No Change

So I have one friend (“friend”) on Facebook going by the name Salad Bowl, and another named Melanie who, after suffering a torn ACL, changed her name on Facebook to Mela-Knee. And a former student who, showing his enthusiasm for the television show Breaking Bad, changed his Facebook name to “YoMister White” in advance of the series finale. The list could go on (“Tommy Boy Bunyan,” et cetera). Yet, when I went the other day to my own Facebook settings and attempted to change my name from Eli S. Evans to Elise Vans, the seemingly not-so-bulletproof name recognition technology kicked into operation, and I was informed that I would not be permitted to make the change unless I submitted a formal name-change request accompanied by a photograph of a government-issued ID indicating that Elise Vans was indeed—or from the government’s perspective, in any event—my name, which of course it isn’t. “I read this New Yorker deep throat of Marky Z a few years back where it claimed his whole ideology related to honesty about identity,” my smart friend Sean, with whom I primarily communicate via Facebook, offered. “Looks like someone dropped out of Harvard before he got to Foucault. ROFL.” ROFL indeed (I had to ask what “ROFL” stood for), though the other, more sinister possibility is that someone did not drop out of Harvard before he got to Foucault.

But first things first: Why Elise Vans? The question by which the answer must be preceded is: “Why Eli S. Evans?” I use my middle initial—the “S” stands for Singh, which is my real middle name because my parents, who are Jewish, were identifying with Sikhism by way of their residence in Milwaukee’s local Ashram when I was born—because there is another writer by the name of Eli Evans, an older and more successful scholar and novelist whose work in both genres focuses on the Jewish experience in the Deep South, dating as far back as the Civil War, and I did not want to be confused with him and doubted that he wanted (or deserved) to be confused with me. If you’re thinking this is an unlikely occurrence, note that despite the “S” it was only a few years ago that somebody read a short essay I’d published about the banning of bullfighting in Catalonia and emailed me thinking that I was the Eli Evans, the original manuscript of whose most famous novel, The Provincials, she claimed to have typed in “Terry Sanford’s law offices in Raleigh, NC.” But I’m not the Eli Evans. I’m the Eli S. Evans, this being the diacritical function of the middle initial. And of course I also use that middle initial because at some point, when I was much younger, I must have believed it lent me an air of authority and, no longer feeling this way, I stick with it for sentimental and vaguely superstitious reasons, as though if I were to get rid of it things might start going even worse than they already are. When I say “much younger,” I’m going back to the days before the internet. In other words, I was already using the middle initial when email came along, and as a result from the outset of my life online used the prefix “elisevans” for all of my email accounts. Now fast forward to a time when I was significantly younger than I am now, but not pre-internet younger, and teaching expository writing classes at a community college in Orange County well known as an educational purveyor of last resort. Many of my students were of Asian heritage and spoke English as a second language, or spoke English as a first language but a profoundly non-standard English native to whatever insular community they had grown up in, in Orange County. (I am thinking, for example, of the second generation Vietnamese American, completely unable to speak his parents’ Vietnamese, who over and over again wrote “offside” where he “should” have written “outside,” a small shift that transformed his meditations on playing basketball in the park into total chaos for me until I cracked the code.) In addition, many of my students, of various backgrounds, also rarely or never attended class. So I inevitably would receive a number of emails every semester— usually toward the end of the semester—in which the salutation addressed an “Elise Vans,” and on occasion even a “Mrs. Elise Vans,” at which point I’d get all filled up with that warm feeling underpaid adjuncts often have when they know that the opportunity to meaningfully change young people’s lives makes all the groveling and humiliation worthwhile. Except the opposite of that feeling. But Deleuze has a bit in The Logic of Sense about being worthy of your wounds that I’ve long admired, and so when I decided I would change my name on Facebook I thought of all the former students with whom I am friends (or “friends”) there, and saw the opportunity to embrace, to become worthy of, what had originally been little more than an index of my own failures at a job with socio-linguistic challenges for which I was, at the time, clearly under-prepared. Hence: Elise Vans.

But (second things second) why did I want to change my name on Facebook in the first place? Well, there’s a quite famous essay that Malcolm Gladwell published a couple of years ago called “Small Change: Why the Revolution Will Not be Tweeted.” Gladwell argues that social media cannot mediate the sort of actions by which meaningful social movements—he uses the example of the American Civil Rights Movement—are sustained. His reasons are twofold: first, he argues, the ties we form with our friends (our “friends”) via social media are weak ties, and unlike strong-tie relationships do not create the burden of loyalty by which people can be coerced to move outside their comfort zone, to overcome their laziness or inertia, and so on, in order to assume the hardships and the hazards of resistance; and second, that the kinds of resistance or oppositional behavior we see taking place by way of social media—people changing their profile pictures on Facebook to the hooray-gay-marriage equals sign would be a recent example of what I think Gladwell had in mind—is low-risk whereas meaningful social change, as in the fact people took their lives in their hands when they participated in the Civil Rights Movement, can only be produced by high-risk actions. There are all kinds of problems with Gladwell’s argument—for instance, the fact that the meaningfully (if not definitively) successful Civil Rights movement was driven by high-risk resistance actions in no way promises that in order to be similarly successful every protest movement demands high-risk behavior of its participants. Perhaps the most interesting argument against Gladwell’s argument, though, is that it turns out that, living as we do under the regime of the inoffensive, our behavior in (or on) social media is not low-risk at all, but in fact can place our livelihood, and to that extent our very lives, at tremendous risk. We are by now all too familiar with variations on the story of the dedicated teacher getting fired for posting pictures of herself in a bikini drinking daiquiris on the beach in Cancún over spring break—the scandal! a bikini! at the beach!—on her personal, password-protected Facebook page. For reasons that remain obscure to me, it seems that the highest risk social medium of all, in this regard, is Twitter. One might consider the recent case of Justine Sacco, a PR executive (of all things) for IAC (according to its own website, a “leading media and Internet company focused in the core areas of search, applications, online dating, local and media,” whatever that means). After boarding a plane to South Africa, her home country, Sacco tweeted: “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!” Call me naïve—for that matter, call me Elise Vans—but it seems to me, despite Sacco’s groveling mea culpa, that the joke could be treated as a critique of a de facto apartheid persisting in South Africa years after the end of official apartheid, poignantly offered right around the time that Nelson Mandela’s legacy was being wildly celebrated by representatives of the very forces most responsible for the persistence of the systemic oppression he resisted. But it was also offensive, according to a penitent Sacco herself, for its insensitivity to the fact that AIDS and the AIDS crisis “does not discriminate by race, gender or sexual orientation” (oh, but it does!)—and for reasons that a statistician might be able to determine went viral while Sacco was airborne, attracting the condemnation of a multiplying mob of fellow tweeters and self-appointed offensiveness monitors. By the time her plane landed, Sacco had a shitload of new Twitter followers, the vast majority of whom hated her, and no job. Point being that as evident as Gladwell’s claim that posting on Facebook or sending a tweet is a low-risk behavior seems, it might nevertheless be inaccurate (which might mean, if the rest of his argument holds, that social media can mediate effective oppositional behavior, but I suppose that to make such an assertion would be merely perfunctorily dialectical).

Back to my Facebook, though, because I never took to Twitter (although I have taken, anonymously, or so I like to think, to Tumblr). Recently, I completed my PhD studies. Thank you, and please send your congratulations in the form of cash. Why cash? Because whatever it might once have been, finishing a PhD these days is a bit like having a bar mitzvah: it’s a symbolic passage to adulthood that is not accompanied by a corresponding passage to self-sufficiency. The tenure track, that old ticket to the leisurely certainties of upper middle class life, is now open to maybe 30 percent of humanities PhD graduates. All the same, I think I’m probably going to try for it, because absent the sudden appearance of a generous benefactor I don’t have a whole lot of other options for securing an income, among other necessary benefits of employment. And while a decade or so ago I still felt that the former was at least as reasonable a possibility as the latter, this is no longer the case. Benefactors want prodigies, young guns. I, on the other hand, am lurching uncertainly into middle age. Meanwhile, my Facebook is glutted with offensive jokes and tasteless zingers. Just today, for instance, a friend who writes for Bermuda’s Royal Gazette posted the following: “BREAKING NEWS: After a request for the information by this reporter, I can now confirm that not a single Bermudian was admitted to KEMH(King Edward VII Memorial Hospital) last year with a foreign object stuck up their bum. The 2013 figures are a huge improvement compared to 2012, when four individuals sought medical assistance due to complications arising from said rectum rummaging. Yes, I am serious.” To which post one of his friends (or “friends”) appended the following comment: “Thanks for being dedicated to the important stuff.” Here was my opening. Below her comment I added my own: “the ‘important stuff’ indeed, lollll.” Such a comment could of course be construed as offensive by members of the hardcore anal play community (or whatever), who of course have every right to not be the butt of others’ jokes, but it’s small potatoes compared to the comment I offered when a friend, a tenure-track humanities professor at a university in the American South, posted on her Facebook wall, as a kind of open call for responses, “When was the last time you did something for the first time?” Here was my opening: “In jail,” I wrote, “and despite my cries for help.”

These, of course, are jokes. They’re jokes! And every joke, insofar as it is a means of “avoiding the censor,” as the old Freudian saw has it, at the least implies some modicum of critique of whatever ideological complex would otherwise censor what the joke expresses. But this hardly matters. What matters is that these jokes are also tasteless, insensitive, even offensive if one chooses to be offended by them, and so it would probably behoove me to make my Facebook page harder for potential employers, if any such entities exist, to track down. And that brings things back around to Elise Vans. My old friend Elise Vans: I knew she’d be good for something someday. But the problem is that while there may well be somebody in the world named Elise Vans, that someone isn’t me, at least not officially (nor, until now, even intentionally), which makes it awfully difficult for me to provide a credible photograph of a government-issued ID identifying me as Elise Vans. I tried to submit the name-change request without uploading a photo, but it was a dead end: I received an error message informing me that I had failed to complete one of the necessary steps. So what I did, since I could not provide what was being demanded, was type out a short message—which said, “I want the name Elise Vans. It’s what I prefer to be called. Many thanks,” and was not signed because I would have had to sign it “Eli S. Evans,” this being my name—and then took a screen shot of that message and uploaded it in place of an image of a government-issued ID. I thought of adding a veiled threat, along the lines of, “naturally, I am not comfortable in social arenas in which I cannot identify myself as I see fit,” or even an un-veiled threat, such as, “should you deny this request I will be forced to reconsider my participation in Facebook,” but it occurred to me that as Facebook has plenty of problems and I’m not one of them, doing so would only draw attention to my request, more likely than not harming my case. After all, while it was difficult for me to imagine that Facebook would really care whether I identified myself as Elise Vans, it was much easier to imagine that, regardless of how insignificant the antagonist, an entity as aggressively hegemonic as Facebook would not take kindly to being threatened. I figured that if I played it low-key then more likely than not some sucker shoehorned into a cubicle at Facebook headquarters would, eyes glazed, skim yet another name-change request form (“Dear sir, unlikely though it may seem, all of my friends know me not as John Johnson but as Salad Bowl, and I would prefer to be thusly identified on my Facebook page”), click the “approve” button, and move on to the next, safely hiding the years of snide comments and snarky jokes that comprise my history of Facebooking behind the veil of Elise Vans.

But it didn’t happen that way. Or, rather, it’s likely that a lot of it actually did happen that way. There probably was indeed a cubicle in Menlo Park, CA, and probably somebody with glazed eyes opening yet another name-change request form. But the bit about this foggy-eyed cubicle dweller hitting the “approve” button and so letting me get on with my Facebook life as Elise Vans—well, that part didn’t happen. Instead I woke up the next morning with an email message sitting in my inbox from Facebook’s rather martial sounding “User Operations” division. “Hi Eli,” the message began (rather presumptuously, I thought, given that the very premise of the exchange was that I preferred to be called Elise). “Unfortunately, we can’t change your name to the name you want. Facebook is a community where people use their real identities, so we ask that everyone use their full name to make it easier for friends to find you. This means that only using the first initial or a part of your name isn’t allowed. We apologize for the inconvenience and thank you for your understanding.”

Considering the commitment to “real identities” to which it alluded, I found the message’s apparent confusion at the level of the subject—evident in the drift from second person singular (“change your name to the name you want”) to third person plural (“their real identities”) to third person singular (“everyone”) to a third person singular/plural mashup (“their full name”) and back again to second person singular (“to find you”)—rather curious. But perhaps even more so the name by which its author identified himself in the signature line: “Ron P.”

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