What’s in a Name

Even in the biblical book of Genesis when Adam names the animals, he gains authority over them because to name things is, partly, to control them. That’s why arguments of definition are so important and so very contentious. They can be about the power to say what someone or something is or can be. As such, they can also be arguments that include or exclude: A creature is an endangered species or it isn’t; an act is harassment or it isn’t; a person is a homicide bomber or, perhaps, a freedom fighter. (Lunsford, Ruszkiewicz, and Walters 149)((Lunsford, Andrea A, John J Ruszkiewicz, and Keith Walters. Everything’s an Argument. Boston: Bedford/St. Martins, 2010. Print.))

I am male or I am female. A toilet is art or it is not. A text is a poem or it is not. The need to control definitions as a means to control social constructs can be seen clearly whenever those definitions are challenged. Consider one of the defenses against same-sex marriage, which is positioned as tolerance of domestic partnerships but not of marriage because of the perceived traditional meaning of marriage (despite history being to the contrary of the arguments put forth). Or the very notion that in order to be equal, queers must exist in the same heteronormative space built by the act and institution of marriage. Or the argument railed when a work that does not conform to the prevalent definition of poetry is described as “denaturing the poem” with a rallying cry to “reclaim poetry” by controlling the definition, such as issued by Joan Houlihan in her series of essays titled “How Contemporary American Poets are Denaturing the Poem“:

To reclaim poetry: Where to begin? When to begin? We begin by defining the poem, and we begin now, by defining its effect on us, by its manifestation in us, the trusting and ready to appreciate reader — not in a theory of what poetry should be…There’s no doubt that it is important and necessary to declare the nakedness of the contemporary American poem, to reject the notion that a poet, renowned or not, can perpetrate this continuing fraud of passing off their amateurish or unfinished prose jottings as poems. (“On the Prosing of Poetry”)((Houlihan, Joan. “On the Prosing of Poetry.” Boston Comment. 2000. Web. 31 July 2012.))

Houlihan’s essays exemplify the ways in which genre is often fiercely defended. Which leads one to consider, why? What is at stake? Let’s look at the various mechanisms of constriction (AcademiaCapitalismCulture, and Politics) to explore this further.

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