What’s in a name Part II? : The X-Factor

The popular talent show The X-Factor derives its name from the fact that X traditionally denotes something that is unknown, undiscovered, or indescribable. Long before The X-Factor, Black Muslims in the US used the cultural significance of ‘X’ to achieve certain political goals. In this blog, the phenomenon of the X will be noted in the context of the importance of names.

In my latest book The Exceptionally Decisive Carl Schmitt, I argue that ‘names’ are crucial in understanding both law and government. In particular, a correct exposition of names helps us to (1) have an identity, (2) identify something, and (3) inculcate a mystique of unity because all names tend to engender union.

One simple example relates to the first claim; that of having an identity. We carry with us a last name, the mark of belonging to a tribe or family, and we are given a first name by which we take a place in this tribe or family. Names are not merely taking on a label. We internalize our names. This internalization is obviously assisted by the fact that in social surroundings or in public interactions (like applying for welfare or tax-breaks) we are identified by our name.

A loss of identity is critical. This is what happens to prisoners, although even people who are ‘free’ can also feel as if they are imprisoned. The 1960s TV series The Prisoner (one of my personal favs) tapped into this fear of losing an identity. The protagonist, played by Patrick McGoohan, was simply referred to as ‘6.’ And it was something he rebelled against.


However, an even more interesting example is that of the Black Muslims, who were founded by Elijah Muhammad and one of whose most famous members was Malcolm X. The Black Muslims deliberately removed a name they had inherited from their former slave owners. For a time they were known by their first name, the name their parents had given them, and by an ‘X.’ Subsequently, they, like Muhammad Ali, assumed an Arabic name.

Swapping a European, typically an Anglo-Saxon or Scots, name for an ‘X’ was significant at several levels.

Firstly, it meant rejecting a history that was seen as brutal and demeaning. It also implied a rejection of the society that the Black Muslims found themselves in.

Secondly, it meant acknowledging that the black community in the US suffered from a lack of identity because the ‘X’ in many Indo-European languages signifies an unknown or indescribable quantity (like the X-factor).

Thirdly, it signified that the novice was in an intermediate stage of reclaiming their identity.

Fourth, it impressed upon new members of the Black Muslims that they were searching for something (X marks the spot).

Lastly, it gave a sense of unity amongst various members who were all now members of a family, albeit a family of X’s.

The Black Muslim phenomenon highlights a fact, that we often gloss over, that our own names carry with them unappreciated political import. If we don’t want to ‘X’ ourselves, doesn’t that show that we have a feeling of belonging to something bigger? Even if we don’t always realise it explicitly.

Colm Gillis is the author of two ‘history of ideas’ type books. His latest book is titled The Exceptionally Decisive Carl Schmitt. It might be worth a read if you want to see if it has the X-factor!!

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