Name Performance

Are names performative? That’s a new idea for me. I came across it while reading a book by Abu El-Haj about the politics of Israeli archeology:

The author “specifies for the first time the relationship between national ideology, colonial settlement, and the production of historical knowledge. She analyzes particular instances of history, artifacts, and landscapes in the making to show how archaeology helped not only to legitimize cultural and political visions but, far more powerfully, to reshape them” (says Goodreads). Good stuff.

In a discussion about naming pottery types, Abu El-Haj points out that naming a type can be a way of creating evidence from a neutral fact. “In other words, the name of objects was integral to producing an independent evidentiary basis upon which an empirical tradition of archaeological practice would henceforth build” (119). A somewhat difficult idea but easy to understand once it’s grasped. For example, naming the type “Israelite” rather than “collared rim” is a conclusion from the evidence and facilitates the argument that this type is proof of Israelite occupation (118-19). It becomes more difficult to argue that finding the pottery type called Israelite is not evidence this is an Israelite site.

In making this argument, Abu El-Haj cites Jacqueline Stevens for the idea names are performative. And here’s where my attention is really captured.

As Jacqueline Stevens has argued quite eloquently with regard to personal names and national affiliations, they are not merely ‘contingent label’ detachable from some already constituted personhood. Rather, ‘the personal name is also the person’ (1999:154); such names perform nationality (158). Extending that argument to question of scientific facts and the naming of things, the name Israelite performs in the very ontology of material-cultural things. Thus, the repeated invocation if Israelite pottery as evidence for Israelite presence in debates concerning questions of chronology and character continuously enacts the nation itself as historical fact. The nation’s historical reality, after all, is evidence in the pottery form itself–a form that exists as a specific ethnic class of objects only when named.

Now I want to read the Stevens book as well. Goodreads’ summary says, “People are said to acquire their affiliations of ethnicity, race, and sex at birth. Hence, these affiliations have long been understood to be natural, independent of the ability of political societies to define who we are. Reproducing the State vigorously challenges the conventional view.” (Goodreads).

Adding it to my list.

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