A Word for Creating Life

Naissance • noun • (nay-sahnss)

Definition: Birth

Origin: French

To help sustain and grow The Word with Barrett Holmes Pitner we have introduced a subscription option to the newsletter. Subscribers will allow us to continue producing The Word, and create exciting new content including podcasts and new newsletters. 

Subscriptions start at $5 a month, and if you would like to give more you can sign up as a Founding Member and name your price.

We really enjoy bringing you The Word each week and we thank you for supporting our work. 

Become a Paid Subscriber!

My book THE CRIME WITHOUT A NAME will be released on October 12, 2021!

The book has received glowing reviews and Publishers Weekly says that THE CRIME WITHOUT A NAME is one of the top books of Fall 2021.

You can pre-order the book at thecrimewithoutaname.com.

For a myriad of reasons, the theme of this week has been naissance or birth.

On Thursday, a shipment of my book The Crime Without a Name: Ethnocide and the Erasure of Culture in America was delivered to my house (photo), and in many ways this felt like the figurative birth of a baby that I had been developing for years.

I knew that the books were supposed to leave the warehouse on Wednesday, so I expected the books to arrive sometime next week. To my pleasant surprise they arrived a bit early. (For those of you who have pre-ordered the book, you should soon receive an email notifying you that your book should arrive on October 12. If you have not already pre-ordered the book you can do so here.)

Also, this week, I had a series of meetings with STABLE Arts to plan our Altars Festival this year. This will be our second annual festival. During the festival we create a cross-cultural ancestor remembrance celebration and hire artists to make unique altars that speak to their culture and history. Last year, due to COVID-19, the festival was virtual, but this year we’re fortunate to have a physical exhibition space and the festival will start on October 28.

Linguistically and philosophically, SCL calls the work of the Altars Festival a cultural naissance because we believe that the creation and preservation of culture can counter and combat the cultural destruction of ethnocide. 

Lastly, and most significantly, on September 17, 2021 at around 12:30pm, I became a father for the first time. My partner, Andrea Senteno, and I had a baby boy and his naissance has preoccupied much of our time for the last week. (He was also the reason why I did not write a newsletter last week. And I really appreciated the thoughtful messages some of you sent me hoping that my family emergency was okay. We had a wonderful, and unexpected emergency last week.)

His expected due date was October 27, 2021, and to our total surprise he decided to arrive six weeks early. Fortunately for us our baby had always been on the big side, so when he was born he weighed a healthy 5 lbs 2 oz. For the last week he’s been at the hospital for monitoring, but it is expected that we will be able to take him home on Monday.

For me, this week has been a time for contemplating birth and new life.

Naissance not Renaissance

An interesting aspect of naissance or birth is the fact that it is by definition not a renaissance. The objective of a birth is not the rebirth of a previous era or person, yet due to the historical influence of the Renaissance in Europe, people far too often conflate these two words.

The Renaissance ushered in a new era of European thought that brought Europe out of the Dark Ages as Europeans decided to embrace and “rebirth” the ideas and philosophies of Ancient Greece, and due to the revolutionary progress of the Renaissance, westernized people can be inclined to believe that progress comes from a rebirth.

I find this language to be a bit troubling because the desire of Europeans to create a rebirth of Europe in the Americas has created a divided and ethnocidal society in the Americas.

Additionally, our linguistic desire to conflate naissance and renaissance can cloud our understanding of what constitutes both a literal and figurative birth. Now that I have become a father, I have thought more and more about this distinction.

A birth clearly derives from something that preceded it, while also being something completely new. A birth is not a replica, but always incorporates the past. Therefore, the presence of old ideas within a new concept does not necessarily constitute a renaissance.

Due to America’s systemic ethnocidal divisions, the act of creating diverse shared spaces will often result in a naissance, and the birth of these new, shared spaces will incorporate the earlier ideas and traditions of the communities within the new space.

When we focus on a renaissance, the objective is to replicate an idea or environment from the past into the present. This agenda can actually be far more exclusionary than we anticipate because it can marginalize the new cultures and communities that shape the present.

As a father, I know that my son is not a replica of myself, yet my existence has clearly helped to create and birth something new. Also, if I viewed my son as a “mini-me” and treated him as a renaissance of myself that could easily become a stifling weight that limits his growth.

If we want to cultivate new life, it is a good idea to encourage naissance instead of renaissance.

Naissance, Aufheben, & Baby Names

Aufheben is an important word and concept at SCL, and we’ve spoken about it many times in previous newsletters. Essentially, it is the act of merging a thesis, or point, with its antithesis (counterpoint), with the goal of creating a transcendent synthesis. It is the equitable merging of two ideas and the creation of a new idea that transcends them both.

When I first started talking to people about Aufheben, I often used the analogy of childbirth to explain this untranslatable German word. Two parents merge together to birth something new, and this new person is simultaneously representative of both parents while also being neither and a completely different individual.

Aufheben has been defined as “to abolish, to preserve, and to transcend,” but it can also be defined as “to lift up.” As we grow as individuals, little parts of us will be abolished and other parts will be preserved as we work to lift ourselves up so that we can transcend our previous status quo and thrive within our new environment.

As a new father, my life has already changed in just a week, and the Barrett who was childless has been abolished. The birth of another person has created a new iteration of myself, and it feels comforting to have a word for describing this process of change.

Additionally, I was inspired by Aufheben in the naming of my son.

For a very long time, I have enjoyed my name. “Barrett Holmes Pitner” is a good name and I think my parents did a good job. I liked the idea of giving my son my name because I wanted someone to have a name as good as mine, but I never wanted him to be a renaissance of myself. Therefore, Andrea and I had the task of coming up with a name that we felt was just as good as, if not better than, “Barrett Holmes Pitner.” And if we could not come up with a better name then he’d be Barrett Jr.

For some reason, we both have always liked the name Joaquín, so we wanted that name somewhere in the mix. Also, there is a very important and celebrated Mexican American poem called “I Am Joaquin” that speaks to the nuances and lived experiences of Mexican immigrants in America. It was a name we both liked that also spoke to Andrea’s culture.

Also, I’ve always liked being able to represent both sides of my family in my name—Holmes is my middle name and my mother’s maiden name—so we wanted to figure out a way for Andrea’s family to be represented in our child’s name.

For a little while, we entertained making Senteno his middle name, but then I thought about the Latin American naming construct where a person’s last name is actually two names: both their paternal and maternal last names with the paternal name coming first and the maternal coming second.

As we thought about putting our last names as his last name, many people recommended that we hyphenate the names to simplify the name for Americans unaccustomed to this practice, but we concluded that this construct may actually create a greater problem for our child and his future children. 

If his last name is a hyphenate does that mean that his children should have a last name consisting of two hyphens and three names if he wanted his partner to have equal representation in his child’s last name? When we spoke with people with hyphenated last names, many of them spoke with a lack of clarity about what their children’s last name should be. Adding a hyphen might solve a short-term problem, but also create a generational problem, so we wanted to find an alternative solution.

In the end, we decided to give him the last name “Pitner Senteno” because it addresses the problem that the hyphen would have created. 

It is common in Latin America for people to just use their paternal name, but it is totally acceptable to use both. And for people who have a poor or nonexistent relationship with their father it is acceptable to go by their maternal name.

By choosing “Pitner Senteno” we hope to have created a generational template for both parents to be equitably represented in our familial names. For example, if our son marries a person whose last name is Chang then their kids could be “Pitner Chang.” If we have a daughter and she marries a person named Jackson, their kids could be “Jackson Pitner” 

This last name constitutes aufheben and naissance in that it is the merging of two cultures and people in a way that transcends the American norm while also remembering the past as we make something new.

In the end, we decided to give him my first name and Joaquín is his middle name. He is still a junior, but not a replica or a rebirth. Barrett Joaquín Pitner Senteno has been a very peaceful child, and we’ve enjoyed being parents so far. We’re only at the beginning of a lifelong journey.

Naissance not only creates new life (both literal and figurative), but also radically changes the lives of those willing to engage in Aufheben and birth something new.

Become a Paid Subscriber!