Probably the best book ever written on the topic of anonymity is Maurice Natanson’s 1986 monograph Anonymity: A Study in the Philosophy of Alfred Schutz. As we resume our inquiry into the interlinked histories of anonymity, racial capitalism, and intellectual property law, it seems sensible to start with Natanson’s eloquent and witty text.
Building on themes gleaned from the writings of his mentor, Alfred Schutz, Natanson presents “anonymity” as an “invariant feature” of everyday life lived in its “taken-for-grantedness.”
Structurally speaking, the most important thing to know about anonymity is that it is reciprocal: “I am anonymous to most Others, as most Others are anonymous to me.” Without question, there is something troubling (to most of us, at least) about this reciprocal anonymity (or anonymizing reciprocity). “Anonymity,” Natanson writes, “in general parlance, means the state of being unknown, without identity, a kind of hiddenness.” Natanson paraphrases Tolstoy’s Ivan Ilyich: “it seems right that Others should be anonymous, but as for me, it would be terrible.”
Anonymity also has political teeth. Recall E.P. Thompson’s essay “The Crime of Anonymity” in Albion’s Fatal Tree. “The anonymous threatening letter is a characteristic form of protest in any society which has crossed a certain threshold of literacy,” Thompson writes, “in which forms of collective organized defense are weak, and in which individuals who can be identified as the organizers of protest are liable to immediate victimization.”
There is something characteristically modern about the experience of being deprived of one’s anonymity––singled out and yanked from the crowd. Modern state terror has as its signature the arbitrary act of recognition by an agent who wears the uniform of power or robes of law. Or engraved in the circuits of the unmanned drone as it carries out its targeted killings.
Natanson’s writing is not unaware of these dimensions of anonymity. But he is insistent that the mundanity of the anonymous everyday be appreciated, and distinguished from the banality of evil.
Thus, to flesh out a philosophy of anonymity, Natanson returns repeatedly to Schutz’s mundane example of the ordinary person putting an ordinary letter in the mail. “All that is needed for the task to be accomplished,” Natanson writes, “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.” As long as the letter reaches its addressee, the letter-mailer need not “understand the intricacies of the postal system, how it works, who does what in processing the mail, how mail is transported and delivered.”
Considered philosophically, the texture of such experiences is––above all else––anonymous and anonymizing. In other words, the identities of the actors involved in helping get my letter to its addressee are irrelevant to the act of mailing a letter, just as my identity is irrelevant to them. .
Here, we see the overlap of Schutz’s phenomenological thinking with Max Weber’s theory of “ideal types.” Wrestling with Weber’s interpretive apparatus, Schutz develops the notion of the “biographical situation” of the actor in social life:
Man finds himself at any moment of his daily life in a biographically determined situation, that is, in a physical and sociocultural environment as defined by him, within which he has his position, not merely his position in terms of physical space and outer time or of his status and role within the social system but also his moral and ideological position. To say that this definition of the situation is biographically determined is to say that it has its history: it is the sedimentation of all man’s previous experiences, organized in the habitual possessions of his stock of knowledge at hand, and as such his unique possession, given to him and to him alone.
“It is in terms of his biographical situation,” Natanson suggests, “that the individual in daily life orders his constructions, his ideal types––writ small––of human action in the social world.” The Schutzian/Natansonian “biographical situation” reminds us of Avery Gordon’s notion of “complex personhood”––the diverse constellations of experience that make every human being irreducible to the charts and tables of bourgeois social science. The idea of the “biographical situation” negates, necessarily, any methodological individualism, rendering all knowledge and experience irreducibly social:
The individual’s conception of any segment of experience is derived socially, that is, from his parents, his family, his teachers, his employers, his fellow employees, his friends and acquaintances, and the large range of other persons and associations which make knowledge, in Schutz’s view, a social structured achievement.
From Natanson to Gordon and Fanon
Lewis Gordon’s Fanon and Crisis of European Man (1995) builds on these themes from Schutz and Natanson, staging an encounter between the phenomenological theorization of anonymity and Frantz Fanon’s critique of the white colonialist imagination.
Gordon registers his key concerns with his selection of epigraphs: Du Bois–– “To the real question, How does it feel to be a problem? I answer seldom a word”; Ralph Ellison––“When the white American, holding up most twentieth-century fiction, says, ‘This is American reality,’ the Negro tends to answer (not at all concerned that Americans tend generally to fight against any but the most flattering imaginative depictions of their lives), ‘“Perhaps, but you’ve left out this, and this, and this. And most of all, what you’d have the world accept as me isn’t even human.”; Frantz Fanon––“Dirty nigger!” or simply, “Look, a Negro!”
These epigraphs prepare the ground for an encounter with the Fanon who begins from the strange situation of being both a Frenchman and not a Frenchman, a paradoxical role that derives from the fact of Fanon’s blackness. “He simultaneously is and is not in a peculiar way,” Gordon observes. He is too much. And he is not enough.” To be black, for the logic of racism, is always to be too black—not white enough, which means: not human enough. “Like the African American,” Gordon continues, “Fanon finds himself inextricably linked to a society that not only rejects him, but also attempts to deny his existence as a legitimate point of view…He lives as a critique of France. He embodies its critique.”
Fanon’s disclosure of his existence as living critique of “Europe” (the trans-Atlantic white metropole) coincides with the deepening “crisis of European man” limned by Edmund Husserl: “The European nations are sick; Europe itself, it is said, is in crisis.”
Situating Fanon in this way, Gordon highlights an particularly evocative section of Black Skin, White Masks:
The psychoanalysts say that nothing is more traumatizing for the young child than his encounters with what is rational. I would personally say that for a man whose only weapon is reason there is nothing more neurotic than contact with unreason. I felt knife blades open within me. I resolved to defend myself. As a good tactician, I intended to rationalize the world and to show the white man that he was mistaken… Reason was confident of victory on every level. I put all the parts back together but I had to change my tune. That victory played cat and mouse; it made a fool of me. As the other put it, when I was present, it was not; when it was there, I was no longer.
Gordon interprets this meditation: “a black man who reasons finds himself in the absurdity of the very construction of himself as a black man who reasons.” Where white thought reaches its limit at the nightmare of a newly disintegrating Reason––for which the white court philosopher no longer has anything to offer––Fanon looks at the world and sees the nightmare of a persistent racist reason stretching back to Ancient Greece––for which the black radical philosopher serves as an impossible obstacle.
Husserl sweats over the dying patient. Fanon smirks. Gordon explains: “Why worry about that sickness?” and points to Fanon’s famous declaration that the complexities of racial domination cannot be explained by way of ontology:
In the Weltanschauung of a colonized people there is a impurity, a flaw that outlaws any ontological explanation. Someone may object that this is the case with every individual, but such an objection merely conceals a basic problem. Ontology––once it is finally admitted as leaving existence by the wayside––does not permit us to understand the being of the black man. For not only must the black man be black; he must be black in relation to the white man.
If ordinary ontology––the logic of being and becoming––proves itself inadequate to the task of accounting for blackness and anti-blackness, Gordon suggests, the (existential) phenomenology of anonymity might well constitute the missing rubric. We will further explore this possibility next week.
 Maurice Natanson, Anonymity: A Study in the Philosophy of Alfred Schutz (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986).
 E.P. Thompson, “The Crime of Anonymity” in Douglas Hay, et al, Albion’s Fatal Tree: Crime and Society in Eighteenth-Century England (New York: Pantheon, 1975).
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