Last week there was a discussion on the political nature of toponyms, or place names, and the nature of the competing societal actors that created them.
So, conscious of the potential polarizing power and potential socio-political nightmare involved in revamping toponymic systems, what merit is there then in the idea of depoliticizing toponyms through the use of ostensibly neutral naming mechanisms such as numerical systems? Can neutral geographical names such as ‘First Avenue’ or ‘Central Square’ help to tame toponymic clashes?
While at first glance this concept could be difficult to translate ‘up’ from urban micro-toponyms (names of streets, buildings, landmarks, etc.) into municipal, state or national toponyms, it is not entirely unprecedented. Many of the proposed compromise formulations of a name for The Republic of Macedonia/the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia have centered on adding ostensibly neutral directional qualifiers into a ‘dual name’ formula. These include, for instance, ‘Upper Macedonia’, ‘Northern Macedonia’, or ‘Republic of North Macedonia’.
Aside from the fact that one or both parties to the Greek-FYROM name dispute thus far have rejected all proposed compromises as unacceptable, directionality is not as neutral as it may seem at first. Directions are always relative to a perceived starting point; thus for something to be ‘upper’ or ‘northern’ there must exist a ‘centre’ (in this case the Greek province of Macedonia) that is privileged as a reference point.
Unfortunately for the concept of apolitical and neutral toponyms, place-naming must be situated within a wider discussion of organizing and controlling geographic space, which inherently is related to power and social control. Toponyms, even in their strictest denotation function, “are elements of a geolocational regime that enables governmental authorities to more easily tax, police, and provide services to their populations [and] allows companies to spatially target potential consumers using various geodemographic information systems”. Toponyms are inexorably related to power in that they consistently serve governmental ends and in an age of neoliberalism, they increasingly also abet commercial aims. The very popularity of the idea of “street numbering as an ‘apolitical’ method of spatially organizing” cities comes from the World Bank, which encourages this system in order to help cope with social problems in African cities; social problems which themselves originated from imposed structural adjustment policies.

One World Trade Center (Photo from Wikipedia).
One World Trade Center (Photo from Wikipedia).

Thus, the prima facie non-political solution is an illusion; in reality it is a means of shoring up the global hegemony of neoliberalism.
In a similar vein, and equally alarming, is the growing trend to commercialize toponyms. The new building at Ground Zero in New York is one of the most poignant examples. Originally to be named the “Freedom Tower”, the city has reverted to the legal and sanitized name “1 World Trade Center” in order to rent a significant portion of the new building to a Chinese real estate company once construction is completed.
Still further down this path are cases where companies buy the naming rights to previously public spaces such as sports complexes, transportation systems, and street names. In Hungary, there is a profusion of streets named after both local and international companies, including Fundy Str. (a Hungarian candy company) in Gyál and Mercedes Str. in Kecskemet where a new Mercedes factory is located. Wisconsin’s Department of Natural Resources is also currently considering selling the naming rights to state parks in order to cope with budget cuts.
Auctioning off the naming rights of public spaces to commercial enterprises substitutes the social use of toponyms for their quantifiable economic value. This assists the spread of neoliberalism by turning previously public spaces vital to collective memory, identity, and culture production into privatized advertising space. If, as Humpty Dumpty from Wonderland proposed and Emmerson elaborates, “names are rooted neither in reality nor custom, but express instead the power of the namer over the thing named” then there is no apolitical way of creating toponyms, instead it is critical to become engaged in the politics of place-naming to create toponyms in a manner that is democratic, inclusive, and promotes social justice.
Toponymic landscapes will also endure as places of contestation, as those who are marginalized and erased by current toponyms seek to disrupt the normalization of their invisibility. This is not necessarily negative, especially in democratic societies; this may reinvigorate important discussions on deeper social issues of power asymmetries and systemic violence within society. For example, the Ogimaa Mikana (Leader’s Trail) Project of the Idle No More movement is an example from Turtle Island/Canada of the public contestation of settler-colonial naming practices (which are part and parcel of a broader colonial agenda) through provocatively interrupting the urban landscape of Toronto.

Sarah Littisha Jansen is in her first year of the PhD program in International Conflict Management and Resolution at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs. She completed her B.A. Honours at Glendon College of York University in International Studies and Études françaises and did undergraduate research in Kosovo/a on Serbian-Albanian bilingualism and its implications for building sustainable peace
Featured Photo from Wikipedia.


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