U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Writing in Public: Further Notes (in progress) on Anonymity, Black Autobiography, and Intellectual History

One of the interesting possibilities afforded by blogging is that of public revision. “Working up” a paper is so often an intensely private act (in many cases, necessarily so). There might be something valuable about rejecting this will-to-privacy and exposing the always improvisatory labor of putting ideas together.

In this post, therefore, I seek in part to revise and in part to thicken out last week’s essay.

I began that essay with a quote from Lewis Gordon:

Lewis Gordon’s Fanon and the Crisis of European Man contains the following striking statement: “In the eyes of anti-black racists, blacks suffer a hemorrhage in their facticity. A consequence is that there is no black autobiography in anti-black worlds.

One week later, I still feel that this is––at least potentially––an interesting way to begin a paper. Gordon’s quote lets the reader know what sorts of concerns I will be dealing with. It announces an interest in the racial stakes of biography and autobiography as Western literary traditions (and beyond the literary, as modes of self-fashioning), and declares that Frantz Fanon and Lewis Gordon will be important sources of theoretical inspiration.

But such an introduction carries with it dangers, too. The reader would be forgiven for assuming that my paper will be about Fanon or Gordon. My real subjects, however––my primary sources––are some writings by James Weldon Johnson.

Thus, it is a big problem that I did not connect the presentation of this quote with the text that I intend to read closely (with its assistance): James Weldon Johnson’s 1912 novel The Autobiography of An Ex-Coloured Man. So, one revision that immediately springs to mind is that I should delay or bracket what last week’s essay moved on to next (a discussion of Marty McFly and Back to the Future as an example of the “hemorrhage in facticity”), and move immediately to the work of introducing Johnson and The Autobiography of An Ex-Coloured Man.

That might look something like:

Lewis Gordon’s Fanon and the Crisis of European Man contains the following striking statement: “In the eyes of anti-black racists, blacks suffer a hemorrhage in their facticity. A consequence is that there is no black autobiography in anti-black worlds.” Gordon’s insight puts us in mind of a famous example of vexed black autobiography: James Weldon Johnson’s 1912 novel, The Autobiography of An Ex-Coloured Man. Johnson published The Autobiography anonymously, and its narrator (a light-skinned African American man who chooses to “pass” as white) was taken by many readers and critics as a successful businessman with a secret identity. Until 1927, when The Autobiography was officially published under Johnson’s name, affluent white readers might have been expected to put the book down and begin wondering if one of their friends or associates was, in fact, its author.

At this stage of the game, all that I know is that I think there is a productive way to connect this historical material to a Gordonian reading of Fanon and anonymity.

In the longest-range view, I hope to tie all of this to Johnson’s status as a “cultural worker”––an author of books, as well as a musician, composer, editor, and journalist and theorist of race and popular culture––and to build from this discussion a set of reflections on cultural work and African American politics. In this concluding section, I will seek to affirm the arguments of scholars like Richard Iton, Robin D.G. Kelley, George Lipsitz, Daniel Widener, Clyde Woods, and Gaye Johnson, and, in complicated ways, the early work of Harold Cruse––sophisticated defenders of the view that African American cultural work constitutes a meaningful mode of resistance to oppression and an idiom in which demands for justice may be articulated––and to challenge arguments like Adolph Reed’s “What Are the Drums Saying, Booker?,” which dismisses “cultural work” as largely extra-political and which has found many adherents in recent years within the movement that calls itself “political Marxism.”[1]

Having decided that this effort at conjugation and synthesis will be placed at the essay’s end, we are left with the question: what next? I know that I want to develop the theme of anonymity, and I know, further, that I want to draw upon a number of texts to make my case. John Mullan’s Anonymity is a lucid study of anonymous and pseudonymous writing in eighteenth and nineteenth century British literature; I will certainly want to present some of its key findings.[2] The most important of these is that the sort of trick or joke played by Johnson in The Autobiography is not at all unprecedented. In fact, making the reader guess at the identity of the author of an anonymous publication was part of the strategy of dissemination of many canonical texts, including key works by Defoe, Pope, Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte, and Lewis Carroll. In the nineteenth century, much of the action in the anonymous/pseudonymous literary sphere concerned guessing at whether a given book was, in fact, authored by a man or a woman. These games necessarily brought into being a series of meta-debates about the nature of sex and gender, important precursors of The Autobiography’s instigation of white bewilderment and African American bemusement.

I will want also to return to Sterling Stuckey’s Slave Culture, and its key chapter “Identity and Ideology: The Names Controversy.”[3] From Stuckey I wish to move to consider two important recent texts that concern famous African American name-changers: Manning Marable’s biography of Malcolm X and John Szwed’s biography of Sun Ra.[4] For more general insights into anonymity, I will continue thinking about E.P. Thompson’s great essay “The Crime of Anonymity” in Albion’s Fatal Tree, and Gabriella Coleman’s rich if frustrating study of the contemporary political formation called “Anonymous.”[5]

After having laid out the terrain in this fashion, I think I can move on to putting James Weldon Johnson in dialogue Gordon and Fanon. As we have explored in previous notes, the “anonymity” in which Gordon is interested is not the “depersonalization” of New Left theory, nor the historical forms of namelessness with which literary authors played around in order to maintain personal privacy or avoid state censorship. For Gordon, “anonymity” is a technical term rooted in the existential-humanist phenomenology of Alfred Schutz and Maurice Natanson, a term that turns out to provide the key to Fanon’s oft-misinterpreted writings on the psychic violence of colonialism, the struggle for autonomous identity under conditions of domination, and the limits of white universalistic philosophies of Being. For Fanon, racism is a question of differential access to anonymity. Anonymity is the flip side hyper-visibility, and thus constitutes the secret core of what Naomi Murakawa (drawing on Ruth Wilson Gilmore) calls “race-differentiated vulnerability to premature death.”[6]

We should stress that the clearest model of phenomenological anonymity––maybe, we might even say, its nomos––is the postal system, an example to which Schutz, Natanson, and Gordon return repeatedly. It might, therefore, be useful to bring into the discussion Richard John’s excellent study of the origins of American mail, and to complement this historical material with Derrida’s famous meditation on all things postal, The Post Card.[7]

This, I think, would get us in decent shape to turn to a close reading of The Autobiography, and to consider it in relation to the “hemorrhage of facticity” and the “impossibility of black autobiography” for which Gordon argues. (I think).


[1] https://libcom.org/library/what-are-drums-saying-booker

[2] John Mullan, Anonymity: A Secret History of English Literature. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2007.

[3] Sterling Stuckey, Slave Culture: Nationalist Theory and the Foundations of Black America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987.

[4] Manning Marable, Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention. New York: Viking, 2011. John F. Szwed, Space Is the Place: The Lives and Times of Sun Ra. New York: Pantheon Books, 1997.

[5] Douglas Hay, Albion’s Fatal Tree: Crime and Society in Eighteenth-Century England. New York: Pantheon Books, 1975. E. Gabriella Coleman, Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy: The Many Faces of Anonymous. 2014.

[6] Naomi Murakawa, The First Civil Right: How Liberals Built Prison America. 2014.

[7] Richard R. John, Spreading the News The American Postal System from Franklin to Morse. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1998. Jacques Derrida, The post card: from Socrates to Freud and beyond. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987.

7 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Kurt,
    This is great material, and I really appreciate the public way you are revising and meditating on the construction of your argument, showing us the constituent parts and your process of assembly.

    I was wondering if you could elaborate some more on the connection of the post office and anonymity. It’s a provocative connection, but I’m not sure I understand precisely what you (or your sources) intend here.

    Also, as I’m sure you know, Richard Wright was employed as a postal worker, and one of his novels, Lawd Today!, features a post office prominently.

    • Andy, thanks so much for this very helpful comment! I hadn’t thought about incorporating that Wright text, but now I will think about it!

      And thanks for the prod to lay out the postal stuff in more detail. In the spirit of “writing in public,” I will try to answer this question in a more formal sort of way than is usual in comment threads, and if it generates discussion/challenges/critique, that can all be part of what goes into the final product (with proper attribution protocol, of course).

      So: mail and anonymity

      Lewis Gordon takes as his primary materials in his theorization of Fanonian anonymity from Maurice Natanson (Natanson, I believe, was Gordon’s advisor at Yale). Natanson wrote a whole book on the philosophy of anonymity which is, throughout, intended as a tribute to his mentor, Alfred Schutz.

      Schutz, born in 1900 in Austria to a bourgeois family, studied philosophy (and later taught philosophy) as an avocation, while always maintaining a career as a legal bureaucrat/financial specialist.

      As Helmut Wagner notes, this biographical material is uniquely relevant because it helps explain the curious melange of influences he assembled. Schutz devoted several years in his early intellectual career to reading Husserl, while participating in the circle around, of all people. Ludwig Von Mises. (Apparently, Schutz never agreed with Austrian economics or Mises’s reactionary tendencies, but it is worth thinking about Austrian economics and fantasies of the state/sociality in Schutz’s work).

      Reading Husserl and participating in Mises’s circle led Schutz to another long immersion in the work of an intellectual: this time the sociology of Max Weber; and from the late 1920s until his death in the late 1950s (he moved to the US in the 1930s), Schutz’s project consisted of trying to make the ideas of Husserl and Weber speak to one another.

      According to Natanson, the key to this staged dialogue between Husserl and Weber was Schutz’s theorization of anonymity, and the model that Schutz returned to was the postal system.

      Here are some long excerpts from Natanson’s Anonymity and Schutz’s The Problem of Social Reality.

      Natanson: “The world of everyday life is indeed the unquestioned but always questionable matrix within which all (of Schutz’s) inquiries start and end… The term “taken for granted” is not a casual usage in Schutz’s writings; in fact, he told me he once planned to write a book entitled The World Taken For Granted.

      Accepting the world as “unquestionably plausible” implies the rootage of the individual in a reality which is at once his and ours…

      World’ and ‘reality’ are tacitly held to be integral: what is valid for me, in common-sense thinking, is––other things being equal––valid for you and for ‘them,’ the Others in our world of daily life.

      ‘Other things being equal’––that deeply satisfying and reassuring murmur which breathes through ceteris paribus––means that typically similar states of affairs will retain their typically stable proportions and characteristics, that nothing is expected to intervene which will upset typicality’s apple cart… The root of the taken-for-granted is what Husserl called ‘the general thesis of the natural standpoint.’…

      “Anonymity” refers primarily (but not exclusively) to the typified structure of the “objective” aspect of the social world, that is, to the social world viewed as an interlocking complex of meaning which enable any actor to manage his affairs in the world of working and to find his way to the other provinces of meaning…

      To post a letter successfully, Schutz tells us, the individual man must follow certain rules and requirements whose rationale he may grasp in the most general or vague ways.

      All that is needed for the task to be accomplished is that the letter-poster stick to a certain “recipe”: addressing the envelope in an acceptable manner, affixing sufficient postage, dropping the letter in a mail box.

      It is not necessary for the average person––someone who is not, for purposes of this example, an employee of the mail service––to understand the intricacies of the postal system, how it works, who does what in processing the mail, how mail is transported and delivered.

      If the letter reaches the addressee in a reasonable period of time, that is all that is wanted.

      The details of postal service are typified into “what they do with the mail,” and the particular individuals who are involved with the mail are and remain almost entirely anonymous.

      Their identities are irrelevant to the act of mailing a letter.

      Here a serious turn is taken in the understanding of “objective” and “subjective” meaning with respect to the social world…


      Here is Schutz in The Problem of Social Reality:

      Even more, we do not rationally interpret the social world surrounding us unless special circumstances compel us to abandon our basic attitude of just “living along.”

      Let me examine this situation more closely, starting with a description of the structure
      of the social world as it seems to be given to each of us in his daily life.

      It seems that, once upon a time, each of us naively organized his social world and
      his daily life in such a way that now he actually finds himself in the center of the social cosmos surrounding him.

      Or better: we are born into an organized social

      It is organized for us in so far as it contains all the useful equipment to allow us and our fellow men to live routinely our daily lives.

      On the one hand, there are institutions of various kinds, tools, machines, etc., and, on the other hand, habits, traditions, rules and experiences both actual and vicarious.

      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…


      Now, here is something very interesting. Compare these quotes with Richard John on the history of American mail:

      “To impress his French readers with his discovery, Tocqueville appended to Democracy in America a vivid description of a ride he took in the stagecoach that brought the Michigan backwoodsman his mail.

      “We went at a great pace,” Tocqueville reminisced, during the night as well as the day, along recently cleared paths that passed through immense forests of evergreens. When the darkness became impenetrable, the
      stagecoach driver lit a larch branch to illumine the way. From time to time, the driver paused for a moment to drop an enormous bundle at a hut in the forest.

      The hut, Tocqueville laconically explained, was the post office, and the bundle was the mail. Before long it would be morning, and the backwoodsman would arise and repair to the post office so that he might “fetch his share of that treasure.”

      Tocqueville’a observations highlight a feature of American public life in the early republic that is too often overlooked. By 1831, two decades before the completion of the first major east-west railroad and thirteen years before the establishment of the first successful electric telegraph, the United States had already been transformed by a communications revolution whose implications had yet to be felt in France…

      And, like so many of the large-scale processes that have figured conspicuously in the making of the modern world, it was a latent revolution: its full implications went all but unnoticed to the vast majority of the millions of people whose lives it shaped.

      Still, certain of its features can be described with a fair degree of precision. Most obviously, it involved the transmission of an unprecedented volume of newspapers, letters, and other kinds of information through time and over space. In addition, it was dependent upon the stagecoach, as well as various other horsepowered means of conveyance, to transmit this information.

      And last but not least, it was set in motion by the postal system, that “great link between minds,” as Tocqueville described it, that “penetrates” into the “heart of the wilderness,” bringing enlightenment to palace and hovel alike…

      The anomalous position of the postal system within the American political order can be illustrated by the public clamor that often accompanied the dismissal of a local postmaster. “There is a kind of sleight o’hand and mystery about it,” observed the disillusioned Jacksonian John Barton Derby shortly after the large-scale partisan dismissal of postmasters that followed Jackson’s inauguration in March 1829, “which for months presses on the hearts of the villagers like an incubus. They go about the streets and . . . seem to be saying to themselves,
      ‘E’cod! -there is a United States government, or I’m darned!’ For so beautiful is the system of government continued by our wise forefathers, that while the general government of the United States poises and holds together the whole, no man in the country ever feels its direct action (when it is peacefully and constitutionally administered), excepting
      in the appointment of a postmaster of his village.

      And it is only by some irregularity in the system, that he becomes conscious of subjection to higher powers than his own paternal state government.”


  2. Kurt, this is all tremendously fascinating–thank you! I know nothing (more than what you’ve told me here) about Schutz, but the passage you quoted is completely engrossing. I hope you write more about him!

  3. Thanks for the encouragement, Andy and Caleb, and thanks for the Henkin ref, which I have just sought out at the library!

  4. Andy, as I have been thinking about it, I wonder if Schutz isn’t sort of a secret character at the heart of so much contemporary theory.

    Schutz taught Natanson and Natanson taught Judith Butler, and Butler wrote a great essay as a preface to one of Natanson’s books.
    Lewis Gordon’s Schutzian work on Fanon constitutes one of the key resources for African American philosophy/epistemology, in dialogue in important ways with Critical Race Theory in law and the work of Charles Mills.

    And Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann’s Social Construction of Reality–one of those books, like Ignatiev’s How the Irish Became White, served to popularize an idea even among people who only read the title––opens with this acknowledgment:

    “How much we owe to the late Alfred Schutz will become
    clear in various parts of the following treatise. However, we
    would like to acknowledge here the influence of Schutz’s
    teaching and writing on our thinking.”

    At the same time, Schutz’s papers argue against the “social constructionism” that has become a cliche in recent decades: what Ian Hacking calls “social constructionism” plus moral judgment–in the form “X is socially constructed, and therefore Y.” Hacking underestimated, I think, the persistence of biological determinism, especially now in the age of DNA-driven neo-racism and sexism, but he is basically right: to say “social construction of terrorism,” say, is only to point out the obvious–what else could “terrorism” be? If we believe that “terrorism” is really real, the operations that matter are deeper and more intensive than simple “social constructed-ness.”

    But, with Schutzian “anonymity” in hand, I think we could produce meaningful knowledge about exactly such a case–the “social construction of terrorism” isn’t scandalous because it is revealed to lack foundations, but is knowable as a rift or disturbance within the “murmur of ceteris paribus”?

  5. NB: recalled, today, tremendous importance of theme of anonymity in Jean-Francois Lyotard’s Libidinal Economy (via some cites in Steven Shaviro’s newish book on accelerationism)

    From Libidinal Economy:

    Our danger, we libidinal economists, lies in building a new
    morality with this consolation, of proclaiming and broadcasting
    that the libidinal band is good, that the circulation of affects is joyful, that the anonymity and the incompossibility of figures are great and free, that all pain is reactionary and conceals the poison of a formation issuing from the great Zero – what I have just said…

    Borges tells the story of a duel to the death between two drunken men, rivals in competition; they have never learned to fight; they choose their weapons fro m their host’s armory by chance, one a dagger with a U-shaped hilt, the other a short-bladed knife whose wooden handle is decorated with a tree; to the witnesses’ surprise, the struggle proves to be conducted with a knowing precision, not the indiscriminate butchery that was expected, but a meticulous chess game played on bodies, right up till the final blow. Much later
    the narrator learns that these weapons from the duel had belonged to two rivals, gauchos famous for their courage and ability to kill; he concluded that it was indeed they who were fighting, inspiring their bearers.

    The anonymity of these latter does not exclude, but implies their proper names. It would be only with regard to a central instance, that of a great Armorer keeping archives of all the murders committed by his weapons , that of a Pimp keeping books on all the jouissances he allots to the prostitute-bodies––that another anonymity would creep into the pulsional band, and that in place of proper names and insane mazes which they signal one could put register numbers, consequently allowing subjects at work to be located : imperceptible, but immense, slipping, from tensorial anonymity to productive prostitutive bureaucratic anonymity…

    But, you will say, it gives rise to power and domination, to
    exploitation and even extermination. Quite true; but also to
    masochism; but the strange bodily arrangement of the skilled
    worker with his job and his machine, which is so often reminiscent of the dis ositif of hysteria, can also produce the extermination of a population: look at the English proletariat, at what capital, that is to say their labour, has done to their body. You will tell me, however, that it was that or die . But it is always that or die, this is the law of libidinal economy, no, not the law: this is its provisional, very provisional, definition in the form of the cry, of intensities of desire; ‘that or die’, i.e. that and dying from it, death always in it, as its internal bark… And perhaps you believe that ‘that or die’ is an alternative?!

    And that if they choose that, if they become the slave of the machine, the machine of the machine, fucker fucked by it, eight hours, twelve hours, a day, year after year, it is because they are forced into it, constrained , because they cling to life? Death is not an alternative to it, it is a part of it, it attests
    to the fact that there is jouissance in it, the English unemployed did not become workers to survive, they––hang on tight and spit on me––enjoyed the hysterical, masochistic, whatever exhaustion it was of hanging on in the mines, in the foundries, in the factories, in hell , they enjoyed it, enjoyed the mad destruction of their organic body which was indeed imposed upon them, they enjoyed the decomposition of their personal identity, the identity that the peasant tradition had constructed for them , enjoyed the dissolution of their families and villages, and enjoyed the new monstrous anonymity of the suburbs and the pubs in the morning and evening.

    And let’s finally acknowledge this jouissance, which is similar,
    Little Girl Marx was clear on this point, in every way to that of
    prostitution, the jouissance of anonymity, the jouissance of the
    repetition of the same in work…

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