Naming the Unnamed: On the Many Uses of the Letter X
Emily McCrary-Ruiz-Esparza Considers X as a Symbol of Prohibition and Expansion
René Descartes was deeply concerned with the condition of existence. His own, and God’s. To existence there are two sides, he believed: the finite and the infinite. Ultimately, Descartes’s prime obsession was this: What can be known?
It is fitting then, that Descartes contributed significantly to our modern understanding of the known and the unknown. He gave us names for them. In his development of analytic geometry, Descartes chose the first three letters of the Roman alphabet—a, b, and c—to represent known values and the last three letters—x, y, and z—to represent unknown or variable values. It is x that has stuck in our lexicon.
But the fame of x long predates Descartes and his new math. Jamin Pelkey argues in The Semiotics of X: Chiasmus, Cognition, and Extreme Body Memory that the form of x predates written language. The “radically embodied pattern” of “arms raised high, legs spread,” is a “paleo-gesture,” one that we’ve been making for millennia, “a figure of extremes and reversals.” You know it as the spread eagle. An action that could be a warning or a celebration, a sign of power or vulnerability.
This . . . gesture or posture may well be traced back to the very core of some of our species’ most conspicuous abilities: resilient survival, analogic modeling systems and the evolution of language among them.
All communication is code that must be interpreted, and few symbols are as varied, as antithetical in their meanings as the base symbol of x. The presence of x always prompts questions of identity and has us peeking around the back side, asking, what does x stand for? “For more than 2,500 years,” writes Steven Strogatz in The Joy of x: A Guided Tour of Math, from One to Infinity, “mathematicians have been obsessed with solving for x.”
X works hard for us. It is a letter, a morpheme, a word, a symbol, a name, a mark, an action, an omission, and a warning. It is both presence and absence, the unknown given a name. Wrapped into the modern story of x is this: The same symbol capable of erasure, prohibition, and restriction is equally as capable of identification, rebellion, and expansion.
In March of 1963, Malcolm X sat for an interview on a local Chicago TV program called City Desk. His inquisitors were four white men: the moderator, reporter Jim Hurlbut, and three TV journalists, Len O’Connor, Charles McCuen, and Floyd Kalber. Hurlbut begins by calling Mr. X’s identity into question, and introduces their target as the man “who calls himself Malcolm X.”
O’Connor’s opening question for X is this: “What is your real name?”
He replies: “Malcolm. Malcolm X.”
O’Connor: “Is that your legal name?”
X: “As far as I’m concerned it’s my legal name.”
O’Connor attempts to knock him on a technicality: “Have you been to court to establish th—”
X has blocked this swing before: “I didn’t have to go to court to be called Murphy or Jones or Smith.”
X continues and expands on his point, but O’Connor cuts him off: “I get the point. Would you mind telling me what your father’s last name was?”
X refuses: “My father didn’t know his last name. My father got his last name from his grandfather, and his grandfather got it from his grandfather who got it from the slave master. The real names of our people were destroyed during slavery.”
O’Connor: “Was there any line, any point in the genealogy of your family when you did have to use the last name, and if so, what was it?”
X: “The last name of my forefathers was taken from them when they were brought to America and made slaves, and then the name of the slave master was given, which we refuse, we reject, that name today—”
O’Connor interrupts again: “You mean you won’t even tell me what your father’s supposed last name was? Or gifted last name was?”
X: “I never acknowledge it whatsoever.”
X is the letter Malcolm’s ancestors would have used to sign their names in any rare moments of agency afforded to them, if ever, in a double erasure of their identity. It’s relevant here to mention one of Merriam-Webster’s definitions of x: to obliterate.
The use of X as a signature began in the Middle Ages. It was a sign of the cross, the mark for the Greek letter chi, the beginning of the word Christos. Christ. A sign of peace. Somewhere along the way, it was perverted, and its use was relegated to mark the illiterate, members of a class robbed of their autonomy.
These body memories involve our extremities, extended at extreme angles to form an extreme posture—a posture that is approximated across a wide range of experiences, many of which are extreme opposites.
O’Connor will not accept that this man’s name is X. He will not accept that it represents an unknown quantity. By 1963, Malcolm X had been using this surname for more than a decade, a name that is now so recognizable that many reading this will not know the name given to him at birth. It’s also very possible that O’Connor already knew the name X was born with.
Instead, he puts X’s very identity under scrutiny: Who are you? What are you? And his autonomy too: Who gave you the right to do this? He wants X to stand for something. What he cannot see is that it does.
X is the name of rebellion
American teenagers of the 1980s and ’90s were not the first to be called Generation X. It had been applied to the youth coming of age following the second World War, and again to British kids doing the same in the mid-1960s. So far, the name has stuck to kids who spent their earliest years under the cloud of Vietnam, who became teenagers listening to Pumpkins and Blink and NWA, watching The Simpsons and MTV. A generation abandoned by the government to the crack epidemic, HIV, and rising income inequality so that it could pursue neoliberalism and unreined capitalism.
It can be argued that this generation gets to keep the name because, chafing so hard against the beliefs of their Boomer predecessors, they lived a youth in diametrical opposition to gentler ways. Boomers did not rebel so conspicuously in response to the Silent Generation, nor have Millennials responded so defiantly to Generation X.
Rebellion and subversion embedded itself in the last decades of the twentieth century, and x was its brand. Generation X enjoyed the X-Files, the X-Men, the X Games, and D-Generation X. Subcultures and countercultures, often wrapped around music, bloomed and thrived.
The hardcore punk subculture Straight Edge that was born in Washington, DC, in the 1980s and came into its own in the following ten years is now a global one with deep roots in Peru, the United Kingdom, the Czech Republic, Indonesia, South Africa, and in Latinx and communities in the States. The group’s abstinence from alcohol, drugs, and nicotine made it a counterculture within a subculture—opposition to the substance abuse and recklessness common to “mainstream” hardcore punk.
“Some even viewed substance use as a political issue, seeing inebriation as a sad form of unwitting complicity in a capitalist system that sought to control them,” writes Nina Renata Aron, a self-identified 1990s riot grrrl.
X is the signature of Straight Edge. Straight Edge kids “x up” by marking the backs of their hands with xs drawn in black magic marker, a practice that comes from the way clubs and music venues mark the hands of under-twenty-ones so they’re not served alcohol, and some Straight Edge subscribers x up long after they’re of-age to signal membership. Their rebellion is abstinence, a refusal to succumb. “The X became a sign of defiance in the face of the self-destructive punk attitude and a more general culture of intoxication,” writes sociologist Ross Haenfler.
Straight Edge bands mark their names with x—xNaturex, xFirstWorldProblemsx, xVenomx—and the musicians style their names accordingly—xGeniex, MArk X Miller, Mike XVX.
The layers of Straight Edge are many. Within this sub-subculture, some abstain from more than drugs and alcohol, but also caffeine, prescription drugs, and sex. Within the community are factions that are anticapitalist and anticonsumerist, anarchist, antisexist, and antiracist. They’re pro-veganism, LGBTQ rights, feminism, social justice, and ecological responsibility. Some are adherents to Positive Mental Attitude.
Identity formed around what you are against, rather than what you are for, risks becoming exclusive tribalism at best and violent tribalism at worst. It’s the tool that totalitarian dictators employ. The violent far-right politics of today is united not by shared affirmative beliefs, but negative ones. Straight Edge culture does veer into this territory at times; according to Gabriel Kuhn’s X: Straight Edge and Radical Sobriety, there is plenty of hardlining and machismo that goes on in Straight Edge circles, but this is the reason for the resistance of sub-sub-subcultures who choose to self-regulate beyond substances and reject exclusionary beliefs.
Though their paradox is acceptance through abstinence, the undercurrent of Straight Edge is a creative force. “Straight edge was about being awake to the world—both its injustices and the many choices we get to make, if we’re lucky, to make it what we want it to be,” Aron writes. “Straight edge kids were energized not just by disavowing the status quo, but by building something positive, a supportive DIY ecosystem.”
With x, we approach the unknown
Language is the building blocks of thought, and the words we have access to define the limits of our imagination, so to imagine what the future might look like, we often have to make new words to describe it, and break rules in the process.
“Within destruction there is also the possibility for building,” writes sociolinguist Mariel M. Acosta Matos.
Matos studies what she has named Graphic Alternatives to Grammatical Gender, or GAGG, which you may recognize as the -x in Latinx or in Chicanx, a mark that represents the rejection of binary grammatical gender in the Spanish language, where nouns, adjectives, determiners, and pronouns all take gender, and when used together, must agree. The female gender is marked by -a and the male gender by -o. Chica describes a girl and chico describes a boy; una chica guapa describes a pretty girl, and un chico guapo describes a handsome boy.
In the United States, the term Latinx as a replacement for Latino or Latina isn’t widely used by people who trace their origins to Spain or Latin America, according to Pew Research Center, though it is becoming common in mainstream media, among politicians, and in corporate America.
Though not widely used by the people it describes, and rejected entirely by some Spanish speakers, the x form has roots within Spanish-language anarchist publications—DIY zines and antiauthoritarian “guerilla texts”—that Matos studies, where the form is adroitly wielded for political and progressive ends.
In these radical movements, Latinx does often replace the binary Latino/Latina, giving people new ways to describe themselves. The point is not following the rules, Matos writes. “Anarchists look to explore and expand the possibilities of expression that language provides, rather than to propose or conform to liberal reforms of language.”
Scrapping linguistic convention is a political statement by way of refusal to be defined. And when you refuse to be defined, you make room to expand your identity. “The use of -x adds more ambiguity to the identity of the referent,” according to Matos. “This alternative expands the possibilities of identification.”
Among Spanish-speaking anarchist writers (who often conceal their identities), -x is not only a rejection of gendered forms, it’s a way to differentiate the force of the people from the force of the system.
In her research, Matos has found that the resistance labels themselves todxs (instead of todos/todas) and compañerxs (rather than compañeros/compañeras), and they label cops and lawyers and the Powers That Be with the default masculine gender. The -x becomes a signal of solidarity against the rule-following, rule-imposing system. Matos calls it a rhetorical weapon.
For antiauthoritarians, -x represents a rejection of dominant forces and it heralds a new and expansive way of communicating. When applied to power differentials, -x demands the right to self-identification. When applied to gender, -x reserves the right to not define.
Where x approaches the infinite
It’s not possible to capture x. I didn’t even touch x in sci fi media, sexual deviance, drug classifications, the Extinction Rebellion, and in names like Space X and Google X, all of which use the letter as a marker of danger or possibility, which are often one and the same.
The inability to explore the myriad meanings of x is not just for lack of space, it’s because x is a moving target. Lest we forget: x represents the unknown, and it represents infinite quantities and therefore occupies a point on the bleeding edge.
The urge to define x is not a wrong one; it’s natural to the human inclination toward exploration and creativity. But we cannot possibly define it all. There will always be new ways to expand our thinking and preserve autonomy and rebel against the forces that try to obliterate and x-out. And yet, for millennia, we have done our best to name everything—what we see and cannot see, what we know and cannot know. An urge that is so deep-seated, we insist on giving a name to that which cannot be named.
To define everything would represent the end of creative forces, but X can never be satisfied. After all, there will always be something beyond it.
“I clearly understand that there is more reality in an infinite substance than there is in a finite one,” writes Descartes in Meditations on First Philosophy. “Thus the perception of the infinite is somehow prior in me to the perception of the finite.”