Qui Parle: Ethics and Anonymity

File:Anonymous Scientology 4a by David Shankbone.JPGDr. J responds with her typical lucidity to my contribution to Chris Long’s podcast series. Using Derrida’s critique of the Platonic distaste for writing, she suggests 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.”

In the attempt to purify this contamination, we come to prefer identifiable speakers who will ‘stand by their words’ responsibly. This is responsibility as answerability: we’re literally seeking someone who will respond to our inquiries for elucidation and interpretation. Yet it seems that, if Derrida and Dr. J are right, this demand for responsible interlocutors stems from our own fear of being misinterpreted, which is just a sublimated version of our enounter with mortality.

Dr. J quotes T.S. Eliot’s Prufrock, which is partly a meditation on aging and dying, and which fits especially well here:

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.”

Our fear of misinterpretation is  most pressing after we are dead and can no longer ‘stand by our words.’ Then, it will be too late to correct our misreaders, and our posterity will punish us for sins we never committed: “that is not what I mean at all.” And so our fear of anonymity is ultimately a fear of death, and our desire for reknown and for recognition is an effort, though doomed, to achieve immortality.

In this, we are firmly back in Arendtian territory. We seek a clear one-to-one relationship between speaker and speech-act because we’re trying to become self-identical. The search for a responsible Other who means what she says is a part of the quest for presence. Unfortunately our quest for presence (to ourselves or with others) is doomed by the undecidable ambiguity at the heart of meaning.

This is relevant to digitial dialogue because the fantasy we all share is that we’ve somehow escaped anonymity by attaching a legally-given name to an act. At best, attribution allows a certain capacity for self-correction or for further elucidation. The same person who spoke or mispoke can return to correct himself or respond to critics. Blanchot called it the infinite conversation, because we don’t give up on ‘saying what we mean’ when our words escape our efforts to craft a perfect message, we just go on saying more and more, until we die.

But it’s not just an existential problem. At one point, Dr. J asks “who’s responsible when things seem to go terribly wrong?” In a world without attribution, the answer to that has to be: no one. Like the Cyclops whose eye is put out by Odysseus, we curse “No-Man” to the gods without realizing we’ve been fooled. After everything we persuade ourselves of regarding polyvocality, the undecidability of meaning, and the constructed nature of selves, when things go wrong, we still need someone to blame.

Even though there’s a legal person out there who is typing hate speech, so long as the medium we communicate through divorces those words from that ‘forensic person’ we can’t hold anyone responsible. So when things go terribly wrong, it’s the system that needs changing. And when we talk about systematic institutional changes, we have to weigh the benefits against the costs. Obviously, not everyone who wears a mask is a junior academic trying to keep his job until he gets tenure protections: in the US, masked protesting is generally illegal because of the behavior of the Klu Klux Klan, but I think we’d be hardpressed to generalize from their behavior to, say, the activities of the Zapatistas’ Subcommandante Marcos.

There are places on the internet where everyone posts with the same ‘anonymous‘ account. I won’t link to them directly for fear of drawing their attention, because they also like to prank folks who draw their ire. But if you go to the places they frequent, you’ll find a very unusual kind of public sphere. In one moment, ‘anonymous’ seems to be holding a conversation with itself about current events or metaphysics. In the next, it’s posting pictures of cats or pornography.

In such settings, our capacity to index locutions to speakers is lost. Yet attribution is so deeply wired into our phenomenological interface with the world that we feel more comfortable over-attributing, by positing agency and choice to inanimate objects, natural events, and randomness.

On the one hand, many (including me) find this lack of attribution vertiginous and frightening. If we’re honest, that vertiginous experience is the only one that the internet ever presents. People wear many masks and try out many different pseudonyms. It’s difficult, here, to establish the relationship between names, legal persons, and emobodied selves. Single authors occasionally create elaborate dialogues where their sockpuppets play all the roles, for deception or amusement.

On the other hand, this phenomenon was foreshadowed by efforts to escape censorship in the 17th and 18th centuries, when it was common to write both erotic literature and political tracts anonymously or pseudonymously. Sometimes authors would even bury dangerous political tracts within pornography and then bind them both in an innocuously titled volume. This served as a double protection: the cover protected the book, and the pornography protected the author from the political fallout of her opinions, since the censors would notice the obscenity before they did the treason. (The Marquis de Sade’s classic Philosophy in the Bedroom plays with this trope. According to some, the screed against religion in its fifth dialogue justifies the sexual excesses that come before and after. According to others, the buried manifesto serves to hide the pornography in plain sight.)

For all its raucous irreverance, it’s the often anyonymous public sphere of that earlier period that excited Jürgen Habermas most. There are certainly different skills and excellences to be cultivated in the rough and tumble world of digital anonymity than one practices in a conference or seminar room. Here on the internet, wit often counts for more than wisdom, and a good put-down or snarky one-liner may serve better than a syllogism. I can’t think of a better place for Socratic politics.

3 thoughts on “Qui Parle: Ethics and Anonymity”

  1. I like this post a lot. I especially like your drawing out the mutual implications of misundertanding and mortality.

    But I guess I'm wondering this: do you think that people who embrace online anonymity are just avoiding some encounter with their own mortality altogether? and in a completely different way than those who write? I mean, if I "sign" something anonymously, doesn't that just sidestep all of the dangers inherent in written communication? "Anonymous" me can NEVER really come back and correct anything I said, because I never really owned it in the first place. So, not only do I avoid the kind of permanent misunderstanding that might occur if I died and could no longer speak, but I even avoid the always-potential misunderstanding that metaphorically exists in writing (where the author is always, to some extent, already "dead").

    To go back to Prufrock, what anonymity seems to enable is an evasion of both worries: (1) the worry that "I can't say exactly what I mean!" AND (2) the worry that even if I could, there's always the chance that I may not get the chance to return to correct it, to say "that's not what I meant at all." I wouldn't go so far as to say that anonymity is itself an attempt at immortality (in the way that I think writing, however unsuccessful, is), because there is nothing/noone that is immortally preserved in anonymity… there's nothing preserved at all… an + onoma… not even a name. Or, at the very least, whatever is preserved (the "anonymous" sign) was never threatened with extinction in the first place, was never "mortal" or "perishable" or even "forgettable" really.

    Just the beginning of a thought here, really.

  2. If writing is an attempt at immortality, anonymous writing is a kind of inauthentic attempt at immortality: we want to survive our own death but we don't want to survive as our ownmost irreplaceable self, singular and decisive.

    In this way, I suspect that anonymity is like suicide. Where suicide responds to mortality by embracing it, anonymity responds to ambiguity (and the risks of misinterpretation) by rejecting answerability. Thus, anonymity, like suicide, enunciates a kind of call to conscience or anxiety, which explains the vertiginous feeling it sometimes engenders.

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