Saturday, July 25, 2009


Listening to the Digital Dialogue conversation about Identity the other day, coupled with reading way-too-many of the "comments" sections on the Skip Gates' arrest story, has gotten me thinking a lot about the merits and demerits of online anonymity. Anyone who spends more than a second on the Internet surely knows the drawbacks-- "flame" wars, misinformation, lack of accountability, misattributions, and the cultivation of a kind of Hobbesian state of nature-- so I won't rehearse them all again here. But there are some advantages, some of them necessary, to the anonymity that digital media provides as well. For better or worse, there are views and criticisms that likely would never see the light of day if the subjects of those opinions didn't feel shielded from retribution. And, as anotherpanacea noted in the "Identity" interview, online anonymity also provides an avenue for "trying out" ideas that for whatever reasons (personal or professional) one might not want to wed oneself to just yet. So, at first glance anyway, it seems like its 6 one way, half-dozen the other... hard to make a call.

When I started this blog, I intentionally decided not to use (or, for the most part, even associate) my "real" name with it. That was a few years ago now, and I can't rightly remember all of my reasons for doing so, but I suspect it had a lot to do with the fact that I was nearing the end of graduate school and the beginning of the job market, and I worried that somehow, someway, this blog might come back to bite me in the rear. On the other hand, it wouldn't exactly take a crack detective to figure out who I am, and "Doctor J" is a far cry from an undecipherable code name, especially given all of the other identifying clues included in my posts over the years. So, I think it's fair to say that I am riding the fence of online anonymity here-- I most certainly do still enjoy some of the advantages of remaining behind the veil of "Doctor J", but it's a very thin veil, and the general outlines of my real features can be seen easily through it.

The conversation between Chris and Joshua in the Digital Dialogues piece tended to focus, not surprisingly, on the lack of responsibility that seems to attend anonymity. This is something with which we are all familiar-- the "I-can-say-anything-I-want-because-nobody-knows-who-I-am" sort of recklessness that dominates online fora. But what I found particularly interesting was the way that Joshua resisted that criticism. Of "flame wars," which tend to be grossly racist or misogynist, Joshua says:

"We say, 'the problem here is that none of these messages are being attributed to the speakers, so people just say whatever comes into their head.' I actually think that's wrong. I think that the problem is NOT that we're anonymous. The problem is that the medium we're communicating in is the written word. When we communicate in that medium, and we don't 'know' our interlocutor, we don't have any way of reading what they say except for in whatever voice we make up for them in our heads."

I like this approach, in particular, because it focuses attention on the fact that writing always already separates author and text, unsettles the authority that thinkers allegedly lend to their thoughts and, to a very real extent, always already "anonymizes" (clunky formulation, I know) the putative interlocutors. And, of course, "writing" is NOT a "new" medium. So, the superaddition of genuinely new forms of technology, on Joshua's account anyway, doesn't really change what is an age-old problem with ALL forms of written communication. As we all remember (or, more accurately, are "reminded of") from Plato's Phaedrus, the problem with writing is that the "speaker" cannot correct, amend, or explain him- or herself. And as we all remember from Derrida's "Plato's Pharmacy", this means that all written words are vulnerable to being de-contextualized and re-contextualized, such that the distinction between the meaning that the "author" intends and the meaning that the "reader" intends becomes thoroughly contaminated.

So, to return to the question that Chris wanted to put to Joshua: who's responsible when things seem to go terribly wrong? It's hard to say... because a bit of distance has already been put between each one and his or her thoughts just by virtue of those thoughts being written down. There isn't an isotropic relation between author and text, nor is there between reader and text, because the written medium introduces an extra, totally anonymous, space of interpretation. Does the absence of a "real" signature absolve one from responsibility any more than claiming authorship? Or, alternatively, should we credit those who "own" their thoughts by attaching their real signature with some extra moral responsibility? That, unfortunately, remains undecideable.

I am reminded of a passage from T.S. Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" (one of my favorite poems of all time). The poem's anonymous speaker asks several times in the early stanzas exactly the sort of question that questions of anonymity provoke: how should I presume? should I then presume? Later in the poem, in a moment of muted frustration, the speaker realizes, and bemoans, that "it is impossible to say just what I mean!" This impossiblity seems exactly the one that attends all written communication, all anonymous interaction. What are the stakes of that impossible saying-just-what-I-mean being actually impossible? Again, from Eliot:

And would it have been worth it, after all,
After the cups, the marmalade, the tea,
Among the porcelain, among some talk of you and me,
Would it have been worth while,
To have bitten off the matter with a smile,
To have squeezed the universe into a ball
To roll it toward some overwhelming question,
To say: “I am Lazarus, come from the dead,
Come back to tell you all, I shall tell you all”—
If one, settling a pillow by her head,
Should say: “That is not what I meant at all.
That is not it, at all.”

This is what I think we want to avoid with online anonymity, this terrible reckoning with the "that is not what I meant at all." And yet, I fear, this is what we get nonetheless, even with a signature.

ADDENDUM (7/28/09): Anotherpanacea responds over on his blog here: "Qui Parle: Ethics and Anonymity"


Brunson said...

The classic account of this phenomenon:

Christopher Long said...

Thanks, Dr. J., for calling attention to the podcast.

Your comments about the impossibility of "saying just what I mean" and your appeal to Prufrock (also one of my favorites) have me thinking that the issue is not so much the human incapacity to say "just what I mean" but the capacity to say "That is not it at all, That is not what I meant at all."

Even if we can never say just what we mean, we can respond in ways that hold each other accountable as we seek to articulate, together, a meaning with depth, integrity and the ability to transform relations.

Finally, and I tried (poorly) to make this point on the podcast, there is something important about rooting thoughts, ideas, and words in concrete existences, in beings with identifiable bodies and histories and contexts. Meaning is not made full by such embodiments, but it is given a rich and ambiguous depth of significance by them, a significance that, again, opens new possibilities of relation.

That is also part of why I was arguing against anonymity.

Brunson said...

Peirce takes this interplay between utterers and interpreters, and their respective rights into the heart of formal logic:

"A sign (under which designation I place every kind of thought, and not alone external signs), that is in any respect objectively indeterminate (i.e., whose object is undetermined by the sign itself) is objectively general in so far as it extends to the interpreter the privilege of carrying its determination further. Example: "Man is mortal." To the question, What man? the reply is that the proposition explicitly leaves it to you to apply its assertion to what man or men you will. A sign that is objectively indeterminate in any respect is objectively vague in so far as it reserves further determination to be made in some other conceivable sign, or at least does not appoint the interpreter as its deputy in this office. Example: "A man whom I could mention seems to be a little conceited." The suggestion here is that the man in view is the person addressed; but the utterer does not authorize such an interpretation or any other application of what she says. She can still say, if she likes, that she does not mean the person addressed. Every utterance naturally leaves the right of further exposition in the utterer; and therefore, in so far as a sign is indeterminate, it is vague, unless it is expressly or by a well-understood convention rendered general." [CP 5.447]

M said...

I like to comment anonymously while wearing a fake mustache. Doubly confusing for the reader.