Interfacing Knowledge: New Paradigms for Computing in the Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences

March 8-10 2002, University of California Santa Barbara


Enlightened Anonymity


William Warner

English, UC/Santa Barbara

(all rights reserved)



Visual resources for the talk:


The Internet and the World Wide Web have been widely celebrated as providing a technological infrastructure for an unprecedented expansion of our powers to publicize our ideas. Many of us have made use of this new technology to publish information as well as access it. However, this expansion in our powers of publication has not led to a concomitant expansion in the vitality, scope or quality of our public culture. Some wish to make the human-computer interface more transparent, easy to use and intuitive in that hopes that this will make networked computer a better “tool” for a world-wide exchange of ideas. However, in these brief remarks I want to suggest the very opposite. That 18th century print culture suggests that a vibrant and consequential on-line public culture may require designing on-line interfaces that embed the following values: 1) accept the irreducible alterity of the human-computer interface and inter-networked communication; 2) embrace the leudic game playing made possible by on-line anonymity; 3) give up on the effort to strip away the persona of the person performing in public. It is that mask that allows on-line persons/personae to contribute to the public theater of ideas.


We moderns have over-humanized print publication by tethering writing to the face, voice and intentionality of the author. Thus I don’t return to the 18th century to recover some human-to-human exchange, a nostalgic realization of a fully human because minimally mediated public sphere.  By contrast the 18th century still grasped that there is something mechanistic and strange about the relatively recent insertion of human communication into the mediating circuit of writing, print and reading.[Siskin] Behind the 18th century writing machine, we can not locate a person, but instead must negotiate a complex array of personae, masks and voices that are enabled by the abstracting and disguising power of print. These personae are fashioned to advance arguments to the wide new readership for print.  To gain some small purchase on this large topic, I will begin with an observation from comparative media ecology, by comparing 18th century print culture with contemporary media culture.


If one compares 18th century print culture with contemporary print culture, nothing is more striking that our epoch's reticence about publishing anonymously, our slavish obedience to the dreary requirement that we take personal "responsibility" for what we publish by signing our name to it. Those 18th century writers who entered print so as to inflect the opinions and expand the experiences of their readers, often chose to publish anonymously.  Historians have given various reasons for the currency of anonymity in the 17th and 18th century: the hope of avoiding prosecution for sedition or libel; the low prestige of the author of vernacular texts; and the aristocratic bias against putting one’s print into promiscuous circulation, where it would be exposed to the “insults” of any critic. I also want to see it as a sign of the alterity of the 18th century writing interface. For, whatever the direct motives for anonymity, it is my thesis that Enlightenment anonymity ends enhancing the performative invention and generic variety, the truthfulness and wit of its public culture. In the brief remarks that follow I will gauge the effects of 18th century public anonymity, suggest reasons for its decline in the modern period, and ask how (and if) the new currency of on-line anonymity—on display for example in chat rooms and avatar worlds—could be extended into forums that would make anonymity both public and consequential.


Within that familiar information interface named the book, the 18th century title page has a privileged place: it is conceived as the first surface to meet the reader’s eye, the ‘home page’ for the 18th century book. Here are some title pages of a few 17th and 18th century texts. Historians of the book (like Lucien Febvre and Henri-Jean Martin) link the title page with the publicity required for book on the market; the minimal elements of the early modern title page were the title, the bookseller and/or printer, and the date of publication. These helped to identify the book, discourage piracy by naming the owners of the copyright (the bookseller), and allow authorities to hold that bookseller culpable for the content of the book. [Title pages also sometimes included other elements: the author’s name, a summary blurb of the book’s contents, decorative elements, quotations, etc.]  Although the first copyright law, the Law of Queen Anne of 1710, would vest original ownership of a book in the author who wrote it, neither law nor custom required the naming of the author on the title page. In a pamphlet entitled, The Thoughts of a Tory Author, Concerning the Press, Joseph Addison opposes requiring the naming author on title page since, as he writes “scarce One Part in Ten of the Valuable Books which are published are with the Author’s names; I mean not only of State books, of Politicks, but of Religion, Science, and Humanity..”[Johns, 160] These words were published in 1712, a year when Addison was collaborating with Steele in the writing of The Spectator. [SHOW] While the first number tells the reader much about his background, (shown here) Addison refuses to tell his name, age, or address. By withholding his identity, Addison avoids locating “the spectator” within any single restricted site of England’s social-political geography; it helps secure his pretension to be an unbiased spectator, and offers an early instance of journalism’s articulation of the anonymous speaker with truth telling.


Although anonymity is widespread during the Enlightenment, it is not a binding convention but a conscious choice. Writers sometimes boldly chose to identify themselves on the title page of their text. John Milton’s famous pamphlet on printing is entitled Areopagitica; A Speech of Mr. John Milton for the Liberty of Unlicensed Printing, To the Parliament of England. [SHOW]  This public speech in print not only makes a case for “unlicensed printing”; it also performs the unlicensed printing he advocates by breaking the licensing law in two ways: the pamphlet bears no sign of the licensor’s permission to publish; and it omits to name the printer/ bookseller, as required by law: “LONDON, Printed in the Year, 1644.” [SHOW] In A Letter Concerning Toleration, Locke submits his pamphlet to the licensors but declines to name himself as the author on the title page. [SHOW: Note that a later collector or bibliographer has filled in the absent name of the author] What is the strategic usefulness of this anonymity? Throughout the religious wars of the 17th century, calls for toleration were often viewed as the cynical (and temporary) recourse of whoever found themselves in a weaker position. Here anonymous publication, by concealing the person who has authored the argument, seeks to side-step ad hominum rejoinders, and slow down the tendency to see toleration as just a way to serve the interests of the non-conformists against the Church of England. Of course, sometimes anonymity was genuine, sometimes merely nominal (an open secret). But in either case it helps to put the ideas before their author.


No English author exploited the resources of public anonymity more fully than Daniel Defoe. In the pamphlet wars at the turn of the 18th century, Defoe enters debates on a number of issues dear to the Whig dissenters: to defend the necessity of King William’s standing army [SHOW], to attack those chauvinistic critics who characterized King William of Orange as a Foreign King. This satire, “The True-Born Englishman,” may be one of the first texts to argue the necessary hybridity of national identity. Anonymity and satiric indirection allow authors to be bold, impolite, and make strategic use of bad taste.  In a pamphlet that Early English Books attributes to Defoe, but has not been accepted by his most recent bibliographers, the author offers “Reasons Humbly offer'd for a Law to enact the Castration of Popish Ecclesiastics, As the best way to prevent the Growth of Popery in ENGLAND.


Upon the ascension of Queen Anne in 1702, anti-dissenter sentiments swept through England. In an effort to defend Whig Dissenters against High Church attacks and new legislation before Parliament, Defoe submits an anonymous writing machine to the public. In The Shortest Way with the Dissenters (1702), Defoe assumes the mask of a High Churchman, and parodies the attacks on non-conformity by proposing a 'final solution' to the problem of the tribe of Dissenters who threaten national unity. Defoe’s over-the-top parody of a High Church harangue ends with these words. This pamphlet that seems bizarrely immoderate to most readers of our own day. Defoe’s recent biographers have suggested that this pamphlet is suppose to lay bear the implicit desire of several High Church attacks upon the Dissenters published in the month before Defoe’s rejoinder. In order to understand how this passage effected its first readers, one needs to attend to the rhetorical technique it deploys.:

“The primitive Christians were not more shy of a heathen temple, or of meat offered to idols; /nor the Jews, of swine's flesh, /than some of our Dissenters are of the church and the Divine Service solemnized therein.

The Obstinacy must be rooted out, with the profession of it!

While the Generation are left at liberty daily to affront God Almighty, and dishonour His holy worship; we are wanting in our duty to God, and to our Mother the Church of England.

How can we answer it to God! to the Church! and to our posterity; to leave them entangled with Fanaticism! ...
Alas, the Church of England!

What with Popery on one hand, and Schismatics on the other, how has She been crucified between two thieves.

Now, Let Us Crucify The Thieves!

Let her foundations be established upon the destruction of her enemies! ...

Let all true sons of so holy and oppressed a Mother, exasperated by her afflictions, harden their hearts against those who have oppressed her!

And may God Almighty put it into the hearts of all the friends of Truth, to lift up a Standard against Pride and Antichrist!

that the Posterity of the Sons of Error may be rooted out from the face of this land, for ever!"


The rhetorical tropes used in this passage—parody of the spoken style of the opponent, analogy between contemporary and Biblical times, and extreme hyperbole—are little machines, operating upon meaning like software algorithms within the interface of writing. This pamphlet gets is special interest from the performative power it demonstrates, of the objective effects it triggers.  For by every account, Defoe’s rhetorical strategies misfire: several High Church writers actually applauded the stern prescriptions of the pamphlet; leading Dissenters were alarmed by the inflammatory tendency of its anti-Dissenter rhetoric; and the Tory ministry of Robert Harley were sure that whoever wrote the pamphlet was part of a deep-died Whig plot to destabilize the nation by stoking fears of religious genocide.  The Tory ministry took anti-terrorist action: they hired investigators to determine the identity of the author; a warrant was issued and a reward offered for Defoe’s arrest; Defoe became a fugitive for several months, was arrested, held in Newgate Prison, was tried, plead guilty of writing that carried a seditious tendency, and was sentenced to stand in the pillory on three occasions (where he was protected and lionized by the Dissenters). He remained in Newgate until his fines were paid.


If we consider this pamphlet as a material and cultural interface linking the author, with political ideas, to a reader who is entertains them, the anonymity of this publication allows the text to circulate un-tethered to any known writer, where the reader might ask, “how does a well known Dissenter like Daniel Defoe serve his interests with this writing?” Anonymous publication propels the reader into a different and wider game: to fix the meaning of the text the reader must ask and answer more basic questions: “Whose side is the writer on? What is the political tendency of these ideas and this language? What values are being affirmed by the writer? What values excoriated?” For the Tory ministry guiding Defoe’s prosecution for seditious libel, the very undecidability of this language induces political paranoia and a vigorous effort to close down the text’s inflammatory play of meanings. The ministry exercises its juridical power to expose Defoe’s identity as author, and then disgrace him. Had Defoe decided to plead innocent of the charge of seditious libel, he could have pointed out that a well-known Dissenter like himself surely could not “really mean” the speech of this pamphlet; that its meaning was utterly ironic. And the jury might have agreed with him. But, in trials for seditious libel at this time in England, the jury was only to decide if Defoe was the author (and the printer and bookseller were ready to testify to Defoe’s authorship of the pamphlet), while it was the judge alone whether this writing was of a seditious tendency, by causing disrespect for England and the Church of England. This is political power’s solution to ambiguity: the author is punished for the fact that he wrote the writing, rather than for what the writing means. There is a final irony about this episode: in recognition of Defoe’s talent, Robert Harley secretly wins Defoe released from prison and hires him as a Tory agent and writer.


In the 18th century, anonymous publication was not confined to political writing. Anonymous or pseudonymous publication was particularly common in first person narratives that told of adventures in far away places. When Defoe decides to write a travel narrative, he does not leave the British Isles; instead he publishes “The Life and Strange Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe” as “Written by Himself.”[SHOW] This encourages readers to accept the veracity of Crusoe’s adventures; this illustration represents the text’s quintessentially imperial moment: Crusoe saves Friday from the cannibals, and Friday swears everlasting loyalty to his Master. In these early English novels, authorial anonymity served what Michael McKeon has called “naïve empiricism”: the assumption that the most accurate accounts of exotic worlds would come from those who had first-hand experience of them. Jonathan Swift exploits the same vogue for first person narrative of exotic adventure in far away places in the Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World. This title page promotes authenticity of Lemuel Gulliver’s authorship by including a frontispiece portrait of the “author,” as well as authentic-looking maps of the regions where he travels, here Brobdingnag, the land of giant humans. The portrait emphasizes the social dimension of the book as interface: here we come face to face with the author who tells his story. In serving the illusion-engendering power of fiction, anonymity, as Samuel Richardson explains (in a letter to William Warburton) “avoid[s] hurting that kind of Historical Faith which Fiction itself is generally read with, tho’ we know it to be Fiction.” (Reading Clarissa, 126)


In the pamphlet wars of the American revolutionary era, anonymity facilitates the flows of political discourse in many of the same ways it served English politics in the same epoch. [from Cato’s Letters to the Federalist Papers] However, anonymous publication also begins to do something new: it submerges particular identities within a new corporate identity: the public or the “re-public.” (Literally,”a thing”, res, “of the people”, publica) I would like to suggest that the writing interface, as a medial thing directed at the people, that is a prototype for the res public. When a young protégé of Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Paine comes to the British American colonies at Benjamin Franklin’s behest, Paine publishes his pro-Independence pamphlet Common Sense, as “Addressed to the Inhabitants of America.” [SHOW] This pamphlet seeks to articulate a sensus communus, the ideas and feelings binding all on the American continent.  This pamphlet—one of the most widely read of the 18th century—recognizes the new collectivity in the addressee named in the title—“to inhabitants of America”. Paine signs his introduction, “the Author.” In a post-script to the introduction, Paine is almost coy about withholding his identity: “Who the Author of this Production is, is wholly unnecessary to the Public, as the Object for Attention is the Doctrine itself, not the Man. Yet it may not be unnecessary to say, That he is unconnected with any Party, and under no sort of Influence public or private, but the influence of reason and principle.” The representational schemes integral to republican government gain their legitimacy from the ideal of the unbiased citizen who can attend to “the doctrine itself” under the “influence of reason and principle.”


We don’t have to accept the ideal of disinterestedness Paine upholds here, we can instead accept critiques of that posture as diverse as DeToqueville and Marx, in order to see how a certain kind of anonymity—the subordination or submerging of personal identity—is necessary to the strange kind of corporate speech rehearsed in the pamphlet wars of the pre-Revolutionary era, and then embodied in the republic’s founding documents. Thus, the Dunlop Broadside of The Declaration of Independence, is the “speech” or “declaration” of an awkwardly named collectivity, “the representatives of the united states of America, in general congress assembled.” This broadside is signed and authorized by the presiding officer, “President John Handcock,” and the secretary, Charles Thompson; however its political function depends upon its being received as a collectively authored document. [Only later does Thomas Jefferson’s central role in composing the Declaration come to acknowledge, and this has given his authorial credit on the document.]


A more completely collective communication is achieved 10 years later with the publication of the Constitution composed by the Congress for the consideration of the States. Alan Kay noted what a strange new invention such a Constitution is. Now it is not just congress, but “we the people” who “do ordain and establish this constitution”: a corporate body formed by a system, very much like those described by Cliff Siskin in describing the Fair Intellectuals club [SHOW] The communication, here shown in its first printing in the Pennsylvania Packet, and Daily Advertiser, is submitted and signed by George Washington, the “President” of the convention. But authorship, understood as that agency which authorizes statements, is diffused through the several representatives of the several states. [SHOW]


Why has the practice of public anonymity—so valued in the 18th century—atrophied in the modern era? I offer several reasons:


  1. While 18th century authors like Pope and Swift saw no conflict between anonymous publication and fame, after the professionalization of authorship begins in earnest what we might call a “branding” of the author’s name makes maximizing one’s public presence an imperative.
  2. Anonymous publication means losing credit—it both senses of the word (how could you put an anonymous publication on your CV?)
  3. One could apply a Frankfurt school media analysis of the culture industry to understand the increasingly strident demand that the author renounce the protections and indirection of anonymity, so that, as in the public readings of 19th authors like Dickens and Twain, or the radio and television shows of the 20th century, the author might reveal him or her true self through a particular face and voice, a distinct style and sensibility, or, in the confessional mode in vogue in the late 20th century, someone with a poignant personal story. Domesticated by a confining because highly personalized persona, and pushed into visibility, the ideas and rhetorical technique of writing becomes subordinate to authorial self-display.


However, it is not just the iconic status of author and artist that impoverishes public culture. Public anonymity has also been damaged by a dogmatic modern commonplace: that a text can only be responsible if we know its human source as we read it. In other words, our epoch assumes that anonymity is incompatible with responsibility, that behind the mask of anonymity the writer/ /maker/ producer will indulge the passions of a cruel and mean spirited prankster, may engage in speech that is hateful and reprehensible. I think 18th century practice puts in question this modern bias against anonymity. Our contemporary practice limits the range of public writing.


By invoking and valuing what I have called “enlightened anonymity” I court the danger of a false idealization of 18th century print culture, especially when I invoke the documents that found the American republic. Most agree that 18th century public culture is gone and cannot be retrieved. Here I have used it to cast a critical light for thinking through the potentials of on-line cultural practices.  The software architecture of the network, and the way people have chosen to use that architecture, enables anonymity for producers and users.  Here are some on-line sites that have grappled with the issue of developing web sites that allow on-line public spaces that augment the kinds and significance of our public discourse.

On-line Public Spaces:

Democracies Online: Learning from the newsgroups, web forums, and chat to produce an "interactive public commons," through many to many email discussions.

Independent Media Center: Here, the site claims, "every reader is a reporter." Mostly this serves as an "alternative" news source, with reporters identified.

Fucked Company: Devoted to dissecting the dead and dying dot.coms, this site encourages anonymous posts. What results it the blend of blunt critique and the flaming and cute one-upsmanship familiar from newsgroup exchanges.

Post-script: I can imagine someone responding to these remarks in the following way. “The contemporary writers who have influence analogous to the authors in the 18th century are not the writers of words but of software code. This is the new pathway to political and social influence. Thus, one college dropout, Sean Fanning, wrote code for a peer-to-peer file-sharing program, and extened the GUI so it could function as an interface for music distribution, and this shook the 20 billion dollar music cartel to its foundation. “ But, the case of Napster and Sean Fanning also suggests why we need a powerful on-line public culture: Napster inaugurated the cultural practice of peer to peer file sharing much more successfully than it defended those practices in court or Congress, where, in the last instance, decisions will be made.

Closing Questions: