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What’s in a name? Buildings and the politics of nomenclature

Elena Rotzokou discusses the culture wars surrounding the naming (and renaming) of buildings in Oxford and beyond, and examines the meanings that these names carry.

TW: Racism, colonialism

What’s in a name? Fourteen cutting words marginally appended to an essay penned in the heyday of the British Empire, according to the Black Lives Matter protesters who in the summer of 2020 hung, in pillory-like fashion, over the neck of David Hume’s statue in central Edinburgh a cardboard sign reading, “I am apt to suspect the negroes to be naturally inferior to the whites.” Belonging to a footnote to an essay by Hume published in 1758, the words’ association with a Scottish luminary whose intellectual legacy partakes of a celebrated national culture rather than being merely a shibboleth enshrined in academe was enough of an incentive behind a 1,700-signature petition to rename a University of Edinburgh building named after him.

David Hume Tower was renamed 40 George Street in September of 2020, but not without causing debate around the politics and value of name change – increasingly prominent over the past two decades – to flare up. Stating that the David Hume Tower is “the most prevalent building on campus,” the petition qualified that “Nobody is demanding we erase David Hume from history,” but that the university should not be promoting a man who championed white supremacy.” 

News articles to YouTube commentary videos to Reddit posts brandished the word “cancel” to allege the Scottish philosopher’s hapless victimhood to the snares of “cancel culture”: a call-out form of sociocultural ostracism wielded primarily by left-wingers that does not blush to spread its miasma over centuries-dead figures like Hume. Such, of course, is the common view held by conservative sympathisers. An American Republican interviewed by the Pew Research Center in 2020 as part of its survey of public concepts of cancel culture defined it as “trying to silence someone that does not have the same belief as you. Basically, [it’s] taking their First Amendment rights away”. The plan to rename the tower did not of course attract criticism solely from right-leaning individuals. Centre-left philosopher Anthony Grayling was one of the numerous academics to deplore openly the university’s decision to cease recognising “one of the great figures in the history of philosophy” and thereby to “wipe history clean and start over with a blank memory of the past.”

Coming hard on the heels of the murder of George Floyd at the hands of the police on the cusp of the third decade of the 21st century, the petition and the University of Edinburgh’s subsequent move shed light on the cultural, emotional, and even personal stakes that a name associated with an assortment of concrete blocks may hold for certain individuals and identity groups. Though naming indexes no intrinsic connection between a material construction and a verbal unit, each name is embedded in an archive of memory whose legacy in the present consists of modes of thinking as much as it does of flesh-and-blood traces. Lovestruck Juliet may have bemoaned that life and death, felicity and affliction should depend on an arbitrary convention, but in a real world whose actors are no protagonists in a tragic romance plot, a building is decidedly not a rose – an academic edifice named after an apologist (even if an implicit one) for human inequities does not smell as sweet as it would if it bore a different name.

Far from being simply an abstract construct, a name begins as an immaterial convention that acquires a concrete life which proliferates rapidly. A building is newly baptized in 2022: say, “David Hume Tower.” The original decision to associate three words alluding to the most venerable Scottish man of letters with an edifice belonging to one of Scotland’s most prestigious institutions may or may not be arbitrary; the association remains nominal, in any case, as soon as the decision is officially made. A number of concrete steps ensue to legitimate the act of naming; to perform the “baptism,” as it were. The words “David Hume Tower” thread their way into the university’s digital inventories, archives, Excel spreadsheet catalogues. The name morphs into an array of pixels on a computer screen as instantaneously as they can disappear from it. The ritual’s crowning moment arrives as the name becomes engraved into signposts, placards, posters, notices, prints, banners. The “David Hume Tower” reaches its ultimate evolutionary stage as a manifold tactile entity. The concrete blocks making up the actual “tower” remain a different material entity, whose identity as the “David Hume Tower” is nonetheless as solidified now as it could ever possibly be.   

Ours is a particularly ripe time for contention over the politics of naming. It is difficult to imagine Linacre College’s renaming plans, the most recent such incident in the Oxford community, generating as much fury as it has had it transpired a decade ago. Today climate change appears twice as irremediable as it did ten years ago, producing genuine bewilderment over Linacre College’s decision to rename itself Thao College to honour its donor, a Vietnamese CEO who owns an airline and whose holding company Sovico has invested in offshore oil and gas exploration as well as fossil fuel extraction. As it has unfolded, the controversy has pivoted entirely on the issue of naming. Maria Kawthat Daouda, a lecturer at Oriel College, wrote in a letter to The Daily Telegraph back in November that through its name in the memory of 15th and 16th century humanist scholar and physician Thomas Linacre, the college remains “rooted in a tradition of learning.” “Linacre was the paragon of a scholar of his time,” she continues, “but a model for ours too,” the college’s name after him serving as “a constant reminder of what scholars should strive for.” 

Despite SOVICO Group’s avowed commitment to reduce its carbon emissions to net-zero by (the not-so-near year) 2050 with the support of Oxford academics, the Oxford Climate Justice Campaign’s comments to Cherwell imply that SOVICO Group’s nominal support of their aims does not compensate for the name’s symbolic gravitas: “[…] it is disappointing to see Linacre embedding itself more closely with those financing this damaging industry.” A triple link chain emerges that is hard to disassemble: a set of buildings and plots of land (Linacre) becomes synonymous with the name “Thao,” itself connected closely with the fossil fuel industry. A part of Oxford University will thereafter be synonymous with environmental hazard.

These two recent incidents exemplify two types of the politics of name change which are intertwined even if distinct. One is retrospective: it concerns luminaries of the past embedded in national or even international cultural and intellectual lore and whose explicitly or implicitly questionable ideological leanings – by 21st century standards – are being newly spotlighted, scrutinised, and reinterpreted, clamoring for re-evaluation. The David Hume Tower incident is one such instance, as are most naming controversies centred on colonial and racial politics. The other type is prospective: it involves showing allegiance, via the symbolic act of naming, to individuals, groups, or organisations whose lives or activities are sharing and are expected to continue sharing responsibility for current issues, small-scale or global, demanding prompt redress for the sake of national, international, or all-encompassing (in the case of climate change, which concerns the wellbeing of all living things). The Linacre College controversy is an example of this, as it concerns a figure whose professional ventures have been harming and will most likely continue to harm the planet. 

My distinction is largely at the service of conceptual convenience, as in most cases the harm inflicted by ideologies in the distant past continues to affect the lives and wellbeing of people in the present in the form of trauma, even if the actual suffering could not possibly reoccur in this day and age – at least not on as great a scale, or with as great impunity. The Hume Tower incident is retrospective to the extent that the ideology endorsed in the philosopher’s footnote had for centuries had an appalling impact on the lives of individuals, families, and whole generations belonging to a particular “race.” It is at the same time prospective because memory (and therefore its politics) is necessarily prospective. Trauma, shame, and indignation are the byproducts of racism persisting through time and gnawing at human minds. 

A person casually glances at a building on an ordinary day, their consciousness awakening instantly an inner voice that produces an association between the sense datum and a string of letters (“David Hume Tower”). The association bears no value beyond the convenience of spatial orientation, either breaking off at “Tower” as soon as another datum pops up to generate another short-lived associative chain, or spawning a delightfully absurd string of mental images that are phonetically cognate: “Hume” becomes “home,” becomes “hummus.” The most dreadful thing to result from recollecting David Hume’s name upon glimpsing an edifice is a pang of hunger. A couple of meters away, another person is pacing down the street in a light-hearted mood, their gaze resting on the utmost part of a towering rectangular edifice peeking behind a squat one. The eye takes time to ingest the details: rusty gray color, double-glazed windows, a prominent shaft-shaped structure appearing to have been appended as an afterthought. The name “David Hume” rings through the person’s mind three times and the inner voice segues into the image of a faintly smiling man in a flower-embroidered waistcoat. The image retrieves a visual memory of a single sentence in a volume entitled David Hume: Selected Essays; the associative chain ends there as the mind lingers over the last link.

The second person’s experience unfolds much more slowly because it is emotionally involving and less freely associative: the triggering visual datum anticipates the final link.

This description is perhaps overly dramatic and it may be the case that no person has had an experience remotely similar to the second one I imagined. My point is that this may nevertheless be a good exercise in trying to understand why a person would heartily wish to see the David Hume Tower renamed, while someone else would remain indifferent as to whether it was renamed or not. To add to my earlier point, the power of names lies not so much with the tangible form they can take, but with the emotional stakes at work. Opting whether to respect a decision to change a name or not could ultimately be a case of whether we’re eager to exercise empathy, and of how great of a material impact on experience we’re willing to let this compassion have. And here we happen upon another distinction: there may admittedly be no emotional stakes to consider in the instance of the Linacre College incident – unless you’re inclined to imagine a diehard ecological activist whose eyes well up at the sight of a felled tree (the moral indignation that the particular incident has provoked in numerous people is certainly a powerful emotional response). There are moral stakes, of course, and this may be one of those cases where ethics should trump practical convenience, i.e., where the disinclination to honour a person whose wealth is built on environmental damage exceeds the need to subsidise one of Oxford’s least well-endowed colleges.

Troubling questions arise: isn’t it an academic institution’s primary responsibility to ensure high-quality education and equal opportunities across its entire student body? Education is after all no negligible financial investment. And how on earth will abstaining from naming a college after someone contributing to environmental damage help mitigate said environmental damage? Isn’t it high time we take some real action instead of dwelling on matters of language that have no effect on whether the SOVICO group will continue making mileage out of offshore drilling in the future? Could fulminating against the college’s decision on Twitter be an instance of political correctness gone overbearing, hypersensitive, and silly?

I believe that the first question is a serious one, perhaps turning this into a matter of ideology and values confronting the exigencies of actual experience. But that the way to go about pondering the other questions decides the matter not so much in disfavour of Linacre’s intentions as on the issue of a name’s importance in 2022.

Thao College will not become the sole site in Oxford named after a mogul with interests in natural resource exploitation. The ambitious project to construct the Stephen A. Schwarzman Centre for the Humanities is currently underway and aiming for completion in the academic year 2024-2025. The plan is to create a much-needed hub for Oxford’s humanities programmes that will foster a cross-disciplinary spirit by offering research and teaching spaces, exhibition venues, and amenities for the performing arts. The endeavour owes its genesis to a £150 million donation from American billionaire and philanthropist Stephen A. Schwarzman, a staunch Trump ally who served as chair of the former US President’s Strategic and Policy Forum and a CEO of the global private equity firm The Blackstone Group. Blackstone’s investments are believed to have contributed to Amazon deforestation, as two Brazilian companies owned partially by the firm have encroached upon land to construct a terminal highway that facilitates soybean and grain exports. The comments made by Oxford’s Vice-Chancellor foreground exclusively the sponsorship’s transformative consequences for the university’s research quality and clout, which are ostensibly the utmost priority: “This generous donation from Stephen A. Schwarzman marks a significant endorsement of the value of the Humanities in the 21st century and in Oxford University as the world leader in the field.”

Existing major facilities originating in industrialists’ sponsorship include the Oxford Big Data Institute, the world’s largest such institute, inaugurated with the support of a £20 million donation from the Li Ka Shing Foundation, whose eponymous owner is a Hong Kong business magnate (recently crowned as the country’s richest individual) with diversified investments that include plastic manufacturing. Plastic production and incineration alone pump millions of tonnes of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere each year. Admittedly, the institute does not bear the donor’s name, but its partnership with the Li Ka Shing Foundation is everywhere advertised, from the institute’s website to its Wikipedia page. Life-saving pioneering research on cancer and Alzheimer’s has been to an extent enabled by one of the planet’s major pollutants. And this is no ethically righteous statement; it’s the expression of a serious moral predicament, to which any immediate answer pegged on either side is bound to be lacking.

 An older such instance is the Blavatnik School of Government, founded in 2010 following a £75 million donation by Ukrainian-born investor Len Blavatnik, named Britain’s richest man in May 2021 by The Guardian. Blavatnik accrued his astronomic wealth over the decades by buying out Russian aluminum, metal, and energy companies as well as a Texan chemicals and plastics company and founding Access Industries, an American multinational industrial group. Access Industries, the world’s largest aluminum producer in 2017, cashes in on natural resources and chemicals, among other areas. Aluminum production’s carbon footprint makes it a particularly high-risk activity, generating as it does around two percent of global anthropogenic emissions.

And the list goes on. It goes without saying that Oxford is of course one among the several institutions in the academic elite that is performing groundbreaking research – thanks largely to lucrative endeavours that are unbelievably catastrophic for the planet. Case upon case illustrates that the Linacre incident is the latest among many such episodes in Oxford in particular, suggesting that sparking a furor over the college’s renaming plan is not dismissible as a politically correct posture. Opting for investing in medical research with life-changing potential at the cost of honouring a superman industrial shareholder may be intuitive. Yet, this is no isolated incident but a phenomenon that has become inextricable from an academic institution’s DNA. 

Names percolate into this DNA through their distinctly creative power: they churn out ephemeral or enduring material (from a slip of paper to a metal placard), fuel and affect memories, emotions, mentalities. A legacy of conferring symbolic weight on ethically ambiguous figures via the enshrining act of naming haunts Linacre’s decision. Refraining, in one single instance and on one single occasion from investing an assortment of concrete blocks with a particular name does constitute a politically powerful act, even if a passive one. It recognises what’s in a name, its rich fabric of history, memory, ideologies, emotions – its ethical onus.

Artwork by Ben Beechener

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