Category Archives: pseudonymity

my disagreement with authorship attribution

I’m torn: I’m very interested in stylometry, but I have issues with the fundamental questions that are asked in this field, in particular authorship attribution.

In my research, I’ve thought and written quite a bit about authorship. My dissertation looked at changing concepts of authorship – the singular, cohesive, Romantic genius author as established in collected editions in Japan at the turn of the 20th century – and also at actual practices of writing and authorship that preceded and accompanied these developments. My conclusion about authorship was that it is a kind of performance, embedded in and never preceding the text, and is not coextensive with the historical writer(s) behind the performance – pseudonymous, collective, anonymous, or otherwise.

These performances are necessarily contextualized by space, time, society, culture, literary trends, place of publication, audience. They are more or less without meaning if one doesn’t take context into account, even if not all relevant contexts at once. For a performance takes place within a historic, cultural, and literary moment, and does not exist independently of it. I see that place of performance as both the text and its place of publication, its material manifestation; and it is a performance that is inextricably linked to reader reception.

I also don’t see these performances as necessarily creating a unified authorial identity or unified author-function across space, time, and texts. This may sound extremely counterintuitive given that many performances of authorship share appellations and can be “attributed” to the “same” author, and I recognize that my argument is downright bizarre at times. I blame it on having spent too much time thinking about the implications of this topic. But in a way, our linking of these performances after the fact is artificial, and these different author-functions are, for me, so linked to the time and place of both publication and reading – whether contemporary or not – that they can be seen as separate as well. This is why I concluded that collected literary anthologies are constructing – inventing – an entirely artificial “author” out of the works associated, after the fact, with a historical, individual writer, whose identity and name may not have coincided with that of the authorial performance at all in the first place.

So, that said, let me get to my disagreement with authorship attribution. It’s fundamentally asking the wrong question of authors and authorship: who “really” wrote this text? My argument is that the hand of the historical writer “behind” the authorial performance is a moot point; what matters is the name, or lack of a name, attributed to the text when it is published, republished, read, and reread over time. It’s the performance that takes place at the site of the text, coinciding with and following the creation of the text, deeply associated with and embedded in the text, and located within reception rather than intention. It takes place at a different site than the hand of the historical writer holding a pen or the mind creating an idea. And so the search for the “real” identity of the author is beside the point; what is happening here is really “writership attribution” that is something separate from authorship.

A colleague recently asked me, too, what the greater goal of authorship attribution is – what is it beyond finding out the person behind the text? What is it besides deciding that the entity constructed with the name Shakespeare “really” wrote an unattributed or mysterious text? And I couldn’t answer this question, which brings me to my second fundamental problem with authorship attribution. I don’t see an overarching research question guiding methodology, besides the narrow goal of establishing writership of a text. This could be my own ignorance, and I’d be happy to be corrected on it.

I’m interested to hear your thoughts!

pseudonymity and the bibliography

My research is on authorship, and specifically on varied practices of writing and ways that authorship is performed.

For my study – that is, late 19th-century Japan – the practice of using pseudonyms, multiple and various, is extremely common. It’s an issue that I consider quite a bit, and a practice that I personally find simultaneously playful and liberating. It’s the ultimate in creativity: creating not just a work but one’s authorship, and one’s authorial name, every time.

This does raise a practical issue, however, that leads me to think even more about the meaning and implications of using a pseudonym.

How does one create a bibliography of works written under pen names?

The easy version of the problem is this: I have a choice when making my master dissertation bibliography of citing works in a number of ways. I can cite them with that instance’s pen name, then the most commonly known pen or given name in brackets afterward. I can do the reverse. Or I can be troublesome and only cite the pen name. Then again, I could adopt the practice that is the current default – born of now attributing works solely to the most commonly known name rather than to the name originally on the work – that is to not bother with the original pen name, obscuring the original publication context entirely. I can pretend, for example, that Maihime was written by Mori Ogai, and not Mori Rintaro. This flies in the face of convention but is the only way that I can cite the work and remain consistent with the overarching argument that I make in my dissertation: that is, use of and attribution to specific, variable pen names matters, both for understanding context and also understanding the work itself. It goes without saying that this is crucial for understanding authorship itself.

But there is another issue, and it goes hand-in-hand with citing works by writers whose name does not follow Western convention of given name first, last name second. Of having two names at all. The issue comes in the form of citation managers.

I’ve been giving Zotero a go lately and quite enjoying it. But I find myself making constant workarounds because of most of my sources being by Japanese writers, and the writers of my primary sources not only being Japanese but also using pen names. My workaround is to treat the entire name as one single last name, so I can write it in the proper order and not have it wrangled back into “last name”, “first name” – both of those being not quite true here. For citing a Japanese writer, I’d want to retain the last name then given name order; for someone using a pen name, the issue is that no part of the name is a last or given name. It’s what I’d like to call an acquired name.

Mori Ogai is now the most commonly used name of the writer Mori Rintaro (Mori being the last name, Rintaro being his given name). Ogai is a shortened version of his early pen name Ogai Gyoshi. Ogai Gyoshi isn’t a false last plus given name. It’s always in the order Ogai Gyoshi, neither of them is a “real” name, and it is a phrase, not a name. It’s as though he’s using a word that happens to have a space in it.

So when I put some of Mori Rintaro’s writing into Zotero, I put in “Mori Rintaro” as the last name. Sometimes I just put in “Ogai” as the name, when he signs a piece that way. Occasionally it’s “Ogai Mori Rintaro” (this is, in fact, the author of Maihime – I made a shortcut above in my example). And then there are some pieces in which the last name in Zotero is “Ogai Gyoshi.”

I don’t know how to go about this any other way, but it’s less about me having be a little hacky to get it to do what I want, and much more of a constant reminder of our current (Western) assumptions about names, authorship, and naming conventions. It’s a reminder of how different the time and place that I study is, and how much more dynamic and, frankly, fun it was to write in the late 19th century in Japan than it is now, either here as an American or even in Japan. Names are taken a bit more seriously now, I’d argue, and more literally. It’s a little harder to play with one’s name, to make one up entirely for a one-off use, at this point – and I think it’s for the worse.

(Obviously, there are exceptions: musicians come immediately to mind. And it’s not as though writers do not adopt pen names now. But it’s not in the same way. And this, incidentally, is something I love about the early Internet – I’m referring to the nineties in particular. Fun with handles, fun with names, all pseudonymous, and all about fluid, multiple identity.)

wuthering heights: a review 160 years after the fact

I recently reread Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights for the first time in about 15 years. In fact, I devoured it in only 36 hours, and was so struck by it this time around that I am writing a little review here.

My own history with the book: I read it in high school, for English class, and was knocked over by it then too. I quickly started putting it at the top of my “favorite books” list, despite having only read it once, and having not read it since then. I wondered recently, did I love it so much because it was literally (sadly) the only book I had to read for school that I’ve ever liked? Was it something about being 15 and the book being so over-the-top with crazy drama? Or is it actually really that good? I was hoping it was the last, but this wouldn’t be the first time I’ve revisited a loved thing from my childhood or teen years and had all of my good memories ruined by its reality.

As you can see, this was not the case. In fact, I liked it more this time around. So I can happily say, now, that it is one of the best books I have ever read, with no reservations.

First, the most amorphous: This has to be one of the most well-written works I have ever come across. It’s not every day that a book forces me to stay up half the night reading it, despite almost falling asleep on my Kindle (I’m reading the Project Gutenberg copy – go Gutenberg!). Throughout, I was practically shouting at the page, “Nelly Dean, don’t go to bed! Get back here and finish telling us what happened!” But it’s more than simply keeping a fast and absorbing pace. Emily Brone’s writing style is powerful and unique; I don’t think I’ve read anything quite like it before or since. Sadly, I can’t put more of a finger on it than that at the moment. I’m still fighting my urge to reread it immediately, after all.

But I want to spend the remainder of my short review on what I value so much about this book and its narration, and why.

I was looking around for information on the reception (because I’m a book history nerd) after I had finished, and I was really, truly astounded to find this book referred to as a romance and a love story everywhere I looked. Heathcliff himself was being referred to as a romantic hero! I nearly fell off my chair when I ran across that one, but then I kept seeing it again and again. Did these people read the same book that I did?

I’m going to go ahead and make a statement that I don’t think will be terribly controversial to anyone else who has read this novel: This is not a love story. It contains one, but it is not primarily about the love story. This is a book that has one foot firmly in the horror genre, and at times borders on terrifying if the reader has any sense of humanity. It is about unspeakable evil, here personified in the not-exactly-“romantic” main character, who I would also refrain from calling a “hero” in any sense, except perhaps “hero of unnecessary revenge through evil means.”

This is, for me, a tale of abuse and its results; of real, almost unimaginable evil; of madness (and in a sense, the madness that results from the characters and from the environment and experiences that they face); and of a borderline-horrifying environment in which the characters are so isolated that the rest of the world may as well not exist.

Now I’m going to make a much more controversial statement: Emily Bronte was Lovecraftian before H.P. Lovecraft was born.

No, she may not have a Cthulhu lurking among the heather on the moors, but she has the same type of setting as Lovecraft’s freakish isolated New England villages and awful countryside, and if she’s not talking about evil as manifested through fungus and occasionally monsters and aliens, she’s talking about the same kind of incomprehensible evil as personified through our favorite Heathcliff. If you pushed me, I’d rank Cathy Earnshaw just below him on the evil scale. And if you want some more Lovecraft precursor: The theme of madness in Wuthering Heights is overpowering. I’m not one to ascribe bipolar disorder with psychotic episodes (what I’m sure I’m seeing in Cathy, though I am not a doctor) to seeing the face of evil in person, but it’s undeniable that it’s a major presence in the novel – something more than a theme – and goes beyond a simple character attribute.

It is Bronte’s frequent attempted descriptions of Heathcliff – and failed descriptions, for the most part – that make me recall Lovecraft so closely. Obviously, we have a link in their racism and linking of “brown” characters to base evil. I’m being overly general, but bear with me, because if you pay attention you will find it throughout the entire novel, not just in the main characters. More than this, though, is that I truly struggled to envision Heathcliff – especially his face – while reading, despite paying close attention to every word that conveyed any physical characteristic. It’s as though the characters often had to stop at simply concluding that he is the devil or a demon incarnate, describing the terror-inducing emotion they see on his face (the eyes!) rather than his basic appearance. There are attempts but they are repetition of the same few facts over and over.

Lovecraft can point to unspeakable evil, but it is just that: it is indescribable, beyond words. Heathcliff, as a person, appears to be in the same category.

As a final note on my categorization of this book in the horror genre, and close enough to Lovecraft to be in the same corner within that genre, I want to remark that having been to Yorkshire, and having been to the moors – they are terrifying enough on their own. They’re a landscape as bizarre and vaguely horrifying to be eligible for most of Lovecraft’s work to have been set there rather than in New England, although I understand the point of setting a story where New World villages can have been simultaneously without history from newness, and forgotten already. This is what, in my opinion, really sets apart the United States in particular as a setting quite different from any European country. But in these isolated, threatening places, I can imagine the same kinds of stories taking place without too much strain on my part.

This review isn’t as coherent as I’d like it to be, but I’d love to hear what my readers think about my shifting focus here from the “love story” of the novel (which really doesn’t take up a whole lot of space, and in light of the second half of the book, isn’t the overall point) and toward the idea of unspeakable evil personified – and having taken up residence in an isolated, abusive home in a bizarre landscape and threatening world. Not quite the evaluation I’ve been coming across in my online reading, but I can’t be the first person to praise the novel for these points.

why I’m on Google+, and why I love Twitter

Why not?

I thought I had all kinds of answers to that. My kneejerk reaction to just about any new social networking service is “because it’s annoying.” Possibly, it is still totally annoying and I may come to neglect it as much as my Facebook account (which I largely have because “librarians are doing it” and I’d rather have a visible page that I control speak for me on the internet, rather than let others do it).

Here are some reasons why – and why I haven’t found it that annoying (yet).

It’s largely based on the fundamental difference I feel between Google+ and Facebook. Facebook is for personal stuff, even when it’s at work. I have a busy job pruning my account if I even allow people to be able to post on my wall. I use it to broadcast that I have a new blog post, and to broadcast my Twitter feed to people who don’t use Twitter. But the majority of my “friends” on it largely use it as a social space to socialize in inappropriate ways with people who aren’t really their friends. If I’m presenting my Facebook identity to the world, under my real name, I’m going to be very careful about how I present myself – and being careful means very, very limited information. I have enough on there to look legitimate, but I see it as a way to market myself, not a platform for socializing.*

Why do I see Google+ as different? I think it’s the general feel of it. It feels to me like Twitter, and that’s a very positive thing. I love the Twitter model. No reciprocal friending expected; follow people whose posts you think will be interesting (like a blog), who you probably don’t know in real life and don’t have any expectation of contact with. (I have to say an @ message from someone I was following, or from someone following me (one way), is exciting and flattering. So that’s good too.) There’s no need to grow an insane network of people you don’t keep track of and don’t really know. They can follow you, but you don’t have to follow them. Prune as needed.

The second thing I love about Twitter is the sharing, and Google+ has integrated that with both +1 likes and the ability to post to your feed. It’s like Twitter on crack, only if Twitter were a tired old wrestler rather than a nimble little bird. There’s a lot to be said for the 140 character model. I personally think it’s the force that drives the insane level of communication that goes on there every day. It’s so easy to post, so quick, and so easy and quick to send an @ reply. But even quicker to hit “retweet.” It’s a magical system for dynamically generating temporary networks that ebb and flow, that come together out of nowhere and then just as quickly disappear.

Someone referred to Twitter as “ephemeral in nature” when talking about its downsides. I think rather that this is a strength. Twitter moves at the speed of the little events of everyday life, no matter if they had to do with what you’re eating for lunch, the conference session you’re sitting in on, or trying to avoid the cops at a demonstration.

And its the quickness of Twitter that I would argue leads to its power in briefly but powerfully harnessing the masses. As I type, several #anonymous tweeters are calling for a boycott of PayPal. These retweets are traveling faster than I can type. This is a far cry from setting up a web site petition, or even a facebook group petition. I can’t think of a way for information to spread faster, and I think it’s tied directly to the often-derided 140 character format.

What does this all have to do with Google+? I am on Twitter (under my real name) to keep connected with my profession (DHers are big tweeters), communicate my ideas to a big community, retweet stuff from groups that interest me, and generally keep tabs on my spread-out intellectual and personal networks. Mini-updates. And they’re from people I want to communicate with in a largely professional way. Under my real name.

Google+ has me under my real name. If this were a network like Facebook, I’d have already freaked out and registered under a dummy gmail account with a pseudonym. I am very private about my private life. But I see this as more of an opportunity to start turning my Twitter activities into longer-form posts. The huge advantage is that people outside of the wall of Facebook could come across them easily; people who follow other people in DH that I don’t know might find them and comment; and it’s a perfect platform for marketing myself now that I’m going to be searching for a job in the upcoming months. It’s the platform I’ve been waiting for: professional Twitter+.

Of course, Google+ is still in the early stages but I don’t see it as a Facebook-killer at all. Facebook will continue to do what it does best: allow people to friend each other and waste each others’ time as effectively as possible. Facebook stays within Facebook. Google+ feels so much more connected with the rest of my Internet life, just as Twitter does. (e.g., the fact that I have it feeding my Facebook status updates.) I’m interested to see where Google+ goes, and hope that the invites keep coming out so I can collect more of the people I know and, just as importantly, the people I want to know.


* There’s a time and a place for that; you can find such places on LiveJournal and by using Facebook and Twitter with pseudonyms.

presentation accepted: MCAA

A quick tidbit.

I’ve gotten a paper proposal accepted for the Midwest Conference on Asian Affairs in early October, in Columbus, OH. I’m excited about this conference in particular because of its focus on media and communication throughout history, and thinking hard about how we approach our various fields through this lens (or vice versa).

My own topic is something I will elaborate on later, but for now, let me tell you it’s about the impossibility of separating physicality from social network from archive from publication in the context of a certain book in the late 1800s. To be less vague, I’m going to talk about how one man’s “rediscovery” (via many allusions by a fiction author he liked) of Ihara Saikaku (then mostly forgotten, now Mr. Edo-Period Canonical Author) in the 1880s. Those who got excited about reading Saikaku talk quite a bit about buying, handling, and borrowing/lending old copies of Saikaku’s work, and in their anthology that they published, they go so far as to credit each work with whose archive/collection it came from. The sense of physical ownership – and being able to touch the thing itself – is overwhelming compared to everything else I’ve looked at from this period. It’s fascinating and exciting and I’m looking forward to sharing this finding as well as getting feedback on my methodological approach and conclusions. (Surely weak at best, given that this is news to me and I haven’t had a lot of time to develop my thinking over the past year, buried in a mountain of magazines in the library basement.)

By the way, this probably can’t fit into the paper, but the social ripples of Saikaku popularity vibrate constantly through the Meiji literature and general literary discourse that I read throughout my research. Saikaku love versus hate, going so far as to adopt a pseudonym that translates to “I love Saikaku” while attempting to imitate his style in one’s own writing, republishing his works in random magazines, the changing ideas about whether or not his works qualify as modern works of fiction (小説, now translated as “novel” but then quite contested), and reactions to him – they not only feed into and inform and make clear literary cliques and their interactions, but also literary trends and experimentation in an era where nearly anything goes.

A forgotten author as a window into an historical moment: nothing could make me happier about choosing the path that I have.

the value of a pseudonym: privacy, paranoia, and internet identity

There has been a lot of panic lately about Facebook’s questionable use of the data it collects, and its less than transparent changes to its user and privacy policies. I have heard more than one person swear to delete their account (although none of them have to date), and I nearly did so myself in a fit of annoyance at the thing.

However, I remembered something that put my mind at ease. I’m not myself on Facebook. I’m someone else. I have nothing to fear, because nothing there is real.

In other words, I am pseudonymous.

Continue reading the value of a pseudonym: privacy, paranoia, and internet identity