Monday, February 08, 2016

Anonymity

What difference does a signature make? I'll assume that the phenomenon of trolling is one familiar to most of us on the interwebs, a phenomenon that is, in turns, infuriating, exasperating, unpleasant, and often genuinely hostile and threatening. There's much to abhor about trolls-- their pettiness and vitriol, their disregard for basic conversational decorum, their intrusiveness and incivility, their seemingly superhuman perseverance-- but the most abhorrent thing about them, for many of us, is their anonymity.

Thanks to the ease with which one can adopt anonymity on the Internet, the digital world ends up being a more populous place than the IRL human planet. There are, of course, many good reasons to value the protections that anonymity provides for non-trolls in digital space, who may find themselves in IRL social positions that severely restrict their ability to speak freely and openly without unearned penalty.  And there are many good reasons to celebrate the loosening of strictly enforced IRL identity-borders; the Internet makes it possible to enact (if not embody) alternative expressions of one's own multivalent and incongruous sense of being-with-others. But, as I've written before on this blog, there remains something about Internet anonymity that tends to not just make space for, but actively encourage, a kind of "I-can-say-anything-I-want-because-nobody-knows-who-I-am" recklessness and irresponsibility. So, many of us find ourselves sometimes pining for regulation: wouldn't requiring a signature at least partially remedy these ills? 

For a decade now, I have chosen to author this blog under a pseudonym. Ten years ago, that was hardly a voluntary "choice," as the risks of publicly signing one's real name to her thoughts in digital space then were several and severe. (Especially in academia, and even more especially in my discipline of professional Philosophy.) I suppose, over time, I came to so fully identify with my pseudonym "Doctor J"-- I mean, I answer to that name IRL every day, probably more often than I answer to my given name-- that it no longer felt like a "cover." I completely forgot its original function, and the function that it came to serve in my life was almost the exact opposite of its initial purpose.

Pseudonymity is a long way from anonymity,I think.  At any rate, "Doctor J" serves as a very thin identity-veil at this point in my life. It only requires (of anyone caring to look) the expenditure of a couple of extra keystrokes to find the real me. (I am NOT a mystery.) In tech-speak, I've "fully integrated" my various digital profiles with my IRL self and so, for that reason, I tend not to think of "Doctor J" and my real name/signature/person as mutually exclusive (or even all that different, really). Rather, I think of my pseudonym as a kind of paraph to my real signature and, consequently, every iteration of it as part of the signature-event that refers to the "real" me. In one of his more famous essays, "Signature Event Context" (from Limited, Inc.), Jacques Derrida writes:

By definition, a written signature implies the actual or empirical nonpresence of the signer. But, it will be said, it also marks and retains his having-been present in a past now, which will remain a future now, and therefore in a now, in general, in the transcendental form of nowness (maintenance). This general maintenance is somehow inscribed, stapled to the present punctuality, always evident and always singular, in the form of the signature... For the attachment to the source to occur, the absolute singularity of an event of the signature and of a form of the signature must be retained: the pure reproducibility of a pure event.

The signature "Anonymous"-- or any of its iterations (in professional Philosophy, these include "grad student," "tenured prof," and "untenured" most frequently)-- is never a signature-event of the sort that Derrida describes above because it never implies, or recalls, or refers to, or reproduces a singularity, Or does it?

What I have found interesting over the last decade or so is to see "Anonymous" evolve in its function and usage.  Today, "Anonymous" has come to stand in as both (1) a signature for a loosely-connected group of hactivisits and agitators (see: Anonymous), who purport to represent something like "the people" or "the multitude" and who have a generically identifiable identity, with goals and projects and actions that can be (anonymously) attributed to them, and also (2) a signature for generically anonymous real-life people, who are IRL radically singular and idiosyncratic, but who speak in the name of "Anonymous" qua representatives of a type (the Liberal, the Conservative, the Racist, the Feminist, the Traumatized, the Rational, etc., etc.) while at the same time refusing to sign their real names to that type. Both Anonymous (1) and Anonymous (2) disrupt all of our conventions of sociality and discourse, not to mention also our conventional moral understandings of accountability and responsibility.

When I try to think about what generally I find objectionable about online anonymity (and not just specific instances of terrible anonymous behavior online), I am often 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 Eliot's 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 impossibility 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.”


The exasperation of those final two lines is what I think people 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 just the nature of the beast, the public forum, and we're going to run up against that even with a signature.

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