Recently, a friend sent me a link to the website of another guy who shares my name (the link is dead now – sorry)…which was a little weird, to see my name, over and over again (the guy’s a bit of an egotist), when it wasn’t me being referred to. (No, I did not play Ricky Martin’s ass on an MTV awards show…but that incident does shed light on why the performance rights organization is called ASCAP…) Then again, it’s nice to know that I have my own little theme song if I ever need one. I knew there were several other “Jeff Norman”s out there – notably, a guy who’s done engineering and production work for everyone from the Grateful Dead to Captain Beefheart – and once I had the peculiar experience of having a student in one of my classes (I teach English at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee) with my name. (Both he and I were amused when, that same semester, a third Jeff Norman was mentioned in newspaper reports as having been arrested at an anti-discrimination rally.) My brother Greg, a musician who’s played with Alternative Tentacles band Pachinko, has the further complication of sharing a famous name (that of the Australian golfer) – and there’s also a Chicago-based studio guy with the same name. Still, I wonder if people with very common names experience that uncanny sensation more frequently – or perhaps not at all, having gotten used to being one of several Bob Johnsons long ago.
The reverse of there being too many people with the same name (so to speak) is not having enough of your own name. One of my current students is presently doing without a surname, more or less: not because she’s a rock star (although she does play bass in a local band), but she dislikes her ex-husband’s surname, and she’s not very fond of her birth name either. It must be a peculiar position, to not feel at home with either of one’s “official” surnames.
A while back I saw a documentary addressing the experience of encountering people who share your name (there should be a word for such people: I will nominate “cognominative”): Alan Berliner’s The Sweetest Sound. Berliner goes so far as to contact as many other Alan Berliners as he can (allowing for minor variations: Allen, Alain, etc.) and invites them all to dinner. A dozen or so make it, and the dinner and interviews with the other Alan Berliners make up the heart of the film. Along the way, Berliner researches various facets of naming, including varying traditions of naming (that of his own Jewish heritage, for instance), name-based clubs (the Jim Smith club, the Fred Society, and so on), as well as deflating certain “urban legends” around naming, most notably the claim that Ellis Island bureaucrats routinely changed and simplified “difficult” foreign names. It turns out that Ellis Island staff included speakers of nearly every language imaginable, and that they never, in fact, wrote out people’s names, so the opportunity wouldn’t have arisen to change them. Berliner speculates that either people changed the names themselves and claimed they were changed for them, perhaps to deflect accusations that doing so suggested abandonment of their heritage, or that employers were a more likely source for name changes.
What’s paradoxical about names is that while they’re in some ways our most personal possession, they’re most often given to us by someone else. Marx could have been thinking of names when he wrote that we make our own history but under conditions not of our making. And to me, that aspect of names represents our interdependent social status: we’re neither isolated on our own islands like Robinson Crusoes (we forget our Fridays too often), nor slavishly subsumed in others’ identities (like the outmoded tradition in which a wife’s identity is almost wholly swallowed up by her husband’s: “Mrs. John Smith,” with even her first name erased). Even the most self-sufficient and independent of us draws upon skills, ideas, and networks that others have built.
A useful metaphor for identity is Indra’s net, a net with reflective jewels set at each node, which reflect the images on all the other jewels, but each from its own unique angle and perspective. Those who imagine themselves to be wholly independent fail to note that others’ images are reflected in their own; those who imagine themselves helplessly caught in the net fail to see their own unique position, that no one else can see from where they are.
That other net, the internet, might perhaps reduce our sense of uniqueness (it was through the web that Berliner found his cognominatives), at least at the level of naming, since it becomes more and more likely that we find others who share our names. And this, curiously, becomes a new aspect of the once-vaunted notion, put forth by Marshall McLuhan in the ’60s, of the “global village”: in the localized village of the middle ages, there might be only one Roger, perhaps; but as the village expands, and another Roger moves in, each needs to find another way to identify himself: one, a smith, becomes Roger Smith; the other, one who arranges, designs, and sells shrubberies, becomes a Monty Python character.
You probably thought I was building to some deep, philosophically important conclusion there, didn’t you.