Tricks of the Pop Culturist Trade

In my continuing efforts to better serve my readers, I’m inaugurating a "Tricks of the Pop Culturist Trade" series, in which I endeavor to demystify the art of pop cultural criticism by revealing one or another of my writing tricks.

Today’s example is the "[Blank]-[Who/That/Which]-Must- Not-Be-Named" construction, in which the cultural critic gets to seem mass culture-savvy, appealingly goofy, and ironically self-aware all at the same time by describing something silly or offensive but basically mundane as the whatever-that-must-not-be-named.

So if I was talking about, say, lentils, and I wanted to take an affectionate or contemptuous dig at them, I might refer to them as “The-Legumes-That-Must-Not-Be-Named.”

The construction is immediately derived, of course, from the Harry Potter books, in which people refer to Harry’s nemesis Lord Voldemort as "He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named" because it’s feared that mentioning the dark lord’s name out loud might draw his attention to you (or if not his attention, per se, then bad luck).

The general idea, however, that naming the evil one draws his attention or bad luck, is much older than the Potter books. It has a long history in fantasy literature, which itself borrowed the concept from the folk tradition, which invests names with great power to alter the physical universe.

The joke, to be effective, has to pretend to elevate something insignificant to world-historical status. It falters when it tries to mock someone or something that actually is of world-historical status. Referring to Donald Rumsfeld, for instance, as “The-Defense-Secretary-Who-Must-Not- Be-Named” isn’t really that funny because Rumsfeld is genuinely frightening and genuinely responsible for the deaths and maiming of thousands of people.* Geraldo Riviera, on the other hand, is mostly just absurd, and so calling him the “Mustache-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named” is funny.

One thing to keep in mind, if you plan to make written use of the [Blank]-[Who/That/Which]- Must-Not-Be-Named construction, is that it should always be capitalized, in the same way that God is capitalized — it’s a way of indicating cosmic significance, or fake cosmic significance.

*Referring to Rumsfeld as Lord Voldemort, on the other hand, would be funny, because, as when Harry calls Voldemort by his real name, its effect is to reduce the object of your naming from icon to individual, from God to man.

Author: Dear Dexter

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