Archive for April, 2006

Names

I started a new job in January, and it has clearly had a significant effect on the frequency of my blog postings. I’ll see how it goes over time.

Seeing Charles Taylor in the news has made me think about names. Taylor is a fairly common name, and Charles Taylor, who is the descendant, on his father’s side, of the former black Americans who founded Liberia, is certainly no relation of mine. Nor did any of my ancestors live in the southern U.S., nor hold slaves whom they might have named Taylor before they left for Liberia. However, people and things with the same name are connected, if not in physical space, then in the mental space which mediates how we actually view the world.

I’m sure I’m not the only person to feel that all cities with the same name are connected, and that it should be possible to walk from one to another. I’m often vaguely disappointed by this failure of physical reality. In more ambiguous cases, though, names really are significant: is the barrier that the Israeli government is building a wall or a fence? If we call it a wall, we can not help but connect it with the Cold War Berlin Wall. A fence would be more benign: good fences make good neighbors. The name does not change the physical nature of the barrier, but it does change our emotional reaction to it. And it is interesting to note that for a case like this, our emotional reaction is actually more important than the physical object. This barrier will affect people, even the people who must live near it and cross it, more by how it is perceived than by what it really is. For many things, our view of the world is conditioned more by our perception than by the physical reality. As a friend said to me long ago, ontology recapitulates philology.

Historically magic is largely based on a notion of names. Magicians (by which I mean people who truly tried to practice magic, rather than people who put on a stage show) sought for the true name of a person or object, with the belief that knowing the true name would give them control over it. If they sought physical control, they were of course mistaken, but not all magicians were that confused. Many sought mental control, either simply for themselves, or to gain control over others by using names effectively. I only know of one person in the western culture who is trying to be a real magician, Alan Moore, and he is clearly trying to use words and names in this way. His story V for Vendetta (now a major motion picture, for which he has refused to permit use of his name and has refused all royalties), is about a man who consciously tries to become an idea, and shapes his words and hisactions to that end.

One way to view people like Charles Taylor, or for that matter Saddam Hussein or Slobodan Milosevic, is that they are magicians who used language to gain power over other people. For all three of them, more ordinary people are trying to hem them in and remove their power using a different kind of magic, one rooted in the legal code. Note in particular how unfortunate it was that Milosevic died during his trial; his death meant that his magic was never defeated by legal magic, and remains available for some inheritor to take up.

A final digression: computer programming is of course often compared to magic. Programming translates words into actions not indirectly, through the minds of other people, but directly, using technology. Like magic, programming requires a precise and careful use of language. Unlike magic, it does not exist entirely in mental space. And as is typical when concepts move out of mental space, the physical reality is both stranger and more banal than the mental concept. The power of computer programming is the power of technology, which applies to the physical world, and is very different from the power of magic, which applies only in the mental world. Computers can make magic more effective, just as technology makes many things more effective, but programming and magic are fundamentally different kindsof things.

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