Why do we want to write our names all over everything?

Anticipating the upcoming Canadian Society for the Study of Names conference, I’ve been thinking about the names of public places. This is in part because one of the guest speakers is Reuben Rose-Redwood, a toponymic activist.

What does it mean to be a toponymic activist? Rose-Redwood’s bio and abstract are here, but in brief, he’s against selling the names of public buildings to philanthropists and corporations. I’m super curious to hear Rose-Redwood’s talk, and I’ll likely write a follow-up blog, but these are my current mullings/questions:

Over the past decade in Canada, a number of (re)christenings of buildings have taken place. This is a clear indication of our federal government’s trend toward privatization, but what does it mean for public places? These buildings are parts of our campuses, or our sport/concert complexes, but we’re now asked to think of and refer to these seemingly public spaces with a private label: the name of an individual or a company has become our referent.

Examples of these kinds of name-sales in Montreal include McGill’s Schulich School of Music, Concordia’s John Molson School of Business, and of course, the Bell Center. Looking West, Calgary’s Saddledome has had four prefixes since it was built (Olympic, Canadian Airlines, Pengrowth, Scotiabank), but it does remain distinctively Calgarian as “the Saddledome.”

During this same decade, the amount graffiti in Montreal –and perhaps in most places?– has increased. Montreal can boast some very impressive street art, but tags are more my focus here. Wikipedia’s extensive glossary of graffiti defines “tag” in this way:

tag (scribble): A stylized signature, normally done in one color. The simplest and most prevalent type of graffiti, a tag is often done in a color that contrasts sharply with its background. Tag can also be used as a verb meaning “to sign”. Writers often tag on or beside their pieces, following the practice of traditional artists who sign their artwork. … The verb tagging has even become a popular verb today in other types of occasions that are non-graffiti-related. Tagging first appeared in Philadelphia, with spraypainted messages of “Bobby Beck In ’59” on freeways surrounding the city. Since then, individual graffiti scenes have displayed very different forms of tagging that are unique to specific regions. For example, a Los Angeles tag will look much different than a Philadelphia tag, etc.

mine

Tagging is a way to put your name on a public space for the price of a can of spray paint and the risk of a fine.  Can tags be thought of as a response to the sale of naming rights? Perhaps not, but perhaps. Thinking of tags in this way, I kind of admire the response: I can appreciate more fully the fluid arcs of spray paint.

But then, what is it about us humans that our impulse is to write our names on everything?  Why this desire to mark a territory, to claim a space with our name? (This question was actually posed to me, disgustedly, by my friend Sabrina.)

I’m not yet sure, but it certainly seems to be happening at every level.

Image

Advertisements

Canadian Society for the Study of Names: Conference Program

In just two weeks the Canadian Society for the Study of Names / Société canadienne d’onomastique will meet at Congress in Victoria, BC for our annual meeting.  We’re pleased to have intriguing and diverse presentations from our members, as well as two invited speakers.

Coming to know the politics of naming (places)
Dr. Lawrence D. Berg

This paper presents a spatial autobiographical account of the author’s own development of a critical understanding of place naming processes.  I use this spatial autobiography as a way to outline the rise of critical place-name studies in the discipline of Geography.  In addition, my presentation will draw on a number of empirical case studies of the politics of naming places in Aotearoa/New Zealand in order to illustrate key aspects of critical place name studies.

Biography: Lawrence D. Berg is full Professor of Critical Geography and Co-Director of the UBC Centre for Social, Spatial and Economic Justice, located at the Okanagan Campus of UBC in Kelowna, British Columbia.  Lawrence’s research focuses on issues of place and the politics of identity, and he has more than 80 publications on topics ranging from the cultural politics of healthcare for urban Aboriginal people to white supremacy in academia.  Lawrence is part of a group of scholars that first started research and writing about critical perspectives on the politics of naming places in the early to mid-1990s.  Along with Jani Vuolteenaho (University of Helsiki), he is editor of Critical Toponymies: The Contested Politics of Place Naming (Ashgate, 2009).

Private Names for Public Places? Naming Rights and Toponymic Activism
Dr. Reuben Rose-Redwood

 In the current age of neoliberal governance and entrepreneurial urbanism, the naming of places is increasingly being framed by policymakers in cities around the world strictly as a matter of economic calculation with the naming rights for public places being sold to corporate sponsors and wealthy elites. Very few scholars, however, have critically examined the historical emergence and geographical diffusion of municipal naming rights policies and practices. This presentation offers a preliminary assessment of the geographies of naming rights in Canadian cities as well as grassroots efforts to resist the commodification of public place names. Based upon an ongoing research project, the aim of this study is to examine the political strategies, economic outcomes, and cultural reception of naming rights policies in different cities across North America. With a particular focus on the implementation of the Sponsor Winnipeg program and activism against the City of Victoria’s proposed naming rights policy, this talk calls for a renewed commitment to “toponymic activism” that moves beyond arm-chair toponymy by demanding that our elected officials resist the short-sighted policy of privatizing the symbolic identities of public places.

 Biography: Reuben Rose-Redwood is an Associate Professor of Geography at the University of Victoria. His research explores the cultural politics of place naming, commemorative landscapes, and the historical geography of cities. He is currently an Editorial Board member for the journal, Cartographica, and has published works on various topics in leading scholarly journals including the Annals of the Association of American Geographers, Social & Cultural Geography, The Professional Geographer, the Geographical Review, ACME, Cartographica, and Urban History. His research has also been featured in the New York Times, Atlantic magazine, and Canadian Geographic as well as on the Discovery Channel, History Channel, and BBC World Service Newshour.

Full Conference Program

Conference Program