Tracing Fingertips

My mother yelled down that all four of us kids were to come upstairs immediately. Her face, normally placid and loving, showed signs of irritation and anger. As we gathered in the kids’ shared bathroom, she leaned forward, directing our attention to the mirror over the sink. Someone had made, in the shower steam, a drippy print: “Clean Me Off.” Mom wanted to know who had authored the bathroom command.

Since the advent of writing, readers have sought assurance of the identity of the person who is “speaking” to them. In moving from receiving news and information through oration to getting it through written language, readers lost the physical assurance of the speaker as originator (or at least replicator) of the words being communicated.  Readers who lay their own hands (or eyes) on a text have a strong drive to know whose fingers carved, scripted, painted, typed, or handwrote the words. “Whose words do I read?” we ask. 

In A Better Pencil, Baron shows how each step forward in technological innovation brought with it unsettling anxieties. The process of authenticating texts—confirming and assuring readers of the author’s identity—lagged behind each new innovation in composition. As the users of new writing technologies increased, the rogue quality of possible anonymity was eventually mitigated as each era found its own ways of determining authorship. 

As anyone who has ever lost control of an email or social media account or caught a computer virus knows, it can be highly embarrassing to have your byline attached to a fraudulent email or link. Baron’s assertion that “all new writing technologies bring with them the potential for fraud” (120) is certainly true, but the probability of encountering fraud and untrustworthy content is the necessary flip side of increasingly democratized access to composition and publishing.

It seems that charges of fraud (may frequently, though not always) disguise an unwillingness to relinquish control of content and publication now made more democratic than any other time in history. In the cases of unlicensed printing presses up through unsigned blogs, new writing technologies enable people to “bypass many of the long-established winnowing and qualifying procedures that we have come to associate with writing” (Baron 163). In other words, a widely (though far from universally) available means of writing and reaching an audience reroutes texts past traditional monitors/arbiters of taste, quality, and accuracy. We now have a “cyberworld of writers without borders” (163). To the masses for whom publishing through traditional avenues isn’t possible, the internet offers a free–both monetarily and ideologically–place to share ideas and respond to the ideas of others.

Graffiti on mirrors in NYC. (Flikr through Creative Commons)
Graffiti on mirrors in NYC. (by Joff Hopkins on Flickr through Creative Commons)

While celebrating this in the abstract, those who previously controlled the means of publishing (if not producing content in private) now face a digital world in which anyone who wants to can find a platform to speak/write. As Baron puts it, new technologies help “upstarts” “take advantage of the destabilization produced by new communication machines in order to take text and talk in new directions” (162). Those previously in positions of power have the most to lose when so-called “upstarts” challenge the status quo, and so critiques of new writing and printing technologies as fraught with fraud danger may hold both truth and occlusion.

After all, part of the compulsion to know who wrote something is to understand their ethos as well as to judge their work. Readers mete out punishment or heap reward on the writer based on what we think he or she deserves, and online anonymity creates a readerly/writerly breech.

Back to the bathroom mirror writer, who created his or her own huge and highly visible paper: I understand my mom’s irritation about the writing on the mirror. The writer left an unsigned mess(age), in smudges and markings. But I also must point out that my mom’s encouragement to express ourselves through writing implicitly carried with it very specific (and themselves unwritten) rules about where, how, and what to write. And ultimately, when it came to reading the writing on the mirror, the message itself mattered to her much less than the author’s identity. (And I swear, it wasn’t me.)


6 thoughts on “Tracing Fingertips”

  1. I would like to firmly agree with Janel that our digital technologies are revolutionizing the ways in which we conceive of authorship and ownership. Writing on a screen and responding through one inherently encourage anonymity because writer and reader are very rarely in physical proximity with each other. So even if a writer signs his or her or their names, we as distanced readers still can’t know them completely – even if said author(s) provides an exhaustive list of credentials and personal details.

    But digital writing also encourages unspoken collaboration, much differently than a collaboration that takes place in a lab or for an academic article that is published hardcopy in a journal. Even if two people don’t sit down at their respective computers at the same time and collaborate on, for instance, a new installment of their _Supernatural_ fanfiction, social media is almost always collaborative. Although I flood my Facebook with personal updates, I often share links to music videos, songs, reviews, and news articles that I think at least one person on my friends list would enjoy. (And just to clarify, I am never the author or producer for any of those media.) In that way, the narrative that I’m constructing for myself is a collaborative effort, despite the fact that the journalists or artists I’m constantly sharing probably have no idea how I’ve appropriated their texts for my own uses.

    Collaboration aside, I believe that the anonymity that the web affords us is a large part of its allure, even if it scares most people away or prompts them to rage about it on their own respective space pages (to borrow a term from Baron). As much as we might desire to know as much as we can about an author, I’d argue that at times it’s equally as rewarding to imagine who authored the piece we’re currently reading, watching, or listening to. Or maybe that’s just my prerogative?

  2. Janel and Chris–

    Your responses remind me of a conversation I had with a colleague in Stephanie’s Rhetorics of Diversity class last year (Michael, you may remember it). We were presenting our final papers, and my colleague—let’s call her Emily, for the sake of anonymity—was writing about the relationship between anonymity and student participation on Sakai forums. Emily’s argument was staunchly opposed to anonymous composing, as she believed that students needed to take responsibility for their words. While part of me agrees with this belief, I also feel that anonymity plays an important role in digital writing.

    As Chris mentioned, anonymity has a certain allure–it allows us to express ourselves it ways that we otherwise wouldn’t. This expression may be benign—like a not-so-subtle reminder to clean a mirror—or malignant—like the vast majority of hate speech that exists on the internet. Instead of being limited by the fear of repercussions, people are now open to put every opinion they have out in to the open. And, for better or worse, anonymity has allowed a more open level of communication. Instead of being limited by the fear of repercussions, people are now open to put every opinion they have out in to the open.

  3. One thing that your post made me think about, Janel, was the related “cult of the author;” a cult which I have also participated in furthering through my deep devotion to authors such as Zadie Smith. In this “cult” of sorts we idolize the author to the point where it is not even about what they say anymore but who said it.

    That said, one of the most beautiful things to be about online writing is the idea that the author sometimes diminishes in importance to the content. Now, this is obviously not always the case (I used to write a blog anonymously which ended up being slightly popular with philosophers, and they spent way too much time trying to figure out who the author behind the blog was), but online writing does allow for this.

  4. I am not sure if a society’s hidden thoughts would be totally unmasked just because everybody is publishing several instant ideas without any fears or names. This constant correspondence going on between millions of Internet users is not necessarily a gate to their intentions. It seems to be shapeless. One needs to react to something in the surrounding world to prove one’s existence. In the digital world there is no other way to prove an existence but publishing. In the non-digital world I can walk, sleep, or just breathe to feel that I am alive, but in the digital world I should send out a message to feel that I am there and to hear it from the others. Otherwise I would not exist in that world even if I am browsing it. Is this collective anonymity an instinctive act of being? I post, therefore I am.

  5. Interesting responses, all!

    Naghmeh, I certainly do feel compelled to do things online “to feel that I am there and to hear it from the others.” Sometimes I wonder if a run is really a run without posting about it (it is, I’ve discovered!), or if a meal is really that good if I don’t share a photo or recipe on Facebook or Twitter (it is!).

    Katie, I’m desperate to hear more about your life as an anonymous philosophy blogger. Why did you stop? Also, your point about the cult of the author being dismantled or at least reduced in commonality is an interesting one. I also see the cult of the author challenged not only by anonymity, but because online life enables us to know more about the people whose writing we admire. Recently Stephen King tweeted something about Woody Allen’s daughter’s allegations of sexual abuse. His personal opinion, tweeted to 300,000 some followers, undoubtedly made a (negative) impression on people who might otherwise have preferred he stay quiet on current events and pop culture gossip in order to read and admire his books.

  6. Janel,

    I keep thinking that the next book we’re slated to talk about is Writing on the Wall! I’d be interested in thinking some more about how the digital world does or doesn’t encourage anonymity in different ways than print culture. I tend to be anonymo-phobic myself; I don’t like to write anything without signing it. But most of my worst encounters with anonymity have had nothing to do with digital culture, but rather with the demands of institutions for anonymous reviews (of manuscripts, tenure and promotion cases, job applicants, etc.)

    Having said that, I don’t like anonymous posts on the web either. But I’m not sure yet that it’s the medium that’s driving my response.


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