The Virtue of Pseudonymity

The Virtue of Pseudonymity February 18, 2009

Blogs and bloggers are divided between those who use their real names, and those that don’t. At times, onymous bloggers see themselves as more courageous and even morally superior to those who “hide behind” anonymity. Other times, bloggers refuse to even engage an anonymous argument. Some bloggers may seek the cover of anonymity to make hurtful remarks, and others for personal or professional privacy. I believe that there is a third type of anonymity that both subverts modern notions of authorship as well as prioritizing the pure argument by stripping away claims to personal authority, both of which I regard as deeply pious acts.

When Roland Barthes proclaimed the “Death of the Author,” he was critiquing the standard literary critical approach of explaining a text with recourse to the personal life, views, and biography of its author. He sought to dislodge “authorial intent” as the guiding light of literary studies. The next critical move, and one that I find more useful, is Michel Foucault’s inquiry into the question, “What is an Author?” In this short work, he traces the historical genealogy of the concept of “author” as we come to know it today. He argues that in the modern era, ownership of ideas as property and the mythology of the autonomous subject are the chief theoretical constructs of “authorship.” Later in his life, he proposed that all writers in France be forced to publish anonymously for a year so that readers would have to struggle with the actual content of the books rather than the cult of personality around famous philosophers (including himself).

While I don’t think that personal authority is completely irrelevant to making an argument, it is certainly no substitute. Having spent enough time around people with fancy degrees, it doesn’t take long to figure out hat they are just people with highly fallible opinions. However, sometimes these people are blinded by their own credentials and seek to establish the authority of their view without having to defend it. If all arguments could be offered anonymously, they could be forces to stand on their own merits. Keirkegaard and other modern philosophers often published pseudonymously for the same reasons.

In antiquity, pseudonymity was a common practice. The vast majority of our canonical works are pseudonymous in that they are not written by the person to whom they are attributed. In some cases, as in the Torah, the attribution was made at a much later date. In others, the author was taking the name of the figure to say what they though they would (or should) have said. In our modern era, this violation of the integrity of “authorship” as it has developed is often taken as a shocking case of dishonesty at the heart of our sacred texts. The only possible motives for such a move, it is thought, would be to lie about the authorship in order to increase the authority of one’s own views by putting them in the mouth of someone more famous. Even if this is a pious fraud, it is thought to be irreverent. Such a view fails to consider the fact that the near universality of this ancient practice meant that few would have taken on face the authenticity of any work’s stated author, and in fact we know that the authenticity of many texts were disputed. Most of the time, no one was fooling anyone.

I’d like to propose that we see pseudonymity not as seeking authority, or pious fraud, but as setting aside the self, sacrificing personal glory. In a way, the motives are exactly the opposite of modern notions of authorship where the author is praised as original and unique. Instead, the author occludes himself or herself for the sake of a higher, holier purpose. His or her own place in history is lost intentionally as the “original” contributions are properly situated as dependent on others. For many, this was a pious, virtuous act of subsuming oneself into the persona of another, while raising the content of the argument as more important that the status of its author. I think that pseudonymous or even anonymous blogging has the potential for such great virtues.

Browse Our Archives