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Improper Names

Collective Pseudonyms from the Luddites to Anonymous

2015
Author:

Marco Deseriis

Improper Names

The first comprehensive analysis of the shared pseudonym, a collective strategy to build symbolic power that challenges established forms of political and aesthetic representation

Bridging gaps among the history of the labor movement, cinema studies, art history, media activism, and hacking, Improper Names examines the contentious politics and the struggles for the control of a shared alias from the early nineteenth century to the age of networks.

Marco Deseriis’s learned and lively account of the improper name carefully considers the history, political reach, and symbolic power afforded by the alias by drawing on a rich set of examples, from Ned Ludd to Anonymous. The book’s optic opens wide to engage a wide range of subjects, from labor history to the politics of art, direct action, and digital media.

Gabriella Coleman, McGill University

Improper Names offers a genealogy and theory of the “improper name,” which author Marco Deseriis defines as the adoption of the same pseudonym by organized collectives, affinity groups, and individual authors. Although such names are often invented to pursue a specific social or political agenda, they are soon appropriated for different and sometimes diverging purposes. This book examines the tension arising from struggles for control of a pseudonym’s symbolic power.

Deseriis provides five fascinating and widely varying case studies. Ned Ludd was the legendary and eponymous leader of the English Luddites, textile workers who threatened the destruction of industrial machinery and then advanced a variety of economic and political demands. Alan Smithee—an alias coined by Hollywood film directors in 1969 in order to disown films that were recut by producers—became a contested signature and was therefore no longer effective to signal prevarication to Hollywood insiders. Monty Cantsin was an “open pop star” created by U.S. and Canadian artists in the late 1970s to critique bourgeois notions of authorship, but its communal character was compromised by excessive identification with individual users of the name. The Italian media activists calling themselves Luther Blissett, aware of the Cantsin experience, implemented measures to prevent individuals from assuming the alias, which was used to author media pranks, sell apocryphal manuscripts to publishers, fabricate artists and artworks, and author best-selling novels. The longest chapter here is devoted to the contemporary “hacktivist” group known as Anonymous, which protests censorship and restricted access to information and information technologies.

After delving into a rich philosophical debate on community among those who have nothing in common, the book concludes with a reflection on how the politics of improper names affects present-day anticapitalist social movements such as Occupy and 15-M.

Improper Names

Marco Deseriis is assistant professor of media and screen studies at Northeastern University.

Improper Names

Marco Deseriis’s learned and lively account of the improper name carefully considers the history, political reach, and symbolic power afforded by the alias by drawing on a rich set of examples, from Ned Ludd to Anonymous. The book’s optic opens wide to engage a wide range of subjects, from labor history to the politics of art, direct action, and digital media.

Gabriella Coleman, McGill University

Improper Names

Contents

Acknowledgments
Introduction: Genealogy and Theory of the Improper Name
1. Ned Ludd, the Machine Breaker
2. Allen Smithee, the Anti-Auteur
3. Monty Cantsin, the Open Pop Star
4. Luther Blissett, the Mythmaker
5. Anonymous, the Transducer
Conclusion: The Improper Name as Medium and Gap
Notes
Index