There is no such thing as invention, only mistranslation; no such thing as novelty, only misunderstanding.

Just as any life form can, in theory, if not in practice, be traced, via a long web of mistakes, all the way back to the origins of life, so too can every thought, word or deed.

A ground enforces certain selective constraints on a figure. So, when a figure is uprooted and translated to a different ground, new constraints rework the figure into something novel. Similarly, it is only through the figure that a ground interacts with the world, so the addition (or subtraction) of a figure tweaks the raison d’être of the ground.

Naming is broken. Twice.

Not only is massive migration plopping people with names adhering to one convention down in the middle of societies that use different conventions, but also in many places feminists and others are questioning their own societies naming conventions.

The problem is the written word and the linear sort of thinking it demands. I am Robin Shannon, not Shannon Robin. Names which should be useful labels have been co-opted as universal identifiers, requiring the stringing together of different sorts of names – given names, family names, confirmation names – all into a single definitive ‘true’ name which becomes the authoritative identifier of you.

If modernity is the state of living amongst strangers, then it must have brought with it a novel problem. The identification of strangers. If I am talking to a friend about Jane, and they don’t know which Jane I am talking about, they can ask ‘Charlie’s Jane or Café Jane?’. These aren’t definitive identifiers, they are pragmatic labels. They are the flexible tags of GMail rather than the static folders of older email clients. But pragmatic labels don’t work in dealings with strangers, and certainly not with the archetypal stranger – representatives of state and commercial institutions.

So we came up with this notion of combining multiple labels with a bit of gaffer tape and kind of pretending that this fixes the identification problem. And it did. Sometimes.

In a school, for example, with only a few hundred individuals to administer full names work just fine, but as administered populations grow, extra labels have to be added for good-enoughTM identification to be achieved: address, birth date, mother’s maiden name.

And then we entered postmodernity. For essentially all important purposes other than dealings with the office of births, deaths, and marriages and the electoral role, our would be administrators have given up using labels as identifiers and have used actual identifiers instead: centrelink customer access numbers, email addresses, OpenID URIs, facebook accounts.

So now we have returned to an age where names no longer have to be co-opted by the powers-that-be as identifiers and can revert to their original and primary use as labels. It’s just that nobody seems to have quite noticed yet.

We can have a series of names which categorise us in an arbitrary fashion. There is no need for one category to be our ‘first’ name, another our ‘middle’ name and another our ‘last’. Names can be, once again, an unordered list.

I see four (or there abouts) names being able to take on most of the work of names, at least as currently used in the English-speaking global North. These are (in no particular order!) personal name; household name; parents’ clans.

Personal names are used just like current ‘first’ names. Household names are used to label a person as belonging to a particular economic/social household (prototypically, but by no means necessarily, a nuclear family). Clan names are used to label a person as belonging to the respective clans of their parents. Most typically this would be a belonging to the mother’s matriline and to the fathers patriline.

In this scheme, the current work of surnames of categorising both nuclear and extended families is broken up and distributed between household and clan names. Household names could be devised with the birth of each household (as given names are now), while clan names would pass down the family line (as generally the father’s surname does now).

And so, (if I am able to convince someone else to adopt this scheme with me) if or when I do form a nuclear family, we will adopt this naming convention for our family. As for the other several billion people living in neoliberal states with roughly equivalent concepts of individual, household and clan, I commend this to each and every one of you.

May unordered naming flourish as verdantly as Esperanto.

I learnt two things today. Firstly, some eucalypts naturally occur in the islands north of Australia. I guess this shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise  given that much Australian flora and fauna extends into Papua. Adorable tree kangaroos for example (image thanks to Timmy Toucan):

Goodfellow’s Tree-kangaroo (Dendrolagus goodfellowi), taken by Timmy Toucan on Flickr. Image is under creative commons. Original here:

However the eucalypt is even more adventurous than are cute and furry macropods, and here comes the second thing I learnt today. One single brave eucalypt species, E. deglupta, ventured so far north it crossed the equator into the Philippines. Suddenly finding itself upside down must have done something to its mind because the rainbow gum, as it is known commonly, is on one hell of a trip:

Images thanks to cyanocorax, jroldenettel and foxtail_1. All licensed under creative commons licenses.

Sometimes I play a game where I look around a room and try to guess which people fall into a certain physically invisible category: who is gay; married; depressed; broken-hearted? The game uses any category which is common but private, such that in almost any group of people – a church congregation, a funeral gathering, a school yard mob, a work site gang – there will be someone who falls into each of these categories, but there is practically no way of telling who they are.

The game has power for me because it links generalised societal discourses – about the ‘danger’ of gay marriage or abnormal mental states or evangelical religion – to concrete individuals. That lady with the humorously coloured hat or that slightly awkward gent with the permanent poker face is the great threat to society that so much ink is spilled over. It is that particular real person who is the butt of jokes about ‘schitzos’ or who always carries a copy of the gospels in their pocket and wants the teaching of evolution banned.

Amidst the baying for blood in the aftermath of the terrible suicide of an English nurse after receiving a prank call from 2Day FM radio hosts, it is perhaps worth remembering that suicide too, is not some distant phenomena that happens to other people, it surrounds each and every one of us, despite being shrouded in a cloak of invisibility. Whoever we are, there is someone, and more likely several people, we once knew who has taken their own life.

Remember that kid from school who always sat in front of you in biology? Remember that cashier with the beautiful smile who you always used to chat to at the corner store? Remember that cutie you met down the coast but then somehow lost contact with? They’re dead now, but nobody told you because as a society, we have decided not to talk about suicide.

The rage reflex is easy, but it isn’t going to bring the poor nurse at the centre of this story back. Indeed the tabloid spotlight will probably only make an already impossible situation worse for her family and friends. Instead of blaming others, let’s spare a thought for the six Australians who killed themselves yesterday and the six more who will kill themselves today and tomorrow and the day after that and the day after that. And spare a thought for our friends, family and colleagues who have had a close friend or family member taken by suicide.

Rightly or wrongly, the Australian media does not report on suicide for fear of sparking copy-cat attempts. This, along with the general taboo around death, keeps suicide off the agenda. And yet people do not merely die in a vacuum. Since at least the time of Durkheim’s classic study it has been clear that societies can be more or less suicide-genic. As the 15th most common cause of death amongst Australians, and the leading cause of death amongst 15-34 year olds, suicide prevention should be a central part of all public policy decisions.

How can we build schools, workplaces and communities with inbuilt systems to stop suicides from occurring? I’m sure there is at least some sociological knowledge out there about this, but it angers me that it is not common knowledge. We all know about skin cancer, heart disease and diabetes prevention. Banning junk food advertising during children’s television is widely supported as is cigarette plain packaging. But where do we even start with suicide? And why isn’t it even on the agenda?

The insight that when we see an object, we sense it as an object in the world, rather than as a 2D projection onto our retina, is hardly novel (though nevertheless often ignored). What has just occurred to me, however, is that this sensation can be based on two different classes of evidence about the world. Take for example the following picture of a humorously 1970s-esque wall mounted heater in my (rented) house:

Now what if I tell you that, actually this isn’t a wall mounted heater, it is, in fact, an air-conditioning unit. Rather than being a box fastened onto the wall behind it, the object is now a box which goes through the wall to the hidden outside portion of the A/C unit. This is a real illusion which took me far too long to realise.

When I thought the box was a heater its hidden face lay touching the part of the wall which the object obscured from my view. When I latter discovered the box was an A/C unit the hidden part of the box now stuck out through the wall, poking through a previously invisible hole in the wall.

The point that I think is interesting here is that I have recently become convinced that what makes some ‘thing’ a figure (or, to put it another way, an object rather than a a texture) is a construal of that ‘thing’ as a complex of internal relations standing in a series of external relations with the ground. Indeed if we look back at the original gestalt principles of grouping – proximity, similarity, closure, symmetry, common fate, continuity, Prägnanz, past experience – we see a list of principles which, while neither necessary nor sufficient conditions for a relation being internal, are all good evidence for it (this is most obviously true for common fate, but also stands true for the others).

When I saw the thing on my wall as a heater its hidden face was described by the external relation I construed between it and the wall while the obscured part of the wall was described by the wall’s own internal relations. When I latter came to see the thing as an A/C unit, its hidden faces now came to be described by its own internal relations while the wall’s newly construed hole came to be described by its external relations with the A/C unit.

I wonder if the ground is usually privileged by perception such that its internal relations are used for the default construal?

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