Rashid; Buffenstein) According to cultural historian Finbar Barry Flood, such iconoclastic framing “hark[s] back to a bygone age, reinforcing the widespread [though incorrect] notion that Islamic culture is implacably hostile to anthropomorphic art.” (641) This presentation aims to offer a different logic of seeing that undermines the prima facie opposition between the Islamic world and that of the West. It especially resists the opposition between a falsely homogeneous non-Western gaze that represses the body and the unmarked Western gaze.

Required Secondary Reading for UMN-TC

Jenny Rice, "The Rhetorical Aesthetics of More"

  • Among other topics, this essay addresses how “nothing” may serve as evidence of “something,” and how conspiracies prey on the affective habitus of those that they pull into their orbit. As we discussed earlier in the semester, conspiracies are not so much reasoned as experienced and fulfill certain functions for those who invest in them. Is the appeal to "more" a convenient but insufficient substitute for actual transparency? What is the difference?

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