I've been blogging, for nearly four years, under a pseudonym. I chose to do so in part because I was on the tenure track and didn't feel comfortable blogging under my professional (notice I don't say real) name. But what drew me to blogging was the potential that I saw in developing an online identity and writing voice that I consciously constructed. In other words, writing under a pseudonym was part of the fun of the experiment for me, and part of the fun of blogging for me. Indeed, it was central to the fun. I consciously was thinking about form in my choice to begin a blog, and I wasn't merely trying to write without accountability. In fact, I never saw what I was doing as writing without accountability.
And so, I am honestly... dumbfounded by the fact that people are still talking about the "danger" in academics writing with pseudonyms, from whatever perspective. I mean, this whole pseudonymity thing - isn't it old hat?
I mean, I had a sense that it wasn't old hat during my whole kerfuffle in the fall with a writer over at The Valve, but I didn't really believe that people didn't get it until I read this piece in The Chronicle.
So here I am, Dr. Crazy, to explain the differences between pseudonymity and anonymity to you. Indeed, they are not the same thing.
Anonymity, is about being without identity, about being untraceable. Now, one could argue that no one is untraceable - we can now use our statcounters to figure out - or to come close to figuring out - who "Anonymous 9:14 AM" is, or at least where that person is. But, historically, anonymity has been about effacing one's identity even as one writes. Now, Virginia Woolf famously suggests in A Room of One's Own that "Anon, who wrote so many poems without signing them, was a woman" (49). Maybe this is the place where the problem with distinguishing between anonymity and pseudonymity begins, as in making this claim, Woolf assigns an identity to the anonymous writer. She's a woman. I think it's no mistake that most of the pseudonymous bloggers that I read are women. Put two and two together, people. But I digress.
Pseudonymity, on the other hand, is not about being untraceable but rather about taking on a traceable identity that is distinct from one's legal identity, or one's identity at birth. It's about taking on a "pen name," a name that people can follow, and by extension a way of thinking that people can follow. Yet, by disconnecting one's writing identity from one's "real life" identity, one preserves first a measure of control over how one's writing is perceived and second acquires a level of protection from certain kinds of scrutiny (often gendered). Let's think about this first not in the context of blogging, or even of writing generally. Let's think about it in the context of Massively Multiplayer Online Roleplaying Games. In such games, one chooses a character, an emblem of one's identity. This character has a name, but also a sex, certain powers, certain clothes, etc. Is this construction of identity in some way disingenuous? No. It's part of the game. And, in my limited experience with such games, it's what is interesting about them. Communities develop between the people who take on the roles in these games, and they accomplish tasks together. Friendships develop, and sometimes even "real life" identities are revealed. This is all as "real" as anything else, ultimately, although it is not dependent upon geographical location or one's appearance, or one's race- gender- class- inflected "real" identity. One has responsibilities under this identity, through one's relationships to others in the community. You're "known" as the identity that you've created, and you develop a reputation under that name. You're not, even if nobody knows the "real" you, anonymous.
That's what writing on a blog (or in some other venue, like The Chronicle) under a pseudonym is like. You have an identity, a traceable identity and one to which you are accountable, but one that is not connected to the identity with which you were born. In order to maintain such an identity for more than a few weeks, you need to be accountable. You need to be consistent. You need to present a version of yourself to which people respond as a unified subject position. If you write something that contradicts what people expect of you, then you're screwed. If you write something that conflicts with somebody's idea of what your subject position should be, well, it causes conflict (see the kerfuffle of mine from a few months ago).
But see, this is where writing with a pseudonym made me less free in that kerfuffle. If I were the "real me" then I would have changed my line of response in a particular way, without thought to voice or persona, that would have shut the whole thing down. Part of the reason that it went the way that it did was because under the Dr. Crazy identity I couldn't change tack in that particular way, because it would have compromised who "Dr. Crazy" is. Had I been writing as "Real" self, I would have, in contrast to what the haters would say, have had more options and I would have been less accountable for changing tack. Because here's the thing: if one writes as one's "self" then one is allowed to be contradictory or thoughtful in certain ways that one isn't under a pseudonym. One is ultimately authorized to be more- not less - multifaceted.
But so let me address the concerns of Peter Plagens, as I read them:
1. Why use a pseudonym if one's "bill of particulars adds up to only the mildest episode of Dilbert"?
Well, because here's the thing. Sometimes people want to write about the mundane. Tragically, the mundane does not generally accord one professional accolades. While it's true that one might not face profoundly negative repercussions (like not getting tenure) for writing such things under one's "real" name, one also will not receive professional accolades. In a culture of tenure and promotion that depends upon accolades, well, it certainly doesn't make sense to write about the mundane under one's "real" name. Why? Because, well, it makes one seem mundane as opposed to outstanding, which is what tenure committees even at the most lame universities seek. It's all about self-presentation. And, well, if one presents one's Dilbert-worthy complaints as one's own, it doesn't do one any good. If one presents them under a pseudonym, it doesn't do one any good, but it also doesn't do any harm, and it may help others in the same boat, if only because they feel they have people to commiserate with.
2. Why use a pseudonym when using one might make question one's credibility?
For, indeed, all people writing under pseudonym's are frustrated novelists. I'm not even a college professor. HA! April fool years in the making! It's all a web of lies! It's all too "delicious" to be true! Indeed! You'd think what I wrote had more credence if it were "true," wouldn't you? Indeed, an E! True Hollywood Story has more value than what I write here because I write it as Dr. Crazy! For it is "true"! I can't even offer a substantive critique of this point because I can barely take it seriously.
3. Why use a pseudonym because it will mean you lose "a whole lot of journalistic color and narrative viscera" that would have made the pieces more interesting?
Well, I'm a fan of aesthetic arguments, but I've got to say, I think that the best pseudonymous writers do a good deal to flesh out the details even while preserving their real-life privacy. Moreover, why should anybody sacrifice his or her career (potentially) for another's reading pleasure? Are people really so aesthetically disturbed? If so, then why do I have (approximately) 300 unique hits a day to my blog and around 150 bloglines readers (not counting googlereader, etc.)? You'd think they'd all be unable to deal, wouldn't you?
4. Why use a pseudonym because it further exacerbates the stereotype that academe is a "terrarium for fragile, frightened creatures who can't "make it in the real world"?
Well, perhaps I'm less optimistic than Peter Plagens. I think that whether we write with pseudonyms or not that people will believe this about academe. Furthermore, I actually think that pseudonymous writers go much further toward exposing the fact that this is not what academe is than those who write under their "real" names. Indeed, most writers who reveal their "true" identities are much less candid about the current state of this profession or about the realities of it.
Now, I'll admit. I've thought a lot about "coming out" once I get tenure, and revealing the "real me" behind Dr. Crazy. But you know what? I sort of feel like I don't want to. Not because I'm frightened or paranoid or living in a terrarium (while that would be interesting), but because I value the egalitarian blogging community of which I am a part. I love that I'm on equal footing with Sisyphus and Flavia and Horace and Maude and other pseudonymous bloggers, regardless of rank or position. I love that hierarchy isn't the fucking point. I love that we're all teachers and scholars and friends. I didn't come to blogging for community, but it's what I got through blogging. And in part I got it through my pseudonym. And I'm into that. And I hate the idea that I'd dismiss that with tenure. And I don't want to dismiss it. So if I ever do the grand reveal, it certainly won't be permanent, and it won't make a damned bit of difference in identity. Because whether or not my "real name" is on it, what I do here is valuable, and I refuse to reject it, whatever the consequences to "academe."
So there :)
(By the way, Profgrrrrl also talks about this Chronicle article here.)
6 years ago