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Sharon O’Dair



Laboring in Anonymity



Anonymity is rich, its rewards many and its dangers, too.  As my fellow panelists make clear, anonymity troubles writers and readers, teachers and students. Offering fairness, it can also mask bias.  Offering protection, it can also cover those who would deceive.  Anonymity troubles philosophers, historians, and sociologists, too.  Anonymity troubles individuals.[1]  Martin Heidegger thinks that anonymity must be overcome to establish authentic individuality (Natanson “Phenomenology”).[2]   Other people, less loftily, do not care whether their individuality is authentic; they aim to make marks on others and on society, to achieve fame or even celebrity, while avoiding anonymity.  Anonymity is not, in fact, a state or condition most people strive to achieve; it has a bad reputation.  But is that bad rap justified?  Maurice Natanson thinks not, because asking people to transcend “anonymity is tantamount to seeking a remedy for being normal” (“Phenomenology” 539).  Anonymity is “a constitutive feature of the social,” an “invariant” and “standard feature of everyday life…part of the structure of the social world” (“Phenomenology 534, Anonymity 24).  We can only be intimate with a small number of people; with almost everyone else, we are reciprocally anonymous:  “I am anonymous to most Others,” writes Natanson, “just as most Others are anonymous to me” (Anonymity 24). As a result, rather than overcome anonymity, as Heidegger would have it, we move between it and intimacy:  not always engaged with others as intimates, we are also, Natanson claims, “nomads of the anonymous” (“Phenomenology” 539).  Further, argues William Egginton, “intimacy and anonymity form a conceptual coupling:  without a contrasting experience of anonymity, there is no such thing as an experience of an intimate sphere whose secret life is precisely what remains unknown to the anonymous one, whose members’ own intimacy stays reciprocally beyond our ken” (98). 

Natanson’s and Eggington’s points seem intuitively correct, as does Egginton’s related notion that we can assess our experiences along an “axis spanning the concepts of anonymity and intimacy” (98). But as Egginton knows, and as I am sure Natanson would agree, all of this may be historically specific, specific to modernity.  Anonymity—and hence intimacy and arguably individuality, too—seems wedded to the urban, to the metropolis, to very large groupings of people living in proximity to one another, all of whom arrived from somewhere else.  Speaking of the late middle ages, Egginton asks: “How can we expect a similar notion to arise in a culture whose sense of space was so deeply rooted in place and in a profound familiarity not only with one’s physical surrounding but with one’s fellows as well?” (99). The question is rhetorical; we cannot expect to see “a similar notion” in that culture, Eggington avers, because “the primary focus of medieval existence was the local community:  the life of community participates in the individual’s existence as well as in the existence of the universe in micro- and macrocosmic ways…” (99). Egginton implies that when community is so deeply embedded in an individual, no place exists for the dual (mental) spaces of anonymity and intimacy, or for interplay or movement between them.  Even in performance, whether sacred or profane, medieval persons “gathering to watch were indistinguishable from those performing and vice versa, and the ‘subject matter’ of the performance was as inseparable from the place of its presentation…as it was from the eternal truth of history or faith that its words and gestures repeated” (99).

But Virginia Woolf thinks anonymity did emerge from those profoundly communal individuals, as well as from those profoundly communal performances: the anonymity of the creative artist. Anonymous writers or musicians or artists are “the common voice singing out of doors”; they represent acts of creation when “the audience was itself the singer,” when “every body shared in the emotion of Anons song, and supplied the story” (“Anon” 382).  And if the beginning of the end for the anonymous artist was the printing press, “Anon” died slowly.  Even in the Elizabethan age, Woolf reminds us, anonymity was powerful, and the anonymous writer ranged vitally in the theaters, where “half the work of the dramatists one feels was done…by the public” (“Notes” 52).  Indeed, “the lack of Marlowes name, or of Kyds, shows how largely the play was a common product, written by one hand, but so moulded in transition that the author had no sense of property in it….It was they who made the playwright capable of his great strides, of vast audacities beyond the reach of the solitary writer with his mind fixed upon the reader in the great room” (“Anon” 395).

Woolf’s essay “Anon” was to be—Woolf died before it was finished—the opening chapter of a book of criticism exploring “the interaction between external circumstances and creativity,” as Brenda R. Silver describes it.  In the essay, the embeddedness of the anonymous writer in her community contrasts favorably with “the isolation of the individual writer who emerged in the Renaissance,” an isolation that characterizes the modern writer, too, and seemed especially heightened for Woolf in 1940 and 1941, as she struggled to “remain creative in a world where silence and emptiness were the norm” (Silver “Introduction” 360).  For Woolf at this time at least, the anonymous writer seemed to have “had great privileges. He was not responsible. He was not self conscious.…[He did not try] to stamp his own name, to discover his own experience, in his work” (“Anon” 398).  Nor did he try to please his audiences.  Anon never asked, “What is the book that will please my patron Sir Philip Sidney? What is the theme that will recommend itself to the Queen? Whom must I praise, whom may I satirise?” (“Anon” 390).   In contrast, self-consciousness and individuality—the desire to be known—bring to the modern writer

innumerable influences that are to tug, to distort, to thwart; as also they are to stimulate and draw out. The poet is no longer a nameless wandering voice, but attached to his audience. tethered [sic] to one spot and played upon by outside influences. Some are visible to himself only; others show themselves only when time has past. As the book goes out into a larger, a more varied audience these influences become more and more complex. According to its wealth, its poverty, its education, its ignorance, the public demands what satisfies its own need—poetry, history, instruction, a story to make them forget their own drab lives. The thing that the writer has to say becomes increasingly cumbered (“Anon” 390).

“Increasingly cumbered”:  the relationship between writer and audience is slowly altered at the core.  No longer indistinguishable from her audience, or embedded in it, the writer is distinct from yet at the same time “attached” to her audience, “tethered to” it, incapable of escaping entirely its demands or desires. 

Woolf’s friend E. M. Forster likewise pondered the question of a writer’s anonymity. Unlike Woolf or Egginton, Forster did not associate anonymity with pre-modernity but rather with the ontological condition of literature.  “All literature tends towards a condition of anonymity,” he writes (82).  What distinguishes literature from words that convey information (the words—like public notices, or newspaper stories—that Forster thinks should be claimed or “signed”) is that both writer and reader forget themselves in its presence: “The poet wrote the poem, no doubt, but he forgot himself while he wrote it, and we forget him while we read…[G]reat literature …transforms the man who reads it towards the condition of the man who wrote, and brings to birth in us also the creative impulse” (84).  Where Forster does recognize a particularly modern (and negative) effect on the writer’s and reader’s anonymity is in the widespread—too widespread, he thinks—expectation that “literature expresses personality, that it is the result of the author’s individual outlook” (83).[3]  What this expectation leads to is, among other things, a tendency to “study” books, to make them “subserve our desire for information.”[4]  And Forster does not have a very high opinion of studying books: 

‘Study’ has a very solemn sound. ‘I am studying Dante’ sounds much more than ‘I am reading Dante.’ It is really much less.  Study is only a serious form of gossip.  It teaches us everything about the book except the central thing, and between that and us it raises a circular barrier which only the wings of the spirit can cross.  The study of…a creative subject like literature…is excessively dangerous, and should never be attempted by the immature.  Modern education promotes the unmitigated study of literature and concentrates our attention on the relation between a writer’s life—his surface life—and his work.  That is one reason why it is such a curse (85). 


In the nearly one hundred years since Forster wrote those lines, more people have come to think “modern education is…a curse,” but addressing reasons for that opinion is not my topic here.  Rather, I want to ponder what these four understandings of anonymity suggest for our profession, and to do in an attempt to rehabilitate the notion of “laboring in anonymity.” I will do so, mainly by posing questions for you, too, to ponder.   As I mentioned at the outset, “anonymity” has a bad reputation in our society, and my guess is that when you read the title of this paper, you expected an argument suggesting that those who labor in anonymity in our profession need to be given the opportunity to have a voice, to make a name for themselves, to leave anonymity behind.  Or perhaps you expected a rant about adjuncts and contingent labor, something in which the words “academic superstars” are placed in proximity to “anonymous adjuncts,” and joined together by the verb “exploit.”  I have written such analyses, have made those arguments—though I usually avoid the easy word “exploit”—and have done so most recently in an essay entitled, “Superserviceable Subordinates, Universal Access, and Prestige-Driven Research,” in which I argue that because a class system has now been institutionalized within the profession itself,[5] we should assess the structural conditions that have resulted in it, in a two-tier system of professional employment, which creates permanent subordinate status and inequality for legions of graduate students, adjuncts and full-time non-tenure track instructors—persons the MLA calls “education service workers” (MLA 21).

Two structural conditions, I argue, are crucial:  the development of a prestige-based research culture and the push to make access to higher education universal in the population.  Both have had deleterious effects on the professoriate because both—democratized access to the dissemination of knowledge and the prestige-driven approach to research or the production of knowledge—require cheap labor.[6]  As a result, “education service workers” perform their duties not only for students and the institution but for the research professoriate as well; and these “workers” are in almost all instances, as qualified, at least at the outset of their careers, as those whose research labors they will support (Guillory 1161).  Of course, the fact of professional inequality is only a problem is we think it is:  we could change our egalitarian ideology to fit our hierarchical reality.  And in my darker moments, I think elites in the profession might like to do so, turn back the clock to 1963 when Clark Kerr could write about “the class society” of the University without ruffling many—or even any—feathers.  Certainly, the emphasis placed by elites on palliative measures—trying to shame star research professors over their selfishness and greed, for example, or signing an email petition in support of a given year’s striking graduate students at NYU—sometimes suggests a lack of seriousness about the issue.  Nevertheless, despite my moments of darkness, our egalitarian ideology isn’t just an effect of bad faith.  As Kerr wrote in 1963,

The individual faculty member, and particularly the political liberal on the faculty, is often torn between the 'guild' and the 'socialist' views of the university. The guild view is elitist toward the external environment, conservative toward internal change, conformist in relation to the opinion of colleagues.  The socialist view is democratic toward society, radical toward change, and nonconformist. And the political liberal is drawn toward both views. Here is a paradox.  Few institutions are so conservative as the universities about their own affairs while their members are so liberal about the affairs of others; and sometimes the most liberal faculty member in one context is the most conservative in another (99).

But precisely because our egalitarianism isn’t just bad faith, our decisions about how we teach “nonintellectual students and indeed undedicated or even alienated students”—which teaching is, as Randall Collins points out to his colleagues in sociology, “the price professors pay for the material infrastructure of life on the research frontier”—do have “consequences for the ethos of a discipline,” not to mention for the ethics of individual professors:  “Each professor can pay the price by sharing the burden; or the burden can be shouldered by a lower class of instructors” (35-6). 

My aim here, however, is not to browbeat us about this ethical contradiction, about a system of knowledge production that depends on hierarchy and inequality, the consigning of most PhDs to a derogated condition of anonymity; although I will admit to enjoying pointing it out.  Rather, I wish to attack the problem from another direction, to propose that we reclaim the derogated condition of “anonymity” and that we do so by imagining anonymity differently.  Since, as Natanson and Egginton remind us, anonymity is part of everyone’s life in the contemporary world, an inescapable feature of modern—massified and highly mobile—social life, anonymity is not a condition to be feared or avoided. Even the famous—those who seemingly have avoided anonymity—are anonymous to many, many others.  We might also imagine the role of community in both fostering and ameliorating anonymity.  Woolf and Egginton ask us to think about the possibilities of an individuality rooted in a place and in the dynamics of a group; and, along with Forster, they would ask us to think about the brilliance of literary art that allows creators and audiences to forget themselves in acts of production and consumption. In so doing, they, too, suggest that being anonymous in one’s professional role is not necessarily a derogated condition and in fact question whether individuality is at odds the social structuring that enables the sort of creative anonymity Woolf and Forster admire, the social structuring we call community.[7]    They would have us ask whether we have lost viable community and thus viable creative anonymity in our profession, the result of our grasping after fame and notoriety and of our excursions—or extensions—into national, international, and virtual versions of community.

For reasons I hope to make clear, answering the latter question is difficult.  In 1963, Clark Kerr began The Uses of the University with this sentence: “The university started as a single community—a community of masters and students.”  An oddly mystical sentence follows: “It may even be said to have had a soul in the sense of a central animating principle.”  Nonetheless, “today, the large American university is, rather, a whole series of communities and activities held together by a common name, a common governing board, and related purposes” (1).  In 1976, Richard Ohmann published a book entitled English in America: A Radical View of the Profession, in which he recalled in his first chapter what it was like to “Work…in English in America, ca. 1965.”  What it was like, Ohmann urged, was to be engaged in a research endeavors destructive of our own professional goal, which, unlike in the sciences or even the social sciences,

 is not the accumulation of knowledge…. [but rather] the fostering of literary culture and literary consciousness.  [As a result] a prior responsibility is to our own community, our corporate identity; and it is precisely that identity that seems most threatened by our present means of conducting and presenting research (13).

The way we have organized ourselves as a profession of researchers, Ohmann complained, “is destructive of community” and hence, ironically, of our professional goal (12). 

The fostering of literary culture and consciousness!  The fostering of a community!  What quaint concepts, one might think in December of 2008, when the “social conditions” of our employment have “declined” to the extent that, as historian Lynn Hunt observed—or maybe, like Ohmann, complained—just over ten years ago, almost everyone in society and the academy

works all day, [and] no one has the energy to organize the dinner parties of old with eight, ten, or twelve colleagues sharing a festive meal laboriously prepared by a dutiful (and unemployed outside the home) wife. As a result, socializing and social life in general have disappeared in favor of official functions and much more informal interaction (but generally, I would argue, simply less interaction).  Junior faculty feel left out, even though there is no ‘in’ that is clearly indentifiable….Just at the moment when economic pressures create the potential for internal strife, social bonding within the university has weakened. Esprit de corps rests only tenuously on common interests, especially in disciplines that are increasingly fragmented by specialization (as most are) [26].

Hunt is careful to assert she does not “mean to paint a nostalgic picture of the past, when a gentleman’s club often functioned through various forms of prejudice and unspoken exploitation” (27).  But she does insist that the attenuation of local community—encouraged by research specialization and abetted by broad social and economic change—is important for us to consider, especially those of us who profess “the humanities, which by their disciplinary nature have been connected in some fashion with notions of a life worth living” (27).

Defining a life worth living is itself open to debate—obviously—and we have been debating that question for two and a half millennia at least. Easy it would be to find many naysayers—Stanley Fish among them—to the notion that research specialization and a consequent over-production of research have had deleterious effects on intellectual community or an intellectual life worth living. Combined with electronic communication and publication, scholarly specialization arguably has expanded the notion of community, freeing some of us from parochial places and institutions, and allowing some of us to find recognition and affiliation elsewhere.  I am one of those people—my colleagues do not read my work, nor do I read theirs; and we know each other’s intellectual prowess and inclinations primarily from cranky or even rational comments in faculty meetings—and yet I cannot shake the notion that the loss of a local intellectual community is, in fact, a loss.  Like Hunt, I am not nostalgic for a time that never was, or for a time that depended on the exploitation of others, particularly unpaid women, the “wives.”  But neither am I one of those who, in the face of massive structural changes in the conditions of our work, decline to say that anything has changed for the worse.  In this I am reminded of unending squabbling about students’ writing ability:  complaints that students can’t write inevitably draw the rebuttal that is was always thus, that “since English was introduced as a university subject, hardly a generation has gone by without national hand wringing over an impending literacy crisis” (Gold 84).  And since it was always thus, since hardly a generation has gone by without complaint, the complaint itself is, clearly, bogus.  After all—and Harvard’s imposition of a composition program in the late 19th century almost always arises in these rebuttals—“in 1892, forty-seven percent of students taking Harvard’s entrance exam “passed unsatisfactorily” and twenty percent failed” (Gold 84).  Harvard’s experience is of course weighty, but Harvard’s experience one hundred years ago does not, to my mind, trump all contemporary evidence to the contrary, such as the fact that increasing percentages of students now require remedial instruction in English; that elite private liberal arts colleges now require writing centers and student learning centers to insure that their students can perform well enough to pass their courses; or that the bachelor’s degree has become the functional equivalent of your parents’ (or grandparents’) high school diploma.  It is, I would urge, impossible for an institution to increase in size by 40% (or by 1000%) without changing at all.  And all of the change can’t possibly be for the good.

I cannot shake the feeling that the loss of local community in intellectual life is, in fact, a loss, but creating a compelling argument to answer these difficult questions about community, questions raised by my musings on anonymity with Natanson, Egginton, Woolf, and Forster, will take me more pages and more time than I have in this rushed hour before the MLA, with grading still to do and a search committee to run.   So I offer these musings for you to ponder. Anonymity is an inescapable part of our lives as modern social beings, a condition we cannot escape and one that is, moreover, connected to intimacy and one’s sense of individuality.  In this, anonymity in modernity seems at odds with the very notion of community and certainly with the notion of a community that results in, oddly enough, a desirable anonymity for the artist.  Like anonymity or intimacy, community in modernity is a condition into one dips with more or less frequency, and communities develop locally, nationally, internationally, and virtually.  And so one may only guess—or wish—that an intellectual’s local community would, or could, do a better job than her virtual or international community of mimicking the conditions of the pre-modernity, of producing the sort of anonymity—a laboring in anonymity—that vitiates the desire for recognition and fame, for grasping individuality, and promotes instead “the fostering of literary culture and literary consciousness” or of an intellectual life worth living. 


[1] Defined by the OED as the state of having no name, of being nameless or of being of unknown name, anonymity undercuts—or denies outright—modernity’s privileging of individuality.


[2]  For Heidegger, Natanson adds, “it is only through the individual's coming to an existential recognition of the meaning of his own death that his life as "das Man," as "everyman," as "one," as "they," can be overcome” (540).


[3] One might wonder here about the effect of Forster’s closeted homosexuality on the development of his ideas in this regard.  In any case, related to the power of personality is the power of property.  The poem or play or novel is the writer’s “property—he ought to have the credit” (83).   One might wish to note that this disdain for personality was in the air in the early part of the twentieth century.  In “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” T.S. Eliot urged that the “progress of an artists is a continual self-sacrifice, a continual extinction of personality.”  For Eliot, such “depersonalization” allows “art…to approach the condition of science” (785).  For Forster, in contrast, great art comes from “the depths,” which has something general and universal and anonymous about it (87).  For instance, “although it is inside S. T. Coleridge, it cannot be labeled with his name.  It has something in common with all other deeper personalities, and the mystic will assert that the common quality is God, and that here, in the obscure recesses of our being, we near the gates of the Divine.  It is in any case the force that makes for anonymity” (84).


[4] Again, the question of Forster’s homosexuality must be of interest here:  “Study is only a serious form of gossip.” 


[5] See the just released report by the MLA entitled, Education in the Balance:  A Report on the Academic Workforce in English.   http://www.mla.org/report_aw.  Of course, the University has long been a “class society,” as Clark Kerr pointed out in 1963 (19).  Kerr notes that “teaching is less central than it once was for most faculty members; research has become more important” (42). And as a result, “a threefold class structure” has emerged from “what used to be ‘the faculty’:  those who only do research, those who only teach (and they are still largely in an auxiliary role), and those who still do some of both” (43).  It is difficult to compare Kerr’s assertions to the data presented by the MLA.  But one might suggest that a significant difference between 1963 and 2008, between Kerr’s The Uses of the University and the MLA’s Education in the Balance, is, in fact, in the question of balance among those constituent elements of “the faculty” in the university and in what those numbers suggest about the power of the faculty and about the character of its “class society” of it:  those who were “still largely in an auxiliary role” are now in the majority.  The MLA reports that in 2005, at Carnegie Doctoral/Research Institutions, the tenure-line faculty has decreased from 56% to 44% of the total faculty in the decade spanning 1995-2005.  In higher education as a whole, only 32.2% of the workforce is on a tenure line, down from 42.3% in 1995.  Overall, growth in the faculty is almost entirely in non-tenure track full-time and part-time positions (22).  We know that non tenure-track positions, whether full or part-time, are not positions that facilitate the production of research.


[6] Sociologist Randall Collins observes that  the causes of “the growing distance between a highly paid elite of noted researchers and a professorial underclass of temporary lecturers…are in the economic strains of a system whose mass production of educational credentials for employment has become extremely expensive” (23).


[7] Forster distinguishes between literature and criticism, creative writing and critical writing, but I am not convinced that in its writing literature is categorically different from criticism in the way Forster suggests, that is, in lacking the imposition of a writer’s ego and agendas.  One might cite any of Forster’s novels in this regard, perhaps especially, of course, A Passage to India.


Collins, Randall.  “Credential Inflation and the Future of Universities.” The Future of the City of Intellect: The Changing American University, ed. Steven G. Brint (Stanford:  Stanford University Press, 2002), 23-46.


Egginton, William.  “Intimacy and Anonymity, or How the Audience Became a Crowd.” Crowds. Ed. Jeffrey T. Schnap[p and Matthew Tiews. Stanford: Stanford UP, 2006. 97-110.


Eliot, T. S.  “Tradition and the Individual Talent.” Critical Theory Since Plato. Ed. Hazard Adams.  New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1971. 784-787.


Forster, E. M.  “Anonymity:  An Enquiry.” Two Cheers for Democracy. New York: Harcourt, Brace, and Company, 1951. 77-88.


Gold, David. “Will the Circle Be Broken:  The Rhetoric of Complaint against Student Writing.”  Profession 2008. New York: MLA, 2008. 83-93.


Guillory, John.  “The System of Graduate Education,” PMLA 115 (2000): 1154-63.


Hunt, Lynn. “Democratization and Decline? The Consequences of Demographic Change in the Humanites.”  What’s Happened to the Humanities? Ed. Alvin Kernan.  Princeton:  Princeton UP, 1997. 17-31.


Kerr, Clark.  The Uses of the University. 3rd edition. Cambridge:  Harvard UP, 1982.


Ohmann, Richard.  English in America: A Radical View of the Profession.  Hanover, NH: Wesleyan UP/UP of New England, 1996 [1976].


Modern Langauge Association.  Education in the Balance:  A Report on the Academic Workforce in English. (New York: MLA, 2008).  http://www.mla.org/report_aw


---.  Final Report of the MLA Committee on Professional Employment. (New York: MLA, 1997).


Natanson, Maurice.   Anonymity:  A Study in the Philosophy of Alfred Schutz.  Bloomington, IN:  Indiana UP, 1986.


---.  “Phenomenology, Anonymity, and Alienation.” New Literary History 10 (Spring 1979):  533-546.


O’Dair, Sharon.  “Superserviceable Subordinates, Universal Access, and Prestige-Driven Research.”  Over Ten Million Served: Gender, Service, and Academic Workplaces. Ed. Katie Hogan and Michelle Massé.  SUNY Press, forthcoming.


Silver, Brenda R, ed. “‘Anon’ and ‘The Reader’:  Virginia Woolf’s Last Essays.” Twentieth Century Literature 25 (Autumn-Winter 1979): 356-441.


Woolf, Virginia.  “‘Anon’ and ‘The Reader’:  Virginia Woolf’s Last Essays.” Ed. Brenda R. Silver. Twentieth Century Literature 25 (Autumn-Winter 1979): 356-441.


---.  “Notes on an Elizabethan Play.” The Common Reader: First Series.  New York:  Harcourt,  Brace, and World, Inc. 1953 [1925].