After the new tribes formed, Nick created an alliance with Mike and again made sure to give it a name (the “Rock Stars”). I’ve briefly touched on this idea of naming alliances before, but now I’d like to dedicate a whole blog entry to it.
Why do humans name things? On one level, naming has a very practical purpose. Without words to identify objects, actions, or concepts, it’s difficult to see how language could communicate anything beyond basic emotions, greetings, agreement, negation, etc. However, our ability to name things seems to exceed our ability to define those names. It’s usually easy to say that something is a “chair”, but when we try to define a chair, we start running into problems. Most people would probably agree on a few qualities for all chairs, like legs and being made for sitting. But does a chair need a back? This might be more controversial. How wide is a chair before it becomes a “couch”? How short can the legs be? We might think the problem is only a matter of different minds having different definitions, and that the definitions are clear inside each individual mind. Yet there seem to be borderline cases for individual minds too. Sometimes the culture creates new objects like recliners and beanbags, and suddenly we have to decide if they’re chairs or not. And if chairs are sometimes problematic, concepts like justice and beauty become infamously difficult. Then at the other end, there are things we seem to have relatively rigorous definitions for, yet can’t conceive in their fullness, like infinity or nothingness.
These lines of thought have been hashed over by philosophers for thousands of years, winding through Plato’s forms to Locke’s ideas to Wittgenstein’s atomic facts. I just wanted to touch on a few basic points before getting to my main issue here: Why do we name things that don’t seem to have much practical reason for being named?
There doesn’t seem much practical reason to name the Nick-Mike alliance in the way that we name things like chairs and infinity. In fact, calling it the “Nick-Mike Alliance” is more practical than the “Rock Stars”, because “Rock Stars” gives no indication of who is in the alliance. Instead, to communicate that, you have to say something like: “Nick and Mike are in the Rock Stars alliance.” Maybe if the alliance gained more people, it would eventually become so populous that it would be easier to give it a shorter name like “Rock Stars”, in the same way that it’s easier to say “United States” instead of listing every person in the United States. However, with just two Rock Stars, I think it’s safe to say that level hasn’t been reached yet.
So why is Nick doing this? Sometimes people choose a name for a group to help define the group’s nature. For example, it seems likely that Nick picked a confident-sounding name to give the alliance an air of strength. (Although Mike joked that he doesn’t understand the choice.) A name like “Bears” implies that the football team with that name is tough and aggressive. But non-threatening sports names like “Red Sox” and “Dolphins” can also become intimidating if their teams are strong. The author Ian Fleming chose the name “James Bond” for his ultra-cool spy character as a joke, because it was the most boring name he could imagine. We often imbue names with power or beauty after the namesakes have achieved something, not before.
But Nick wanted to perform the action of naming alliances even before he came up with actual names. Why? As I mentioned in a previous blog entry, I think it’s connected to wanting to be part of something larger than himself. Unless you’re a mafia family, when the namesake of your group dies, the group generally dies too. But if the group has its own name, then it can live on through new members. This is similar to how Nick is still the “Nick” that his mother gave birth to, even though most of the atoms in his body are different than when he was born. In the same way that being “Nick” feels like more than just a pile of atoms, naming his alliances makes them feel like more than just two people working together.
Perhaps a more important part of naming than surviving death, though, is the here and now. Most people move through their lives with a lot of confusion and limited awareness. They long for something, someone, somewhere to have a solid footing in a frequently unpredictable world. A group can provide that footing. The individual members of a group might seem imperfect, but the group itself can have a gravitas beyond the failings of individual members. It can be harder to betray something that seems more solid like that. This greater sense of loyalty in the present might be part of Nick’s motive for naming his alliances, even though he might not think about it in such direct terms.