James R. Dawes


Naming is violence. Among post-structuralist theorists this is an essential and commonly invoked critical maxim. The act of naming is a matter of forcibly imposing a sign upon a person or object with which it has only the most arbitrary of relationships. Names produce an Other, establish hierarchies, enable surveillance, and institute violent binaries: Naming is a strategy that one deploys in power relations. The violence cuts through at all levels, from the practically political ("They are savages," "You are queer") to the ontological(one critic writes of "the irreducibility of violence in any mark"). Discussing the naming practices of Nambikwara children in Of Grammatology, Jacques Derrida identifies naming as an act of "originary violence" that is productive of both the disciplinary violence of the law and the cognate violence of its infractions: "war, indiscretion, rape." Naming is authority's attempt to categorize and control difference. For Derrida as for others, this is at the core of post-structuralist logic.

Contrast this cluster of antifoundationalist arguments (let us call it "theory" for simplicity's sake) to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Article 16 of the ICCPR reads: "Everyone shall have the right to recognition everywhere as a person before the law." Subsequent articles detail some of the freedoms contingent upon this recognition of personhood, including freedom of thought, conscience, and religion. Shortly thereafter, Article 24 establishes the fundamental duties required of each state to promote the dignity and worth of the children within its territory. What steps must states take to insure the recognition of the personhood of their children? Section 2 of Article 24 reads: "Every child shall be registered immediately after birth and shall have a name." To be named is to suffer violence; to be named is the foundation of human dignity. This juxtaposition calls attention to one of the most pressing ethical questions asked today of literary and language theory.