What’s in a Name?

Micah Blogpost

Micah Davis graduated from the Department of Religious Studies in 2016. He is currently working for a health screening company in Alabama.

Dihydrogen monoxide (later referred to as DHMO) is a toxic chemical compound that is not recognized as such by the CDC or the U.S. Government. Thousands have died after inhaling DHMO and it is a major component of acid rain. It can cause blood poisoning and it is also found in tumors which have been removed from cancer patients. And it is found everywhere you turn. It is found in all of our lakes, streams, and rivers. This deadly chemical compound is absolutely inescapable in everyday life.

What makes DHMO so interesting is that it is actually H2O, more commonly called “water.” “Dihydrogen monoxide” is a fancy way of signifying a compound made of two hydrogen molecules and one oxygen molecule. And that is where the importance of naming enters the field of science.

In 2013, some radio station DJs got themselves in hot water with management by pulling a prank on their listeners, warning them that DHMO was pouring out of their taps. Of course, they also included little facts about DHMO that would show their listeners that the chemical was definitely unsafe. Soon, residents in Lee County were calling the utilities department and complained that they had heard their water was unsafe to use for drinking or bathing. Of course, the utility had to respond by issuing an email to media outlets stating that there were no problems with the water supply.

It seems that at least some people believed the DHMO hoax in Florida and that leads to the question, “What’s in a name?” Of course, names signify things. For instance, I can talk about Florida, and anyone who knows the geography of the United States can point at a map of the country or the world and point out the place to which I am referring. But what is it about names that can confuse people and cause water (something which is essential to life for human beings and something which we are composed of) to be confused with something that is so toxic that it must be banned?

This leads to an important statement used by the department many times while I was there and I’m sure it’s legacy will live on: Classification is a political act. In this case, naming is a political act. The construction of the compound “dihydrogen monoxide” is no different from the construction of the compound “water.” It was named and has certain characteristics of itself which we would easily list when faced with the question “what is water?” or, “what is DHMO?” The only difference is the list itself. If someone asks me what water is, I would probably respond with the benefits which water provides living things on earth and maybe a few characteristics such as its clarity or its fluidity. However, when asked what DHMO is (if I was informed by the website dhmo.org), I would probably respond with a list of things which make DHMO sound dangerous.

Even though water and DHMO are simply two ways to signify the same thing, the context in which the name is used (and the name we choose to use) can cause a shift in the perspective from which we analyze the raw material. The names we decide to use to signify a signified subject can create a vastly different perception between thinkers even if the different names refer to a single subject.

So, what’s in a name? Well, I guess it all depends on what name is used in which context.

Narrative Constructs Culture

in god we trust bank note
Micah Davis is a graduate of the University of Alabama who majored in Religious Studies and Philosophy. He is interested in ethics and social theory. The following was written for REL 360: Popular Culture/Public Humanities. REL 360 is the Department’s one-credit hour course that shows four films focusing on religion in pop culture throughout the semester.

What do the Jewish Bible, the stories of Jesus, and movies have in common? They are all story-driven. The stories found in these different sources (yes, even pop culture stories) construct the culture in which we live. Different stories contribute to different aspects of culture, e.g the construction of the timelessness of the “Judeo-Christian” foundational values through the printing of “In God We Trust” on paper and coin currency.

If we take this e.g. of the printing of “In God We Trust” on the nation’s currency, we see that the construction of the United States as a Christian country rests partially on this narrative, and upon many others which are projected onto the Constitution and Declaration of Independence as well as stories based on the Founding Fathers. However, America is not the only country whose culture has been influenced by narrative.

Confucianism is widely popular in China and has become so influential as to help shape the way in which China governs its people. The philosophy, principles, and social understandings of Confucius have constructed the culture which we know as “China” today (we could even say that my conception of China’s culture being influenced by Confucianism in this way is shaped by my subscription to the narrative that China is influenced in this way). These narratives have shaped not only one culture, but even the perceptions which one culture has about another.

Back in America, we see smaller subcultures created by pop culture. All of these subcultures are created and unified by the stories to which they subscribe. The “Hunger Games” fans subscribe to the trilogy of popular YA books while the “Captain America: Civil War” fans subscribe to the acclaimed movie as the basis for their culture. These different groups can even overlap, one person claiming both stories as good narratives and usually discussing these with friends who share these same experiences with these stories. Not only do stories construct the culture in a principle or philosophical sense, but they also literally construct the group through bringing together people with similar interests.

So, what does this all mean? Stories are important to cultures because stories create the culture. Telling a story creates something under which a group can be unified and motivated. The motivation of the current conservative movement which is attempting to move Christianity into the American government is driven by the words “In God We Trust” and “One Nation Under God” which were both added to the culture long after the creation of the nation. However, the inclusion of other narratives which place a timelessness to these words help to motivate and create the movement.

Stories construct culture. Cultures create movements. Movements choose stories to present as evidence to validate and authorize their groups.

Relative Authenticity

attack on titanBy Micah Davis

Micah Davis is a nineteen year-old sophomore majoring in philosophy at the University of Alabama. He is also a Religious Studies minor.

Attack on Titan is a current production anime that began airing in 2013 in Japan based on a manga created in 2009. There is a new live action movie adaptation which is set to release in 2015. If you YouTube “Attack on Titan live action movie,” you will find a couple of different versions of the advertisement for the movie (which is actually a Subaru commercial, but features the titans), but the overwhelming number of videos are reaction videos of fans airing their opinions on the authenticity of the movie. This makes me wonder, “To what are they comparing these things to determine whether they are authentic?”

Authenticity is a widely used word usually chosen to express the originality, validity, and/or accuracy of almost anything imaginable. Generally, people believe this word to be a qualifier in and of itself. However, it seems to be more of a game of comparisons than a factual observation.

Relative authenticity is extremely common in pop culture. The “authenticity” of a band’s new album is subject to opinion (which CD was the band’s “authentic” sound?). The authenticity of a movie based on a book is judged based on how the story, characters, and ending relate to the book. The newly announced live action adaptation of the anime Attack on Titan comes to mind when thinking about relative authenticity.

After all, Attack on Titan was a manga series four years before it was an anime series, yet many of the videos I watched referenced the anime and not necessarily the manga. Is keeping with the anime more authentic than keeping with the manga? Not to mention, the story is (with much generalization) about a kid trying to kill giants. So, is the manga the ultimate decider of authenticity? What if you decided to test why the manga is authentic by checking the story of Jack and the Beanstalk? How would Jack and the Beanstalk compare in authenticity to Polyphemus and Odysseus in The Odyssey? Is the story of David and Goliath the most relevant source for authentic giant killer stories?

What determines authenticity when authenticity seems to be an endless number of comparisons? Does something have to bear the name of something else and the two be compared only to each other? How does that work with Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend and the closest movie adaptation named The Last Man on Earth? The question of authenticity seems to be an endless one.

Picture credit: yuni282 on deviantart.com Some rights reserved. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License, cropped by post author.