TOP YOUNG HISTORIANS
Edited by Bonnie K. Goodman
59: Judith Surkis, 7-9-07
Teaching Position: Associate professor of history, and of history and literature, Harvard University
Area of Research: Modern French cultural and intellectual history, as well as the history of gender, sexuality, and empire.
Education: Ph.D. in History and Certificate in Women’s Studies, Cornell University, June 2001
Major Publications: Surkis is the author of Sexing the Citizen: Morality and Masculinity in France, 1870–1920 (Cornell University Press, 2006), which examines how masculine sexuality was central to the making of republican citizenship and social order. Her new book project, Scandalous Subjects: Policing Indecency in France and French Algeria, 1830–1930, explores how cultural debates about sexual scandals constituted and regulated the distinction between public and private in nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century France.
Surkis’s other publications include “Enemies Within: Venereal Disease, and the Defense of French Masculinity Between the Wars,” in C. Forth and B. Taithe, eds., French Masculinities (forthcoming).
Awards: Surkis is the recipient of numerous awards and fellowships including among others:
Jan Thadeus Teaching Prize, History and Literature, 2005;
Nancy L. Buc Fellow, Pembroke Center for Research and Teaching on Women, Brown University, 2003-2004;
Bowmar Research Assistantship to Prof. D. LaCapra, 1999-2000;
Einaudi Center for International Studies, Research Grant, 1997-98;
Fulbright Research Grant, France, 1996-1997;
Mary K. Sibley, Phi Beta Kappa Research Grant, France, 1996-97;
Council of European Studies, Pre-Dissertation Grant, Summer 1995;
Einaudi Center for International Studies, Travel Grant, Summer 1995;
Einaudi Center Western Societies Travel Grant, Summer 1995;
Mellon Fellowship in the Humanities, 1993-1994;
Phi Beta Kappa, elected 1992;
Albert Arnold Bennett, Class of 1872 Award, Brown University, 1992.
Surkis co-chairs the Colloquia in Intellectual and Cultural History at Harvard’s Center for European Studies and the Seminar on Gender and Sexuality at the Humanities Center.
I am part of the last generation of grad students to research my dissertation at the “old” Bibliothèque nationale in Paris. With its intricately domed ceiling in forged iron, the reading room was a masterpiece of modern nineteenth-century architecture. Initially built to be rational and efficient, the library I encountered operated according to elaborate rituals. With repetition, these rites, which at first appeared arcane to the American researcher, became a cherished and comforting daily routine.
For those of us used to grazing in an endless frontier of open stacks, the first challenge was learning how to get a place and how to order a book. Entry into the luminous Salle Labrouste was conditional upon an interview; being admitted felt like belonging to a select club. Even when granted permission, securing a seat was not easy, as the limited number of spots- some 360 in all- were in high demand. A late arrival could mean waiting an hour- or more- for one to become available. This intervening time, if often frustrating, also created camaraderie; the wait was also an initiation into the unique temporality and sociability of the “B.N.”
Upon entry, a rigid plastic tablet, inscribed with a seat number, had to be delivered to the librarians who surveyed the readers from the back of the room. They exchanged this card for another, smaller one with a barcode, which could then- finally- be used to request books. The order duly dispatched, another wait was in store. Seated at my place, reviewing notes from the day before, I would eagerly anticipate the librarians who would serve up the day’s reading from off their loaded book cart. With the inner workings of the stacks well hidden, this conveyance of volumes directly to my place felt almost magical and certainly luxurious. Whether I had ordered a tome of Kantian philosophy, a pulp novel, or a handbook of military hygiene, the texts were treated with an equal measure of at times incongruous respect when they were set in front of me.
This attitude reflected my own approach to historical inquiry, one in which very different sorts of works coincide. In these august surroundings and with such attentive handling, the most minor text seemed worthy of consideration. Here was a concrete experience of the legitimating work of the library itself. My history of how sexuality shaped the meaning and modality of French citizenship at the end of the nineteenth-century found support and sustenance here- and not just because Michel Foucault used to work in the “hemicycle” of the reading room.
The library offered a genuine intellectual and social community. As a destination for scholars from all over, this “national” institution was, in fact, a genuinely cosmopolitan space. The relationships I developed there confirmed my interest in French history. I pursued my studies not because I was particularly passionate about things French (as much as I enjoyed lunching in the nearby Palais Royal), but because of my interest in a set of questions about the historical relationship between democracy and sexual difference and about the political meanings of masculinity. In the library, I met colleagues with whom I exchanged myriad ideas over the bad coffee machine coffee in the stone courtyard off the rue Richelieu. Here, perhaps for the first time in Paris, I felt at home.
By Judith Surkis
- Debates about how best to form male citizens in the Third Republic did not presume that men were
automatically capable of simultaneously acceding to both autonomy and social attachment. Masculinity, like citizenship itself, required schooling. As a result, these at times competing and contradictory pedagogical endeavors understood the masculinity tautologically conferred on men by their status as citizens to be contingent and unstable. This volatility is revealed most clearly in educators’ discussions of men’s sexuality. Such discussions, I contend, condensed wider concerns about the difficult articulation of the citizen’s freedom and his social responsibilities. They implicitly framed arguments about the extent and limits of democracy itself. In appealing to conjugality as the framework in which men’s desire could be at once expressed and contained, policy makers and social reformers reconciled their libratory and regulatory projects. At the same time, they figured men and women’s difference and sexual complementarity as fundamental to a harmonious social and political order. — Judith Surkis in “SEXING THE CITIZEN Morality and Masculinity in France, 1870–1920”
About Judith Surkis
- “In this closely argued, intelligent, and original book, Judith Surkis gives the notion of ‘sexual politics’ an exciting new meaning. Male sexuality, Surkis argues, was central to the stabilization of political authority in the French Third Republic. Through promotion of heterosexual marriage, French republican educators and officials were able to anchor wider debates about moral and social order, and thus promote their political agendas. Male sexuality became a source of disorder, a problem to be solved, but also, when contained and controlled through marriage, the foundation of republican politics. Surkis makes a major contribution to the study of masculinity by viewing it as both a highly unstable ‘speculative unity’ and a powerful regulatory norm. With its impressive mix of political, cultural and intellectual history, as well as the history of gender and sexuality, Sexing the Citizen is destined to become a ‘big book’ across many different fields.” — Mary Louise Roberts, University of Wisconsin-Madison reviewing “SEXING THE CITIZEN Morality and Masculinity in France, 1870–1920”
- “Judith Surkis argues forcefully that the conjugal couple was (and perhaps remains) the core of the French republican vision of society. This is a lucid and highly original work on the construction of masculinity in Third Republic France.” — Jan Goldstein, University of Chicago
- “This fabulous book shows just how much fantasies and worries about heterosexual masculinity-its frequently fragile and unstable nature, its excesses, and all-too-often inchoate aims-shape fundamental assumptions about citizenship and national identity. It is a brilliant demonstration of the significance of sex for politics.” — Dagmar Herzog, Graduate Center, City University of New York, author of “Sex after Fascism: Memory and Morality in Twentieth-Century Germany” reviewing “SEXING THE CITIZEN Morality and Masculinity in France, 1870–1920”
- “Sexing the Citizen is theorized history at its very best. Judith Surkis shows us-in concrete and subtle ways-how French notions of masculinity were arrived at, what problems and contradictions they contained and sought to resolve, and what ends they served.” — Joan Wallach Scott, author of Gender and the Politics of History reviewing “SEXING THE CITIZEN Morality and Masculinity in France, 1870–1920”
- “Sexing the Citizen is a theoretically informed cultural history of the making of citizenship in France during the Third Republic. Judith Surkis’s historical research is thorough, her coverage of the literature expert, and her mastery of primary materials evident. She combines astute readings of parliamentary sessions, legal trials, medical journals, and ‘high’ intellectual history.”-Carolyn J. Dean, Brown University, author of “The Fragility of Empathy after the Holocaust” reviewing “SEXING THE CITIZEN Morality and Masculinity in France, 1870–1920”
- Judith Surkis has made an important contribution in identifying the pervasive effort to construct or reconstruct the republican citizen in the decades prior to the First World War. Most importantly she has clearly demonstrated the centrality of gender in this effort. Masculinity was essential to the concept of citizen, but this masculinity was not stable. It contained aspects potentially dangerous to the individual, the republic, and society. Politicians, academics, and reformers identified marriage as the necessary complement to the autonomous individual, joining him to productive and reproductive social relations. Surkis makes clear that women played an indispensable role in this construction of the citizen but that their actual situations as women and individuals were rarely addressed. Judith Surkis has added significantly to our understanding of republicanism, how gender structures central modern political concepts, and how masculinity is a constructed identity. — Judith F. Stone, Western Michigan University reviewing “SEXING THE CITIZEN Morality and Masculinity in France, 1870–1920” in H-France
- Let me conclude by praising an aspect of this valuable book that is not always present in much contemporary cultural history. I refer to the luminous, profoundly nuanced textual readings that compose the bulk of this book. Those who have always admired intellectual history as it is practiced by the great masters of the form, such as Surkis’ teacher Dominic LaCapra, will find this book a worthy exemplar of the genre, though it is also much more than that. Even when one does not agree with Surkis’ readings, the arguments are advanced with exceptional clarity and persuasiveness and with an eye to the alternative readings that must be confronted. Explication de texte will never die so long as it is in such capable hands. This book fills an important lacuna in the gender history of the Third Republic. — Robert A. Nye, Oregon State University reviewing “SEXING THE CITIZEN Morality and Masculinity in France, 1870–1920” in H-France
- “An extraordinary professor. Very, very approachable. I felt like she really cared about teaching us the material, and she seems to be genuinely interested in her students. The lectures have to be fast-paced given the quantity of content…The organization of the lectures is much appreciated (esp. for a theory professor!). The climate of her class is wonderful: inviting, fun, intellectually engaging.”… “Judith Surkis is splendidly intelligent and very, very smart. Her mind is extraordinary. She presents very carefully-researched lectures and very interesting arguments. She is energetic, enthusiastic, and full of ideas. She is also friendly and informal and not intimidating.”… “Prof. Surkis is a really wonderful seminar leader- who effectively provokes her students to come out and challenge the readings in classroom discussion. She maintains a good balance of leading discussion and allowing discussion to take its own path in the students’ hand. Prof. Surkis also has an amazingly complex understanding of the course material and has clearly read, researched, and thought extensively about each of the readings. I have a lot of respect for her as an academic and as a professor.” — Anonymous Students
Posted on Sunday, July 8, 2007 at 9:44 PM