Monday, December 5, 2011

'Anonymity is Authenticity'

Attributed to the founder of the 'vile' website, 4Chan, 'Anonymity is Authenticity' is a thought-provoking soundbite, worth considering in relation to text technologies, broadly speaking. I was first introduced to the phrase through a BBC Radio 3 podcast of 'Arts and Ideas' ( in the summer, and was struck by the conversation in that discussion, where one of the participants talked about her multiple personae on various websites, and how these permitted her degrees of reality that depended on the nature and audience of the website. It suggested that anonymity permits a 'real' opinion to be given: a genuineness of critique; a 'truth' that the openness of authorship can erode (as if we all hide behind our names, afraid to own up to what we think). Anonymity is common in specific scholarly areas, particularly for reviews of book proposals to publishers; sometimes, this ability to remain anonymous leads to criticisms being made that the writers would baulk at stating publicly. Does this make the statements more authentic? Open-review policies now being trialled by some journals seek to ensure that any criticism is attached to the name of the writer. Will this make such criticism somehow less authentic (

On the internet, one might argue that anonymity preserves identity such that unpalatable truths can be made public. Here, the Wikileaks site, with its apparent attempts to reveal particular truths about government actions, seems an obvious contender for the accolade of 'authenticity', but, whose truth do these anonymous reporters tell? No utterance was ever uttered unfiltered; no information is objective, mediated by an author without an agenda.

In past technologies, authenticity might indeed depend on anonymity, though, in the sense that particular authors, or kinds of publications, were frowned upon and censored. There are the obvious and very famous examples of the Bronte sisters, publishing under male pseudonyms to bypass public disapproval of female authors. Pseudonymous publication is a form of anonymity or, more usefully, disguise. Anonymity was often de rigeur in the eighteenth century, as in Hannah Glasse's case. In the twentieth century, it was discovered that she was the author of The Art of Cookery made plain and easy, published in 1747 by 'a LADY' ( Anonymity in this case might have been essential to ensuring the publication of the book, but it also led her being uncredited, which seriously disadvantaged her subsequent reputation and well-being.

In the case of Shakespeare's Bad Quarto and its variants, the anonymity of the title-pages (in comparison with the, literally, 'authorised' First Folio of 1623) has ensured these versions' derogation by textual scholars. In the case of some medieval authors, however, their elision within the text and total anonymity might have meant their works became authenticated by the authorities responsible for the dissemination of sequences of religious texts. One is mindful here of the anonymous homilies circulating in the Anglo-Saxon period, where the authorship of the homily in its multiple instantiations is supressed in order to highlight the major sources used (the likes of Augustine, Gregory, Jerome and Bede, who are explicitly named in the text as those whose writings are employed). In these texts, authenticity is not about the authorship of the original text, or that of the subsequent versions in successive manuscripts, but of the ultimate validity of the text through its use of Church fathers and scriptural quotation.

So, in text technologies, the issue of 'anonymity' being (or 'insisting on' or 'confirming' or 'enhancing') 'authenticity' is not remotely straightforward. It's certainly timely, though, to think through this virtual truism in its more general application to texts and their production.

1 comment:

  1. I strongly suspect that anonymity (and its flip side, named authorship) are configured differently in different genres; the questions you raise in this post hint at the possibility that the central issue may be (for lack of a better term) media: manuscript, print, internet, because of your focus on 'text technologies,' which seems to invoke these different media.

    I've recently suggested that authorship (how it is configured, who gets credit as 'author,' etc) is a formal issue; I think that we must pay real attention to the how both genre and medium relate to issues, but I also think it's important to think about the relationship between genre itself and 'text technologies.'

    I'll have to think about it some more.

    I'll toss out the observation that, in the absence of voice-obscuring technologies, anonymity is more or less unavailable in speech or speech-oriented technologies: anonymity is a potentiality of writing.