Sunday, January 29, 2012

Becoming the First Person in Romeo + Juliet

"There is first a discourse that precedes and enables that "I" 
and forms in languages the constraining trajectory of its will. 
There is no "I" who stands behind discourse" and executes its volition... 
On the contrary, the "I" only comes into being by being called, named...
The impossibility of full recognition...of ever fully inhabiting the name
implies the instability and incompleteness in the subject-formation. 
The "I" is thus a citation of the place of the "I" in speech,...
a certain priority and anonymity with respect to the life it animates"
Judith Butler, "Critically Queer"


What is in a Name?

This last Friday, the Medieval and Early Modern Institute at the George Washington University held a talk in which we discussed, among other things, the priority of the ontological subject (in this case an old Casket) over its name and network. The issue at hand seemed to be how a body can be an identifiable thing, with its own distinct dignity, and also be composed of multiplicities and participate in a wider ecology. Can we think in terms of proper names and also in terms of networks? Of Course, but we find that while the named assemblage becomes all the more important for being so called, the act of naming is not a very distinct act.

Michel Foucault performatively asks "What is an Author?" and "What difference does it make who is speaking?" A reactionary might see this rhetorical move which assumes either "everything" or "nothing" is the corresponding answer and that these are answers are equivalent. Of course Foucault would not serve his author-function if the outcome of his work is that we fall into universalism and through it into ideology which is unseeing or uncaring about distinctions or disproportionate flows of power. The author-function in fact is one such very process which notes distinctions and discursive networks of power.

Judith Butler speaks of the place of the "I" and Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari speak of haecceities, masses, molar identities, bodies without organs, packs, and the list goes on for all the different ways we can look at named bodies. It might be surprising that so much attention is given to "individuals" by thinkers we spend so much time focusing on the decentered and networked aspects of things, but it would be impossible to think it networks without some sort of way to think in masses; its like trying to imagine a forest without trees.

Naming serves on one level, a practical function. While a named thing is no less networked for being identified by certain boundaries, it is useful to be able to refer to a specific set of things because we are incapable or acting or perceiving all things at once. Thus naming is on one level an act of humility, we cannot know or serve all things simultaneously. We can talk to a person, we can pick up a rock, we can pet a dog, but it would be harder to talk to America, pick up an ecosystem or play fetch with a species. Also, there is an ontological level in which this assemblage is qualitatively distinct from any other part of the network, at any other time or place.

As we participate in transformation, however, it is likewise pragmatic to change names, either through remarking the boundaries of their associated objects (which is perpetually slipping and growing) or by changing the name when a name's signified boundaries are too rigid to helpfully describe the bodies it describes (such as Romeo and Juliet's family names or the transgender person who is transitioning, or a Catholic after Confirmation). Also, the recognition that bodies exist in multiple networks at once and can be identifies by multiple names at once, each one drawing attention to a specific assemblage or dynamic set of relations.


O, Be Some Other Name!

“What does it mean to love somebody? It is always to seize that person in a mass, extract him or her from a group, however small, in which he or she participates, whether it be through the family only or through something else; then to find that person's own packs, the multiplicities he or she encloses within himself or herself which may be of an entirely different nature. To join them to mine, to make them penetrate mine, and for me to penetrate the other person's."
Gilles Deleuze and  Felix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus

What is Romeo? He is just a name, but one which designates a certain network of things (probably, but contingently, a skeleton, some muscles, Leo's fabulous fair and eyes, maybe even a Hawaiian shirt). Montague of course designates another network which includes but expands beyond, and genetically through, Romeo (a bunch of human bodies, properties, corporate symbols are included here).

 The question Juliet seems to asking is whether the defined borders of these networks are inherent, essential, and unchangeable. Could we take Romeo out of the Montague network and change his name? Yes, but it would require stopping every perpetuation of the act of asserting that relationship to the network and name on him (which is quite hard). Or, we could take him out of the network, or change the behavior of the network, but keep the name. This would in fact change the function of the name Montague.

Other things can change the act/power/function of a name and this by introducing new things into the physical/discursive network which it marks. Within the drama of the play, Juliet and Romeo respectively enter into each other's networks, knitting them together, and changing the shape/flow of both.

Ironically, while the question of changing family names are a focal point of the play, we do not discover whether Romeo or Juliet take one another's names. The lack of the renaming ceremony, in fact the relative lack of (public) ceremony highlights the contingent discursive network of naming. That is: can Romeo be a Capulet or Juliet a Montague without the recognition of others?

The performative act of becoming married lacks the naming-function until it is publicly pronounced/revealed at the play's conclusion, after the lovers are already dead. Thus Romeo, who was present and effected by the marriage approaches Tybalt now as under a common name, they are functionally the same body/family.  Tybalt on the other hand is unaffected by the marriage performative, leading into a brawl which ends in Mercutio's death, Tybalt's death and Romeo's exile. Likewise, Juliet refuses to marry Paris because she is effected by being named wife of Romeo, a shared identity of Romeo + Juliet that cannot admit another in the same manner (unless Romeo is named as dead or the performative annulled). Her parents however are unaffected and unaware of her renaming and thus press the marriage to Paris, causing her to take desperate measures. 

The function of names is powerful, but contingent. A name can bestow subjectivity (Butler), can bestow authority/agency (Foucault), can sanction the integration of bodies (Deleuze and Guattari) and dictates the relation between bodies in a network (Romeo and Juliet) but each naming requires that the performative act be witnessed and received as felicitous. Of course, as Butler notes, this position of the name is unstable and incomplete. Thus we can see a reading of Romeo and Juliet as the failure of over-determined and under-determined bonds of naming.


That Name, which is no part of thee, Take All Myself

"[The Author] is a certain functional principle 
by which in our culture one limits, excludes, and chooses;
in short, by which one impedes the free circulation,
the free manipulation, the free composition, 
decomposition, and recomposition of fiction"
Michel Foucault, "The Author Function"

In the storytelling of Rome + Juliet, with the introduction of images and sound, other things may also be brought together physically and representationally to change the function of the words/names/networks. For instance, to mark the transition of Romeo's poetry from a simple listing of contradictions early in the play with Romeo's poetry of more subtle interplays later on, the movie sets up a parallel structure in the representation of Romeo as poet. When we first meet Romeo, he is sitting, smoking alone, composing his verse in a journal and recognizable music plays as he speaks. Later, in exile, we find Romeo, sitting, smoking alone, and composing his verse as the same recognizable music plays as he speaks. Both these scenes/lines exist in Shakespeare's text, but the movie uses other things to act on the scene which serve to connect them as parallel, but with notable differences: i.e. his poetry is better.

Another such instance, these are marked/named by the introduction of new actants, specifically Juliet and water. When we first meet Juliet, she is shown through the water of a tub. When Romeo first meets Juliet, she is shown through a fish tank. When Romeo and Juliet have their rising action (the marriage proposal/balcony scene) we see Juliet marked with the reflective light of a pool, then through the pool water when she and Romeo fall into it. After their climax (literally and dramatically) the lovers rework the classic argument "is that the morning bird or the nightingale?" while under the blankets, which stand in for the flow of being under water. At last in the epilogue, just after the lovers die, we are shown these exact scenes, finally resting on the image of their underwater kiss.

While this storyline exists in the text, the introduction of the water into the physical / representational space of the lines marks these scenes as participating in a network and flowing in a certain direction; in other words, it NAMES the network. The act/function of naming does not necessarily create new things or separate them from other networks, but draws out attention to regard certain things as together in a set, in a certain way.

So as we see, naming as a function and naming ability to be plastic (i.e. our ability to name any number of things) does not mean that an author/name is universalized or negated. By naming things we mark different things in a network and different networks to draw attention to how they act in certain ways and thus inform us on how we might inter-act or change with them. Thus  as noted, Romeo and Juliet might live, we might appreciate the text in new ways, a transgender person may be recognized by their gender, or a confirmed Catholic might be recognized as a member of the Church, if a community is able to participate in the act of naming, which is an ongoing, incomplete, unstable, and dynamic production of identity.


No comments:

Post a Comment