Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Why Fantasy Matters: Thoughts on Law, Politics, and Society (Part IV)

In her last post, Heather Whitney explored the concept of self-interest and argued that we need to rethink what we mean by it.  In this post, she examines the power of names, as inspired by her reading of Marge Piercy's novel Woman on the Edge of Time.

Names are strange and powerful things – we see this in our own lives and in fiction. In fiction, I instantly think of The Neverending Story, where the only way the boy Bastian can save Fantasia and the childlike Empress is by saying her name. In our own world, many women struggle with whether they should adopt their husband’s last name upon marriage, thereby giving up their father’s.

I recently read Woman on the Edge of Time, a post-gender feminist utopia novel. And, in a novel filled with complex and difficult themes and ideas, it was the contrasting use of names between that 2137 utopia and 1970s present that I found particularly interesting. Here, I’d like to spend some time thinking about what names seem to be doing in these alternate realities. To that end, I’ll first summarize the novel and sketch out some of the distinctions I see. Then, I’ll raise a puzzle.

To be clear, I don’t know how names ought to function – in utopia anymore than here. I’m not even sure, as a descriptive matter, I quite understand how names function at all. Instead, my goal here is modest: I’d like to simply raise a question for the reader – a question that, I hope, provokes both reflection and response.

Brief Story Synopsis

The novel follows Connie (aka Consuelo, aka Conchita), a poor Mexican woman who has been in and out of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest meets Clockwork Orange-esque mental institutions. The novel begins when Connie is once again forced into one of these institutions, this time against her will. Around the same time as Connie is readmitted, she begins communicating with, and eventually visiting, people in 2137. This utopian future, whether real or imaginary, stands in sharp contrast to both Connie’s mid-1970s reality and the alternative totalitarian future only she can prevent. In Utopia 2137 the nuclear family has been eliminated; it’s also post-race and post-gender [no “he”; no “she”; men as well as women breastfeed; and women no longer bear children (as they had to give up what “made them special” in order to achieve true sex equality)]. 


Naming is also quite different in 2137. While a child is given a name, upon reaching adulthood (at around 13), the child is free to change that name – not only once, but whenever they’d like. Some change their name daily (risking only mass confusion) while others change their names once, twice, sometimes, or never. The idea is that individuals are free to change their name whenever and to whatever they’d like. But, interestingly, what you don’t see in 2137 is people having more than one name at the same time.

We can contrast names in 2137 with Connie’s name experience, as she explained to those in 2137:

"'I’ve always had three names inside me. Consuelo, my given name. Consuelo’s a Mexican woman, a servant of servants, silent as clay. The woman who suffers. Who bears and endures. Then I’m Connie, who managed to get two years of college—till Consuelo got pregnant. Connie got decent jobs from time to time and fought welfare for a little extra money for [her daughter]. She got me on a bus when I had to leave Chicago. But it was her who married Eddie, she thought it was smart. Then I’m Conchita, the low-down drunken mean part of me who gets by in jail, in the bughouse, who loves no good men, who hurt my daughter....’ When she stopped short, the others were silent but did not seem scared or judgmental. As usual, Luciente [Connie’s main guide in 2137] spoke first. ‘Maybe Diana could help you to meld the three women into one.’”

From the above, we can sketch out the major differences between names in the two worlds:

2137 (utopia)  

• Individuals are free to choose their own name

• Individuals are free to change their name at any time

• All people at time t refer to you by the same name, x.

• The same people who called you x at t1 will call you, if you decide to change your name, y at t2.  

Present (1970s--portrayed as virtually dystopic)

• Individuals are given their name, but it’s unclear if Connie chose to go by these three variations of her given name or whether others put those names upon her

• Not all people at time t will refer to you by the same name [we imagine Connie goes by Connie in class but then returns to her neighborhood and is called “Consuelo.” When she gets upset with herself, she may internally refer to herself as “Conchita.”]

• Very rarely does the same one person call us by more than one name (whereas a person in 2137 decides to change her name and, as a result, the person who called her x yesterday will now call her y, in our world, that rarely happens (except with women's last names).

Given the response people in 2137 had to Connie’s explanation of her experience with names and identity, it seems safe to say they (and the author) see Connie’s divided identity as a bad thing. I’ll call the people in 2137’s problem with Connie’s divided identity an objection to Vertical Disjoined Identity. That is, people in 2137 object to multiple identities (represented by “Consuelo”; “Connie”; and “Conchita”) coexisting at the same point on a timeline.

But, given their willingness to change their own names frequently over time, they are clearly not opposed to what we can call Horizontal Disjoined Identity. That is, while they think an individual should only have one name at a time, they find it acceptable to change that name over time. 

So my question is this: why, in purported utopia, is Horizontal but not Vertical Disjointed Identity acceptable? Classic super heroes engage, to some extent, in Vertical Disjointed Identity. Those who play WOW (World of Warcraft) or have alternate names and identities online do the same. In fact, so did I when I went only by “Summer” at summer camp. And these aren’t just examples of one unified identity with multiple names; Batman acts different, plays out a different role, when he’s Batman than he does as Bruce Wayne. As Summer, I felt like a different person – a better, kinder, and happier me. I felt like I was a different person – the sort of person I imagined a “Summer” to be.

So, is Vertical Disjoined Identity bad? If you imagine utopia, is it eliminated? Why?