The shock of being mistaken for Russell Brand sends our correspondent running to ‘New Castlebar’
The Circling Fin
Recently I made an intriguing discovery: It is now possible to search Google not only by entering a word or phrase but also by pasting in (or uploading) an image. In a nutshell, you can search through several billion image files without involving language in any way: Google simply analyses your picture and responds with similar optical patterns.
So, entering a snapshot of Ringo Starr in 1962, the online behemoth returns countless incarnations of history’s luckiest drummer over the last half-century, interspersed with images of other moptop Beatles from their Cavern days.
So far, so fab. But, testing this function using a portrait of myself in a red hoody holding my baby daughter, Google responded with an assortment of pantomime demons, including a leering Russell Brand. Hmmm: maybe we’re not ready to do without language labels after all.
Creators, interestingly, have long tried to live without labels in a bid to let the artwork speak for itself: the closest anyone got to a book without a title was Samuel Beckett, who called one of his novels The Unnameable – but even that tells you something about the book – and perhaps something about Beckett. It certainly tells you something about Beckett’s publisher, clearly capable of the long view, lucre-wise.
The fact is that we need names and labels on things, whether people, artworks, or twitter streams, to make life run smoothly. Once we have that tag, however short, we can fill the databases that power our mobile phones and GPS systems and everything else we overlay on the world around us to operate it all the better.
Our economy would quickly collapse if, like Prince (or the Artist formerly known as ‘The Artist formerly known as Prince’), we removed our monikers. In fact, should a group of surrealists infiltrate Westport Town Council and lift every signpost and nameplate overnight, the names – Bridge Street, the Octagon, the Mall – would persist, not only in maps and databases and guidebooks across the world but also in our minds and memories: not just the Internet but our own brains depend on that intricate arrangement of vocal noises we call language.
And even the most rebellious parent does not get out of naming their child: when confronted with a newborn, parents, like artists, are forced to make some sort of declaration, traditionally picking a name from a generation or two back to both placate their family and to set down some sort of aspiration for the fresh arrival’s character: “We’ll call him...Bernard” says the new father, thinking of a favourite great-uncle and hoping the name’s properties will rub off in some way.
All this puts me in mind of last April Fool’s Day when I told two young Covies that the government had decided to rename Westport as “New Castlebar”.
Who says, vis-a-vis sticks, that words can never hurt you? I’m still getting over the reaction.
Fin Keegan is a writer based in Westport. This column is based on his weekly radio essay, heard on WRFM and online at thecirclingfin.com.