Anonymous in Public. The emergence of a political aesthetics of anonymity in popular culture and digital activism

Daniël de Zeeuw | University of Amsterdam | Anonymous in Public. The emergence of a political aesthetics of anonymity in popular culture and digital activism | Supervisors: Robin Celikates & José van Dijck | 2014-2019

Anonymity as an ideal has been and continues to be of crucial importance to the practices and self-understanding of popular web and hacker cultures (Stryker 2013). These practices have crystallized into what I propose to call a ‘political aesthetics of anonymity’. As many governmental and commercial actors are currently pressing for the elimination of online anonymity, the desire for anonymity has become politicized, as it obstructs these attempts at identification and transparency, of which the hacktivist collective Anonymous is the most recent result. Society-wide, criticisms and protests against the surveillance and data-mining of nearly all computer mediated communications are becoming stronger in the wake of Edward Snowden’s revelations. Like these criticisms and protests, current research frames anonymity almost exclusively by means of a neoliberal discourse that structurally aligns it with issues concerning privacy, freedom of speech, censorship, cyber-security and (intellectual) property (e.g. the Electronic Frontier Foundation, see also Morozov 2012). Critical of this approach, and building on notable exceptions, this research develops a fundamentally different theoretical framework for interpreting the cultural and political significance of anonymity, one that analyzes the construction of anonymity as an ethos in digital culture as continuous with broader cultural trends and as a political appropriation of a larger popular-cultural history of proletarian and minoritarian experiences, collective memories and representations of the anonymity of the self and others. It does so via Benjamin, Kracauer and Simmel’s reflections on the anonymous character of modern life and the media, and via Foucault, Deleuze, Agamben and Esposito’s reversal of the modern status of anonymity, from a source of dread to an ethos that affirms the joyous, collective and impersonal dimensions of life.