Since I liked this piece, I asked Tedra if we could run her MLA presentation on 18c periodical essayists and blogging personae. I thought it would be useful for us to talk about, because it pushes the historical analogy further and reflects a bit on the function of pseudonyms in public writing. Tedra also notes that this is an earlier draft than the one delivered, because of a hard-drive meltdown. Nonetheless, I think it’s got plenty for us to consider.–DM
I’m Nobody, Who Are You?
It’s really strange to be here delivering this talk. Because no one in the audience is here to hear what Tedra Osell, the scholar of 18th century studies with one article to her name, coming from a university few people have even heard of, currently on leave, is here to say. This isn’t even an 18th century panel. You’re all here to see Michael, or Scott or John, or a persona named [pseudonymous blogger]. And, of course, it was PB, not Tedra Osell–who was invited to be on the panel in the first place. But for whatever reason, the MLA doesn’t yet allow personae to deliver papers, so here I am instead. And since 18th-century studies is, in fact, my field, I’m going to talk a little bit about 18th-century studies. On the other hand, since it’s PB who was invited to be on the panel, I’ll do so in her style, which is (ironically, since she’s only a persona) first-person and personal, rather than in my style, which is more typically academic (and therefore less interesting, or at least less novel).
Like most of the stuff PB does, the underlying premises of her creation are apparent to me, Tedra, only in retrospect. What led to my being online at all was my being pregnant while I was writing my dissertation; I went looking for stuff about pregnancy and babies and life/work balance and ended up on the HipMama forums, which were a really awesome mothering resource that no longer exists. The forums went down, and I finished my dissertation, and went on the market, and then some of my old friends from HipMama wrote and said that they were all starting LiveJournals and I should too, so I did that for a while and wrote about my job search. Since I was getting more interested, by this point, in that subject than in babies, I started wanting a forum to talk about academia–which was also a topic some of my mama friends were interested in, but between feeling the desire for a more public kind of accountability and the desire to be a little *less* public about specific things like where I was interviewing, and the like, I went over to blogger and started a blog there–the name for which I came up with offhandedly, in a late-night chat with an old college friend, by the way.
What led to my making Pseudonymous Blog (I hope) into something more than “just” a personal blog, though, was said dissertation. What I wrote on, and am supposed to work on (though I haven’t, much, lately) is 18th-century periodical publishing. Specifically, 18th-century periodical essays, the best known of which are the Tatler (which still exists, as the title of a British society magazine), the Spectator, and Johnson’s Rambler. The 19th-century canon of 18th-century essays included other titles, now forgotten, and–as I came to realize–mostly written by a more-or-less connected group of Whig politicians and Whiggish hangers on, a kind of 18th-century old boys club. (Which, I have to say, established a canon not only by promoting its own, but also simply because the Whig world view was, in fact, on the ascendant–so that what Whiggish writers wrote was, in fact, more popular.)
But there were literally hundreds of these essay periodicals that weren’t canonical, and many of these were anonymously written. Or, I should say, pseudonymously, because one of the quickly-established features of the genre was an eponymous authorial persona. There were two Parrots, both written by parrots; a North Briton, written by an anonymous Scotsman; The Young Lady, written by a Young Lady, and so on.
One of the most successful essay periodicals to fail to enter the canon was The Female Tatler (written by “Mrs. Crackenthrope,” mostly, and then by a Society of Ladies), which began publishing shortly after the Tatler did, and successfully competed with it (a singular achievement) partly through the extremely clever conceit of publishing on alternate days and claiming to represent an alternate–i.e., woman’s–point of view. To this day, the author of the Female Tatler is at best an educated guess: the CBEL still lists the probable author as Thomas Baker, based on stories that Baker was publicly beaten because of something that the Female Tatler wrote. The few scholars who work on the thing, though, have pretty much moved over to attributing it to Delariviere Manley, aka Mary Delariviere Manley. The evidence for this attribution rests on Manley’s having been arrested just as Mrs. Crackenthorpe turned over the reins to the Society of Ladies, now known to have been mostly the creation of Bernard Mandeville, a friend and associate of Manley’s. No one admits this outright, but I suspect strongly that an underlying reason for this (rather thin) evidence having been accepted so widely is the desire or belief that, in fact, the Female Tatler should have been written by a woman.
By now, probably, most of you are seeing the parallels to blogging, or at least to my own blog. In effect, my blog was doing more or less the same thing that 18th-century periodical essayists were doing: writing more-or-less personal essays on a regular schedule, using a consistent eponymous pseudonym, about topics from politics to the latest news to what the author dreamt last night or where he or she had dinner, and what the company talked about. And, more specifically, just as the Female Tatler consciously courted an audience by explicitly presenting an “alternative” viewpoint, “Pseudonymous Blog” was a title chosen–however casually–in order to represent a kind of paradox, an “alternative” point of view on the ostensible success of having finished the degree, landed a good tenure-track job, and embarked on an academic career that I felt I was kind of faking (and blogging itself magnifies that feeling–after all, as I said in the beginning, PB is a far more successful academic than Tedra Osell).
Now, it isn’t especially groundbreaking of me to say “wow, blogging’s just like 18th-century periodical publication!” Most of the 18th-centuryists I know have made this observation at one point or another. There are a couple of other similarities, as well: 18th-century periodicals instituted the letter to the editor, which was in its day as marked an innovation as blog comments. The Tatler, in particular, played with this innovation by introducing fake letters (written by Richard Steele, its primary author), by using real letters as essays (presented either as submissions or revised slightly and printed without attribution), and by engaging in multi-issue discussions with correspondents–virtually all of whom, following the paper’s own model, wrote under pseudonyms or initials, by the way. There were interpaper spats and dramas, along with threats to reveal author’s identities (or thin allusions to identities that “everyone” supposedly already knew).
And, just as with blogs, there were those who celebrated the emergence of print ephemera as a revolutionizing, democratizing force: “anyone” could start a paper, or write to one, or publish in one. Of course, a canon emerged rather quickly and, as I said, it favored a small group of loosely interconnected ideological comrades (more or less); the “where are the women” question wasn’t asked at the time, but if you were to look exclusively at the canonical 18th-century periodicals, you might be tempted to conclude that women didn’t write many of them–and the 1992 “Women Advising Women” microfilm collection, which includes 40 periodicals and periodical-type miscellanies along with conduct books and the like, has several titles that appear, or are known to have been written by men using female personae for either satirical or didactic purposes.
Which brings me to the two main points I want to raise for discussion and, one hopes, further research. First, notwithstanding post-Habermas discontent, I think it’s fair to say that the 18th century generally, and periodical print culture specifically, established if not an actual fully-realized public sphere, at least what I like to call the “enabling fiction” of the public sphere: that is, the idea (which even Habermas’ critics invoke more or less self-consciously) that we should work towards such a thing, and that (though this is somewhat more debatable) that we’re all more or less in agreement about what such a thing would involve.
Second, along the same lines, that we really don’t know how unrealized the imperfect textual public sphere really was (then) or is (now). And I think that this is related to something I suspect, based on my own practice and an (unscientific and imperfectly conceived) survey I did about a year ago, putting out a call for respondents on my blog and then emailing a survey to all those who showed interest. I got about 450 narrative responses, which are impossible, really, to perfectly interpret. But the jist of the results correspond with my observations in the blogosphere, and my observations of 18th-century anonymous periodicals. I suspect that the vast majority of pseudonymous writers are exactly who they represent themselves as, at least insofar as gender is concerned.
We all joke that “on the internet, no one knows you’re a dog,” but it seems to me that, in fact, this isn’t true. Even unschooled readers are fairly savvy about generic form, and one of the formal conceits of public discourse is that people whose social identities are marked as “other”–women, in this case–will, when writing personally, draw attention to their persons. Pseudonyms prevent texts from being impersonal, from pretending to objectivity; they draw attention to the author’s role in a way that a straight byline does not. At the same time, though, pseudonyms make a text more fully public: by hiding the author’s identity, the author becomes potentially anyone. Pseudonyms mean something, and one of the things they mean is that the pseudonymous writer has a reason for pseudonymity. When pseudonymity becomes a generic feature, as with essay periodicals and blogs, one of the things that means is that the genre entails risk, that publishing is risky.
If pseudonymity suggests risk, risk suggests that writers are motivated by something more important than the risk that entails. For some 18th-century women, the need to make money was more important than the association between publication and whorishness. Few bloggers make money on their blogs, and profitability isn’t morally problematic any more; but the desire to talk about work conditions, or personal problems, or politics, or parenting (apparently) more important than fears of being fired, or embarrassment, or shamed. But because those risks are real, writers publish pseudonymously.
Let me back this up with a brief and partial summary of what the survey I did suggested. To date, I’ve collated about 1/3rd of the responses, and so far 92% of pseudonymous women bloggers self-report that their content is clearly gendered (by mentioning pregnancy, husbands, professional concerns as women). This despite the fact that most of their pseudonyms were gender neutral: “Dr. Crazy,” for instance, rather than (say) “Hysterical Woman.” In contrast, only 65% of pseudonymous men said that their content was clearly masculine–but some of those who claimed neutrality also said that they simply had never considered the question and therefore *assumed* their content was neutral, and two of these admitted that they mentioned their wives (one resolved this apparent contradiction by explaining that “nowadays, that doesn’t necessarily mean anything”–one wonders if he really thinks that lesbian bloggers are likely to mention wives, but not lesbianism). Men and women both say they use pseudonyms because they’re afraid of being fired. But more men than women said that they chose to use their real names because they hoped their blogs would be professionally advantageous; these self-reported that they didn’t talk much about their families in order to guard their privacy. In contrast, more women than men say they blog pseudonymously in order to talk about private / personal things. On the other hand, there were women (but no men) who said that they had chosen to break their pseudonymity in order to either claim their blogs as a professional asset, or more generally to “get credit for their work.” (I want, by the way, to point out the particular advantage of periodicity here–one’s goals and purpose can change over time).
The biggest difference, though, is that 65/92% gap between men’s and women’s self-reported awareness of gendered content. This, along with the fact that women tended to report blogging as a process of discovery, a form of honesty, a “confidence-builder,” suggests that publication still “feels” risky for women in a way it doesn’t for men, and that this very sense of risk is part of what compels women to write, as women, about things they think of as gendered in nature. The paradox here is that this perception of risk compels publication, rather than suppressing it, and this makes me want to hypothesize that the content of public writing is determined less by gender per se than by issues of property and authorship.