Naming has power that helps us identify things and concepts we seek to know. It is a stepping stone to explore and label reality. Put differently, we create the reality around us through the magical act of naming. The whole picture of reality is created in our minds through different names or terminologies in the system of language. Not only this, we define ourselves with the labels that we thrust upon others. Because of the same, naming has become a convenient tool to exercise power on others. But at the same time, it should not be assumed that naming has eternal power, because its nature is evanescent. We can create ‘truth’ through naming, but the ‘truth’ itself is always in flux. Today’s act of naming may not match tomorrow’s perception of the world.
We cannot make an unmediated journey to objective reality. Our journey is always mediated through different terminologies that act as window to reality. Our understanding of reality depends on how such terms allow us to see. The linguistic tool of naming is our means to create reality, but not to access it. Naming can never represent ‘things-in-themselves’, though we may feel that reality is imprisoned in this linguistic tool. Yet, the process of naming possesses miraculous and mysterious power. Words, that cannot represent the true essence of things, remain the only tool for their identification.
In the colonial era, white Europeans who were dominant at the time suppressed the true identities of natives and their places through the act of naming. Not only this, but they also suppressed pre-colonial cultural nuances. They exercised the power of naming in an essentialist sense, i.e. they created the picture of natives in complete isolation. They attributed mysterious qualities to the natives, as if they did not belong to this planet. The intention behind this was to demonstrate the so-called “innate” superiority of the West to the non-west. To draw an example from the Bible, in the Christian story of the origin of mankind, Adam’s naming of the beasts was an attempt to exercise his superiority and power over the animals and birds. He became a ‘master’ by subduing animals through the act of naming. In a similar fashion, colonizers subdued the true spirits of natives through the magical act of naming.
The act of naming should not be understood within the narrow province of representing reality in words; rather it has to be linked with the power relations in society. Naming cannot act equally from two different power locations. Naming by a powerful person and a powerless person produces different effects. When a powerful person names a powerless one, he exercises his power through the very act. But a powerless person’s naming loses its power without producing the desired effects.
If power accompanies the naming, it works miraculously towards the construction of reality. The colonizer’s act of naming non-western entities worked magically because of their position in power. Because of the same, they created the ‘discourse’–to borrow Foucault’s term–about nonwestern people, land and culture.
They imposed artificial reality on natives, and forced them to accept it. The natives were forced to think through western minds and breathe through western nostrils. Their predicament was to accept themselves as aliens in their own land. Their inner selves were measured in western yardsticks, and their lands were mapped to western tastes. This discourse, which emerged from the center of power, became the tool to represent the reality of nonwestern locations, and subsequently became the source of knowledge for everyone.
The process of naming possesses mysterious power. Words, that cannot represent the true essence of things, are the only tool for their identification.
The consequence is that it homogenized people and places by completely neglecting their specificities. By identifying the whole continent of Africa as “Other”, western discourse put everything in one basket: One black native–named “savage”–of the Congo basin became the representation of all black people of Africa. The naming of Africa as the “Dark Continent” was not a coincidence, but a means to reveal the superiority of the homelands of the colonizers’. The phenomenon was not confined to Africa alone. The whole of the Arab world constituted ‘evil’ in western eyes, and the ‘truth’ for Western tastes was created accordingly.
Other geographical locations, and marginalized locations and people within the West itself, became the victims of white discourse. From Ireland to Africa to Arab to India to Australia to West Indies, everywhere colonial discourse functioned to give Westerners the upper hand and construct the truth of others. The ‘enlightened’ western discourse felt it necessary to lighten the so-called dark territories on earth.
Colonial discourse functioned unilaterally for a long time before post colonial discourse emerged to challenge it. Post colonial discourse is largely concentrated on reconstructing the identities expunged in the colonial era. It started renaming and remapping everything that was named and mapped by colonizers. On the one hand, the discourse exposed the evil design of colonizers in naming colonized locations. On the other, it gave its thrust to the glorification of pre-colonial identities. In this sense, this post colonial effort, too, was essentialist in nature: It viewed the names and concepts as static by ignoring the dynamic nature of history. Nothing can be seen in isolation. Quest of pure native identity almost equals the approval of English imposed identity. Both move to extreme directions, disregarding the concept of mutual existence.
But with the passage of time, post colonial ideas became more accommodating. On the one hand, post colonial thinkers like Chinua Achebe, Edward W. Said, and Franz Fanon completely resisted the suppression and oppression of colonizers by valorizing pre-colonial identity against the imposed identity of colonizers. On the other hand, post colonial thinkers like Catherine Nash felt it necessary to view things in co-existence. For example, no one can reject the potential of English language to glorify the cultures and identities of marginalized locations. English has not remained in the provincial domain of colonizers; rather it has become the language that the whole world speaks. Besides, English is appropriated to attack the provincial thinking of colonizers in post colonial arenas.
“English Literature” has been modified to “Literatures in English”. Because of the same, many place-names of post colonial locations still incorporate an English flavor. Finally, the power of naming cannot hold eternally, though it can leave miraculous effects so long as the discourse that produces the names is in operation. In the evolutionary dynamics of history and culture, everything keeps on changing. Today’s “savage” can overthrow the rule of the “civilized” tomorrow, and at that time the “truth” will be different. With the shift in power and discourse, there occurs a shift in meaning of names as well.
Objective reality is never achievable through names, but can be imprisoned in linguistic form. Colonizers’ erasure of pre-colonial identity of natives and natives’ renaming of their identity do not have any connection to objective reality. We can never ascribe a homogeneity to the power of naming; it always has heterogeneous effects. The effect of naming in America and in Africa cannot be the same, nor can it be the same in different historical times.
The author is a section Officer at the International Economic Cooperation Coordination Division at the Ministry of Finance