What’s in a name?



Newcastle University, September 13-15 2017

An ambivalent relationship to anonymity has been part of Western culture throughout history. After its earliest applications in Homer’s Odyssey, anonymity flourished in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries with the emergence of English coffeehouse culture, the circulation and readership of anonymous ‘spectator’ periodicals (Athenian Mercury,Spectator, Weekly Journal), and the practice of anonymous publishing used by writers such as  Jonathan Swift, Daniel Defoe, and Frances Burney. With the advent of copyrighting, anonymity has taken on a new complexity, and the recent efforts to discover the identity of novelist Elena Ferrante are evidence of a conflicted relationship with anonymity in contemporary culture. Masked identity has similarly provoked both fascination and unease throughout history: this can be explored through figures such as the historical ‘man in the iron mask’ and subsequent representations in literature and film, Gaston Leroux’s The Phantom of the Opera (1910) and its adaptations, and superheroes in comic books and blockbuster films.

Across history, anonymity has often been tied to marginality and social inequality, from the use of initials to conceal the author’s gender and ensure a wider readership, to the emblematic anonymous narrator of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952) and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), to the deployment of anonymity in contemporary queer cultures as in the leaflet ‘Queers Read This’ (1990). Discussions on the ethics of anonymity have proliferated with the rise of cyberspaces and online media: while protecting anonymity is considered paramount for the freedom and safety of speakers, accountability becomes a concern when anonymous agents harm others. The Anonymous hacktivist network exists in this context at the intersection of many key issues around anonymity: freedom, identity, collective organization, social hierarchies, political agency, accountability.

As anonymity continues to show its face across historical moments and academic disciplines, this 3-day conference seeks to explore its significance in a variety of contexts. Our aim is to create interdisciplinary and trans-historical connections around all aspects of anonymity, such as ethics, authorship, personal and public identity, history, power, and legality. We invite 300-word abstracts (for 20-minute papers) on any topic relating to anonymity. Possible topics might include, but are by no means restricted to:

  • Anonymity and cyberspace: freedom and accountability
  • Anonymity and pseudonyms in publishing
  • The politics of concealing identity: class, race, gender, sexuality, etc.
  • Anonymous crimes and the legality of anonymity
  • Ulterior identities: masks, superheroes, and costumes
  • The ethics of anonymity, speaking as others and social responsibility
  • The agency of anonymity and intentional ignorance: enabling anonymity
  • Anonymity in photography and art
  • The changing status of anonymity throughout history
  • Anonymity and secrets: confession and addiction support groups
  • Anonymity in LGBTQ cultures
  • The creation of fictional anonymous characters in literature and film
  • Collective authorship, mobs and anonymity in the group

Please email abstracts to anonymity@newcastle.ac.uk  by Friday 24th March 2017.