The Wrecking Of Names

From the exhibit Q Confucius, by Zhang Huan

If he ever got power (which he never did) Confucius said his first priority would be the ‘rectification of names’. Like a boor, I never quite understood this. As The Analects said:

13.3 Zilu asked, “If the Duke of Wei were to employ you to serve in the government of his state, what would be your first priority?” The Master answered, “It would, of course, be the rectification of names (zhengming ).” Zilu said, “Could you, Master, really be so far off the mark? Why worry about rectifying names?” The Master replied, “How boorish you are, Zilu! When it comes to matters that he does not understand, the gentleman should remain silent.

I felt like Zilu (Master Kong’s usual rhetorical punching bag) because I simply didn’t understand the point. Even when the master explained:

If names are not rectified, speech will not accord with reality; when speech does not accord with reality, things will not be successfully accomplished. When things are not successfully accomplished, ritual practice and music will fail to flourish; when ritual and music fail to flourish, punishments and penalties will miss the mark. And when punishments and penalties miss the mark, the common people will be at a loss as to what to do with themselves. This is why the gentleman only applies names that can be properly spoken and assures that what he says can be properly put into action. The gentleman simply guards against arbitrariness in his speech. That is all there is to it.”

This is a whole web of connections I struggle to understand with my modern muck brain, but which were obvious and very important to the ancients. Sanskrit grammar is very precise because they wanted to perform rituals with absolute precision. The language is like an oral programming language, it even includes specific sounds for powers of ten. This ritual programming was thought to actually work, and in a deep sense they were right. Words dohave power, be it through laws, edicts, signatures, birth certificates, passports, computer programs, etc. With think of rituals as these archaic things, but we still use them for inaugurating governments, for marking birth and death, for all the most important things in life.

Like the boorish Zilu, we think ourselves above such mundane things, but the highest pyramid is just a pile of bricks. The biggest brick is just a pile of sand. Everything is just a collection of humble things and it’s hubris to think we’re so grand. The funny thing about the Confucian age that I hark back to 2,500 years hence is that he thought it was a fallen age back then. He harked back to even more ancient times, when names were correct, when ‘lords were true lords, the ministers true ministers, the fathers true fathers, and the sons true sons.’ In the Hindu/Vedic sense, this age started falling into disarray 5,000 years ago and still has 425,000 years of going-to-shit left.

The collapsnik view of all the major philosophies (except perhaps Buddhism, which is uninterested) is that the material world is shit and going to shit. This is completely antithetical to the modern belief in ‘progress’ and the mythical white histories about an enlightenment and science and ‘discovery’ leading to color TVs and going to the moon and Mars and forever onwards and upwards. In fact the entire category of philosophy is limited to West Asian white dudes who bottled this hubris and everything older (and wiser) is relegated to ‘religions’ and ‘superstition’ and ‘stories’.

In the westernized world we have indeed gotten names wrong in the sense that we have them. Modern passport names are a historical anomaly, an artifact of the individualist age. Confucius talked about roles (lords being good lords, fathers being good fathers) and not about the ‘self-actualization’ of the person in the role, whatever the fuck that is. Buddhism talks about ‘not-self’, making the modern perversion of mindfulness into ‘self-help’ quite the contradiction. Older Asian and Arab cultures are full of referential names (Son Of X, Elder Brother) and in many cases people never use their government names at all. Cause they ain’t right. This globalized culture has gotten names wrong, so it gets rituals wrong, so the common people don’t know what the fuck to do and resort to self-help that doesn’t help. Because it can’t help. It’s all starting from bad assumptions. The first step really would be rectification of names.

In our current hubris, our reaction to the ancients of horror and superiority. They had empires, they had slaves, they conquered, they had barbaric punishments, they believed in dumb invisible shit. But then look at us today.

We live under an undifferentiated White Empire, flowing directly from European colonial powers through the colony of America today. But we don’t call it that. It hides under a web of names like NATO, or ‘rules-based order’, or ‘developed world’. Yet it’s the most violent military empire in history, which girds the world with both violence and economic coercion, tribute rendered by every state in the form of petrodollars. Yet we don’t even perceive it because it has no name.

In the tomb inscriptions of ancient Egypt, those rich enough to afford marble and false doors, proudly proclaimed all the people they’d killed and slaves they’d taken.

“THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF WENI”, Excerpt From Ancient Egyptian Literature. Lichtheim, Miriam

We think them barbaric and cruel, but are we so different? American armies have sacked the same places as these Egyptians, ‘flattening the sand-dwellers land’ with a brutality the ancients couldn’t imagine. Israelis colonize the same land, cutting down its figs, its vines, obliterating entire villages. The White Empire’s wars of terror have killed millions and displaced tens of millions. The latter become desperate ‘labor’ as good as slaves without papers. Indeed, after NATO ‘intervention’ (another wrong name), open slave markets appeared in Libya.

Whereas ancient slaves at least got freed periodically or could work off their debts, today slavery is forever, and not just at the cutting edge of empire. Modern Americans at the core live their entire lives in medical debt, student debt, credit card debt, even student lunch debt. And they can never work it off, they die in debt, they are forever wage slaves. Not to mention the millions of incarcerated people who actually are slaves, working for cents that they have to spend on overpriced potato chips and phone calls sold to a literally capitive audience. Of course the people at the edges of Empire have it the worst, unable to either control their resources or move to where the control is. We’re all as enslaved as ever, just with longer chains. This all hides under names like ‘free markets’ (without free movement of labor) or ‘democracy’ (without any economic control of resources, else you get couped). Tolstoy called these emerging condition ‘the slavery of our times’ in the 1900s, and it continues still.

Today way we think we’re above feudalism while working on literal corporate fiefs that control our movement (migration), access to resources (healthcare, food), and even access to our own children and elders (we need leave to care for children and permission for bereavement). We use names like democracy to cover what is really just naked rule by the rich (oligarchy).We elect the sons of former Presidents while scorning kings and fill universities with ‘legacy’ admissions while scorning nepotism. We have a ‘free’ press literally owned and manipulated by the rich. It’s all, for lack of a better word, bullshit.

We have names wrong, the rituals go unconducted, the dead go unfed and even scorned, and so things fall apart. People can feel it and look for help anywhere—in conspiracy theories, in cobbled together bits of ancient wisdom, in drugs, in food, in shopping, and it never satisfies. It can’t satisfy. It doesn’t matter how high you build an edifice if the foundations are rotten. Indeed, it makes things worse.

All of this progress just meets our fate more rapidly, on the road we take to avoid it. Every ancient tomb tells you to not dig it up, but the Englishmen that ‘discovered’ ancient Egypt did it and even took mummies back to England to eat, as a curiosity. These and the other violent tribes of West Asia went around the world raping, enslaving, and destroying the environment as they still continue to do, just under different names, like spreading ‘development’ or ‘human rights’. These are primarily the rights to destroy the environment and ‘lesser’ beings, and the right to property even if it fucks both the present and the future. And to our global shame, we were coolies for this wretched White Empire then and continue to do its dirty work today. We scorn the ancients when we read their honest words about slavery and killing, but the ancients are dead. We’re only really fooling ourselves.

This hubris has become completely cataclysmic when these people dug up the graves of even more ancient lifeforms, the photosynthetic life that first captured the power of the sun god, of Ra. This is the far more advanced civilization which terraformed the Earth over billions of years, and we defile their graves and burn their bodies for petty miracles like cars. Our inheritance is the curse written above every tomb.

“As for any man who enters this tomb unclean,
I shall seize him by the neck like a bird,
He will be judged for it by the great god!”

Excerpt From Ancient Egyptian Literature. Lichtheim, Miriam.

We think we’re better than the gods, we think we’re better than the dead, and so we end up godless, dead, and perhaps worst of all utterly confused as to how we got here. The language we have, the words we use, the media we consume, the laws that bind, they’re all wrong. Not tweak here and there wrong, fundamentally wrong, philosophically wrong. Indeed we have amputated most of world philosophy and restrict the name to a few white men thinking they’re smarter than everybody. And so we end up dumb. We don’t know who we are individually, we don’t know who we are in groups, we don’t even have a name for the Empire we live under, or the corporate beings (AI) that already control us.

Kongzi said. “If names are not rectified, speech will not accord with reality; when speech does not accord with reality, things will not be successfully accomplished.”And so here we are.