How I became a feminist

TW: The following contains allusions to rape in a literary text.

A story of self-censorship

A few years ago, two separate events made me rethink the way I expose my public persona on the web. Back then, I wasn’t tenured yet but pretty convinced I would soon be (it turned out to be a much more tedious and painful process than I thought, but that’s a story I told at length on this blog). I thought standing up for what I truly believed in – the ideals of open science and freedom of thought – meant raising my voice through the digital channels that empowered the new generation I felt I belonged to. I was tweeting, blogging (mostly here), setting up a funky digital scholarly edition of manuscripts. And being exposed on the web belonged to that. But it mattered to show, too, how it works and that you should not be afraid of it, etc. Well, you know the deal.

Then, as I said, two things happened. First came a backlash for tweeting about a hiring context I was in. Then I was accused of stealing somebody else’s transcription of a manuscript. The details of these stories are irrelevant here. In the first case I didn’t get the job and in the second one I was found not guilty. These experiences basically taught me to shut my mouth. To always keep within the realm of non-disturbance. No to push the academic boundaries too far. I stopped being vocal but for consensual causes, and there have been so many of those in the context of open science over the past few years that you might not even have noticed that I have been censuring myself for years now.

What shall we do with a tenured scholar

Eventually, I got tenured. In another country and another discipline: it took me two years to learn the basics of the job. While my current discipline isn’t changing much (and drifting slowly but surely towards disappearance), I see and hear what happens in other disciplines. British and American studies and post-colonialism. Digital Humanities trying to cope with the diversity of its points of view, where something like Black DH is still in many ways out of the intellectual scope for the European part of the community. This made me wonder: What is actual scholarly content and what is point of view? Are we more blinded by our points of view or by our findings? What does this tell us about our society and our role as scholars outside Academia.

And then there are the stories you hear about, say, women not being mentioned, work done and not rewarded, little injustices here and there. For some time, I said to these that they falls under the umbrella of things you shouldn’t react to because it will make you sad and angry and you can’t fight the system on this.

But if you don’t point to each and every time where the male co-organizer is mentioned and not the female one, where the male co-author is named and not the female one, where works published by men are quoted and not those by women (quoted by men, as it turns out) – if you don’t put it right under people’s nose, they will say they didn’t know and didn’t see.

I never intended to ask myself if a decision was fair to women and minorities at each and every step of my work. Either I have scholarly reasons to work with people or not – regardless of their race, religion, gender or disability. Well, it turns out, that’s not the end of the story. You have to enter the winners’ club in the first place if you want people to be able to consider working with you. And what happens to those who don’t get in? You don’t even know they might be relevant work partners.

Twitter is in many ways a doormat to the winners’ club. It has the advantage – and the inconvenient – of creating solidarities, and these can equally lift you up or burn you down, depending on time, place, people: this is patricularly true in a scholarly context. Anonymity can help shielding oneself and provide conditions to still speak up and gain reputation. It is a singular publication platform in the sense that you can articulate arguments, discuss, in another way than you’d do in journal publications and blog posts. Twitter is where you find discourses responding to one another, trying to articulate positions – it rubs, it itches, it sticks. You don’t necessarily always grasp it all, but something, in the academic world, is happening on Twitter right now.

Deutungshoheit and Revolution

Let me get back to my roots: being a philologist. Because we are talking discourse against discourse here. More exactly, we are talking about Deutungshoheit, this beautiful German concept. Deutungshoheit has marked for decades and centuries the structure of academic life. It means there is one, and one only, interpretation that prevails. That’s the boss interpretation. And the boss is, not so seldom, an old white guy who keeps repeating the one idea he’s had 30 years ago, and is to be abode. This is not so much about science than about submission and power. This is not about learning and certainly not about questioning, this is about ascertaining a position.

We can, of course, console ourselves thinking that the old white guy will eventually retire. But at this point I can’t see why his disciple wouldn’t have the exact same position and attitude once he is gone. The system is based on self-reproduction and if there is one thing you can pass on to your disciple, it’s definitely Deutungshoheit. In other terms, there is only one solution in order to escape the vicious circle: revolution.

From an American point of view this sounds probably like a late awakening (‘where has she been all these years’, I hear you), because I have been comparatively protected as a person, I guess. But also, because France, where I now work, is a few years behind in terms of self-criticism and Academia not a safe place for free speech, especially il you’re a non-tenured Scholar, even more when you’re a non-tenured female scholar. So let me introduce you now to what turned me into a revolutionary feminist: L’affaire Chénier. Buckle up for a truckload of French tradition.

L’affaire Chénier

For those who are not familiar with it, the French academic system has a competitive way of granting access to the different steps of the academic ladder. One test you have to go through as a future teacher and University lecturer consists in studying a series of predefined literary works for a year and being tested on your interpretation of these texts at the end of the year.

Two years ago, one specific text of one specific author raised questions: while it was describing a rape scene, the students were specifically advised not to interpret it as a rape scene. Some students and PhD candidates then wrote an open letter wondering about this rebuttal of an interpretation that was anything but far-fetched – not so much wanting it to give the unique and final reading of the text than trying to understand why they were refused the option to propose an interpretation in that sense.

It would be an understatement to say that the debate escalated; you can find all related publications in this blog if you want to read it. I particularly recommend the blog post that François-Ronan Dubois published a few days ago, that summarizes the “affaire Chénier” and contextualizes the interpretation of the incriminated poem.

It got pretty ugly. One opponent of the rape interpretation outed three of the PhD candidates on twitter, where they were initially protected by pseudonyms. The more the younger, untenured ones tried to give arguments and to position a scholarly debate, the more the older, tenured fraction used old power mechanisms like journal articles or even the press (Marianne just a few days ago for instance) to publish texts of a disconcerting poverty of argumentation. I guess that’s part of the French tradition of being opinionated. But to use your own lack of thought to prevent other people from having some themselves, that is basically tyranny. And still: the Godwin point goes to the established professors (as pointed here).

Of course, being outed online and treated of Nazi anchors you in the network that supports you. Of course, you can’t be a feminist by yourself, you’re in a feminist group, and then your are being labeled a crazy feminist, making it all the more easy for those in power to declare any form of scholarly debate obsolete. If you look at it seriously, though, it is amazing that these young people are able to cope with such an amount of hatred, and to face every day on the web the fact that their convictions may well be costing them their career perspectives. They need to be backed up. For their own sake and ours.

And this is why I think that if you are pro-open science and in favor of freedom of thought, you have to be at the very least offensively feminist, if that is the only way we have to enable contradictory scholarly discourses and positions – and this is certainly what it looks like to me after almost 20 years in Academia.


Anne Baillot

I am a Professor of German Studies at Le Mans Université. My areas of research include German literature, Digital Humanities, textual scholarship and intellectual history.

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