anonymity: a face in the crowd

A discussion recently on Jeff’s blog that I didn’t get around to in time to really comment regarding the issue of anonymous academic blogs. There’s the whole practice of being anonymous in order to spread academic gossip without paying a price. I don’t have much use for that, but then I was never really interested in academic murder mysteries either, so maybe it’s just not a genre for me.

But this conversation raised more interesting issues. Three, in particular, for me.

1. Given the potentially broad public nature of blogging, anonymity protects one from strangers and outsiders who wouldn’t appreciate the context in which a conversation is being had. In this way anonymity works in much the same way as the limited access most people have to academic journals. I.e., someone can Google me and find me here, but that same person is not likely to track down an article in a journal or essay collection.

2. Anonymity makes clear the way that normal academic discourse operates on a foundation of authorial identities. That is, for good or bad, comments are likely judged by the identity of the source (e.g. a comment offered by a professor at a small college like myself versus one offered by a senior faculty member with a national reputation at a major university). I’m not griping about that. I’m just pointing out the nature of how we respond to writing. Obviously we don’t read our students’ work the same way we read our colleagues’ texts. Interestingly one can build up the reputation of a consistent pseudonym.

3. Related to point 2, what would occur if texts were published anonymously? Obvioulsy it would alter the academic marketplace that exchanges intellectual property for tenure and promotion. I like Deleuze and Guattari’s comment on authorship at the outset of A Thousand Plateaus:

The two of us wrote Anti-Oedipus together. Since each of us was several, there was already quite a crowd. … Why have we kept our own names? Out of habit, purely out of habit. To make ourselves unrecognizable in turn. To render impreceptible, not ourselves, but what makes us act, feel, and think. Also because it’s nice to talk like everybody else, to say the sun rises, when everybody knows it’s only a manner of speaking. To reach, not the point where one no longer says I, but the point where it is no longer of any importance whether one says I.

Clearly the ideological impulse of the State is to assign properties to subjects (obviously the term "properties" has multiple meanings here). "You" write something, then "you" are accountable for it. You benefit from its commodification in whatever marketplace, and you receive the consequences arising from any accusations–libel, plagiarism, idiocy, and so on.

To quote Deleuze from elsewhere, "I have nothing to admit." But refusing/escaping judgment is not always that easy. Hence the tactic of anonymity.

That said, perhaps there is something to be said for reaching the point where it is no longer of any importance whether one says I. The path to such a point may lie through anonymity. On the other hand, playing that game may only heighten the mystery, the aura, of authorship. My choice has been to tie my name to my blogs. I suppose I don’t have a national reputation at risk. I’ve jumped the tenure hoop. I guess I don’t have a whole lot ot risk. I suppose someone could do to me what newspapers always do with the titles of MLA papers and panels.

Whatever. Knock yourself out. Any publicity is good publicity, right?

My tactic is to plod along with the mundane nature of blogging. Everyday thoughts. At some point perhaps the "it doesn’t matter what I say" translates into "it doesn’t matter that I said it."

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3 thoughts on “anonymity: a face in the crowd

  1. c-m

    Thank you. Thank you. Thank you for totally getting it. Finally, my headache is starting to fade.
    If you only knew the full, improbable-yet-real story here … someday.
    “Any publicity is good publicity, right?”
    Nope. May seem the conventional wisdom but not in this particular case. There doesn’t have to be a national reputation for risk and harm to occur. The potential for risk doesn’t have to have anything to do with one’s professional life necessarily — although it can. For instance, imagine a rather innocuous scenario where you’re driving through some remote rural/conservative area — let’s say somewhere in Oregon, since they futuristically already have wi-fi or wi-max blanketing large sections of the state — and a cop pulls you over for speeding. Now, most cops are conservative by nature. And let’s say that the cop — agent of the State — asks you for your driver’s license and registration, and then disappears back into his car while you quietly wait for the verdict. Now, since his car is equipped with a laptop and a wifi card, not only does he do a search on your license but also — and I know that might sound terribly far-fetched in this hypothetical but perhaps it might not be all that far-fetched in the future — does a google search for your name. And with that google search, up pops the titles of all of your academically-published articles with links to the articles themselves. Now, admittedly, the cop might not have the time nor the interest to peruse the articles — but imagine that you have a controversial title that implies some form of possibly-perceived “deviancy” that provokes his interest and causes him concern. Suddenly, not only is he evaluating your driving history and background but also your writing and possibly even your politics and ideologies by implication, and he is doing this without you ever recognizing that the information is at his disposal — not thinking that he would even take an interest. Now, again, granted this may seem far-fetched, but what happens when academic texts — or perhaps, more appropriately, artistic & poetic texts — cross over into another evaluative context wherein there are (high) stakes involved — for example, speeding tickets in this instance and possibly even a summons to appear? Of course, speeding tickets are not high stakes. But what happens when texts typically “reserved” for a highly-trained audience cross-over into an evaluative context — particularly a governmental/State context — wherein its often the case that texts are linked to and seen as diagnoses of identities — and then those texts are incorporated into the evaluation and judgment of the writer’s RL identity? That, as you seem to already understand quite well — and I would expect no less — is at the heart of the issue.
    Again, thank you.
    “Interestingly one can build up the reputation of a consistent pseudonym.”
    Yes, like Gloria Watkins/bell hooks in a way.

  2. Alex

    No problem C-M. Your example does seem a little far-fetched, but then I think of the example of Steven Kurtz and the Critical Arts Ensemble.
    No one wants to explain art to the FBI.
    I certainly won’t compare myself to those who take real risks to “speak out,” and, all told, there are certainly worse countries in which to take this risk than our own.
    In the end, it is a matter of tactics. At some point you probably choose to come out of the closet.

  3. c-m

    Far-fetched = off the top of my imaginative head. The details only correspond in the very distant abstract.
    However, the text in that little RL story of mine (when on one’s own servers, not university servers) had received trackable governmental (read: military & DC) visits — not that those visits are at all related to the story, which is a more local RL story. Can you imagine why the government might be interested post-9/11?
    “I certainly won’t compare myself to those who take real risks to ‘speak out,’ and, all told, there are certainly worse countries in which to take this risk than our own.”
    Totally agree. Yet many Americans seem to forget about how precious & fundamental “free” speech really is, compared to many other countries — and even in outbacks in the United States itself. And the ironic thing is that in the United States, it’s oftentimes corporations who want to limit the free speech of their employees — which they can legally do — and even of their clients on occasion, all while spending millions on advertising campaigns that celebrate unfettered freedom & mobility. Of course, “free” speech is a myth in any institution insofar as speech acts/texts are linked to regulable identities. In the RW, few can separate texts from authors just like few can separate actors from their film characters. Folks are constantly seeking out connections between the virtual/imaginative and the real — constantly seeking out anchors, in a way, as a kind of innate desire for connection.
    P.S. Comp mafia isn’t really in the closet.

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