When a chair becomes a throne

This semester, I’m taking Religion & Science with Dr. Jeri Wieringa (yes, she’s stuck with me again, bless her). Our first reading was one familiar to me: “What’s in a Name?” from Russell McCutcheon’s Studying Religion: An Introduction. This chapter gives excellent examples for the argument that naming a thing says more about the namer than the actual name. One of my classmates gave a useful example of this: Our own names.

Most parents plan their child’s name long before birth. It’s more about the parents and their experiences in the moment of naming than it is about the infant being named. I, for example, am named after both of my grandmothers. On my father’s side, I shared the name Frances with my grandmother. On my mother’s side, I have shared the name Sadie with my grandmother, great-grandmother, several dogs, and even a horse. Ironically, both of these women despised their first names and opted for middle names and nicknames to identify themselves instead. Eileen and Fanny begged my parents not to name me after them. The names were too old-fashioned they argued; I would hate being called Sadie-Frances . . . which, naturally, has made me love my names all the more. But, naming me after these women was not up to me. It was entirely up to my parents. Something that seems so central to my identity — my name — was not in my power to influence (nor my concerned grandmothers, as it turned out).

But I could, in theory, take back what should have been mine by legally changing my name. In that way, the power shifts to me as I transform from the thing being named to the person doing the naming. All of this is to say that the names we choose for things (or infants) matter, even if it only matters to the person being named (and her grandmothers).

A simple example Dr. Wieringa gave during our class discussion was a chair. How do we classify a chair? Does it have to have a back? If so, is a stool a chair? Is anything you sit on a chair, because technically a kitchen counter could be a chair in that case? By looking at a simple, mostly undisputed example like a chair, it is easy to understand how context influences classification on a basic level. But, what happens when a chair becomes a throne?

Game of Thrones happens, for one.

A throne, at its root, is just a chair. And yet — as any GOT fan will tell you — it is so much more than a chair. Humans project ideas of wealth, power, influence, ceremony, strength and everything in between onto . . . that’s right . . . a chair. This all-powerful place to sit is often guarded and almost always a reserved seat. There are even ceremonies for sitting in the chair for the first time.

A chair seems to become a throne when a person of importance assumes the seat. Kings, Queens, Popes, Dignitaries, even children have taken the thrown. Ah, and now the taking of this chair gains importance (queue the GOT theme song, once again). When you put it that way, it seems quite silly to start a war over a piece of furniture, but alas, I repeat: a throne is so much more than a chair!

Throne of Russian Emperor Alexander I, from Flickr user A.Davey

So why does this quick rank about chairs matter? Because even the things that don’t seem worth disputing can become symbols of so much more than what they, in an (admittedly oversimplified, yet) physical sense, are. They become worth fighting over, not because they’re inherently more valuable, but because someone deemed the object important in the first place. I am not arguing that we start calling thrones chairs, or that all chairs be called thrones, or that we do away with names in general. Even if we could get rid of these pompous, self-important, snobbish chairs, some new object or person or thing would assume the symbol of power in its place (like a fancy piece of metal worn on the crown of the head, or, more straightforwardly, the title of President).

Sure, sticks and stones will break your bones, but words can definitely hurt you. Words as classificatory tools are inevitable. We have to organize our world to make sense of it, but that doesn’t mean the terms we rely on should be left to their own devices (they cannot, as products of human fabrication, be considered autonomous in the first place, but that’s a tangent for another day). There is not a clear right or wrong way to do the work of classifying your world. The only sure thing is that the person who gets to do the naming is doing more than work than simple description. They have the privilege of deciding when a chair gets to count as a throne, and that makes all the difference.

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