The Virtue of Pseudonymity

Blogs and bloggers are divided between those who use their real names, and those that don’t. At times, onymous bloggers see themselves as more courageous and even morally superior to those who “hide behind” anonymity. Other times, bloggers refuse to even engage an anonymous argument. Some bloggers may seek the cover of anonymity to make hurtful remarks, and others for personal or professional privacy. I believe that there is a third type of anonymity that both subverts modern notions of authorship as well as prioritizing the pure argument by stripping away claims to personal authority, both of which I regard as deeply pious acts.

When Roland Barthes proclaimed the “Death of the Author,” he was critiquing the standard literary critical approach of explaining a text with recourse to the personal life, views, and biography of its author. He sought to dislodge “authorial intent” as the guiding light of literary studies. The next critical move, and one that I find more useful, is Michel Foucault’s inquiry into the question, “What is an Author?” In this short work, he traces the historical genealogy of the concept of “author” as we come to know it today. He argues that in the modern era, ownership of ideas as property and the mythology of the autonomous subject are the chief theoretical constructs of “authorship.” Later in his life, he proposed that all writers in France be forced to publish anonymously for a year so that readers would have to struggle with the actual content of the books rather than the cult of personality around famous philosophers (including himself).

While I don’t think that personal authority is completely irrelevant to making an argument, it is certainly no substitute. Having spent enough time around people with fancy degrees, it doesn’t take long to figure out hat they are just people with highly fallible opinions. However, sometimes these people are blinded by their own credentials and seek to establish the authority of their view without having to defend it. If all arguments could be offered anonymously, they could be forces to stand on their own merits. Keirkegaard and other modern philosophers often published pseudonymously for the same reasons.

In antiquity, pseudonymity was a common practice. The vast majority of our canonical works are pseudonymous in that they are not written by the person to whom they are attributed. In some cases, as in the Torah, the attribution was made at a much later date. In others, the author was taking the name of the figure to say what they though they would (or should) have said. In our modern era, this violation of the integrity of “authorship” as it has developed is often taken as a shocking case of dishonesty at the heart of our sacred texts. The only possible motives for such a move, it is thought, would be to lie about the authorship in order to increase the authority of one’s own views by putting them in the mouth of someone more famous. Even if this is a pious fraud, it is thought to be irreverent. Such a view fails to consider the fact that the near universality of this ancient practice meant that few would have taken on face the authenticity of any work’s stated author, and in fact we know that the authenticity of many texts were disputed. Most of the time, no one was fooling anyone.

I’d like to propose that we see pseudonymity not as seeking authority, or pious fraud, but as setting aside the self, sacrificing personal glory. In a way, the motives are exactly the opposite of modern notions of authorship where the author is praised as original and unique. Instead, the author occludes himself or herself for the sake of a higher, holier purpose. His or her own place in history is lost intentionally as the “original” contributions are properly situated as dependent on others. For many, this was a pious, virtuous act of subsuming oneself into the persona of another, while raising the content of the argument as more important that the status of its author. I think that pseudonymous or even anonymous blogging has the potential for such great virtues.

22 Replies to “The Virtue of Pseudonymity”

  1. As long as people don’t sign everything as “Anonymous” I would agree with you (you have to be able to distinguish between people for sure). Most people refuse to be influenced by arguments until they know the person that is making them. I don’t think many scholars are different in that regard.

  2. Is this a real TT post, or is this one a deutero-TT-ian epistle that was written by a later imitator in response to changes in the institutional FPR?

  3. Can anyone say Rings of Gyges? Now that you are invisible, just what are your ethical duties in dialogue and how do we hold you responsible? It takes guts to take a stand, but taking a stand behind a pseudonym isn’t much of stand now is it? I agree that all that matters in terms of persuasion is the validity and persuasiveness of your arguments. However, there is more owed in a dialogue than that. There is no possibility of an I-Thou and such practice reduces everything to impersonal I-Thou. In a sense, that is immoral in the very engagement in purported dialogue from such a stance.

  4. Whoops, I meant “impersonal I-It.” See, just by using my name you know how fallible I am. On the other hand, does TT stand for Trustworthy and True or for Truly Terrible or some tertium quid?

  5. TT,

    The bloggernacle is a pretty small place. I’ll bet that more than 75% of the people who stop by FPR know who TT is, and many of those know you personally. So even though your arguments make a lot of sense in the abstract, I don’t know how to apply them here.

    I chuckle every time I see people who I KNOW are good friends in real life address each other in blogland with names like skywalker and ramb007.

  6. But doesn’t the pseudonym eventually take on all the authority etc. it tries to deflect?

    I haven’t had the pleasure of meeting many bloggernacle personalities, like Mark Brown suggests, but when I see a post/comment signed by TT, Nitsav, Mogget, and others, yeah, I give it closer attention.

    To truly eschew popularity, wouldn’t you have to periodically change your pseudonym?

  7. The Federalist Papers where written under the pseudonym “Publius.” Their (Madison, Hamilton, Jay) purpose was that they wanted their arguments to stand of their own. It is not clear how obvious it was at the time that Madison and Hamilton were behind the papers.

    I am less secretive than most at FPR, but I do not use my full name to keep my blog posts and comments from coming up on Google Searches. Though my avatar picture is on the door of my office.

    Overall I do not like the complete pseudonym-approach. But maybe my problem is that some are in the position that they feel that they need to use one. Maybe it is a commentary on our culture. In a sense I think that I agree with Steve (#7).

    Of course, Mogget will always be Mogget.

  8. Blake,

    Can anyone say Rings of Gyges? Now that you are invisible, just what are your ethical duties in dialogue and how do we hold you responsible?

    I’m not sure that my ethical duties in dialogue are any different if I use my real name or a pseudonym. What exactly do you mean by holding someone responsible for their ethical duties in dialogue? Plenty of past and present people use pseudonyms and the world has not fallen apart. While there is some evidence that pseudonyms and anonymity might lead to bad behavior, that is not the kind of pseudonymity that I am speaking about. Though admittedly I don’t spend enough time clarifying that I am only talking about a particular kind of pseudonymity which I find pious, that is in fact my intent. Bad examples of pseudonymity don’t apply to my argument.

    There is no possibility of an I-Thou and such practice reduces everything to impersonal I-Thou. In a sense, that is immoral in the very engagement in purported dialogue from such a stance.

    Blake, this seems a bit hyperbolic to suggest that an I-Thou relationship is impossible with someone whose name you don’t know. That strikes me as a particularly arbitrary prerequisite. Further, the notion that a conversation with someone whose name you don’t know is “immoral” needs a little more evidence if it is to be taken seriously.

    Mark Brown,
    I admit that I was pretty much ready to quit last summer when I realized that some people knew who I was. It sort of blew the whole point for me. AFAIK, only a few people knew who I was, and in many cases some of my close friends still don’t. Those who did know, I made them swear on their mothers’ lives not to tell anyone. Incidentally, their mothers are all dead.

    I think that you raise an excellent point, one that requires us to further distinguish different kinds of pseudonyms. I think that for me the kind of authority that I think pseudonyms are worth occluding is the kind that comes from one’s real life status. To a certain extent, pseudonymous figures can take on their own kind of authority, but this is one that must be earned rather than assumed. I don’t see that authority in itself is bad, only when it is sought for its own sake, used to intimidate interlocutors, or asserted as evidence of one’s argument.
    I’ll have to think more about whether seeking glory for a fictitious character like a pseudonym is another way of seeking one’s own authority. My gut says there is a difference.

    Steve (if that’s your real name!),
    Which argument would hold more weight? The one where I say that arguments shouldn’t hold more weight just because they are given by someone who uses their real name, or the one where I say that those who use their real name are often seeking personal glory more than substantive conversation?

    Chris H,
    I agree that it is unfortunate that some feel that they need to be pseudonymous. I would be lying if I said that that wasn’t one of my own motives, but certainly not the only one. Instead of being discouraged by this, I try to view it as a positive experience that allows me to get beyond myself and forces me to grapple with the ideas of others in the most persuasive way that I can. It allows me to not have to worry about my personal reputation and instead frees me to experiment openly with ideas and questions without fear of embarrassing myself. Ultimately, I think, it can bring me closer to God by erasing myself in some small way.

  9. TT,

    I love you man and I really only know you as a TT. I have no doubt that your motivations are just and righteous. I probably should develop a fear of embarrassing myself. Heck, I am the one person here who is most likely to get fired for being myself on the bloggernacle.. I mentioned the federalist papers to point out that you really are a 21st Century James Madison. Blake might want to consider using a fake name.

  10. TT: An I-Thou relationship is transparent and sympathetic connection between persons. By definition, an anonymous interlocutor doesn’t engage in dialogue as a person, but as a position for mere persuasion. What is important is not the person but merely the disembodied reason — indeed, that seems to be the entire point of your argument as I understand it. Engaging in a less-than-transparent exchange to feign a disembodied message is immoral in my view. We give arguments coming from a particular background and POV and when I am not aware of where you are coming from I cannot see where you’re going or what may motivate the discussion. All of that is hidden and non-verbal communication, including who we are is about 90% of communication.

    That is in part why blogging is so danged frustrating for folks like me (and Dan Peterson for instance) who engage sardonic asides and sarcasm as a mean of communication and humor. It just doesn’t come thru easily.

    The Rings of Gyges, as you’re well aware, is the question of whether there are any moral constraints where one remains hidden and anonymous. Mark may know who the heck you are — I don’t. I have a hard putting your messages into context as a result

  11. when I am not aware of where you are coming from I cannot see where you’re going or what may motivate the discussion

    I am not sure that this problem is solved by simply knowing my name or even knowing my background. If anything, it causes one to err more than bring greater clarity to a conversation because it allows you to make assumptions about what you think you know about that person, how to categorize and label them, and whether or not you are predisposed to accept what they have to say or not depending on your prior relationship with them. I think that it also assumes a relevance of such information when it most definitely is not relevant.
    I am not sure what you mean about feigning a disembodied message. The problems in communication you describe seem to be problems with blogging, whether with named or unnamed interlocutors. I am not sure that being unnamed changes the nature of the relevant communication in any demonstrable way.
    FWIW, I don’t know Mark Brown and he doesn’t know me. He may know my name, we may have even crossed paths virtually or irl, but that doesn’t make him know me any more than you do.
    Ultimately, I have three concerns with your insistence on dealing with named figures. (I worry that my concerns point in contradictory directions, though.) First, I think that it rests on an over-importance of the notion of “individual,” as if knowing about that individual explains in some direct way the content of their work. This is the criticism that Barthes makes about the centrality of the author as mistaken. Second, it assumes that an “authentic” I-Thou relationship is a value which is more important than the content of the discussion. While I can see its value, I am not convinced that this should be the primary goal of intellectual exchanges, though perhaps you could spell out more what you think such a relationship actually looks like. Third, I am not convinced of the assumption that such a relationship can only be achieved on the basis of, in my view, completely arbitrary sharing of biographical details. I like to think that I have had numerous valuable, insightful, and charitable discussions with people that I know little to nothing about personally. As I argued in the original post above, I think that these elements can actually impede true exchanges by getting the “self” involved with impure motives in a way that pseudonymity helps to check against.

  12. TT: I have to say that I really appreciate this post and your responses. I think that I now better understand something that confused me when I was a more regular part of FPR.

  13. Blake,

    To state it more bluntly, assumptions about “where one is going” or “what motivates a particular argument” may actually hinder rather than faciliate a meaningful relationship. Secondly, a strict reading of Buber (which you seem to come pretty close to) by definition precludes any communication that is not face to face as generative of an I-Thou relationship, be it with the “real” name of the individual or not, so either way we’re doomed from the get-go.

  14. On top of what has already been said, pseudonyms are really beneficial after one rams a pointy stick in some schlep’s only eye and then attempts to escape from an island of one-eyed folks. Duh.

    (Now that I have kind of outed myself, I feel kind not-so-pseudo.)

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