Sunday, March 18, 2007

What's in a Name

This first appeared at my other blog. I am transferring the whole series on The Matrix films over here. This is the first entry:

"What's in a name?" was famously asked by Juliet in Romeo and Juliet. Soon enough, the couple found out just how much power their names held over them.

In The Matrix films, you won't find this question raised. In fact, if you are a character in The Matrix, it seems, everything lies in the name. Just look at the associations of these names of characters in the films:

Neo, Thomas Anderson The word/name "Neo" connotes the new order which is to be ushered in by Neo, but it also serves as an anagram for his other appellation in the film, "The One." His more mundane name, Thomas Anderson, also has significance. He begins the film as a Doubting Thomas, but soon enough becomes what his surname indicates -- The Son of Man ("Anderson" means "son of man").

Trinity There are obvious associations with the Christian concept of the Godhead going on here. And Trinity is the character in the film who is most often involved in a sort of 3-in-1 triangulation. She (the spirit), Morpheus (the father), and Neo (the son) form the most notable and consistently used Trinity-image in the films.

Morpheus Ovid calls the God of Dreams Morpheus. Appropriately, Morpheus uses the rhetoric of dreams throughout the films, and is the visionary/dreamer, but also the voice who calls people to wake from the dream world to reality. In Ovid, Morpheus is likewise known to give shape to otherwise airy figures.

The Oracle is traditionally a god or priest who can foretell future events, and is therefore thought of as profoundly wise and authoritative. The Oracle in The Matrix certainly plays this role, but she seems to offer a bit of a twist in her guidance to Neo. She pushes him to recognize that it is he who is free to make his own destiny. The dialogue between the two characters concerning free will is very interesting. But then, oracles are often women who give obscure and misleading answers.

Of course we can go on and on with this list: Niobe, the Merovingian, the Architect, Persophone, the Seraph, and on and on. Even the ships flown by those in Zion (oops -- there's another name to consider) are aptly named: Nebuchadnezzar, the Logos, Icarus, and Gnosis.

The films certainly call attention to naming and the power of a name. You might want to check out Josh Burek's article if you'd like more ideas about the connections of The Matrix movies with Judeo-Christian symbolism. He has a nice little glossary of names at the bottom of the article.

But my interest in the question lies in just a slightly different place. I want to think about its connection with Louis Althusser's 1961 article "Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses." In this article, Althusser points out that by conferring a name (which he calls "interpellation" or "hailing"), we place ourselves in a position of power over the one hailed. As an example, Althusser points to the practice of a police officer shouting, "Hey you!" By choosing this means of hailing the subject -- "Hey you!" -- instead of another -- "Good afternoon, sir" -- he has immediately made the subject into someone suspected of some sort of misconduct.

This is not a new notion, of course -- it goes all the way back to the Garden of Eden when Adam was given dominion over the earth, and this was demonstrated in his naming of the animals. Where Althusser progresses the notion is in his understanding that "[t]he existence of ideology and the hailing or interpellation of individuals as subjects is one in the same thing." Taking the police officer as an example again, in his naming of the subject as "You!" instead of "sir," he has taken power (conferred by a badge) over the subject. Immediately in naming the subject "You!," the subject becomes someone under the police officer's authority. With a more respectful "sir," the police officer, perhaps, becomes just another civil servant.

And we see this all the time at work in ideological clashes. If I refer to you as a member of Green Peace, that will have a very different connotation than if I call you a Tree Hugger. Or how about these possibilities: conservative Christian/Religious Fundamentalist, women's activist/Feminazi, my wife/the ball and chain.... you get the idea. In choosing the names we apply to one another, we are always already taking an ideological position in relation to him/her. And we are, as often as not, using this to place ourselves in a position of power over the other. As Althusser points out, these acts which seem to take place outside of ideology -- on the street, in the home, in casual conversation, in a blog -- are actually situated squarely in ideology, though we never seem to think so.

But it is a point not missed by The Matrix. The constant shifiting of powers in the movies seems to me to be closely tied with the film's concerns about naming. It is driven home when Neo finally stands up to Smith, whose "Miiiiissssster Anderson" is fairly notorious, asserting, "My name is Neo."

There is an interesting parallel here in our cyber community. While in real life, most of us wear names given to us by our parents, here in a site like this, we are self-named, just as the characters in The Matrix are self-named when they are plugged in. It should be an empowering experience, and one that allows us to explore our identities, even as we shape them.

Check out MovieMan's blogs about the Star Wars movies. Although it seems he is not writing anymore, the blogs are interesting, and give a very good, serious look at the films.

If you prefer a shorter extract of Althusser's article, along with other relevant material in consideration of popular culture, Bob Ashley's Reading Popular Narrative is a very good read.

And for fun, there's a little online game which will tell you your Matrix identity. Mine is Trinity.

You are Trinity-
You are Trinity, from "The Matrix."
Strong, beautiful- you epitomize the ultimate

What Matrix Persona Are You?
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Sun Singer said...

In some societies, those who don't know us are not allowed to have our personal name. That would, it is thought, give them power over us.

Nice post.


hifidel said...

I have always liked that notion, Malcolm, that someone who has our name has a certain power over us. I think it is a very Althusserian concept too.