WHAT'S IN A NAME (AND WHAT'S OUT) ?
Completing the Peripheral in Multiple Ways
Q: Why do I keep hearing pretentious people talk about ‘naming things into the field?’
(An audio version of this article, read by the author, is available to the paid subscribers. The quality of this audio might be a little henky as it was recorded in a remote cabin in rural Vermont).
Naming things into the field is a powerful practice but also a strange self-satirizing joke. What could be more ridiculous and depraved than dozens of privileged people who feel that even their unstated words & their not-quite-emotions are worth sharing?
Naming, in this sense, is an amateur verbal art form used in “we-space communities.” It is poised halfway between the free-flowing inclusivity of an improv class and a tragic neurotic obsession with every unuttered sentiment & abstract mood that might be circling close to the threshold of consciousness. Do we really have to “name” every goddamned thing that anybody thinks they MIGHT be feeling just in order to relate more authentically?
Unfortunately, yes. We sort of do.
I. WHAT DOES “NAMING” NAME?
This is a very simple practice that operates at the edge of consciousness. The term practice is already too grandiose. Naming is simply a whole set of ways of extending our normal human capacity to notice and verbalize material that might otherwise get left out of the conversation.
We non-judgementally vocalize subtle patterns, feelings or observations that seem hauntingly present. We do this such that the intersubjective intelligence of the gathering can collectively register and enfold all this liminal material into the dynamic process of group sensemaking.
So rather than wondering, “What should I do about being excluded here? Am I actually being excluded? Are other people excluded? Am I making all this up?” you might simply say, “I’m noticing some anxiety about the possibility of being excluded. I don’t need that to change, I just wanted to name that into the field.”
It’s brilliant and gross at the same time.
And if there is a pre-established agreement, among the participants, that they are engaged in an ethos of naming, then this sharing of liminal material will be greeted by sage nods of compassion — instead of by arguing, sulking or superficially agreeing. It can be a beautiful thing to give form to the partially formless. To produce coherent shared inquiry in place of the incoherence of private and divisive feelings. Feels good.
In fact, some people really like it. They have an almost erotic urge to make the implicit into the explicit. And as far as fetishes go, that’s not bad. It could be a lot worse. There is even an aura of magical destiny involved in imagining ourselves as cosmic sensor-receivers whose inner & shared listening process brings forth the novel leading edge of the universe. Hallelujah.
But we must, of course, also be savagely making fun of this process. Otherwise, it would be all too easy to get idealistically carried away…
II. FOR GOD’S SAKE WHY???
Practices of this kind have several advantages.
Firstly, they are excellent self-development exercises. Like mindfulness, or psychoanalytic free association, the process of simply stating, without over-identification, whatever is on the “tip of your tongue” can be very useful to individual growth. It allows us to harvest more of the intelligence that is bubbling up from the whole organism (maybe the whole cosmos).
Secondly, this strategy can reduce the social anxiety gap between individuals and groups. People are often starving for trust and connection in a way that is hard to satisfy in collective gatherings. Babies and immigrants take a long time (if ever) to feel welcome in a nation. And many exercises that accelerate trust-building are actually bad for us — shared drunkenness, mutual endurance of tragedy, violently scapegoating outsiders, etc.
Thus, it is excellent to have relatively safe, social tools that quickly depressurize the gap between vulnerable individual subjectivity and the group discourse. Just shift that uncertainty from your own peripheral perception into the registered collective discussion.
Thirdly, groups become more collectively intelligent when they coordinate more dimensions from within their individual participants. The orchestra of sanity and sapience needs to hear the various tones that each instrument is capable of detecting and expressing.
Altogether this produces an ethos in which (in theory) more material is enfolded, more integrity and ease are generated, people gain “construct aware” distance from their own reactive assumptions & the whole network gets smarter.
What could possibly go wrong?
There are three areas of primary concern:
The first issue is that anything can be used poorly. Obviously. Whatever helps can also hurt. One reason it is important to make fun of “naming” is because our social tools are constantly at risk of calcifying into superficial positivistic habits wielded by our latent narcissism and agentic wounds.
We do not notice when we start straying into cult dynamics (or even just lameness) because we are busy trying to do good, be good & speak appropriately to each other. Yet, across some invisible threshold, we start to perform our ideals — rather than actually deepening with each other.
The words and categories we use for “naming” come with built-in assumptions and embedded ideologies that can make even freedom into a prison.
Sacred vital activities are always being subtly coopted back into the verbal-symbolic and popular-affective habits of the conventional surface world that lives within us. At what point do our positive-sounding ideals like “acceptance” start to become tools of rejection? When does affirmation secretly start negating important things? Who is being undermined by our demonstrations of supportive listening? And which types of sharing are being self-censored specifically by those people who were been invited to “share freely?”
The second issue is self-soothing.
Soothing is not inherently bad. By all means — have a cookie, masturbate or cozy up in front of that junk television show that you feel slightly guilty (and you should!) about watching. Pleasure & self-regulation are not inherently problematic phenomena but we do need to keep an eye on them. We also have to keep an eye on our social habit of “naming things.”
The communication of verbally categorized information can calm us down. Good — sort of. Finite creatures are justifiably daunted by the chaotic vagaries of the Unknown and we intelligently use the symbolic identification of patterns to help us self-regulate. It is no good if we become gibbering wrecks at the first sign of the Mysterious. Just figuring out what kind of thing is bedeviling us can often go a long way.
However, we all have friends who stop paying attention as soon as they figure out which “box” to put things in. Naming can also be a way of ceasing to take things seriously. A way of calming ourselves down. There may be important information that lies precisely in the liminal turbulence. Perhaps we lose our chance to get better at holding contradictions. Perhaps we remain weak if we constantly escape the pressure of the Unspoken by eagerly converting it into shared pseudo-objective phraseology.
A steam engine doesn’t work if you let all the steam out.
The third issue is the real point of this article.
Naming is typically one-dimensional. It is understood, in general, to mean the acceptable conversion of emotions or social intuitions into intelligible mental-verbal content. In verbally-led group processes, there is a structural bias toward detecting certain types of content (i.e. social emotions) AND expressing them via certain communication styles (i.e. conscious verbalizing).
What other parts of ourselves can be named?
Are there other forms of expression that can be like “naming” but without words?
The following classic, queer-themed sketch from 1990s comedy troop The Kids in the Hall, presents Scott Thompson responding to Yes/No questions with increasingly elaborate hairstyle modifications.
Is he evading the emotional charge of direct verbal communication? Or is he making use of viable communication options that expand beyond the narrow presumptions of the histrionic social-verbal dimension?
There may be times when it is merely whimsical or emotionally avoidant to consider alternative forms of sensemaking and self-expression. At other times, however, it may be that non-verbal, asocial modes are more natural, more complex, and more useful.
We must, in either case, remain vigilant about our well-trained tendency to favor one dominant method when it comes to the developmental art of detecting what is subtle and expressing it constructively into the world of others.
IV. COMPLETE THE PERIPHERAL
There are many ways to bring content from the periphery of our awareness into the center. In the fascinating Graeber/Wengrow history book, The Dawn of Everything, they recount the custom of certain North American indigenous nations to enact their dreams. It would, for example, be considered impolite if you refused to give me your dapper red hat after I had vividly dreamed of wearing it.
A preposterous practice in the current socio-economic order, of course, but it is also a very interesting way of cultivating sacred developmental culture. What does that mean?
A custom of dream enactment helps people to individuate and gain a certain strength of intention by acting out their own unique subtle visions and prompts.
The internal relations of the community are adjusted in a plausibly spiritual manner as their resources and social habits are modified by unexpected visionary impulsions and new information that is emerging from complex imaginal layers of the psyche. Think of those holy Himalayan lamas following subtle portents to find the next reincarnated Wisdom Master. It does something alchemical to a culture’s self-image.
The overall richness and diversity of public information increases and people are exposed to psychological motives and implications that might otherwise have remained hidden.
And perhaps, in the Iain McGilchrist sense, we could even say that the left/right balance between the halves of the nervous system — the dreaming mind and the doing mind — is cultivated and maintained by such practices.
Enacting dreams, making art, using ritual gestures of sound and body, etc. These are also (in addition to speech) ways of moving background impressions into foreground instantiations.
They are alt-namings.
Naming is not wholly (and perhaps not even primarily) found in the production of words but in all kinds of inherited and heuristic capacities that allow us to participate with our peripheral half-prompts by carrying them the rest of the way — bringing them to a condition of non-oppressive and communicative manifestation. The shape of Stonehenge names something into the field. A vivid scowling face carved into the cedar wood of a Totem pole articulates “the implicit” as much or better than any tentative verbal attempt.
Developmental theorists talk a lot about “making subject into object.” We release a structure (in which we were subjectively embedded) by converting it into an object-like phenomenon that we can mutually inspect. Subtle, half-felt material is made explicit. This is represented by the social poetry of speech and the intellectual power of abstract inquiry — but it is not limited to those domains.
Naming things into the field points beyond, points toward a larger class of shamanic instantiations. Multiple interweaving intelligence systems evolved in us over long periods in which we were illiterate, minimally articulate, and frequently immersed in ecological or interspecies contexts which required an ability to participate in sophisticated nonverbal exchanges.
Although our ancestors appear to have been able to forge deep and lasting emotional bonds with each other, nevertheless their lives were remarkably less social and less human than our own. They lived in smaller groups. They did not watch “news” about society and humanity. They did not get written messages from their friends nor were they exposed to a constant deluge of sloganeering and marketing. No one wanted to sell them anything. They did not attend schools or experience the psychological density of urban life. They almost never encountered an abstract symbol. Instead, they had more opportunities to be alone or in small relationships in non-social, non-technological environments where both curiosity and necessity placed them into rich exchanges with non-human lifeforms.
The patterns established by this long period of both perceptual and imaginal cognition are still within us. Our nonverbal subconscious intelligence may hold the majority of our options for “naming” — i.e. for making creative efforts to complete the implication of subtle, transjective and liminal impressions.
Today the term “shamanic” is thrown around (mostly by me) to point at the possibility of virtuosity and guidance in these processes. Here’s an example:
Suppose I get the impression of a vague blue light off to my right. I could ignore it. It vanishes if I turn toward it. And I could tell myself a story about how it is “merely” the effect of this or that part of reality interacting with my brain. Maybe I could enter into fantastical thoughts about it using my associations with blue. Blue sky. Blue chakra. Maybe the god Krishna.
But what else could I do? Could I take this partial perception one more step? Maybe it is the first half of something that is longing for shape? I spin around and pretend that I was grabbing that blue thing with both hands. Ludicrous! Unjustified by any socially confirmed reasoning. I would have a hard time saying why I have done this and what I expect it to accomplish. But nonetheless, I now have, in a way, the peripheral bluishness in my hands.
I whisper instructions into it — what does the tribe need — and release it skyward to do our bidding.
That might look pretty shamanic.
Our processing of the world — and our personal agency as part of a social network — is not limited to speech and sensible thinking. It includes gestures, inarticulate sounds, playful imagination, artistic production, etc. While we must certainly work to clarify our minds and organic information in reasonable and linguistic ways, we must also work to interact with seemingly unjustified information by accepting it and turning it into a meaning-laden imaginal expression of some kind.
“Naming something into the field” might involve a growling, subvocal physical performance around the fire. It might involve moving stones to build a fence. Or moving a salient leaf to the top of a hill.
Some people are better than others at evaluating these peripheral prompts and impelling themselves to take action on that basis. Yet everyone has some capacity of this kind. And everyone who is involved in efforts to show up & grow up within safely sapient “we-spaces” is already engaged in some form of naming.
So we should make a point to expand our assumptions about what constitutes the naming process.