Two weeks ago I was at a bar with a pair of other American graduate students. A fake british pub or something. The kind of parisian establishment that gets away with serving bad food by cloaking it in an “anglo-saxon” theme. The kind of place with cheap low couches and cramped tables and a superficial shine and a tin charm. Periodically a noise rang out as an overworked server let a glass slip and crash behind the bar.
At some point a ways into the conversation, one of my friends wanted to tell us something about gender in academia. It was a mixed gender conversation, I hasten to add: a woman to my left and a man to my right. (I pick these gender category terms out of resignation, feeling that all available lexical options disappoint, wanting to signal social types without endorsing them, not wanting the essentialism of “woman” and “man,” not wanting the diminutives of “boy” and “girl,” not wanting to hint at biology with “female” and “male,” wanting the informality of “guy” and “gal” but “gal” is too contrived.) Anyway, my friend said she’d noticed that, when academics talk about other academics, they are likely to use the first and last name when referring to a woman academic, while men academics often get mentioned by last name only. This to her was entirely part of everyday life, undesirable but obvious.
But I was taken somewhat aback by this claim, and I think the other guy there was too. I realized afterwards, to my shame, that our common reaction was one of doubt. We wanted to think of counterexamples. Exceptions that would disprove the rule. Isn’t Judith Butler pretty reliably called Judith Butler? we were asked. But isn’t Butler a pretty common name? Well, but there aren’t any other famous academics called Butler, now are there? Or take Simone de Beauvoir. Pretty much always Simone de Beauvoir, isn’t she? Well, yes. Who could deny that? While on the other hand Sartre, it came to my mind, is indeed pretty much always just Sartre. Or take Hannah Arendt. Is Hannah Arendt always Hannah Arendt? Well, yes, pretty often, though I think maybe at the philosophy department in Paris-8 she may occasionally become just Arendt. But other mid-century German male philosophers seem to go by their last names far more often. Marcuse is just Marcuse. And “Adorno” also seems to travel pretty well by itself, as a practically self-contained sign of pessimistic dialectical prose convolution. Or take Eve Sedgwick. She’s pretty often called Eve Sedgwick, no? But not really Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, that’s a mouthful. We didn’t reach agreement about that.
It came to mind that this sort of disparity in naming is pretty well known in American politics, where last year Hillary was often Hillary but Barack Obama pretty quickly became plain old Obama. But I hadn’t ever thought about it in an academic context. I wanted to know, is this the same in writing? No, said my friend, you hear it more in spoken contexts, while in writing there are slightly more formal protocols about when you mention the first name. What about in personal contexts? Like with first-naming your advisors? Yes, she conceded, things change when it’s someone you know. If you were going to do a research project about this, how would it go? We weren’t sure about that.
It was a conversation that was partly inconclusive, a conversation torn by the din of other conversations elsewhere in the bar, a conversation as full of social and emotional static as of audible interference. But at any rate, our doubt, our skepticism, our resistance to the claim at hand, I mean mine and the other male’s resistance, as I concluded later after we’d all gone home, was not laudable. Our doubt, I felt, was only accidentally about expressing scholarly skepticism about an unfamiliar claim. A lot of our defensive response seemed in hindsight to have been saying tacitly: what, who me? Me, possibly uneven in my treatment of others? Me, uneven according to an unconscious and institutionalized principle according to which academic males would be allowed to claim the privilege of impersonality, according to which men could be coded objective and scholarly by being tacitly depersonalized through the everyday effacement of their first names, while women would remain the marked category, marked as having gender, marked as women, through a logic of association whereby first names would invoke a more personalized relationship to strangers who are thus marked feminine? What, me, maybe casually sexist? Who, me?
That moment of undesired interpellation, of nonlinear listening, of gender revealing itself as at once object of discussion and structure of interaction, that moment of asymmetrical vulnerabilities and reception of unwelcome truths, of scholarly discourse become a means of delaying the unwelcome, that moment of intensely personal impersonality where one discovers that one’s conduct is gendered and pre-scripted in ways that are just typical, that moment where one finds out (again, but each time it’s a surprise) that unfortunately we are not in control of ourselves and that we do things without knowing them — all these moments are minor, themselves typical. But there is something important, to my mind, about thinking through those everyday moments where we discover that we were objects all along, determined by structures we haven’t mastered.
I would like to see more passionate, more personal and more risky public thinking about gender in the academic worlds I live in. Yet without being publicly autobiographical in a way that would be compromising or ostentatious. Yet without retreating into the anaesthesia of theory and pure abstraction. Yet without retreating solely into research or into a generalizing discourse — as urgent as the overall statistics remain — that would remind us how flawed the system is as a system but that would fail to think through the inescapably personal surface where that system is lived out.
We have, of course, plenty of existing discourses on gender in academia, but I’m not convinced that our collective faculties are fully engaged in them. (Especially when it comes to men.) There are so many ways to evade, so many ways to cope, so many ways to make critical discourse into a condition of inaction. Sometimes our discourse on gender is privatized, relegated to the bar or cafe or hallway, a matter for personal frustration or conundrum or amusement more than collective engagement. Sometimes gender is specialized, turned over to statisticians who will tell us that, yes, women earn several or many percent less than men on average, or to semioticians who can explain to us, rigorously, just how gender difference is encoded in names, or to anthropologists who teach us about how gender is culturally configured elsewhere. And sometimes discourse about gender is itself (for lack of a better word) feminized: in my corner of the academic world, at any rate, women are much more likely than men to be thoughtful about gender relations in their work environment, which certainly is not coincidental. Needless to say, there is nothing inherently wrong with an expert investigation of gender that makes it a research object, or with private conversations that temporarily offer liberty and intimacy, or with modes of perception that are especially acute among certain groups. But this division of discursive labor is a clumsy one, promoting compartmentalization and pockets of disengagement, and tolerating crude if not entirely prereflective analyses.
One way forward is perhaps to try to conceptualize the minor moments in academic life where gender comes into our own field of ordinary vision. (Regardless of our status as specialists in the topic.) And just what was gender in the moment I’m describing here? A structure of social difference, certainly; a structure of phenomenological perception, a way of objectifying things in the world, that too; but above all a structure of resistance, a principle of disagreement, as if gender was what authorized one’s experience or authorized the dismissal of another’s experience, as if gender were a principle of mutual unintelligibility, temporary at the very least, that made conversation especially incoherent and desperate for at least phantasmatic resolutions, like those of our academic debate over the claim at hand. It was as if gender were the signal of a banal acknowledgement (it’s not news that people of different genders are treated differently in academia) but simultaneously of a curious anger or bewilderment or scorn that seemed to be lurking, waiting, like the little red line of a burst vein on the sea of an otherwise placid eye, a negative dialectic of cynicism and vulnerability. When our presumed egalitarian universalism was thwarted (“there’s no gender difference here,” we began the conversation by presupposing), it was as if there was nothing left to do but retreat defensively into gender asymmetries (our views are pre-scripted by our genders, I eventually felt). But if a presumed universalism is a false utopia from the start, what more livable kinds of utopian gender negotiation remain practically available? What kinds of optimism are available in a scene of self-betrayal and compromise?
But maybe there’s something dangerous, too, in overthinking a moment like the one at hand. If gender were already a major determinant of the academic will to power, wouldn’t that mean it would be suspect to reduce gender to an object of thought or reflection? If the flight into academic disembodiment is something that is itself radically asymmetrically available to academic males, does that mean that a disembodied contemplation of gender would already be a display of gender privilege? Or a better question: what can one do with those parts of a social scene that are meaningless, those moments of conflict and disagreement that in hindsight seem so avoidable, those moments of blockage and stupidity that inherently cannot be thought through because by definition they consist in making situations impossible to think through? This kind of irreducible frustration can also be the scene that gender offers us.
At any rate, these are the kinds of nonconcepts that this scene makes me think about. But I warn you, nothing here should be taken as a general claim or a fixed position. This text claims no authority. On the contrary, it wants to try to acknowledge the reality of situations where claims to & struggles over authority are symptomatic of contradictions that can never be resolved textually.
Come to think of it, the very topic in question in the situation at hand, that is the question of gender disparities in academic naming practices, is in itself a question about ways that gender codes authority. As my friend said at the bar, it isn’t obvious that it’s a bad thing to mention someone’s first name when talking about them. Perhaps the effacement of first names is only an academic mechanism for pretending objectivity while actually withdrawing into the name of one’s father (for most Western academics inherit their “family” names patrilineally). But at the same time, the marking of a false familiarity with strangers that’s implicit in mentioning an academic’s first name is not, itself, an unqualified virtue. Which would one prefer, the authority of false objectivity or the illusions of exaggerated subjectivity?
Neither, I suppose. Neither.
I still don’t know how gendered disparities in naming practices would look on some grand statistical level; I have no large-scale data, though maybe one day I will have enough recordings of academic events to make it worthwhile to sort through them and see how the numbers look. The Sartre-Simone de Beauvoir comparison seems pretty convincing in itself, to be honest. (And, as a matter of fact, I did a bit of research on google.fr and found out that Sartre (1.39 million hits) is used 2.75 times more often than Jean-Paul Sartre (505,000), whereas de Beauvoir (828,000) is only used 1.34 times more often than Simone de Beauvoir (619,000). It thus appears that, as predicted, ‘Sartre’ frequently passes as a name by itself, while ‘Simone’ is a much more obligatory addition to ‘de Beauvoir.’ Statistically speaking, I mean.)
But I guess in the end this post is less about gender in academic naming than about trying to figure out how to name gender in ways that might make accessible new ways of living with it.