U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Anonymity, Racial Capitalism, Intellectual Property

Lately I have been trying to develop some thoughts about the idea of anonymity. Today, and over the next few weeks, I hope to put together some notes about anonymity as a theme for intellectual history, and to suggest links between anonymity, the emergent racial capitalism of the late nineteenth/early twentieth century, and the simultaneous modernization of American intellectual property law.

The immediate spur to this thinking is some writing I am doing on the pioneering African American writer, musician, and political activist James Weldon Johnson. Famously, Johnson published the novel The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man anonymously in 1912. It was not until 1927 that the novel was reissued under Johnson’s name. As a novel of “passing”––a text in which an unnamed narrator mutates from ascriptively marked blackness to the officially unmarked status of whiteness––Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man is a sustained meditation upon “namelessness” and race, on the racial stakes of phenomena like “disappearing into the crowd.”

Prior to 1927, white readers often mistook the Autobiography as the genuine testimony of a light-skinned narrator––unnamed and unnameable for practical reasons––who had slipped into the ranks of white society. The white press reviewed the Autobiography as a roman à clef, a text closer to legal testimony or documentary representation than to the ex nihilo authorial creations of the most “advanced” white modernists. African American newspapers, in contrast, named Johnson as the book’s author in reviews and notices of public appearances in the years between 1912 and 1927. This “combined and uneven anonymity” speaks to the inherent doubleness of anonymity as both radical aesthetic strategy and medium of depersonalization and abandonment.

Here, it is important to recall some of the vexed connections of namefulness and copyright, anonymity and intellectual property. Consider, for example Article XI of the Berne Convention on International Copyright Law: “For anonymous or pseudonymous works, the publisher whose name is indicated on the work is entitled to protect the rights belonging to the author. He is, without other proof, reputed the lawful representative of the anonymous or pseudonymous author.” To be anonymous, for intellectual property law, is to have created text over which capital might freely assert sovereignty.

We would argue that namefulness and property are mutually constitutive categories, and that there is a special relationship between the “proper name” (or, the capacity to have a “proper name”), the ideology of authorship, and social constructions of personhood and authenticity. We call these connections “vexed” because they are intensely paradoxical and contradictory. Anonymous authorship, in folk music, is often the signal of authenticity (recall the anonymous ballads of England, Scotland and North America, collected by Francis James Child and now called “Child Ballads”). In literature and history, juvenilia or occasional writing by a “name” author is often sought out with greater fervor than attends far more serious but unsigned texts.

On the other hand, to have a name is to have a title. Namedness is connected intimately to ideologies of self-ownership (a legacy with profound implications for a nation born in chattel slavery, the colonial ideology of terra nullius, and patriarchal legal order that denied women the right to both property under their own names). Jim Crow racism evolved as an order profoundly reliant upon the denial of the proper name––a fact evident in the only minimally differentiated nicknames of blackface minstrelsy, the widespread use of the derogation “boy,” and the white practice of referring to all sleeping car porters as “George.”[1]

Anonymity, so conceptualized, might then allow to connect projects like that of Johnson to texts like Tillie Olsen’s dedication in Silences (1978)––“For our silenced people, century after century their beings consumed in the hard everyday, essential work of maintaining human life. Their art, which still they made––as their other contributions––anonymous; refused recognition; lost.” Olsen’s foregrounding of anonymity here is poignant: her insistence upon creative culture as a common project, a labor of a commons, speaks to resistant and subversive dimensions of anonymity. The invocation of “silenced people” has special relevance to feminist aesthetic theory, resonating as it does with Virginia Woolf’s famous observation: “I would venture to guess than Anon, who wrote so many poems without signing them, was often a woman.”


To situate this history properly, we would do well to also attend to the writing of the phenomenologist Alfred Schutz, who developed a synthesis of the Husserlian epoche and Max Weber’s notion of the “ideal type.” Passages such as the following from The Problem of Social Reality merit close attention:

Furthermore, there is quite an agglomeration of systematized relations with members of our immediate families, with kin, personal friends, people we know personally, people we met once in our lives and relations with those anonymous men who work somewhere and in a way we cannot and need not imagine but who see to it that a letter we put in a mailbox reaches the addressee in time, or that the bulb in the lamp lights up with the turn of a switch. This typification progresses in the same proportion in which the personality of the fellowman disappears behind the undisclosed anonymity of his function.[2]

For Schutz, anonymity is the indispensable key to understanding the ontology of modern life. It is not a negative feature of modernity to be transcended and overcome, but a neutral structuring principle. It is anonymity that generates the texture of ordinary life: “everydayness.” Proceeding from this analysis, Schutz’s student Maurice Natanson further worked up the theme of anonymity in a series of important essays in the 1970s.

What is left out of such presentations, of course, are crucial questions of race and difference. Anonymous “everydayness” overlaps substantially with liberal capitalism’s aspirational self-identity. Anti-racist politics begins, then, with a challenge to the arrogance of the normative defender of the existing order, who insists that his experience of formal equality is universal, and with a demand for that special form of recognition that takes the form of access to anonymity. To achieve such a transformation of society requires concerted action, and the destruction of many legal institutions that sustain uneven access to anonymity––this action and this targeted destruction is always called, by defenders of the status quo, “violence.” This, in a nutshell, is Lewis Gordon’s Schutzian reading of Frantz Fanon as a radical theorist of the racial ontology of “anonymity.” It is to Gordon and Fanon that we will turn next week.


[1] The formation in 1916, by reactionary whites, of an organization called Society For the Prevention of Calling Sleeping Car Porters “George” illustrates the pathological depths of this racial conceit. See Andrew Edmund Kersten, A. Philip Randolph: A Life in the Vanguard )Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2007), 28.

[2] Alfred Schutz, Collected Papers, Volume IV. Edited with preface and notes by Helmut Wagner and George Psathas in collaboration with Fred Kersten. Berlin: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1996, 13.

One Thought on this Post

  1. Combined and uneven anonymity is a wonderfully powerful phrase, Kurt. I’m eager for the next installment, and am very intrigued by what you set up as the politics of “everydayness.” It’s a tremendous display of hegemonic power, akin perhaps to Gramsci’s concept of forging the political “commonsense” of a given moment. Like Gramsci’s understanding of the prevailing commonsense as a set of ideas and assumptions that are always in flux (whether challenged from below, reasserted from above, or called into question laterally among the subaltern or ruling strata), should we understand anonymity itself as similarly contested?

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