Namesake: Who’s Performing Whom?

Dead History, Live Art? Spectacle and Subversion in Visual Culture since the 1960s
edited by Jonathan Harris (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press & Tate Liverpool, 2007) pp.31-50

ISBN: 978-0-85323-438-8

[T]he proper name is only ever supposed to refer and not to mean.
Julian Wolfreys [1]

When I first got your email I thought: hey, that’s me!
Joshua Sofaer, New York

One cannot help having a slightly disagreeable feeling
when one comes across one’s own name in a stranger.
Recently I was very sharply aware of it when a Herr S. Freud
presented himself to me in my consulting hour.
Sigmund Freud [2]

Travelling up the Finchley Road in North London, soon after I had arrived in the capital in the early nineties, my eye stopped on a shop front which read: Jews for Jesus. It is possible that I had heard of the organisation before, but the fact that here there was a concrete registration of this seeming contradiction struck me. I crossed the road and gazed into the window. There were a few ceremonial objects used in the Jewish household – I seem to remember a Hanukkiah, the eight branched candelabra used during the festival of Hanukkah – and a Seder plate, used at the Passover meal. There was also a selection of books, often with a graphic incorporating both a star of David and a crucifix. I was a bit perplexed. I wrote down the telephone contact number clearly printed on the window and went on my way.

A couple of days later I phoned up the number and asked the person at the other end, “what is Jews for Jesus?”. After a lucid but almost blunt reply (“We are Jews who believe that Jesus was the Messiah,”) I could practically hear the pen poised over the paper ready to take down my contact details in preparation for my indoctrination. When I announced (and spelt) my name – Joshua Sofaer – S-O-F-A-E-R – Sierra, Oscar, Foxtrot, Alpha, Echo, Romeo – there was an awkward silence. It was the kind of silence that comes when someone thinks that they misheard, or that you are taking them for a ride, but then realise that no, you really are telling the truth. “Oh,” came the eventual reply, “you know there is another Joshua Sofaer in New York who is very involved with Jews for Jesus.”

The call finishes and I am left feeling uneasy. There is another me (at least one other). But not only that, he is an active member of what I take to be a weird Messianic cult. Oh dear.

In May 2002 I went to visit Joshua Sofaer USA, the New York based evangelist in his early thirties, a full-time proselytizing ‘Jewish believer’ who preaches for the acceptance of Jesus, as a member of the Messianic Judeo-Christian organisation Jews for Jesus [3].

By spending time with another Joshua Sofaer and recording our conversations, I hoped to better understand how names function. My hunch was that in our lives we live our names, that our names act as scripts given to us at birth which we then go on to perform. Observing the similarities and differences in our attitudes and understanding of what it meant to be in the world as ‘Joshua Sofaer’, how we lived our names – both exactly the same and completely different – a wider picture evolved.

In May 2004, two years after my initial visit to Joshua Sofaer [4], I presented Namesake: The Story of a Name, a live performance with soundscape in collaboration with the composer Jonathan Cooper at three venues in London. They were: The Jewish Museum (the London Museum of Jewish Life), Home (an art gallery and performance space based inside a family house in Camberwell and noted for its commitment to live art practices), and The Swiss Church in London (which has a growing programme of cross-cultural and intercultural arts activities). Each of these three venues and their audiences, the Jewish venue and audience, the Art venue and audience, and the Christian venue and audience, contributed to the resonances of the piece and underlined the need for tolerance through religious and national exchange in the current climate of tense international relations. These concerns were filtered through the telling of the story of my meeting with my namesake, and our understanding of the meanings of our name.

The personal proper name designates its referent. We hail another with their name and we respond to our own name being called. But even the fact of this trip alone, that it was made at all, forces the conclusion that names are not simply designators but activators which affect, alter, produce and even dictate life narratives. The personal proper name offers a proliferation of significations outside and beyond its referent.

The problem of the name is one that has long been acknowledged. Plato’s Cratylus is a Socratic dialogue dedicated entirely to the subject and concludes with a provocation to Western socio-linguistic and philosophical thought: ‘…it’s one thing to be a name and another to be the thing it names.’ [5] As early as the Fourth Century BCE the designator and the referent were being separated. 

For Dead History, Live Art? I rehearse some of the implications of the performing of a namesake. Here performance research and the creation of the performance piece Namesake: The Story of a Name, leave the stage and enter the academy. The research for both outcomes – performance and critical writing – find themselves reliant on each other; the writing quotes the performance and the performance quotes the writing.


It can be bad luck to have a namesake. It can be a matter of life and death. For Deepak Patel it was fatal. Admitted to Northwick Park Hospital in London on 24th April 2001 and diagnosed with meningococcal septicaemia, his life saving medicine was given to somebody else with the same name [6]. He died.

Deepak was neglected for a namesake; he was passed over in favour of a non-identical identical. This is the nightmarish stuff of Kafka made real; the horror of mistaken identity; deselected or selected by accident.

The fear of being falsely accused, being the right actor in the wrong part, is something we all live with. One of the strongest arguments against the death penalty is that the wrong person might be convicted. This fear is not restricted to the weight of the law. As Benzion Kaganoff discovered:

‘It was a widespread folk belief among Jews during the Middle Ages that, confronted with two individuals of the same name, the ministering angels were as likely as not to choose the wrong one. Therefore, some maintained that several families with a common name should not reside in one dwelling. People went so far as to avoid entering the home of a sick person who bore their name, lest the Angel of Death arrive during the visit and take the wrong soul.’ [7]

This ‘folk belief’ is a superstitious recontextualisation of the fear of false accusation, manifest in a conception of the administrative order of heaven. However far from other belief systems it may be, this kind of conviction identifies the threat to one’s ‘individuality’ that is made by the presence of a namesake.

The misrecognition that takes place in the encounter with a namesake is not quite the same as that which takes place with the double, the false twin, or the doppelganger: the mistaken identities which span cultural narratives from Esau and his twin brother Jacob, to Alfred Hitchcock’s The Wrong Man. The difference is that whereas the misrecognition by Isaac of one son for another, or the witnesses and law enforcement officers of Christopher Emmanuel Balestrero for the real culprit ‘Daniell’, are based on false assumptions, the encounter with the namesake is based on a truth: two players have identical nomenclature.

In Michael Waldron’s Nineteenth Century farce A Slight Mistake or Mistaken Identity the action (and consequently the rather outmoded humour) arises from a newly employed servant’s confusion between the master she has not yet met and an unemployed valet who is looking for work, both of who happen to have the same name. In a narrative world where names mean (the servant in question is called Belinda Cookwell, the police-officer Constable Catchem) it is no surprise that the namesakes are both called Thomas Thompson. ‘Thomas’ from the Hebrew word meaning ‘twin’ (Didymus being the Greek version which means ‘double-minded’). Thomas Thompson, Thomas son of Tom, a twin name, doubled, then doubled again by the namesake; eight names in one. The semantic properties of this name would not have been lost on the Sunday School educated Victorian audience.

While Waldron’s comedy maybe slight and pivot on a reductive and essentialist class-based politic which we now regard as unacceptable upper-class privilege  (servant treated as master, master denied ‘proper’ respect) the encounter of the namesake is one with which we keenly identify. Two people, the same yet different, who swap places momentarily, and offer us an insight of what might have been, throwing back the questions: who are you and what legitimates you?

Edgar Allan Poe’s short-story William Wilson is the tale of the title character’s conflict with his namesake. Ostensibly William Wilson is Wilson’s deathbed confession of his lifelong struggle against the dogged interference of his namesake – William Wilson – who follows him from Preparatory School to Eton to Oxford and beyond, mimicking him, bringing him down and exposing him. The story ends with Wilson’s account of the ‘last eventful scene of the drama’ in which he finally challenges his namesake to a duel and murders him [8].

But right from the epigraph, Poe indicates that Wilson’s namesake is parabolic. Underneath the title, the caption reads:

‘What say of it? what say of CONSCIENCE grim,
That spectre in my path?’ [9]

Wilson’s namesake is his own conscience, which plagues him throughout the narrative of the story, and throughout his life; he makes his appearances conveniently just at the moments when Wilson is in the process of committing a crime against his own moral code. The epigraph makes it clear enough that the namesake is a metaphor, but there are repeated clues within the text.

‘…I might, to-day, have been a better, and thus a happier man, had I less frequently rejected the counsels embodied in those meaning whispers which I then but too cordially hated and too bitterly despised.’ [10]

William Wilson’s namesake is his better self, his conscience, which doggedly follows him around, checking and commenting on his actions: a conscience which he finally destroys.

In William Wilson, Poe employs the use of a literary namesake. It would be easy then, to understand William Wilson as simply a parable: the namesake as a literary conceit. Even within the narrative world of the story however, both name and namesake are presented as an invention, as being self-willed.

‘Let me call myself, for the present, William Wilson. The fair page now lying before me need not be sullied with my real appellation.’ [11]

and again later:

‘In this narrative I have therefore designated myself as William Wilson, – a fictitious title not very dissimilar to the real.’ [12]

As Daniel Hoffman points out:

‘The chosen disguise reveals that its bearer is, in his own view, self-begotten: he is William Wilson, William son of his own Will. He has, that is, willed himself into being – willed the self we meet, the one that survives its murder of its double.’ [13]

The name is, like Thomas Thompson, in and of itself a namesake, doubled and then quadrupled. William Wilson and his namesake William Wilson – the four wills, the force of will. The namesake is acknowledged as a fake, as the creator of its own fiction. This fabrication forces the question of the identity of William Wilson. Who, in fact, is he?

Poe tempts us to a conclusion with the inclusion of several autobiographical references. For a start, Wilson shares a birthdate not only with his namesake, but also with his author. Poe was born on 19th January 1813, so was Wilson [14]. Poe went to Preparatory School at Dr Bransby’s, so did Wilson. Poe had to leave the University of West Virginia because of misadventures in gambling, Wilson must leave Oxford for the same reason [15].

William Wilson thus becomes a literary namesake for his author Edgar Allan Poe. A namesake in all but name. That ‘William Wilson’ is not the ‘real’ name of the character, even within the narrative, is made possible by the text itself and allows for our indulgence that William Wilson is an autobiography of its author – or at least an autobiography of the author’s struggle with his conscience.

In this context William Wilson is less a literary conceit than the struggle to represent self in writing; an acknowledgement of the self that is other – existing solely as a namesake – in the published name of the author. Jorge Luis Borges acknowledges the fictive autobiographical doppelganger of the writer in ‘Borges and I’.

‘The other one, the one called Borges, is the one things happen to. I walk through the streets of Buenos Aires and stop for a moment, perhaps mechanically now, to look at the arch of an entrance hall and the grillwork on the gate; I know of Borges from the mail and see his name on a list of professors or in a biographical dictionary. I like hourglasses, maps, eighteenth-century typography, the taste of coffee and the prose of Stevenson; he shares these preferences, but in a vain way that turns them into the attributes of an actor. It would be an exaggeration to say that ours is a hostile relationship; I live, let myself go on living, so that Borges may contrive his literature, and this literature justifies me.’ [16]

Borges separates himself out from his published namesake, who plays at being Borges. The namesake is an actor, which is to say he pretends to be something which he is not. In this context, Poe’s story of a namesake (one which is eerily contemporary in its formulation and the complexity with which it approaches the relationship of an author’s life to that of his fiction) usefully articulates the struggle of self-judgement and the gap between the internal self and that self’s public performance.

Poe’s short-story William Wilson is his progeny, verified by the published attribution ‘by Edgar Allan Poe’. This mechanical reproduction of his name – his printed namesake – articulates his life (his life’s work, his work as his life).

To read about oneself, to write about oneself, to see one’s name printed and reprinted, to hear one’s name in conversation, is often to read or write or hear as if it was the name of another. In this context – the context post industrial revolution – our personal proper name becomes our namesake in written and spoken language. Mechanical reproduction – printing, photography, film – offers us the same kind of estrangement that we feel when we look in a mirror: it is both us and not us.

The mechanical reproduction of our name (a kind of printed namesake) validates us as subjects. Just as the verbal appellation hails us into the social space, even if (as Judith Butler has observed [17]) that appellation is based in hate speech, so too seeing ones name in print, be it praise or slander, accords us the status of social subject. For the narrator of Á la recherche du temps perdu the publication of his article in Le Figaro newspaper allows him to perform within a social context wider than his immediate self or surroundings. His understanding of this operation rotates specifically around the reproduction of his name in print.

‘I saw at the same hour my thought – or at least, failing my thought for those who were incapable of understanding it, the repetition of my name and as it were an embellished evocation of my person – shine on countless people, colour their own thoughts in an auroral light which filled me with more strength and triumphant joy than the multiple dawn which at that moment was blushing at every window.’ [18]

The narrator is caught up not with the success (or more pertinently for this particular narrator, the failure) of his writing, but rather the literal fact of its multiplication.

‘I made up my mind to send Françoise out to buy more copies – in order to give them to my friends, I would tell her, but in reality to feel at first hand the miracle of the multiplication of my thought and to read, as though I were another person who had just opened the Figaro, the same sentences in another copy.’ [19]

The narrator’s desire to read ‘as though I were another person’ his own article – his own name – is his desire to witness first hand his existence in social space. Again the analogy of the mirror is useful: we look in the mirror to check that we look OK, but also to check that we still exist.

The narrator of Á la recherche du temps perdu separates himself from his printed namesake, a namesake whose printed presence then validates his own existence. But while there are two namesakes in this model – the name of the narrator and the printed name – there is only one corporeal body. The self-validation offered by the name in print is problematised as soon as the uniqueness of the name is lost. The acknowledgement of a namesake – a corporeal other with identical nomenclature – invalidates, or at least destabilises, the referential function of the personal proper name through the multiplication of the referent. Put simply: it is no longer necessarily clear to whom the name refers.


It becomes apparent that Joshua Sofaer really is well in there with Jews for Jesus. The promotional literature of the organisation entitled ‘Not Ashamed’ describes him as  ‘one of the next generation’ who ‘has a key role in charting the future of the movement’.

So there is this guy who is stands over there looking back at me with my name. He has me intrigued and he leaves me feeling a bit uneasy. I send him a long rambling email, arrange a time to visit, and fly out to New York to meet him.

I hadn’t really a clue what we were going to talk about (despite the fact that I had sent him an eight page document of questions which covered everything from nicknames he was given as a schoolboy to what his career goals were). When I get out the family tree, pretty soon we realise that we are related. We share a great-great-grandfather in mid-Nineteenth Century Baghdad. Our great-grandfathers worked together in the Sofaer grocery store in Rangoon.

We are family!

There are (at least) two ways in which we might live our names. The first is in terms of the etymology of our names – what our names literally mean – the second is the intersubjective meaning, which is to say the assumptions or understandings we make when a name is introduced to us. ‘Joshua’ and ‘Sofaer’ both have their etymological roots in Hebrew. Joshua means salvation – literally ‘salvation from God’. It has the same root as Jesus. Sofaer is the Hebrew for scribe. The Sofaer is the person who writes and repairs the Torah, teffilin and mezuzah, the holy texts of Judaism.

For Joshua Sofaer there is a dynamic conflict in the etymology of his name, which encompasses his whole cultural identity as a self identified Jew who believes in Jesus. On the one hand ‘salvation’ from ‘Joshua’ corresponds to his work as a missionary, and on the other he has the original order of ancient Judaism in the role of the ‘Sofaer’, the vocation of his forefathers. He lives in two cultural worlds and, by his own reckoning, doesn’t really fit in either of them. He is living his name. Everything he stands for is embodied by ‘Joshua’ and ‘Sofaer’; not only that, he thinks so too.

The way that ‘Joshua’ has meant something to me was by its difference. I was so conscious that my name announced my Jewishness when I was growing up, that I took it for granted that the same thing would be true for my elder sister Joanna. It was only years into this belief that I came to understand that there is no Joanna in the Old Testament at all. The way in which I live ‘scribe’ is through the putting of words on a page. Writing, amongst other things, is what I do.

So there you have it. After our first face to face encounter it seemed like both Joshua Sofaers were performing their names differently and yet, the same.


Comedian Dave Gorman and filmmaker Alan Berliner have both made works about their namesakes: Are You Dave Gorman? and The Sweetest Sound respectively. Both Gorman and Berliner go about collecting as many namesakes as they possibly can, using all the contemporary technical search resources open to them (the internet, email, postal directories etc.).

For Gorman, the task of collecting Dave Gormans originates in a bet with his friend and eventual collaborator Danny Wallace. Danny drunkenly bets his mate that he will never meet another Dave Gorman and that there probably aren’t many more in the world anyway. Dave sets about proving him wrong. What starts at first as a laddish jaunt turns into an obsession, becomes a performance routine, a television series on BBC2 and eventually a book [20]. Fifty-four Dave Gormans later, Wallace agrees that his mate has won the bet.

The script of the performance and the book are littered with references to the accumulative nature of the project. Gorman is only interested in racking up the Dave Gormans to prove a point. The imperative rotates around a notion of ‘pride’; he must win the bet.

‘How was Dave treating it now? Self-discovery? A search for identity? To feel he wasn’t alone in the world? That there were others out there with something fundamental in common with him?
Bollocks. He was doing it to prove me wrong.’ [21] [Danny Wallace]

There is a wilful rejection of any attempt to understand what might be at stake in the project beyond the bet.

‘Although they offered us exceptional hospitality, we were men on a mission, and we couldn’t stop for long. We had more Dave Gormans to find today, and a very tight schedule to keep.’ [22] [Danny Wallace]

But what starts as a project pursued for its absurdly obsessive comic value ends up problematising the easy correspondence between a signifier and its identity, that Gorman had once felt:

‘Before all this started I was Dave Gorman. Now, I was only a Dave Gorman. Those two words that had once defined me now merely defined a subset to which I belonged. I was one of many. […] What did Dave Gorman do? Anything. Who was Dave Gorman? Anyone. Where did Dave Gorman live? Anywhere. My name meant everything and nothing.’ [23]

The journey which Gorman undertakes to assert his will and power – that he was right – ends up (albeit within the comic narrative) by robbing him of the unique performative power of his name and thus his self assurance of who he is.

Berliner starts at the conceptual point that Gorman concludes. His imperative is one of existential questioning: ‘What can they be doing with my name? Are they better Alan Berliners than I am?’, will ‘the other Alan Berliners look more like Alan Berliner than I do?’, ‘Who knows if my life would have been different if I’d had another name’ [24].

Berliner’s film is autobiography, psycho-philosophy, social history and investigates the relationship between authorship, performance and the personal proper name. He allows his personal quest to open up a discourse on the ontology of personal proper names and investigates the form and context of names within North American culture. The film revolves around a dinner party he holds for the twelve other Alan Berliners that he has contacted (or Allan, Allen or Alain Berliners). He asks them questions about their likes and dislikes, habits and activities in a comedic, pseudo-scientific (perhaps disingenuous) attempt to find commonalities relating to ‘Alan Berliner’.

But whereas Gorman starts with a banality – a bet – and ends up questioning the currency of his personal nomenclature, Berliner, having started with such questions, concludes with the disappointment of the banal.

‘So if you’re feeling a little let down because you expected some big revelation from my dinner party, imagine how I feel. All that preparation and anticipation… and for what? I still have to share my name with them. I’m probably still going to be mistaken for them. And it seems I’m destined to be the real Alan Berliner in my mind only. But please, don’t think of my experiment as a total failure.’

Berliner hopes for an epiphany in understanding the condition of the namesake but the actuality falls short of his expectations.

Although he never overtly states his imperative in such terms, Berliner hints at the initial source of his enquiry being rooted in a direct confusion between himself and one particular of his namesakes; what he describes as the ‘ultimate embarrassment’: the confusion between himself and another Alan Berliner, another filmmaker.

‘A few years ago someone with my name made a film called Ma Vie en Rose. The critics loved it. I loved it too. That’s when everyone hailed my debut as a feature film director. No one ever did bother to ask why I would suddenly start making films in French. There might even be a few people watching right now who think this is one of his films, or that I’m him or that he’s me.’

Later on in the film he alludes in the voiceover with some irony, to that particular Alan Berliner in shot:

‘That’s the other filmmaker, the one in black. He even looks more like a filmmaker than I do.’

Perhaps the search and research for all the other Alan Berliners in the world (“I can’t stop thinking of them as the competition”) is less about trying to establish his own identity and more about trying to dilute the cultural power and recognition of his most famous namesake: the other filmmaker, the Alan Berliner who has been critically acclaimed for his larger scale, bigger budget feature [25]. By authoring a film about the name ‘Alan Berliner’, by employing the other Alan Berliners as actors in his narrative, Berliner asks his namesakes to perform him. Their doubling, which would ostensibly negate the possibility of any authentic original ‘Alan Berliner’, paradoxically enforces his role as auteur and assures the authorship of his filmic performance as his.

For Gorman and Berliner, both of who are making their respective works at the fin de siècle – a time of massive public interest in personal history and family heritage – the acknowledgement of the multiple existence of their name problematises what is for all of us, the contested and fractured space of identity recognition. The familiar becomes unfamiliar; the unfamiliar becomes familiar. As Hillel Schwartz comments in his extended study of ‘copies’, The Culture of the Copy:

‘Powerful stuff, these namesakes, despite our insistence that individuals make their own waves in the world. Given a culture that reveres originals yet trusts that copies will more than do them justice, the blessing of a name is inadequate to its burden.’ [26]

The multiplication of the personal proper name forces us to question those attributes contemporary western society holds close: individuality, self-determinism and difference.

In his much quoted essay ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’, an essay which continues to provoke a discourse on the relationship between the object and its double, Walter Benjamin argues that the reproduction of the artwork radically affects its aura [27]. Benjamin defines aura as the “historical testimony”, the “authority”, something tied to “presence” and yet also with a ‘unique phenomenon of a distance, however close it may be.’ For Benjamin, mechanical reproduction marks the destruction of the aura of an artwork but he also sees this destruction as ‘a symptomatic process whose significance points beyond the realm of art’. Aura, as Benjamin sees it, cannot be reproduced. Andy Warhol might ultimately agree with Benjamin that aura is present in the historical testimony of the object, but for Warhol, mechanical reproduction is crucial to the cultural comprehension of aura, insomuch as it is mechanical reproduction (print, photography, television, film) which goes to hype the ‘authentic original’. This is true not only for artworks but for people as well.

‘Some company recently was interested in buying my “aura.” They didn’t want my product. They kept saying, “We want your aura.” I never figured out what they wanted. But they were willing to pay a lot for it. So then I thought that if somebody was willing to pay that much for it, I should try to figure out what it is.

I think “aura” is something that only somebody else can see, and they only see as much of it as they want to. It’s all in the other person’s eyes. You can only see an aura on people you don’t know very well or don’t know at all. I was having dinner the other night with everybody from my office. The kids at the office treat me like dirt, because they know me and they see me every day. But then there was this nice friend that somebody had brought along who had never met me, and this kid could hardly believe that he was having dinner with me! Everybody else was seeing me, but he was seeing my “aura”.’ [28]

Warhol separates seeing and knowing (that is being familiar) through time as the key factors that affect aura. To know someone (well) is to negate the possibility of seeing their aura. Aura for Warhol is eradicated through familiarity [29]. What goes to create aura however is not so much the not seeing, as the seeing but not knowing. And this kind of seeing without knowing, without one-to-one familiarity, is what mechanical reproduction through mass media offers. This is, after all, how celebrity is created.

What happens to aura and the authentication of the original when there is a namesake; not a reproduced copy, but another authentic original? Benjamin says that there is no point in asking for the authentication of the original of an artwork that is designed for reproduction:

‘From a photographic negative, for example, one can make any number of prints; to ask for the ‘authentic’ print makes no sense. But the instant the criterion of authenticity ceases to be applicable to artistic production, the total function of art is reversed. Instead of being based on ritual, it begins to be based on another practice – politics.’ [30]

Following this argument through, it makes no sense to ask who is the authentic Dave Gorman, Alan Berliner or Joshua Sofaer. All subjects with the same name have equal authority to authentication and it is perhaps this that is the most destabilising aspect of the namesake in a culture which places such importance on ‘individuality’.

And yet there are desperate attempts within the artworld to authenticate the original, often for reasons of commerce. To continue with Benjamin’s example of the photograph: particular photographic prints are accorded the status of authentic orginal. Sherrie Levine’s photographic practice of directly appropriating existing images – literally photographing a photograph without any transformations or additions – not only goes to question the authorship of the image, but also further complicates Benjamin’s statement that there is no authentic print [31]. Through limited editions, the inclusion of the artist’s signature, the quality of the paper, there is a hierarchy which is often couched in terms of the original and its copy.

This hierarchy is also manifest in the deployment of personal proper names. Celebrity culture might tell us something about the way in which the contemporary west views the interchange of naming and mechanical reproduction. This takes us to Benjamin’s second proposition: that when authenticity ceases to be applicable, the function of art is reversed from ritual to politics. It is the de-politicisation of mass media and what Jacqueline Rose calls the “murderous” [32] culture of celebrity that has re-reversed the equation and  brought ritual into the culture of reproduction. Fans who chant “there’s only one David Beckham” to José Fernandez Diaz’s Guantanamera are not trying to claim that there is only one person in the world who has, or has the right to that personal proper name, but rather they are making a desperate attempt to authenticate the particular David Beckham that they revere. The phrase “there is only one David Beckham” de-authenticates other people with that name. Ironically it is the reproductive industry – mass media – that gives Beckham his status as authentic original. As Ellis Cashmore points out:

‘…the national media ensured that the name “Beckham” made its impress on the public consciousness. Widespread interest in, and consumption of what many took to be, a “wonder goal” guaranteed Beckham an audience.’ [33]

The link here between mass media – the reproductive machinery – and the aura of the authentic original David Beckham is one of cause and effect. No media, no aura. Indeed Cashmore takes this one step further by asking us to consider that the forms of reproduction are in fact the only David Beckham that there is:

‘…is there actually anything apart from the Beckham served up on our tv screens and in print?’ [34]

The religious attention of the ‘fans’ who devote themselves to the Beckham cult, worship the aura which emanates from the icon. It is no surprise that this is the word we use to describe those players who have reached the zenith of celebrity – icon – a word that is both authentic embodiment (the one and only David Beckham) and reproduction (the printed and televised image) simultaneously.

Celebrity is a useful tool for gauging what is at stake in the namesake because of its preoccupation with singularity and uniqueness. The ultimate in celebrity recognition is that of single name signification.

‘Single name fame is probably the zenith of global celebrity. Elvis, Marilyn, Pelé, Jesus: they exist at a level somewhere above the usual layer of celebs where the mention of one word provokes instant recognition.’ [35]

Single name fame is the zenith of global celebrity – the thing contemporary western society rates so highly – because it is a sign of recognition and success. Part of the cachet of the single name fame is the risk it takes in reproduction. There are many fewer Marilyn Monroes than there are Marilyns. By existing as a single name celebrity you raise the stakes by asking people to identify the signifier ‘Marilyn’ with the particular Marilyn: a film actress Marilyn Monroe whose major out put was in Hollywood comedy in the 1950’s etc. etc.. If the single name celebrity can survive the namesake test then they are perceived as having ‘made it’.

Having a namesake then, is a threat, because it forces the question: do we know to whom you are referring?

Perhaps the metaphorical model that Poe articulates in William Wilson is actually the most adequate to describe the literal namesake too. The namesake becomes our social conscience, always there to remind us that our ‘individuality’ is a fragile construct ready to shatter at the calling of another who shares our name.


Joshua asks me if I would like to accompany him the following Sunday on a deputation to a church in the Bronx. A deputation is when a member of Jews for Jesus goes out, most frequently to other evangelical churches and organisations, to drum up support; that is financial as well as spiritual support. I stood on the steps to Joshua’s apartment on Sunday morning feeling much less nervous than I had at our first meeting.

“How do we get there?” I asked.
“We’re gonna drive” he said, pointing to a slightly battered jeep with a massive logo emblazoned on the side which read JEWS FOR JESUS.

Why is it that getting in that jeep was so uncomfortable?

We drove due north of Manhattan for some time, me sitting next to my namesake in the Jews for Jesus jeep, nervous again, as Joshua recounted stories of how people have tried to veer him off the road in response to the logo on the side, and I get thinking about the possibility of being mistaken for him by the angels of death if there was to be an accident, and then I decide that actually they are just as likely to come for me as for him and that the confusion could work to my advantage, when finally we end up outside a small brick and wood Baptist Evangelical Church in the Bronx.

After some singing and shaking of hands I glance down at the order of service and in an instant of horror and excitement see that I am due on stage after the next hymn. ‘Sermon – Joshua Sofaer.’ The horror and excitement quickly dissipates. My namesake gets up and talks about the Jewish origins of the feast of Pentecost. He was a good performer, a confident speaker; we certainly both crave an audience. But what struck me more than anything in witnessing my namesake witnessing to this Baptist congregation was how ‘Jewishy’ he was. It was kind of like watching Woody Allen in a Nativity Play. And I realised that regardless of his belief, Joshua Sofaer really was performing in two different worlds.

In the jeep on the journey back to Manhattan we start to talk in more depth about his beliefs. Without the theological knowledge as ammunition it becomes difficult to challenge him on his own terms. I am frustrated that he remains so assuredly unmoved by my arguments. What also becomes clear is that as far as he is concerned it is not necessary that I agree with him. How could it not be imperative for him to need me to agree with him? I really didn’t understand because I did need him to agree with me. It wasn’t enough for me to simply lay out my views on a market stall in case of any takers. And I suddenly realised, and I told him, that maybe, after all, it was me that felt the need to convince, that contrary to the assumption, it was me that was the proselytiser. And I began to wonder: who is performing whom?

[1] Julian Wolfreys, The Derrida Reader: Writing Performances (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1998) p.17
[2] Sigmund Freud, The Psychopathology of Everyday Life Standard Edition Vol. 6 (London: Vantage, 2001) p.25
[3] Jews for Jesus rose out of the ABMJ (American Board of Missions to the Jews) and was formed in 1973 by Moishe Rosen in the San Francisco Bay area of the USA. Its stated focus is to proclaim Jesus of Nazareth as Messiah, to the Jewish people. They do this through on street evangelism, advertising campaigns and educational programmes. It is not a church. They have no religious leader. By 1996 they had an annual budget of over thirteen million US dollars, eighty percent of which came from individual donations. The existence of Jews for Jesus has led to counter-missionary organisations such as Jews for Judaism, which oppose Jewish evangelism. Jewish evangelism is also officially opposed by most mainstream Christian Churches including Lutherian, Methodist and Episcopalian branches of the Church, The Church of England and the Catholic Church. Jewish Evangelism is widely supported by Baptist Churches.
[4] I went to see him a second time and to record further interviews in January 2004.
[5] Plato Cratylus trans. by C. D. C. Reeve (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 1998) p.78
[6] Sharon van Guens, ‘Patient died after drugs were given to namesake’ The Evening Standard, 1 November 2001, p.9
[7] Benzion C. Kaganoff, A Dictionary of Jewish Names and their History (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1978) p.112
[8] Edgar Allan Poe, Visions of Poe ed. by Simon Marsden (Exeter: Webb & Bower) p.34
[9] Attributed to Chamberlain’s Pharronida. [This is disputed. See Daniel Hoffman, Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe (Louisiana: Louisiana State University Press, 1998) p. 212]. Poe. p.24
[10] Ibid. p.28
[11] Ibid. p.24
[12] Ibid. p.25
[13] Hoffman p.209
[14] Or in its first printing 1811. ‘Poe kept moving his birthdate forward, in successive magazine biographies, in order to seem younger than he was. So, it appears did William Wilson.’ Hoffman p.210. The fact that Poe went to the trouble of altering his character’s birthdate alongside his own stresses the importance of the autobiographic reference.
[15] Even the briefest biography of Poe will give these details. See for instance Hoffman p. 210.
[16] Jorge Luis Borges, ‘Borges and I’ in Authorship: From Plato to the Postmodern, A Reader ed. by Seán Burke (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1995) p.339
[17] See Judith Butler, Excitable Speech: A Politics of the Performative (London: Routledge, 1997)
[18] Marcel Proust, In Search of Lost Time  Vols 1-6 trans. by C. K. Scott Moncrieff and Terence Kilmartin, revised by D. J. Enright (London: Vintage, 1996) Vol.5 p.652
[19] Ibid. p.653
[20] All quotations are taken from the book rather than the television series, which to a large extent repeats the television script.
[21] Are You Dave Gorman? is co-written by Dave Gorman and his friend and collaborator Danny Wallace. This quote is from Danny Wallace. Dave Gorman and Danny Wallace, Are you Dave Gorman? (London: Ebury Press, 2001) p.126
[22] Danny Wallace. Gorman p.222
[23] Dave Gorman. Gorman p.304
[24] All quotes transcribed from the film The Sweetest Sound Dir. Alan Berliner. Cine-Matrix.2001
[25] Perhaps after all, just as the name speaks more of the namer than the named, I betray more about myself than Alan Berliner by this comment.
[26] Hillel Schwartz, The Culture of the Copy: Striking Likenesses, Unreasonable Facsimiles (New York: Zone Books, 1996) p.338
[27] Walter Benjamin, ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ in Illuminations by Walter Benjamin, ed. by Hannah Arendt, trans. by Harry Zorn (London: Pimlico, 1999), 211-244
[28] Andy Warhol, The Philosophy of Andy Warhol (Florida: Harvest, 1975) p.77
[29] Familiarity is not the same as exposure. Familiarity depreciates aura but exposure through reproduction is the food of celebrity. Familiarity enables a knowledge not acquired through exposure.
[30] Benjamin p.218
[31] For a discussion of Sherrie Levine’s practice see Douglas Crimp, On the Museum’s Ruins (Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1993), especially 126-148 ‘Appropriating Appropriation’.
[32] Jacqueline Rose in conversation with Marina Warner, South Bank Talks, The Purcell Room, 28-01-03. Rose described the culture of celebrity as “murderous” because it sets up celebrities only in order that they should later be shot-down.
[33] Ellis Cashmore, Beckham (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2002) p.20
[34] Ibid p.44
[35] Ibid p.43