What’s in a Name


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Naming Boundaries

The main attribute of our personal idenity, the name, is, as Juliet discovers on her balcony, not part of the creaturely body governed by desire. Literary and philosophical contemplations of love and desire often bring the boundary between family identity and group identity into sharp focus. Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” can enrich the theoretical discussion of the tensions between private and pubic identity as the play refines the distinctions between love and desire, between the name and the word, as well as between the self, the family, and the state. Not unlike Sophocles’s “Antigone,” a tragedy about the clash between family duty and state duty, (on the tragic aesthetics of State design please see: Tragic Design), this early play by the Bard reformats the relationship between tragic love and family identity.

Shakespeare’s play is perhaps the crowning masterpiece in the Western canon about the limit built into the very nature of love, a limit that is intimately related to the function of the name and to the growth and flowering of living language. The boundary introduced by the name is central to the growth of language and all the arts, because it erects an irreducible difference and a remainder into the grammatical calculus of language. The name introduces difference and an inviolable limit, which girds man’s divine presence like a halo and protects his dignity as a child of God. The divine nature of humanity is given in language. The name is the limit at which language originates and at which it must also stop if it is not to consume itself without remainder and thus also annihilate the human world language constitutes.

The Name of Adoption

The name is the cornerstone of Western morality built not on pagan but on Biblical principles, because the Bible altered the function of the name from representing the bare life of a pure biological unit to a mark of divine nature and grace. This is the function of the sacrament of baptism, which symbolised God’s adoption of the name. It is not just an empty ritual. Historically it altered the way language functions by introducing the immaterial dimension to mores, morality, all human relationships, and above all, it to one’s relationship to the self.

Forms of metaphysics and narcissistic worship of the self are well known and widely available in antiquity. Classical metaphysics remain absolutely dependent on physics through the logos (word and logic) and the nomos (law). They are not related in any way to human agency and the name it carries. The name introduces an inviolable limit within language, a limit desire seeks to transgress, but without which love becomes superfluous, its sublimating power drained of actuality, and aesthetic currency emptied of its immaterial minting.

90a325b0e3fde3def392d53e77c1593aJuliet’s Desire

Aesthetic currency is pure desire. Juliet’s transgression is all-consuming love, the kind of love known as desire in the philosophical lexicon: hot, unruly and uncontrollable creaturely passion destined for death. Desire is not conditioned by the internal law of the individual being, but by purely external, objective, shared reality. “You kiss by the book” says Juliet to Romeo, who at the time of their encounter is emerging from a fresh break-up, emotionally battered and internally unavailable for a new relationship. Juliet runs the show from the very beginning. Romeo follows, blindly worshipping at Juliet’s altar. His emasculation, like the erasure of his baptismal name, is the tragic action driving the play. He is going through the motions of courtship automatically, “by the book,” even bureaucratically. Desire burns his and Juliet’s young lives quickly and leaves nothing but their desire as their legacy.

The aesthetic conventions of desire consumed the individual without remainder. In the true fashion of tragic poetry, which shatters the flawed hero onstage only to preserve the rules of classical perfection, which are purely external and ostentatiously public, Romeo and Juliet’s remains become the common property of the world. Indeed, countless languages, media, and art forms have adopted and adapted the play since its original appearance in London. Only the internalisation of their transgression individualises their passion and confers upon it a saving grace.

Political Misappropriation of Juliet’s Tragedy: Nomos over Name

The en vogue interpretation of the play among scholars of the new historicist school of thought today foregrounds the young couple’s victimisation by traditional values. This interpretation justifies social design of racial and cultural interbreeding as a form of intervention in tragic destiny. This classical state intervention, however, is not supported by Shakespeare. It ignores basic cultural distinctions between the classical and the biblical traditions, as well as among biblical traditions.

The internal logic (nomos: law) of the tragedy of desire and the two corpses it inevitably produces is as dead-certain and fixed from the beginning as the law of gravity. Interracial unions based on racial identities, which conflate the distinction between the group, the family, and the individual in one dominant racial currency, inevitably produce violence and senseless destruction. Such is the tragic nature of the limit family identity posits to group identity. The group cannot articulate itself except through the family, but in order to adopt a family identity, the group must sacrifice it, that is, articulate its desire as common aesthetic currency. This was the function of Greek tragedy.

Ancient Rome demanded the sacrifice of the family to the state. It permitted the articulation of family identity only within the circulable discursive network of the state. In this case, interracial union is simply a matter of state interests, neither family nor individual interest. The relentless calculus of tragic aesthetics governed the ancient world and even as it pitted existence against the harsh realities of desire, it also developed the fine arts at the locus and limit between the nomos of the state and the family. Roman patricians took great pride in their family history, but only insofar as it served the ars memoria of the state.


Civic Crown: Nomos not Name

Biblical Name & Freudian View of the Family

Only in Jewish thought is family identity completely subsumed by group identity. The names listed in the Old Testament are inviolable and protected, not subsumable by the law (nomos). In the old testamentary biblical context interracial breeding becomes taboo. Freud’s thought originated in this tradition, which he confused, unwittingly and unfortunately, with the Greek tragic tradition. This made his articulation of the psychoanalytic world-view of the family as the centre of the universe a little blurry. But Freud made a mistake by merging tragic with Jewish family identity. The natural mores of gentile nations and their moral universe remained materially grounded in the tragic distinctness of the family from the nation. Tragic poetry, and later in Rome, more neutrally, pastoral poetry, served to articulate distinct family identities. Thus gentiles maintained a crucial distinction between the group and the family that is not available in other identity patterns.

Christian Re-Interpretation of Classical Identity Patterns

I will devote future posts to the Greco-Roman virtue of sacrificing the interests of the family to those of the state, especially Shakespeare’s Christian treatment of the material in “Coriolanus” and the other three Roman plays. Suffice to say at this point that the creative lancet of classical aesthetics operates between the family and the state. This is the price and the place of classical perfection. The profoundly Catholic Jacques Lacan considers tragedy the ultimate calculus of desire’s irreversible march toward death.

Christ’s Sword: Birth of Self-Difference

The introduction of Biblical thought to the Greco-Roman cultural foundation changed the tragic dis-articulation of family identity by making a further division within the family. The Christian individuality under God is separate from the family, as well as from the group/state. In antiquity separation from the family was normal and expected. In Jewish thought it is unthinkable. Christ has Romans and Greeks in mind when He says: “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.35For I have come to turn “ ‘a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law—36 a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.’c (Matthew 10:34-36). What Christ introduces in this crucial passage is self-difference, which is absent in both Jewish and Greco-Roman cultural reality.

Self-difference produces an infinite remainder that prevents annihilation of the individual. His consummation by social, biological, aesthetic, and all other currencies he shares with a group, be it family, tribe, national group or political organisation, is never total and complete. Self-difference produces a remainder that does not obey the logic of time and nature. It has its internal clock and calculus, even as it encloses the temporal and the natural world. Mathematically self-difference is evident in the number Pi. Simultaneously a finite value, a conglomerate of finite values, and an infinite number, Pi is the number of individuality.

In language, the individuality dwells in the spaces between signifiers. Difference is the origin of poetry and the idiomatic calculus of unique interiors. In the endless chatter of language, a caesura introduces the breaking point where Christ’s sword cuts the self in two to introduce divine presence. This healing cut vouchsafes the unique truth and being of the individuality. The Christian context altered the function of the name profoundly. From objective unit in the chain of signifiers, whose meaning is guaranteed by blood lineage in Jewish thought or by the nomos in Greco-Roman logic, the name becomes the guarantor of a unique interior. The name is a portal to language and to internal infinity.

Desire and Regression to Tragedy

Desire erases the baptismal name and precipitates regression to tragic formatting. Shakespeare sets tragic regression in motion with Juliet’s famous balcony soliloquy. Violation of the limit built into the name initiates a relentless cycle of tragic annihilation.

‘Tis but thy name that is my enemy;
Thou art thyself, though not a Montague.
What’s Montague? it is nor hand, nor foot,
Nor arm, nor face, nor any other part
Belonging to a man. O, be some other name!
What’s in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet;
So Romeo would, were he not Romeo call’d,
Retain that dear perfection which he owes
Without that title. Romeo, doff thy name,
And for that name which is no part of thee
Take all myself. (R&J II.ii.38-48)

The limit Juliet fails, the source of her transgression, is the conflation of the word and the name. This purely linguistic operation erases his humanity. Words in circulation represent a system of signification that orders the created world. We name creatures, but as creatures ourselves we lose the power to name. Nature is mute. Only humanity has the God-given gift of language, the medium of human creation.  A bee may remain a bee even if we call it a violet or a true. The name of an object is replaceable. Stripping a Christian of his name by equating him with his race or family annihilates his interior and his being. Juliet’s curse, much like Romeo’s, is their bondage to families that indulged the magnificent tragic passions of family rivalry. Italy inherited the tragic arts of Rome and never really let go of them.

The function of the name is to stop the infinite circulability of words, to mark a limit that re-routs external passions to the interior. It also protects the teaching of Scripture, which no Christian can claim in his own name. Christ said “I am not here in my own name, but in the name of the Father.” This was necessary for the conversion of gentiles. The maker of their identities is not God, but the pale, earthy image of desire and its tragic beauty. This is why their initiation in the Biblical lineage is by adoption only, that is, by grace. The sublimation of Romeo and Juliet’s gruesome end is an act of grace. The play initiated an endless mourning ritual we still engage with pleasure. Shakespeare gives each character enough time to begin mourning and internalising the other marking a temporal caesura for their salvation.

The Limit in Love

Though Romeo and Juliet do marry, the consummation of their love is without remainder until the bitter end when Shakespeare makes them mourn each other and acknowledge their difference. The erasure of the name is also an erasure of the limit between the two. In a sense the tragedy of their union is the total merger of the two individualities. A love too passionate to stop at the threshold of transgression that consumes the beloved is star-crossed in its nature. Ironically, it is the names Shakespeare gave the young lovers, the very names they erased in their youthful passion, that remain as their only monument for all eternity: Romeo and Juliet.


In the ancient currency of tragic aesthetics the name is accidental, objective, and property of the state. In Christianity, the name simultaneously designates the entry to the interior and the guarantee of objective reality of Scripture. It certifies the name-bearer’s dual citizenship in the reality of Scripture and in his own difference from it. In a sense, it transports the tragic cut between the gentile family name and the classical nomos within the self. Because we know self-difference ourselves, we can identify with the transgression of the young lovers. Their passion remains in the cleavage between the self and its negative.

As self-difference the name constitutes an internal tragedy, the separation of one’s own name from the name of the Father. Self-difference is the essence of Christian passion. It is not narcissism, because there is no pure yield of pleasure nor self-worship, but to the contrary, a glorification
of difference. The identity pattern of self-difference initiated industrialisation and Western liberalism. The latter permitted other cultures and religions to participate in the project of modern statehood. Whether the politicisation of an internal Christian principle was a positive development is a question for another post.


What does the name have to do with the news? Which identity pattern emerges in the news and how do we relate to it?


Digiprove sealCopyright secured by Digiprove © 2016 Viola Timm

1 thought on “What’s in a Name”

  1. Alex K. said:

    You seem to condemn desire as something negative, although, half of us won’t be here if it was not for the intoxication of desire. After all woman is an object of desire if I may he so bold.

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