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Dr Brooke Magnanti Headshot

Anonymity

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As DH Lawrence said, never trust the teller, trust the tale.

Some may think of anonymity as a modern phenomenon enabled by media and technology and its ability to help people hide their true identities. Or others may believe it's a relic of the past, when no one seemed to care who writers were at all, and destined to disappear in our digital age. But the truth is far more complex. Anonymity has been used for all sorts of reasons and by all kinds of people throughout history.

There are those for whom the name was never important, those whose names are lost to history. There are jokers and fakes; modest maidens and brash blaggers (not to mention brash bloggers). There are also the people whose skilful manipulation of identity means that there are layers upon layers of anonymity operating in their work. There are almost as many reasons for being anonymous as there are anonymous writers. And there are still more hiding behind fake names, or pseudonyms, so even when we think we know their names, we don't really.

No matter how someone comes to choose anonymity or pseudonymity (many use 'anonymity' generically to mean both), it has a way of evolving. It can represent one thing at the outset and change the moment readers start to notice the work. What had originally started as a way of trying to shield my nascent science career rapidly developed into something more.

The identities the readers create for these writers - as well as the ones they create themselves - mirror fascinating changes in media, in society, in the relationship between ideas and words.

Take Homer's Odyssey. The reason the journey back doesn't go well for Odysseus is due, at least in part, to the fact that he can't resist letting people know who he is. He's a braggart at heart, and as such, tries to fly under the radar and use a more anonymous persona - he really does - but is utterly incapable of pulling it off.

Example: at one point Odysseus rocks up in the land of the cyclopes. Odysseus manages to blind the main cyclops tormentor, Polyphemos. Polyphemos cries out for help from his fellow monsters. Other cyclopes rush to assist him and ask what is going on.

Only, Odysseus didn't tell Polyphemos his real name, Instead, he cleverly claimed to be called OYTIΣ, or "Nobody".

So when the cyclops gang come along demanding to know who has cruelly blinded their friend, Polyphemos can only wail "Nobody is tormenting me!" Based on this evidence the friends reasonably conclude Polyphemos is off his head and go away, paving the way for Odysseus and his friends to escape. Score one for anonymity.

Things are going swimmingly, with Odysseus and his crew now safely back on their ship. You'd think they were in the clear for sure. It's at this point that Odysseus falls prey to one of the great problems of anonymity - when no one knows who you are, you never get proper credit for what you've done. He starts taunting Polyphemos as they sail away. He reveals his true identity: he is not Nobody, he shouts at the angry cyclopes on shore. He is Odysseus!

It's not the best thing he could have done given the circumstances. As it turns out Polyphemos was a son of Poseidon, and Poseidon just happens to be the king of the sea. Seeing as Odysseus and his men are surrounded by ocean at that very moment, being captive to the whims of an angry water god is probably the worst possible thing that could happen. Poseidon takes it upon himself to avenge his cyclops son's blinding and humiliation by vowing that Odysseus's ship will never reach its native shores. As you can imagine, hijinks ensue.

Odysseus is far from stupid but he doesn't always make great decisions, especially when his ego gets involved. "Nobody" was such a good pseudonym though, so ripe for punnery, that later writers couldn't resist borrowing it in homage to Homer.

Edgar Allan Poe once accused Henry Wadsworth Longfellow of plagiarism. Poe then found himself rebutted by an anonymous writer defending Longfellow who signed his letters only as "Outis". Outis - an Anglicisation of Odysseus's pseudonym OYTIΣ - "Nobody." There was much speculation on the identity of Outis, with some ever suggesting that could have been a playful move to whip up publicity by Poe himself.

But at this point home is a long way off - Odysseus and his men are careening around the oceans thanks to an angry god. They are shipwrecked on the shores of Scheria where the princess Nausicaa brings him home to her family, who do not know his name, referring to him only as ξεῖνε - 'foreign guest'.

After dinner one night the royal family and their guest are kicking back, enjoying some entertainment. A bard starts singing tales of the Trojan War. Only, he gets some details about the battles wrong, and in particular, things Odysseus actually witnessed firsthand. Odysseus corrects the bard, but this leads his hosts to ask with suspicion: who are you really? No man is ἀνώνυμος (anōnumos) - without a name.

And thus was the first surviving reference to the term as we know it.

So Odysseus lets slip his true name - yes, again - and proceeds to relate the story of his neverending journey.

What a story it is, as well. Odysseus has been on a sailing trip for the last ten years! He survived drowning by hanging on to a fig tree! A witch-goddess turned half his men into pigs! With so many great adventures, it would test the discretion of even the most modest man to overhear people getting your own legend wrong. And Odysseus is not exactly what you would call overburdened with modesty.

The Odyssey is an onion of anonymity. The circumstances of Homer's anonymity are firmly contrasted from the ways Odysseus uses it. Odysseus purposely tries to conceal himself, Homer achieved namelessness by accident, by being as many believe simply the umbrella name for a number of storytellers. But none of that changes the value and influence of what was written.

When we talk about anonymity today we talk about something that is widely regarded as suspect, cowardly, or even dangerous. The general culture of disapproval seems to suggest that the ills such figures represent demonstrate an irreversible decline in our culture and the tone of public discourse.

The cultures of namelessness we see today are little different from their predecessors in Ancient Greece, Restoration England, or Revolutionary America. There have always been anonymous and pseudonymous commenters who bring thoughtful and reasoned opinions to the table. As well, there have always been those who spray paint 'LOL PENIS' on whatever flat surface they can find.

But even so it is difficult, in our own time, to see the parallels between the people who use anonymity today and the cultural and political movers and shakers who took advantage of its protection in the past. What does Belle de Jour have in common with Alexander Pope? Apart from a few years at Catholic school, not a lot.

Maybe that is the point. It is impossible to predict which of the commentators actively writing now will turn out to have been important in a hundred year's time. Will WIkileaks and Anonymous be the Cato's Letters and Federalist Papers of the future? Or will they be like the Pompeiian graffiti writers: preserved as ephemeral footnotes, if remembered at all?

Brooke Magnanti will be speaking at HowTheLightGetsIn, the world's largest philosophy and music festival, running annually in Hay-on-Wye from 22 May-1 June in association with the Huffington Post UK

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