Force Fields

Googlegangers & Flaccid Designators


Martin Jay

  In the summer of 2017, I contacted the Xavier Hufkens gallery in Brussels to inquire about a painting in their catalogue, a striking portrait of a poker faced young man with piercing blue eyes, a five o'clock shadow and full red lips. His hands are folded with thumbs pressing each other against the backdrop of a black turtleneck sweater. It had been painted in 1932 by Alice Neel, and was part of a show of her work called “Painter of Modern Life” then travelling to Helsinki, Arles and Hamburg. Impossible as it may seem in the wake of her triumphant 2021 retrospective at the Met in New York—Roberta Smith of the New York Times proclaimed her “the equal if not superior to artists like Lucien Freud and Francis Bacon and destined for icon status on the order of Vincent Van Gogh and David Hockney"—Neel at the time was not yet a household name. Simon Devolder, the director of the gallery, quickly informed me that the painting was still in "the Estate of Alice Neel and is thus primary market,” and I could have it for only $550,000.
  Had I been a shrewder judge of the art market and willing to risk causing my financial advisors cardiac arrest, I would have pulled the trigger. Whoever ultimately purchased it must now be giddy with the smug glee of someone who had bought Tesla for $17 a share at its IPO. But the reason I bring up this episode now is not to bemoan my faint-heartedness as an art investor or comment on the electrifyingly rapid enhancement of Alice Neel’s reputation. It is rather to acknowledge, if somewhat shame-facedly, the reason for my interest in the painting in the first place. It was a portrait of someone called “Martin Jay.” Who that someone was, however, has been apparently lost in time’s proverbial mists, and Devolder could not solve the mystery when I inquired. Occasionally Neel would paint recognizable figures like Andy Warhol and Meyer Schapiro, but the majority of her subjects were ordinary people she encountered in daily life, and “Martin Jay” was among the many who survive only as an image accompanied—if not invariably—by a name.
  It was, of course, the name that had piqued my initial interest. I had come upon it during one of my sporadic bouts of ego-surfing on the net, which produce a volatile mixture of narcissistic gratification and deflated self-esteem, depending on the results of the search. Truth be told, it is an extraordinary tool, allowing easy access to what intellectual historians call the reception history of ideas, a motley assortment of valid interpretations and creative misprisions that would have been largely hidden from view before the digital age. In addition, it gives you glimpses of how you are personally perceived by strangers who comment on the most unexpected aspects of whatever public persona you might have. My favorite example comes at the end of a podcast devoted to a lengthy analysis of one of Kurosawa’s lesser films in which the two discussants run out of things to say and turn in desperation, I kid you not, to riff out of nowhere on the style of my eyeglasses and their alleged influence on other intellectual historians. Who knew?
  In addition, there is another benefit of typing your name in the search line, which is the discovery of what has come to be called your “googlegangers.” Entering the popular vocabulary around 2007, the term is derived from the German “Doppelgänger,” itself a neologism coined by Jean Paul in his 1796 novel Siebenkäs to signify a non-biologically related look-alike or double, often with an uncanny or even paranormal aura. On the net, googlegangers are people who share a name, which often produces confusing results when you conduct a search. And if you have an easily reversible name, such as my own, the category is widened to include people who are called “Jay Martin.” The most notable bearers of that name are a Canadian comedian and an eminent Americanist literary critic. Once C-Span broadcast one of my book talks with a recurrent chyron that erroneously credited me with the latter’s biographies of Nathaniel West, Henry Miller and John Dewey.
  As for the other most frequent googlegangers of my name in the right order, one is a British journalist, who has won awards for his coverage of the Middle East. Another is a celebrated Black DJ from London, who is known as the “prince of soca,” a genre of music originating in the Caribbean in the 1980’s that fused African/Calypso and East Indian rhythms (the name comes from “the soul of Calypso”). Thanks to YouTube, I’ve been able to follow a bit of their work and gain a kind of borrowed, unearned pride in all that “Martin Jay” has accomplished in the world (as I type this the joyous beat of soca is, in fact, throbbing in the background).
  There is, of course, nothing new about the duplication of names. Unlike registered brands, they cannot be copyrighted and made exclusive. The same, by the way, is true of titles, so if you want to call your novel War and Peace, go right ahead. Endless iterability is theoretically possible, even if it has its practical limits. At times, the idea of deliberately repeating a name has been understood as a way to honor those who came before, who are then called “namesakes.” There were, after all, nineteen King Louis’s of France, starting with the Merovingian Clovis and ending with one who reigned for just twenty minutes in 1830 before the overthrow of the Bourbon dynasty.1 In cultures where names are restricted to those already associated with saints, name days can be occasions for celebrations even more meaningful than biological birthdays. At other times, bestowing your name on an heir can be a kind of self-honoring, although it can produce unintended consequences, as all of those poor “Don, Jr’s” out there can now attest. For those who were unwittingly given a name that later became identified with a famous person, there is the burden of going through life always explaining that they were not “the John Doe” but rather “another John Doe.”
  Discovering googlegangers has a somewhat different significance. It functions a bit like that other recent technologically enabled expansion of knowledge about biological connections, the DNA ancestry match, which discloses how many third cousins, twice removed you never knew you had. In both cases, there is no intentionality revealed by the discovery. In the case of googled names, what is revealed is even more random with none of the consequences of a shared gene pool. You are linked by nothing but contingency, the chance convergence of parental decisions to bestow a name on a new born (with, of course, the exceptions of names subsequently altered for whatever reason). No prior namesake here.
  Those individual decisions, to be sure, are in most cases made after extensive, even agonizing, deliberation. We know, of course, that what appears the result of idiosyncratic choice in fact reflects collective pressures, as it is easy to chronicle the clustering of names at particular points in a culture’s history. It was not by chance, for example, that the top boy’s name in wartime America in 1942 was Douglas or that Jacqueline shot up in 1961 (although it is not as clear why last year the leading baby names were Liam and Olivia).2 But despite the effect of these often occluded causes, the bestowing of individual names has always been freighted with significance, especially as a portent or even cause of things to come. As the familiar phrase from the Roman playwright Plautus has it, “nomen est omen.”
  The Greek word “nomothete” was coined during the archonship of Euclides in 5th- century BCE Athens to signify a legislator. But it also accrued another use when the Hebrew Bible was translated into Greek—the Septuagint in the 3rd century CE—as an honorific title for Adam, to whom God had given the role of naming the beasts in the Garden of Eden. The implication of the expanded meaning is that bestowing a name is akin to promulgating a law, which then has a binding character. It has always been a bit cloudy if Adam named animals taxonomically or individually, and it seems he got tired after giving names to “all cattle, and to the birds of the air, and to every beast of the field,” [Genesis 2-18-20] and left the creatures of the sea to fend for themselves. But for a considerable tradition of rabbinic thought, his bestowal of names was more than the sealing of a personal unity; it was the completion of Creation itself.3 What has since become known as the Adamic language spoken before the Fall and the subsequent catastrophe of the Tower of Babel included names that were ontologically true rather than conventionally arbitrary. Later commentators like Walter Benjamin yearned to recover the prelapsarian unity of signifier and signified.4

  It is not by chance that we have come to call individual names “proper names,” which has a dual implication. First, it suggests they are correct or appropriate, a meaning that is reinforced if we take into account the French use of propre to signify “clean” or “pure.” Second, the etymological link between proper and property suggests that in some sense names are owned by those who are identified by them. Even though in most cases initially bestowed by others and constantly reinforced by the process of what the French Marxist Louis Althusser called “interpellation,”5   the hailing of the subject by others, they quickly become “mine.” To set them apart from common nouns or names, they are generally written with capital letters, occasional exceptions like the nom de plume of the poetEdward Estlin Cummings aside.6 The opposite of what linguists call “shifters,” the words like “I,” “she” or “us” that can be applied promiscuously by and to different subjects, proper names are said to refer only to one.
  In fact, there are some philosophers, drawing on John Stuart Mill, Keith Donnellan and most notably Saul Kripke, the author of Names and Naming, who call them “rigid designators.”7 These are defined as a word that designates just the object it actually designates in all possible worlds in which that object exists, and designates nothing else in any possible world. It has sometimes been expanded to include names that refer to fictional characters as well.8 For modal logicians in this tradition,a designator is “persistently rigid” if it designates the same thing in every possible world in which that thing exists and nothing in all other possible worlds, and “obstinately rigid” if it designates the same thing in every possible world, whether or not that thing exists in that world. Kripke’s target was the descriptive theory of names, promulgated among others by Bertrand Russell, which claimed they could be replaced by equivalent descriptions of the properties of their referent. For Russell, proper names are just abbreviated ways of stating those descriptions, as their semantic content is identical to the descriptions that speakers associated with them.
  In contrast, the defenders of rigid designation argue that a name, say “Donald J. Trump,” cannot simply be replaced by “a very stable genius,” no matter how apt the description (ok, that was too easy). There is, of course, an immense literature in analytic philosophy debating the plausibility of Kripke’s argument,9 and an equally extensive discussion of names among linguists, which is called “onomomastics,” and divided into “anthroponomy” (personal names) and “toponomy” (place names). The plot thickens when you add Gotlob Frege’s celebrated distinction between “meaning” and “reference,” which tells us that different names can refer to the same object and calls into question a non-semantic “Millian” theory of names.
  All of this gets technical very fast, and were I to attempt to summarize the debates it has unleashed, you would immediately hear in the background the whoosh made whenever a fool rushes in. Rather than taking that risk, let me retreat to the commonsensical, experiential point of view, which suggests, I think it safe to say, that we have a strong predisposition to think our names designate us in a pretty rigid way. When we sign them, there is the added power of the indexical trace left behind by our idiosyncratic muscular habits. And although we may choose to change our names, through, say, marriage, assimilation to a new culture, transgendering, or the urgings of a Hollywood publicist, we quickly come to identify with the new one.10 It is telling that people who transition sexually have come to call the earlier ones bestowed at birth “deadnames,” implying that life itself is embodied in the replacement. They often resist any mention of their original names, even in their obituaries, as mean-spirited assaults on their new identity expressed in their adopted alternative.11 As Muhammed Ali taught an earlier generation, it was a mark of respect to stop calling him Cassius Clay.12 The legislative fiat of the auto-nomothete is even more powerful than that of the parents who brought him or her into the world.
  Becoming aware of your googlegangers, however, unsettles many of these common assumptions. For rather than indicating anything rigidly, your name suddenly becomes what has come to be called a “flaccid designator,” which can refer to different objects (or people) in worlds both actual and possible. Bracketing whatever gendered resonances may accompany the metaphor, it nicely expresses the deflationary effect of losing one’s sense of uniqueness. Some philosophers have even denied such terms the role of designation at all, seeing them more akin to connotative than denotative words. Kripke, of course, was aware that two or more people might share a name, but brushed it aside as irrelevant to the philosophical point he was making. But understood experientially, and that’s what concerns us here, it can matter. As in the case of Jean Paul’s Doppelgänger, there is something uncanny about encountering, even if virtually, our other nominal selves. But as might be expected when it comes to anything unheimlich, it can produce not only a disorientating loss of being at home in the world, but also a liberation from a stifling sameness. For it invites fantasies of what, following Philip Roth, are the possible “counterlives” we might be living, journeys down the other paths we might have followed. The opposite of deadnames, they thus multiply the lives that at least our names can experience.
  The effect is even greater if, as in the case of Alice Neel’s “Martin Jay,” the name refers not only to a once living person, but also to the title of the highly stylized painting that was made of his likeness. Now the flaccid designator slips from alternate real people discovered by googling to imaginary doubles in the realm of aesthetic imagination, who transcend whatever real world reference might have inspired them. Persistent flaccidity, we might say with a little license, becomes obstinate flaccidity, where existence doesn’t matter. An even stronger example of this effect appears in the novel Freedom by Jonathan Franzen, where a minor character identified as the director of the National Audubon Society is introduced with feigned astonishment: “The man’s name is Martin Jay, if that ain’t the damndest thing. Talk about the right name for the job.”13 In both the case of the painted image and that of the character in the novel, “my” name is unmoored not only from me, but also from an actual referent in this or any other possible real worlds. For even if we could discover more about the person who presumably sat for Neel’s portrait, the image she created with his name has gained autonomy within the aesthetic frame where it is now located, while he has faded into oblivion. And the effect is even stronger when we differentiate between the title of a painting, the image it refers to, and the real person who once sat for the image, on the one hand, and the title of a novel, the character in the novel who bears it, and the non-existence of any real person to whom it might have originally referred, on the other.
  It is not easy to come to a definitive conclusion about what this all means, if anything. But I think it is clear that an exercise in narcissistic self-googling can ironically turn out to produce a decentering of the identity that once seemed so firmly attached to a name. The propriety, purity and property rights in “proper names” turns out to be more difficult to maintain than it seems at first glance, when seemingly rigid designators turn flaccid.
  There is something both exhilarating and deflating about discovering you are not the only one who is interpellated with the same nominal version of “hey, you!” Unlike Walt Whitman, you may not contain multitudes, but your name certainly can refer to them. Whether what follows is strength in numbers or the dilution of individuality is hard to say, but one thing is indisputable. Unlike that famous portrait kept in his closet by Oscar Wilde’s “Dorian Gray,” which absorbed the effects of his sins while the sinner remained eternally young, Alice Neel’s painted “Martin Jay” will never age, whereas his many real world googlegangers, myself included, cannot, alas, stop time’s pitiless ravages.
  1. For those interested in the etymology, Clovis is the modern conventional French form of the Old Frankish name “Hlōdowik” or “Hlōdowig”, and is the origin of Louis in French, Lodewijk in Dutch, Lewis in English, and Ludwig in German.
  2. For anyone fascinated by names and their fortunes, an excellent source is
  3. For a discussion, see Michael T. Miller, The Name of God in Jewish Thought (New York, 2016), chapter 1.
  4. Walter Benjamin, “On Language as Such and the Language of Man,” Selected Writings, vol. 1, 1913-1926, eds. Marcus Bullock and Michael W. Jennings, trans. (Cambridge, Mass., 1996).  For discussions, see Beatrice Hanssen, “Language and Mimesis in Walter Benjamin’s Work,” in The Cambridge Companion to Walter Benjamin, ed. David S. Ferris (Cambridge, 2004); Eric Jacobson, Metaphysics of the Profane: The Political Theology of Walter Benjamin and Gershom Scholem (New York, 2003);  Susan A. Handelman, Fragments of Redemption: Jewish Thought and Literary Theory in Benjamin, Scholem, and Levinas (Bloomington, 1991); Peter Fenves, The Messianic Reduction: Walter Benjamin and the Shape of Time (Stanford, 2011); and Winfried Menninghaus, Walter Benjamins Theorie der Sprachmagie (Frankfurt, 1980)
  5. Althusser argued that the “hey, you there!” of interpellation was more general than the calling out of a name. It was the mechanism through which subjects were constituted ideologically. For a discussion of the term and its vicissitudes, see Warren Montag, “Althusser’s Empty Signifier: What is the meaning of the Word ‘Interpellation’?,” Mediations, 30,2 (Summer, 2017).
  6. Usage, of course, differs among languages. German, for example, capitalizes all nouns, while Tamil, Japanese, and Chinese have no capitalization at all.
  7. Saul Kripke, Names and Naming (Cambridge, Mass., 1980).
  8. For a consideration of the implications of this extension, see Catherine Gallagher, Telling it Like it Wasn’t: The Counterfactual Imagination in History and Fiction (Chicago, 2018).
  9. For starters, go to the entry on “rigid designators” in the always helpful Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:
  10. For the record, I was born Martin Joslovitz, but my parents changed the family name when I was seven, an event whose effects I discussed in “Changing Names,” in Alan King, ed., Matzo Balls for Breakfast and Other Memories of Growing up Jewish (New York, 2004)
  11. See Chase Strangio, “A Transgender Person’s Deadname is Nobody’s Business. Not Even a Reporter’s,” Think, May 14, 2020:  Tellingly, Strangio, who is a distinguished ACLU lawyer and transgender advocate, begins this essay by complaining that googling produces results that defeat efforts to prevent a deadname from resurfacing.
  12. Ironically, Ali liked to denigrate “Cassius Marcellus Clay” by calling it his “slave name,” but in fact, it had been adopted by his family to honor a courageous Kentucky abolitionist and disciple of William Lloyd Garrison, who pushed Lincoln to sign the Emancipation Proclamation.
  13. Jonathan Franzen, Freedom (New York, 2010), p. 299. To add to the complexity, Franzen has the fictional, if felicitously named director of the National Audubon Society interact with the real historical figure named Karl Rove, who now also exists in the alternate world of this novel.