The Anonymity Debate in Historical Perspective
This recent tweet by the Canadian psychology professor and self-help guru Jordan Peterson attracted heavy criticism from what has become known as the ‘online anon Right.’ It was only the latest dustup in an ongoing debate on the right end of the political spectrum over anonymity on digital platforms. Anonymous accounts played a crucial role in the rise to the loosely defined ‘Dissident Right‘, and major voices within its orbit, notably the writer and podcaster Bronze Age Pervert (whose Twitter account was suspended recently) have proclaimed the superiority of anonymous writing. However, some fellow travelers have lately emphasized its strategic limitations. These critics of anonymity have suggested that the nascent movement will not come into its own politically unless it is fronted by people who attach their names to their writing.
In an interview with IM–1776, essayist and former Trump administration official Michael Anton – who rose to prominence himself with the pseudonymously-published essay “The Flight 93 Election” – asserted that the Right “need[s] people writing under their own name, just to put that veneer of respectability that a certain class of reader needs in order to even open their mind to the argument.” Furthermore, anonymity encourages writers “to be edgy and want to push it, and you end up saying things that discredit your own side.” Similarly, the influential writer and technologist Curtis Yarvin – who also made his name as a pseudonymous blogger – has stated that “nothing binds [anons] to reality.” They are, as he puts it, “playing tennis without the net.”
Conversely, to the defenders of anonymity, the danger of writing under one’s legal name is that it incentivizes striving for mainstream respectability. As Yarvin – who emerged from behind the veil of anonymity years ago – notes, the publicly known writer faces the opposite temptation from the anon’s “reflex to provoke”: “you are always policing yourself. Not only do your readers never really know what you really believe — you never really know yourself.” The pseudonymous fiction writer and Twitter personality Zero HP Lovecraft has quipped along the same lines in the past, insinuating that the courage of posting under one’s name is an illusion.
Behind this debate is a tension between two movement goals: on one hand, a continuation of the internet-centric strategy of countercultural provocation long associated with this sphere, and on the other, pursuing and exercising power. However, while its disagreements have emerged in reaction to the increasingly restrictive information regime established over the course of the Trump era, which found its most dramatic culmination in the former President’s banishment from all major platforms, controversies about anonymous and pseudonymous writing date back to the emergence of the public internet – and far beyond that, to the origins of the modern world.
The questions raised by anonymity involve both platform operators and users: the former must determine whether or how to link user profiles to verifiable legal identities, while the latter must decide how much of their offline lives they are willing to publicize. The initial rise of social media prompted concerns about oversharing and the over-exposure of our everyday lives to the public gaze. On the other hand, the opposite worry also emerged: the inability to link the content on a particular account to any real-life person might circumvent standard modes of accountability.
The celebration of anonymity has generally proceeded out of the cyber-libertarian creed of “internet freedom,” as memorably formulated in John Perry Barlow’s 1996 “Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace.” The promise of the internet as a newly and uniquely free space entailed the possibility of shedding pre-existing identities and forging new, malleable digital ones. By untethering online profiles from legal identities, many assumed, users could free themselves from arbitrary restrictions and expand the frontiers of free expression. No surprise, then, that the all-anonymous platform 4Chan, well before its association with the alt-right, gave rise to the most notable cyberlibertarian political movement to date, aptly named Anonymous.
It’s surprising in retrospect that a soft version of cyberlibertarianism once prevailed among liberals as well as many in the tech elite. Academic leftists even praised Anonymous during its initial period of infamy. All of this changed, of course, in the wake of Trump’s 2016 presidential victory, when panic over alleged risks like misinformation and online radicalization inaugurated a new censorious consensus among media gatekeepers, liberal politicians, and their allies among tech CEOs. The crackdown found a new rationale amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, during which the risk of ‘viral’ misinformation became conflated with the threat of literal viral spread. Anonymity and pseudonymity obviously pose challenges for informational contact tracing.
This evolving situation is a repetition of earlier historical developments. As has often been remarked, the invention of the printing press more than five hundred years ago challenged church and state authorities’ monopoly on textual production and dissemination in a manner that anticipated the internet’s multiplication of information channels. Print enabled an unprecedented proliferation of text and posed new regulatory challenges. One approach many rulers took was to limit the distribution of licenses for the operation of printing presses; another was to require state censors’ approval for all books published. Amidst this restrictive regime, as in the current panorama, heretics and dissenters turned to anonymous and pseudonymous publications.
In his 1969 essay “What is an Author?”, Michel Foucault argues that the emergence of a modern conception of authorship is only comprehensible in light of this struggle for control over the proliferation of text unleashed by new technology in the centuries after Gutenberg. In earlier ages, he notes, the authors whose names were conjoined with texts were typically “mythical, ‘sacralized’ and ‘sacralizing’ figures.” The attachment of a name to a text – whether Homer, Moses, or Hermes Trismegistus – was a way of bestowing it with a transcendental legitimacy, rather than an attempt to accurately identify the individual responsible for its composition.
This sensibility explains the prevalence of pseudepigrapha, or falsely attributed texts, in the ancient and medieval worlds. The purpose of authorial attribution was for the most part not to accurately link a text to its real author, but to establish its authoritative status. (A continuation of this approach can be found in the online proliferation of dubiously attributed inspirational quotations, where some bit of trite pablum is endowed with the gravitas of a Gandhi or a Martin Luther King.) In the Renaissance, scholars became preoccupied with debunking false attributions and reliable attributions of authorship. This enterprise could have major political implications, as in Lorenzo Valla’s exposure of the Donation of Constantine as a forgery.
Only in what Marshall McLuhan called the ‘Gutenberg Galaxy’, then, did authorship become a way to assign a text to a particular legal identity. The concern with truthful identifications of authorship in the early modern period responded to shifts in power relations brought about by printing, which challenged the regulation of textual production and circulation. The institution of authorship, argues Foucault, was “subsequent to what one might call penal appropriation. Texts, books, and discourses really began to have authors… to the extent that authors became subject to punishment, that is, to the extent that discourses could be transgressive.” The demand that texts have authors ensures state oversight of their content.
The implications of the ‘author-function’ go beyond the regulatory demands of the modern state. The identification of a text with an individual producer and owner also serves to circumscribe a text’s meaning. As Foucault puts it: “The author is the principle of thrift in the proliferation of meaning”; he “allows a limitation of the cancerous and dangerous proliferation of significations.” That is, the assumption that a text has a determinate, fixed meaning is linked to the idea that it emerges from the intentions of a particular author.
This argument has become even more intuitive in the internet age. Scrolling our timelines today, we are all accustomed to constantly finding ourselves forced to ask questions like: is this post for real, or just a troll? Is this a parody account or the real thing? Not coincidentally, platforms like 4Chan, which incubated Anonymous, were at the forefront of the destabilization of meaning online. Anonymity enabled not only the violation of taboos but the inducement of a bewildering undecidability of the sort Foucault associates with avant-garde literary experiments. The emergence of the folk-postmodern sensibility of chan culture was directly linked to the sidelining of named authorship.
For postmodern thinkers, the evanescence of the ‘author-function’ was a necessary precondition of the liberation of text from the straitjacket of meaning – the project of much of twentieth-century avant-garde literature. Hence, Foucault begins his essay with a line from the modernist writer Samuel Beckett: “what difference does it make who is speaking?” But the implications of this liberation from authorship and meaning were political as well as aesthetic, since the bourgeois state’s power was based on its ability to regulate what it was possible to say and think. Crackdowns on internet speech remind us this is still the case.
The dissident Right’s ongoing debate over anonymity, therefore, speaks to a deeper uncertainty about the nature and aims of that somewhat nebulous movement. Is it, fundamentally, an avant-garde project that aims to disrupt the underlying mechanisms that enable the regime to regulate speech and meaning? If so, the strategies of anonymity that have thrived on the open web in the past few decades look increasingly imperiled, which is why a shift towards blockchain-based crypto-anarchist projects offers the obvious path forward. The arguments against anonymity point in the opposite direction, suggesting that the aim is to channel wild energies unleashed on the internet towards conventional electoral aims, without challenging the functioning of the information system and the values that tacitly shape it.
These disagreements across this ideological constellation however do not render these two factions fundamentally incompatible. The assumption that politics is downstream from culture, which has guided many on the Right in the past two decades, implies that cultural activities pave the way for political projects proper. As Yarvin has put it, “[a]ll revolutions begin as a fundamentally aesthetic break.” Nevertheless, the growing anxiety about anonymity, among other things, suggests a concern about cultural and aesthetic tactics becoming an end in themselves.