What’s in a Name? Can You Hum a Few Bars?

16 07 2011

Remember Beetleness and Daffodility?

. . .sorting and naming the natural world is a universal, deep-seated and fundamental human activity, one we cannot afford to lose because it is essential to understanding the living world, and our place in it.

THIS PROFUSION OF HUMMINGBIRDS is from the book “Kunstformen der Natur,” by Ernst Haeckel, 1900. The names of the birds, like Topaza pella, or crimson topaz (third from top), and Sparganura sappho, or red-tailed comet (with forked tail), seem as lush and elaborate as their coloration.

THIS PROFUSION OF HUMMINGBIRDS is from the book “Kunstformen der Natur,” by Ernst Haeckel, 1900. The names of the birds, like Topaza pella, or crimson topaz (third from top), and Sparganura sappho, or red-tailed comet (with forked tail), seem as lush and elaborate as their coloration.

Taxonomy in my mind is power of story, more art than science. It means making meaning from human cognition and emotion, which regardless of how and whether we distinguish between them, together constitute the whole of our reality.

So I think (and feel) that taxonomy can’t be defined solely in terms of the “natural” world, as beauty apart from human thinking and feeling.

More than ever, composers are busily breaking down walls between stylistic categories. Opera in particular has been a poacher’s paradise. We have had folk opera, jazz opera and rock opera. Bono, who collaborated with the Edge on the music and lyrics of “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark,” called the show “Pop-Art opera.” Whatever that means. . .

In this NYT story, we get to play taxonomy with the “opera” and “musical theatre” far beyond academic separation into discrete subject areas, that figures so prominently yet ineffably into the thoroughly blurred-boundary learning here at Chez Ross. Fun!

The differences, though slight, are crucial. So what are they, exactly?

And remember as you think taxonomically, the better you are at such thinking, the further it can take you and the further you get to take it. It can take humans far beyond music appreciation for example, to appreciate how identity friction heats up between things close enough to get confused and in that confusion, to rub against each other.

Think about “sex” and “race” — male and female, black and white — and whether in their fullness of being, they are opposite human poles or close enough in most respects to create confusion and therefore friction. Think about home education advocacy burning and blistering similar styles all along their connective tissue, trying to brand them as different. How about southwestern border states demanding similar difference be respected for demarcation not just hard to see but often invisible, across unbroken sand and water, between blended families, cultures and economies?

See also We Can’t Agree What Religious Words Mean, Either. Heck, never mind what it means to be a religious human, what does it mean to BE human? Do you think we even know what we don’t know about that? And are we trying to figure it out to get closer, or further apart?

Theatergoing audiences may not care much whether a show is a musical or an opera. But the best achievements in each genre, and the occasional standout hybrid work . . . have been from composers and writers who grounded themselves in a tradition, even while reaching across the divide.



10 responses

17 07 2011

You are right. Most people cannot agree on the ultimate meaning of words or the concepts behind them like Humanity, Religiosity, Spiritual, Humane, etc., And right now the word Patriotic comes to mind as well.

When I think of my personal taxonomic practices, I think back to the first time the idea that naming a thing or a soul became associated as a sacred act. I think of Madeleine L’Engle and The Wrinkle in Time series and what it is to be a *Namer. And the connotation was that to be a namer was to see a being as it’s essence. That you named something/someone according to the function they serve in the greater scheme of things and most often that was a good thing. Name somehow = niche.

18 07 2011

Yes, good connection! 🙂

19 07 2011

Another connection might be as an act of co-creation. In some sense naming a being by its essential nature, is also impart determining and fixing that nature into place. You are not not just naming a being or thing, but also its niche, its function, and this in turn determines its relationship to other beings/things and systems.

19 07 2011

Beep, you strike me as a really well-integrated cross between the liberal arts and sciences. What a good thing for a home-educating mom to be. 🙂

20 07 2011

Words Hurt The World, Poet Says

“Does naming a thing make it more, or less, important to us?
Krulwich Wonders presents two poets debating the power of words. . .
Obviously both sides are right. Words divide us. Words attach us. But if I had to choose, I’d tilt word-wise, I think. “

21 07 2011

There are two things that for me really define a culture. The symbols they employ in their dreams, literally–[an offshoot or reflection of their folklore] and their descriptive words.

It seems funny to me, that the more words one has to describe one thing, the more valuable it is to a culture and the more nuanced their understanding.

But the less words that a culture has for a thing, the more primal and mysterious it is for them. Like a fixture in their collective unconscious.

21 07 2011

And Thanks! What a nice thing to say. I just wish I were better at math.

21 07 2011

Thinking about a culture’s words and symbols defining us and creating our reality — what about the words we use to lie, cheat and steal, to fool and foul and despoil, to strike out and hurt and make war over words? I worry that purposefully misused words is the best way to understand modern cultures including our own:

Unfortunately, one of the main culprits that we face in this process is actually language itself. Language is an extraordinary tool. We would not be where we are as a species without it. But because, as a species, we are so hardwired to respond to language with belief, because so much of what constitutes how we experience reality is the result of linguistic constructions, language can become a font of illusion as easily as it can be a tool for the enunciation of truth.

21 07 2011

And that is the basis of propaganda. A certain amount of mindfulness can counteract that. That is where *actual critical thinking skills come in to play. And I think that if as parents, we can avoid undermining a child’s instincts, that will go a long way to helping them be in touch with their bullshit-o-meter.

This goes back to the discussions about commercials and propaganda we had some time ago.

It’s not just words, but also rank that we are hardwired to respond to. Remember the doctors selling cigarettes? Remember doctors selling fen phen? Uncle Sam used to emotional manipulate our feelings of shared national identity in order to hide jingoism under the guise of patriotism? Whenever you use something intangible [like a concept] to represent something tangible [like a leader or administration or business or church] you run the risk of that intangible item being used as a lever or a button to manipulate people for political reasons [small or large P].

21 07 2011

Ultimately wherever you have more than 2 people, politics will be pervasive.

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