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On pseudonymity

A decade ago, before the rise of the Web, there wasn't a lot of scholarly research on pseudonymity. Almost none. I know this because I dealt with journalistic pseudonymity in some detail in my dissertation, and when in the early 1990s I went looking for stuff on the history of pseudonymity, I really didn't find much at all.

Strange, I thought, since pseudonymy was so central to the rise of the bourgeois public sphere. I needed to understand the historical context of newspaper pseudonymity as background to some literary questions, so I went hunting and spent a godawfully long time trying to piece together some information and make painfully simple inferences from primary sources. I thought I had some publishable surmises. Then by the time the Internet became popular, every senior scholar and his sister published a book on the topic within a year. Okay, not every senior scholar. But I got scooped and I'm bitter.

Here are a few random tidbits about 18c pseudonymity, gleaned from my rusty and resentful memory.

1. Early journalism--I'm think of early British newspapers and magazines through 1740 or so, though what I'm saying mostly applies for the whole century--was a lot like blogging.

I know, I know. But really.

Even the most hardcore "news" newspapers published "letters" containing news reports; news was often introduced with the phrase "We have letters from Paris" or "We have letters from Newcastle, which tell us..." Where exactly did these letters come from? How many of these letters were from paid correspondents, and how many from volunteers or subscribers, or from hand-me-down letters passed from family members to subscribers to editors? This is a question that historians of journalism are very coy about answering because they really have no idea.

A couple of things are clear. First, editors needed material--often desperately. There was a general fear of not having enough stuff to fill out the issue, so newspapers would publish just about anything that came into their hands. As a result, readers and subscribers early on understood that they could send in something interesting and be fairly likely see it appear in print, or at least have an editor mention in passing why he chose not to print it (which was a kind of validation in itself).

Not only that, you can find editors occasionally appealing to their readership to send in letters containing news about matters of interest. Really, anything. We don't have enough stuff!

So even the "hard news" newspapers may have had a participatory relation to their subscribers which is very different from today. But that's just the tip of the iceberg.

In some newspapers, as well as some Addison-and-Steely magazines, the letters to the editor were a major proportion of the publication. They sometimes took up more room than "news," and they were not corralled into their own section of the paper but were randomly distributed among other news items. There is a participatory aspect to the early newspaper which is wholly absent in our modern world of professional journalists: the subscribers had at least some sense of being the people who produced the news--even wrote the news--not just the ones who read about it.

Which is like blogging. What was different from blogging in all this was the figurehead of the editor. He presided over his newspaper as a kind of judicial presence. In some newspapers, the editor engaged in dialogue with the letterwriters; in others he remained silent, but was always addressed ("Sir") by those who wrote to the paper. Often when brief debates flare you will see a certain Parliamentary style in which both debaters "address the bench" rather than addressing the opponent. "Please inform Mr. Whig that I had no such intention in my previous." He "owned" the public space of the newspaper even if it was filled with writing that was not his own.

2. Pseudonymity was everywhere. It was the norm. So far as I can tell, the vast majority of the letters from subscribers were anonymous or pseudonymous, and very few of true identities of these pseudonyms appear to have actually been known to the orginal editors--nor have they been discovered by historians. The secrets remained secret.

A large proportion of pseudonymous writers used pseudonyms based on classical allusion, particularly ones which implied the norm of citizenship. The signature of "Cato" in Trenchard and Gordon's Cato's Letters, and Publius in Madison & Hamilton's Federalist Papers, are only two of the most famous. There was a lot of this. "Civicus." "Philo-Brittania." Lots of Brutuses.

This means that, as Ray notes, pseudonymity was theatrical, roletaking...and yes, there were some playful roles taken up. But the set of values that a very large subset of pseudonymous cases "performed" was that of the republican citizen who had divested the particulars of individual identity in order to appear in the public sphere as a featureless equal. And there were endless invocations of "disinterest" and "candor" (open-mindedness) as the basic values of public debate. So insofar as the eighteenth-century pseudonym involved a performance, it was quite often a performed submission to a public norm of civility and citizenship. "Hypocrisy upward."

3. Despite this, public debate was also riddled with invective, vicious gossip, and incivility, often beginning two or three paragraphs after disinterest and candor had been invoked. We remember the Augustan age, especially, as rather nasty in its terms of public debate. Also, in at least some cases pseudonyms provoked curiosity about the true author rather than making the true author's name irrelevant to the points under discussion. My own take is that the rise of the classical republican pseudonym was an attempt to stablize the use of the pseudonym with an acceptable ethical groundwork. (Or at least an ethical flavor.)

4. Many newspaper editors hated pseudonyms and tried to abolish the practice. They were afraid that libel suits would fall on their heads since the original writers' identities could not be located. But they couldn't stop it. They still needed material, and the public enthusiasm for the device was so powerful that they had to bow to its continued existence.

5. The ethical tenor of pseudonymity was sometimes debated within letters themselves. At some point in an exchange, pseudonymity as such might be declared "cowardice," at which point the opponent would reply that the content of the argument should be all that mattered (implying that the complaint about pseudonymity only arose when the debater had been trumped). This particular argumentative tit-for-tat is at least three centuries old, and in the archival materials I've looked at, I've never seen it carried beyond this sort of name-calling impasse, much less resolved.

The Web has replicated the features of 18c Anglo-American print culture in ways that are really astonishing. I know this is something of a cliche by now, but it was, shall we say, pretty electric to me seeing it while in the middle of this research before anyone had written about it.

posted by Turbulent Velvet on 06/16/2002

1 Comment

Nice post. The internet is the new Grub Street? "The Hack" in The Tale of the Tub is designed to produce a teeming chaos of misinterpretation. One of the great pleasures of pseudononymous discourse is to confound the reader's categories, "true" versus "fiction," "bourgois" versus "elite." Once again, creativity has overflowed the narrow confines of scholarly and journalistic categories.

Posted by The Happy Tutor
June 18th

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