Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Excerpt from my book in The College Voice

Here's a link to The College Voice, a COFA Arc (student association) online publication, edited by the indefatigable Janis Lander. This is another excerpt from my book, about the meanings of lists of names, specifically in relation to memorials. I'm only reproducing the text here (the usual problems with being able to reduce the size of images preventing me from just attaching them), but click on the title to go to the full issue, and the Names title to go to my article:

The College Voice - Archive: Volume 6 Issue 1

Volume 6, Issue 1

Names winter 2008

Rodney Love is a Masters of Fine Arts graduate of COFA, and works in the UNSW COFA Library. He describes himself as “an over-educated and under-funded internationally-ignored visual artist who lives and works in Sydney, Australia.”

The following extract is from his new book I Am Because We Are: The Meaning of Names in Art and Memorials, published by VDM Verlag Dr. Mueller in May 2008. To commemorate the event, Rodney posted this comment on his blog:

“The book is a reworking of my MFA thesis. There is some additional material including more memorials, more artworks, some memorial rubbings, and an essay I wrote comparing two memorials (the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and the World War II memorial, both in Washington, D.C.) which wasn't part of my thesis. I'm certainly not expecting to retire on the royalties, in fact I'm sure I won't be buying lunch with the royalties, but it's nice to have a book published and out there in the world. It has images of my artworks that I made for my MFA, so they're getting out and about. I also think the linking of Victor Turner's concept of communitas with memorials is an original idea that I've not seen in the literature on memorials.

I did find on Amazon a book with the same title from 1996! The sub heading is Readings in Black Philosophy, so not treading the same paths. Madonna has also made a documentary with the same title. It comes from an African proverb, so you can guess the connection. My interest was in the links between individuals and groups.”

I found the above list of names on the back of an unrelated article cut from The Sydney Morning Herald. It is only part of the page, so there is nothing to explain this list of names, or why it is in the paper. If, as Roland Barthes notes, “Every object in the world can pass from a closed, silent existence to an oral state, open to appropriation by society,”i then how can we bring this list to an “oral state”? Obviously it is a list of names, with surnames in alphabetical order, plus given name. The numbers? In a different context, they could be page numbers, with the list as an index. Possibly they are the ages of the people listed. Are these people dead? Are they listed here as a form of memorial? Or are they being recognised for some achievement? If the numbers do indicate ages, then it’s unlikely that a one-year-old child has done something to merit public recognition. We cannot even be sure that this list represents a group of people. Rather, this has become a group of people - these people may have no link other than being on this list. The only thing we can be sure of is that these names are intended to represent individuals, and that these individuals have been placed together to create a group.

The list works both metonymically and metaphorically. The names “belong” to people, are a part of them, and are used here to stand-in for those people. Collectively, though, the people in the list are standing in for the whole of society. But the list is also like society in that it is a group of people together – it can be seen as a metaphor for society. What kind of society, though? There is no hierarchy in the list presented. They are listed in alphabetical order of surname. We may have their ages, and we can mostly tell the sex of the people listed, but we have no other clues that would enable us to categorize these people according to social hierarchies. This is a symbolic realization of the concept of communitas as described by anthropologist Victor Turner. Basically, communitas is a recognition of the equality of all people, but one that exists separate from the social structures of age, race, economic position, etc., that serve to differentiate members of a society, as well as classifying and ranking them.ii “As opposed to societas, or structure, communitas is characterized by equality, immediacy and the lack of social ranks and roles…. Where societas functions to define the differences between individuals, limit their interaction, and pull them apart, communitas serves to unify, bond, and transcend structural relationships.”iii

Communitas exists, Turner claims, during rites and rituals, or other periods when the normal social roles and rules don’t apply. This seems to fit with Joseph Campbell’s idea that cultures develop rites and rituals to “teach the lesson of the essential oneness of the individual and the group.”iv Although communitas may only exist for short periods of time during the periods of liminality inherent in rites and rituals, lists of names, by representing groups as made up of equal individuals, function as “a model of undifferentiated wholeness.”v As a metonymic representation of humanity its “boundaries are ideally coterminous with those of the human species.”vi Through this symbolic communitas, we are reminded of our underlying, shared humanity.

So a list of names like the one above can, symbolically at least, confirm our sense of individuality, acknowledge our place within society, and simultaneously reassure us of our equality with all other members of society. This is a lot to ask if it turns out to be someone’s Christmas card list! I am suggesting, of course, that these are unconscious processes, and that the type of list usually provides more prosaic reasons for including these names together. If it is a Christmas card list, then the names are obviously of people known by the writer of the list. If it is an index then we have additional information to enable us to complete the meaning of the sign that is the list. These prosaic lists of names contain meanings that override the symbolic meanings that I have listed above. A phone book becomes a means to search for phone numbers, rather than as a way to relieve anxiety by reassuring ourselves of our connectedness with the larger society. Not that that function is not available, but the viewer is not as receptive to these meanings in a way that he or she would be when contemplating a memorial or a work of art. For in those cases, there are no quotidian functions to override these symbolic concerns. Although memorials and artworks sometimes perform utilitarian functions such as a focus for commemorative events, or as decorative elements, it is assumed that they have deeper meanings. Of course semiotics has opened up every cultural artefact to deeper readings, but this has not become commonplace outside academia. Art and memorials, though, invite contemplation; they invite an investigation into their symbolic concerns. By using lists of names, artists can make the viewer think of his or her own place in the world, or become aware of social hierarchies, or reflect on the groups that the viewer is a part of. With memorials, one is often confronted with the names of dead individuals, but they still act as embodiments of members of a society. When a list becomes a cultural phenomenon, as part of a memorial or an artwork, it performs its symbolic functions in a public or social way.

i Roland Barthes, Mythologies (London: Paladin, 1973) 117.

ii Bruce Kapferer, Legends of People, Myths of State (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian, 1988) 162.

iii Jeffrey Rubenstein, “Purim, Liminality, and Communitas,” AJS Review 17.2 (Autumn, 1992): 251.

iv Joseph Campbell, The Hero With a Thousand Faces (London: Fontana, 1993) 384.

v Darlene M. Juschka, “Whose Turn is it to Cook? Communitas and Pilgrimage Questioned,” Mosaic 36.4 (Dec. 2003): n.pag. Factiva. 8 Nov. 2006 <>.

vi M.J. Sallnow, “Communitas Reconsidered: The Sociology of Andean Pilgrimage,” Man New Series. Vol. 16, No. 2 (Jun. 1981): 163.

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