There is a part of us that wants to believe that the knowledge of an opponent’s face and name holds power. That is something I absorbed from “Death Note,” a manga series written by Ohba Tsugumi and illustrated by Obata Takeshi.
“Death Note” is a story where the premise is this: ‘If you know someone’s face and their name, and you write that person’s name and the cause of death on this notebook called Death Note, that person will end up dying according to the cause of death that you wrote down.”
I read this series more than a decade ago. And I had so. much. fun. I thought it was such a cool idea. I mean, can you imagine, the power to kill someone the way you want, just by knowing their face and name? How many people’s faces and names do you know? If you’ve had a pretty average life of attending schools and joining the workforce, you probably know at least several hundred people, at any given time. Heck, even if you didn’t go to school and never worked, you probably know a celebrity or politician or two. Imagine how crazy dangerous it would be to use Tiktok in such a world. Totally crazy.
Anyway, at the time of reading the series, I didn’t think about why I was so fascinated by the premise, beyond the superficial fact that yes, it was extremely cathartic to follow this main character with the ability to kill people in such an elegant manner.
And on a side note, by “elegant,” I mean… Well, I am a storyteller. I write fiction stories. If any government agency were to look into my search results, they’d think I was a serial killer with a track record of killing a dozen people. Or a mass murderer planning to unleash a bomb in a shopping mall. The stuff I look up and write about is hypothetical and theoretical, but still it can be misinterpreted as criminal.
When I say “elegantly killing people,” I mean that this main character from Death Note is killing people without even worrying about his fingerprints getting anywhere. There might be blood, depending on what cause of death he chose for a specific victim, but it’s not like the police will find a strand of his hair in the pool of blood. And that seems extremely elegant, story-wise.
This is an amazing superpower. The only other superpower that I know of, that rivals this superpower, is the power of the culling song, from “Lullaby” by Chuck Palahniuk.
But, for now, let’s stick to “Death Note.”
A few months back, I wondered for the first time: Why does this premise make sense to me? Why didn’t I immediately say No to this idea that a real name and someone’s face can have enough power to kill someone?
Isn’t it strange?
Because, imagine if the premise of the Death Note had been, “If you know someone’s height and weight and write down those numbers, you can kill that person.”
Then I think a lot of people would’ve cried Bullshit! and the story wouldn’t have been nearly as popular as it is. In fact, some people might have interpreted that premise as humorous, which is… the opposite of what the story is.
And similarly, I think if the premise had been “If you know someone’s name and voice, you can kill that person,” then I wouldn’t have believed it. People can’t even get used to their very own recorded voices. So can they recognize other people by voice? Do people pay that much attention to voices, overall? I don’t think so, on average.
Whereas, a face, a name.
Heck yeah. There is power in knowing that. I bought the premise. Totally.
Which is so weird, because you can change your real name. And you can get plastic surgery to change your real face. Such processes of change are something real, in our world. In fact, it’s probably easier to change your face than to change your voice. The face is on the surface. Meanwhile, the stuff that makes our voice is inside our throat and connects all the way to our lungs. Our voice rings in our own head, our own bone structure—that is why we feel so weird when we hear our recorded voice for the first time, and that is how much goes into making a voice unique.
So, how weird is it that I thought knowing a person’s face and name had more power than knowing a person’s voice?
And then it hit me.
“Death Note,” the story, like so many stories, has deep routes in ancient stories that came before it. Namely, the stories of exorcism.
If you watch an exorcism movie, any movie in that genre, you will see a scene where the exorcist comes face to face with the victim that has been possessed by the devil. And the first thing the exorcist does, in one way or another, is to make the devil show its real face. The devil must manifest, visually.
If the exorcist’s plans work out, the person who’s suffering from possession might suddenly show fangs, or their blood vessels might become thicker and stand out.
And then, once the devil visually manifests, things get intense, objects fly around in the room, and the exorcist is very likely to scream, “Tell me your name!!!”
If you’re used to that genre, maybe you’ve never thought about how odd that is. I certainly haven’t thought about why, of all things, the exorcist asks for the devil’s name, after having revealed its face.
Isn’t it interesting that this time-honored tradition of knowing a face and a name is exactly what enables the owner of a Death Note to kill a person remotely? The knowledge of an opponent’s face and name holds power—in this case, in a supernatural way.
But so, okay. “Death Note” has deep roots that can be traced back to exorcisms, which are represented in modern movies, but also are ancient practices that have been going on for centuries, millennia. Fine. That part is clear.
But that still doesn’t explain how that tradition began. We can only observe that this tendency exists, even in the non-supernatural realm.
Consider how a lot of people surfing the Internet world do not reveal their faces and real names. Do they think about exorcism and Death Note? Probably not. Not consciously.
But. Whatever it is that makes exorcism and Death Note believable, that thing is probably what motivates those people not to reveal their faces and names. Fiction doesn’t come out of nowhere.
Consider me. Here I am. A disembodied voice. No face. Using a pen name.
Am I the devil? A devil? Am I scared of your Death Note or exorcism skills?
The short answer is: no. In fact, I would be extremely excited to witness an exorcism or the Death Note. I wouldn’t wanna be the target, but… I’m not afraid of being exposed, exactly.
And I kept thinking about this, thinking about this. Why, then, am I choosing not to reveal my face? Why am I choosing not to reveal my legal name? Why is “Death Note” so fascinating? Why has the exorcism genre been so popular for such a long time?
And then it hit me a second time.
What I am afraid of isn’t being exposed because of something real inside me. It’s the opposite. I am concerned about the idea of being identified by a fake essence. By which I mean, I am actually more worried that my true essence won’t be identified—that I won’t be correctly exorcised, that I won’t be correctly Death-Notified.
And perhaps other people share this fear. That is why there is so much catharsis when we consume fiction, where, when you know someone’s name and face, you have so much power over them that you can kill them.
There is an unquestionable “correctness” in exorcisms. If what the exorcist identified in the devil is wrong, the devil won’t be exorcised. Thus, if the devil is exorcised, that which was identified as its essence must be “correct.” This kind of correctness is a luxury that we cannot have in the real world. We always struggle to gauge if we guessed something about another person correctly or not—especially if the other person is an opponent. An antagonist. An enemy.
So, I think there is a side of us that wants to believe that the knowledge of an opponent’s face and name holds power, beyond the supernatural kind. Then life would be so simple, wouldn’t it be?
But how is reality? What’s in a legal name? Not much. First of all, nobody picks their own legal name. Their parents pick it.
And most likely that name is used to go through a bunch of schooling that people don’t have a say in, if lucky. And then that same legal name is used at workplaces that sometimes mean something to people, but often, don’t.
A name is just a tag. There are hundreds of people who share the same name, maybe thousands. You cannot identify any kind of essence just through the name.
And of course, you cannot identify anything about a person just by looking beyond the fact that they look like what they look like. As in, if a person has red hair, that’s all there is to it. There is no hidden essence you can tell becuase a person has red hair.
So, it is fascinating that apps like Facebook and Clubhouse think that a real name will somehow create a “safer space,” and that people who see Tiktokers’ faces form a weird parasocial attachment to them.
Short of having a Death Note or being in the FBI or CIA or whatever, I don’t know how knowing a person’s real name and even knowing their real face does anything, at all, to identify a person’s essence.
Here is a real-life story.
About three years ago, something happened near where I live. This one person went to a public park and attacked someone, verbally.
The same attacker went to a local shopping mall and physically attacked someone else.
Apparently, this attacker had been attacking people for quite some time.
And you might think that attacking someone verbally or physically, without leaving significant injuries, is nothing. But imagine you’re in a park or a shopping mall and some crazy rando starts pointing at you, following you around, and just being a threat to your being.
In this case, on top of all this, this person committed these attacks and assaults for racist reasons. This was a series of hate crimes. More specifically, this person launched a series of hate crimes against the racial background I belong to.
Anyway, so, the police arrested this person. It took them more than a week or so, if I remember correctly.
But the next part, I definitely remember correctly. After arresting the person, the police released this person because someone paid the bail.
You know how much the bail was?
Yes, you heard that right. One dollar.
You can walk around a park, verbally attacking people, and go to a shopping mall and literally hit people and commit hate crimes, but you will get out of jail if someone you know is willing to pay one dollar.
My point is this. All this was very public. I know this person’s face. I know this person’s name. Many do. What happened as a result of this knowledge?
Nothing. Absolutely nothing.
Worse crimes with more public knowledge of the criminal’s face and name don’t necessarily lead anywhere either.
Even if you’re the state, even if you’re the FBI or CIA, it does absolutely nothing.
No wonder there is a side of us that wants to believe that the knowledge of an opponent’s face and name holds power.
Ever since that park incident, I haven’t been going to the park anymore. For three years, I didn’t go.
There was so much outrage in the first few days after the incidents. And there was so much talk of outrage. But that was all.
I saw that person’s picture, and I’m half their size. Knowing that that person can roam around, and that any other equally crazy racist can roam around, I will not go to that park without a gun, a death note, or an exorcist’s toolkit.
And knowing just how little happens by being exposed like this criminal, of course I’m not afraid of having my essence exposed by revealing my name and face.
It’s the opposite. I am revolted by the idea of being “exposed,” in air quotes, for what I am not.
This happens frequently. Just because a name and a face doesn’t mean much, objectively, doesn’t mean that people won’t attempt to attach meaning. Because, we’ve been talking about this. There is such great catharsis in simplifying the world into a face and a name. We want to believe in the power of the knowledge of an opponent’s face and name.
And so what do some of us do? We make it have power, even though it doesn’t have it.
Let’s take that hate crime criminal from the park and the shopping mall.
This criminal looked at people in the park, identified whatever delusional attributes based on visual information—racial information—and attacked.
They assumed that an Asian face meant something—that a person’s face means they can attack that person.
Now, not all of us are this crazy or stupid. But I do think that there is a side of us that wants to believe in a simple and straightforward world where the knowledge of an opponent’s face and name holds power. The only difference is that the sane ones in the population will consume fiction such as “Death Note” and exorcism movies to fulfill the need for catharsis, instead of going around attacking people.
Some celebrities experience similar things. People will assume things about them from their looks. Some people will act as if they know the celebrity because they know their face and name.
Youtubers. Parasocial relationships. In this day and age, the year 2022, when there are so many names and so many faces everywhere, giving too much unjustified power to a face and name happens constantly.
All this, even as anybody could get a new haircut, a whole new body, with enough motivation and money.
So… killing people by identifying the true essence through their real name and face? Nope, won’t work in the real world.
But killing someone by identifying the wrong essence and driving them to extreme fury or depression? Maybe. This is how some famous people commit suicide.
Here’s another connected idea.
There are apps these days, which tell you the name of a flower when you take a picture of it with your phone. The app can tell you how much and how often you should water the plant, how much sun it needs, what the soil should be like.
The thing is, for humans, there is no such app.
So, if someone were to claim that they know the true essence of someone else based on knowing their face and name, they’d be delusional.
The people who claim such things have absolutely no idea how much and how often to water the other person they’re claiming to know. They have no idea about the sun, and no idea about the soil, figuratively speaking.
In fact, if the person who is on the receiving end of such a claim is anything like me, then that person wouldn’t know either how much water and sun they need, for themselves. Same with what kind of soil they need.
The process of learning what water, sun, and soil are right for you is a lifelong one. In a way, it is a problem that can never be solved, because unlike many other species on this earth, humans really can survive in a vast variety of different places.
We can eat vegetables, we can eat meat. We can wear thicker clothes and live in colder regions, but we can also run around half naked in the tropics. We can. We really can, unlike these plants for which these apps are built.
So, even if you ever get to the answers of how much water and what kind of soil you need in any given moment, most likely those answers will change, and you will yet again continue to search for the updated answers.
And even if by some freak chance, a one-in-a-million probability, someone becomes aware of the key to unlocking another person?
Even then, most likely, the keyholder won’t be able to give what the lockholder needs. So often, you can’t even give flowers in a garden exactly what they need. You can try. But is it easy? No. Never.
A name is a shell.
A face is a shell.
For humans, especially.
But nevertheless, they are shells that need to be protected, precisely because there are people out there who think knowing a name and/or a face will actually reveal some kind of true essence within a person. They will imagine up untrue things, and who knows, maybe use that untrue information to identify their next victim in the park.
Fortunately for me, for what I do, people don’t expect to know my face and real name. In fact, in the fiction writing world, I think most people have the decency to get pissed when someone doxxes another person.
Here is an example.
There is an Italian writer, Elena Ferrante. That’s her pen name. And some time ago, some genius thought that he figured out her identity and published her real name. Needless to say, he faced a lot of backlash. It’s just a good idea not to talk about someone’s personal information publicly, unless that person put it out there very clearly, in association with what they do.
I don’t know what made this journalist… or whatever he calls himself, think that it was his public duty to tell people the legal name of a fiction writer. Elena Ferrante’s real name could’ve been Apple Cider and I couldn’t care less. It’s a brand. It’s a tag. Something to perform searches on. Even when there is a hidden meaning behind the name, like in my case, Ithaka, even then, I am interested in what that meaning is, and not what someone’s legal name is.
And with faces, I care even less about faces, because I don’t try to look up things using faces.
So, it’s nice that nobody… well, none of the normal people expect to see my face. Fiction writing and also, podcasting, are such ideal fields to be in for people who share my preferences.
It’s interesting, isn’t it, why in creative fields, in general, it seems that most people are civilized enough not to doxx the creators?
I guess one simple reason is that most podcasters or fiction writers or Youtubers aren’t trying to get hired for a job. There is no boss who demands background checks because they must consider the liability of hiring some shady character.
But also, I think there’s a deeper reason for it: the power of anonymity.
If my initial premise has validity, as in, if indeed there is a side of us that wants to believe that the knowledge of an opponent’s face and name holds power, then conversely, we are admitting that we can only have limited power or no power at all over someone who doesn’t expose their face and name—their “real” name, in air quotes.
This near or total powerlessness of us over the person whose face and real name remain anonymous may, in our head, through a thorough lack of logic, lead to the conclusion that this person has power.
And I say, “through a thorough lack of logic,” because, us not having power over someone doesn’t make that someone more powerful. It should be neutral, really. One doesn’t follow from the other.
But we don’t always operate from logic. And maybe because of that, we end up thinking that individuals whose names and faces we cannot know have power.
The person who is anonymous, not only has no reason to fear Death Note and exorcisms, but also, the degree to which people can assume things about the anonymous person is not necessarily greater because of the larger void.
This might sound contradictory to what I said in episode 8, the mirror episode, and that may very well be the case.
Or maybe it isn’t contradictory; this is just the nature of nature.
A void does create room for the observer to fill. But where there is too much void, especially something as substantial as a name and a face, the observer wouldn’t even know where to start with some of the assumptions.
And thus, in creative fields, more than other field, we see pseudonyms, a lot. There are some fields where revealing one’s face cannot be helped, but where keeping it private is possible, enough people do it.
It’s because the world has become loud with passive aggressive action.
Consider the seemingly petty example I gave you, of the racist lunatic in the park. If even this can’t be stopped, and instead the so-called outraged people on Twitter are simply partaking in the active wasting of time on social media, how could a crime of a more massive scale ever be prevented? So much time is wasted on outrage. And I do recognize the value of outrage, but when there is way more outrage than action, then it’s pointless.
When you can, it’s just much easier to not reveal your identity. I don’t think it’s hiding. It’s just making great use of one’s resources. I completely understand people who use pen names that are of a different sex than who they really are. Or people who write anonymously. What you choose to do depends on what you want to get out of what you’re doing.
Even this podcast, I thought of not doing. Even on blogs and stuff, in the first couple of years of writing and publishing, I didn’t reveal my sex and I had a pen name that was completely gender- and sex-neutral. I also didn’t reveal that I was born in Korea.
The logic was that it’s easier to reveal what was private than to make private what has already been revealed.
But then I was like… fuck it. Not talking about my roots and not using my voice slashes my storytelling capacity by more than half. I’m not gonna tolerate that.
Whereas, I still don’t go to the park because it’s an unnecessary risk for me, and frankly, I’m just pissed at the city.
See, if someone were holding people hostage, at gunpoint, I really don’t think one can blame individuals for getting scared or being flustered or not knowing what to do. But for wow, this one so-called harmless lunatic to go around and even arresting that kind of low-hanging fruit took a week.
Or maybe the logic was that, because this criminal was so petty, nobody bothered to arrest them right away. But see, this is how small crimes become big crimes—by giving criminals time to go around attacking the next person, and the next, and the next.
Anyway, people whose job it is to express ideas must be able to express them, without fear. This is a necessary and required condition.
Part of achieving this is that the world must become a place where creative people don’t have to distrupt their lives to express themselves.
The other part of this is that creative people need to get themselves some backbones.
And I don’t mean that you should go try to tackle the obese lunatic in the park when you only weigh a hundred pounds. And I don’t mean you have to join a protest. You don’t have to show your face or reveal your legal name along with your home address and social security number.
I’m saying, whatever you were gonna do anyway, you should do it with some backbone. The job isn’t to fear for the job. It isn’t to please the one manager who thinks they know shit. The job is to speak our minds and there is no boss, and if possible, I guess it’s great if we can speak our minds in an entertaining way.
I will link to one of my favorite videos of Harlan Ellison in the show notes. Personally, I find rants extremely entertaining and it’s why I love Harlan Ellison. The dude spits fire.
I want to be like him. The topic he rants about is: Pay the writer. This is related to creatives having backbones. If someone doesn’t pay, tell them to fucking pay. Since when did access to entertainment and/or catharthic experiences become a right?
And in this day and age where bullshit morality clauses make the cowardly so-called publishers withdraw their contracts, fuck them. Go publish on your own. Go make art on your own. Go sing and dance.
Anyway, Harlan Ellison. The video is hilarious. I love him. I mean, he’s so fearless that his face and his name are out there.
But I do think that we live in a different day and age. Mr. Ellison was born more than half a century before me, and while he of course went through a lot more ups and downs than young little me, I daresay that young little me is living through the ups and downs of a world where I have good reason to care about my privacy, and in some aspects, anonymity as well.
This is the era of deep fakes. Twitter has become the false pinnacle of so-called debates and pointless outrage that leads to zero action and Tiktok with its infinite repetition of trends has become the go-to app to pass time, as if time were something to pass.
Most importantly, doxxing is a very real thing. And doxxing doesn’t end with doxxing. It always leaves open the possibility of real, physical attacks. A while ago I was listening to a podcast by some writers, and one of them said that one of her so-called fans showed up at her house. This is so disturbing on so many different levels, it’s… it’s messed up. This writer wasn’t putting up her home address for everyone to see. No. It’s just extremely easy to find out someone’s home address once you have other information about them, such as their birth year, legal name, spouse’s name, what school they went to, and so on and so forth.
We don’t live in the analog years and I am afraid that issues surrounding identities—the true or fake essence of people—will only get worse…
…until maybe there is some apocalyptic event, like, I don’t know. California being sunk in that massive flood that is supposed to be coming. That would affect many tech companies.
In some ways, I think that everything I talked about in this episode is why writers, of all the creative professions, have been known to use pseudonyms. Writing, more so than music or the visual arts, is, well, about words. Whoever wants to read hidden meanings into a writing will read them, whether the meaning is actually there or not. Humans are made to connect dots, to tell stories, and, well, with a story, it’s easier to form secondary and tertiary stories.
And in this day and age of so-called political correctness. Wow. The time that is wasted on that front. Blows my mind. So depressing.
I’m going my own way. I won’t be revealing my face for at least the next few years. In the timespace I am right now, I think I will save many resources by doing so.
And I will continue to tell stories, unafraid of exorcisms, unafraid of Death Note. And also, unafraid of all the people who think they’ve gotten close to my essence, when they aren’t even an exorcist or the Death Note itself.
And in this absence of a way to kill me, perhaps my voice will live forever.
Rebreather – J A V A
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