Saturday, December 15, 2007

Pseudonyms Anonymous

Hello, my name is John, Peter, Walter, Matthew, and Dorothy, and I am a pseudonym.

Or at least I was or have been a pseudononym, at various times. Most of them date from my school days at RPI, where I was first editor off the student political/philosophical journal, Perspective, then Features Editor, Managing Editor, then Editor of the Rensselear Engineer.

When you don’t have money to pay writers, getting stuff actually written becomes a bit of a problem. You assign things to the staff, who are volunteers, just like I was, and they do it or not, depending on whatever reasons made them join the staff in the first place, tempered by the other demands on their time from school work and basic needs like trying to eat, sleep, bath occasionally, and get laid (there’s some correlation amongst those, you’ll note). You impose on friends and acquaintances. You learn to nag. You come up with cockamamie science fiction writing contests.

That one worked pretty well, actually, provided you’re counting words and not paying much attention to quality. We had six judges, faculty members mostly, and every one of them picked an entirely different winner, and thought that the stories chosen by the other judges were complete crap. So we printed all six and reported the first part of the judges opinions and not the second. I’m not a complete idiot.

Anyway, when the cost/benefit ratio on the various methods of cajoling etc. went too high, I wrote some more stuff. And in the time-honored tradition of editors since the beginning of time, I put different names on most of it, so it wouldn’t look like only one person was writing it all. There was a practical, if mildly unethical, reason for this: we got money from the Student Union to produce the magazines, and the number of students involved in any given activity was a factor in that activity’s budget, so the appearance of a larger staff made our budget more secure. Also, being represented on the Executive Board of the Student Union was a factor in budgeting, which is why I joined the E-Board, as it was called, my Junior year. I am a nefarious and conniving sort.

I also used pseudonyms for a few submissions to The Gorgon, RPI's student literary publication. I did this for a different reason than the other times I used pseudonyms; it was for fear of embarrassment.

As I have noted, I consider myself to be a lousy poet. This belief is backed by the fact that I am, indeed, a lousy poet; anything past simple rhymed couplets, limericks, and doggerel that I’ve attempted just makes me cringe on later reading. However, on the path to learning this great truth, I wrote a fair amount of poetry. Midway through this stop-me-before-I-kill-again realization, I decided I’d submit some to The Gorgon and see how they looked in print and what the response would be. Or see if they rejected it as crap. Either way, I’d learn something.

The problem was that, although they did indeed publish some of it, the only response that I could discern was from me, which is that it was still lousy, and so was most of the other stuff in The Gorgon. Not one of my more profound revelations: that most poetry written by students at a small engineering school was crap.

I will follow the sense of mild humiliation that remembering any thing about my writing poetry with a bit of a brag. RPI has this honorary society called “Phalanx.” Up until around my time, during those insidious “kids got no respect for tradition” sixties, the members got to wear cheesy white coats with a purple square on one of the pockets (representing the phalanx military formation, right?). There were also pins, I seem to recall. We got rid of those, and by “we” I mean student government generally (I was an E-Board member, eh?). We then got rewarded by being made members of Phalanx and not getting anything to show for it except our name on a list. By “we” here, I mean “me.”

Anyway, making Phalanx isn’t the brag. The brag is that I later heard that one of my pseudonyms had been considered for membership in Phalanx, but the idea was dropped because nobody could find him on any class rolls, him not actually existing, you see. But it was kinda cool.

Years later, Sharon Farber, my sometimes collaborator and I used a pseudonym a couple of times, one “Dorothy Smith,” (“Dot” Smith—get it? Oh, we had ‘em rolling in the aisles). We used Ms Smith as a pseudonym for a few stories where one or the other of us had a story that didn’t quite work and the other supplied the small, but necessary fix. Dorothy was the fixer-upper, a sort of “Remember thou art mortal” reminder. Much later, we had a profound disagreement on a collaborative story such that not even Dorothy could fix it so we ceased collaborating

Back in the late 80s, I first went on-line with Compuserve, which was the equivalent of being in a highly moderated Usenet Newsgroup. Moreover, every Compuserve user was theoretically identifiable; Compuserve had to know who you were (since somebody had to pay the bill), and you couldn’t just pop off and seconds later show up in a new identity, because everyone had a number tag and Compuserve email address. That was pretty much the case for the other on-line worlds, Genie, Delphi, America Online. Write anything bad enough and there was the possibility of real consequences.

The Internet, anonymous re-mailers, web-based email, cybercaf├ęs, public terminals, all these have changed that dynamic. It’s possible to operate online from a position of totally anonymity.

And I never do that. When I make a comment on someone’s blog, I give my own name and the path back to my own web pages, email addresses (I have several; doesn’t everyone?) or over to my little blog experiment where my user profile has those things. I’ve tried internet pseudonyms and they don’t feel right to me at all. Part of it may just be wanting what I say to have the weight of a real, identifiable person behind it. Part of it may be a sort of "old man in a raincoat on a park bench across from the playground" feel it has to it.

But I’ve been reflecting lately on what happens when we toss away components of the Superego, thing like accountability, consequences, empathy and persona. These are also components of the self, and they are part of what keeps the Id in check.

The Id is also part of the self. Ironically, denial of the Id gives it more power.

So every day I see things posted on the ‘net that are the verbal equivalent of “monsters from the Id.” Most often, they are anonymous; almost invariably they are written as if words have no consequences except possibly in relation to other words. Cyberspace becomes a massively multiplayer role playing game where magic rules, and not just in wizard-sodden gaming circles.

I am real; I have weight. Do your worst, puny magicians. My hide is thick with scales.

Dwarf magic does not work on dragons. Nobody knows why. - John Gardner, In the Suicide Mountains


black dog barking said...

I've finessed the good / not-so-good poetry divide by splitting my encounters in Those I Get and Those I Don't (Get). Since I "get" very little, any poems falling into category two keep some excellent company.

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