Trickster with 1000 Faces
By: Matthew Battles | Categories: Codebreaking, Kudos

For Wired, journalist (and Hilobrow fave) Quinn Norton has begun a lengthy exploration of Anonymous, the amorphous expression of hacker culture that has challenged Scientology, championed Wikileaks, and paved the way for the 99 percent. If her inaugural post is any clue, Norton promises to render a searching and evocative an account of the secretive vanguard of Internet culture.

Following the pioneering work of anthropologist Gabriella Coleman, Norton sees Anonymous not as a party or club but the latter-day embodiment of mythological figures like Coyote, Loki, and Hermes. “The trickster as myth proved so compelling that the network made it real,” Norton argues. “Anonymous, the net’s trickster, emerged like supernatural movie monster out of the misty realm of ideas and into the real world.”

There’s something more than metaphor at work here. As the Internet grows, it does more than plumb mind to mind; it re-enchants the world. The domesticated imagination produced by the twentieth century, largely numbed and placated by consumable culture, is challenged afresh by basic energies — one of which, I want to say, is fear. We should fear Anonymous, but with the fresh and vital fear of living, conscious creatures confronting an unknown. Our culture tried to banish that feral sort of fear in the twentieth century, largely replacing it with abstract, defanged horrors. The violence Anonymous brings, in contrast, is the living complement to the kind of violence Slavoj Zizek gnomically describes: in place of the vast regimes of ritualized and abstract physical violence that bloodily maintain the status quo, a symbolic violence that tears down ideology and awakens the mind to questioning.

So Anonymous is no mere metaphor, but the Trickster in full. However chaotic neutral it appears, in action it is ultimately on the side of life. As Norton describes the group’s reckoning with the Church of Scientology brought about a confrontation with these Trickster principles:

[E]xisting Anons, and the ones that came in from the community of Scientology detractors, really cared about winning this one. They wanted to be the good guys and Scientology to play the bad guys. The Church, they reasoned, hurt people, took their money, and lied to them under the guise of being caretakers and teachers.

Anonymous claimed to do all those bad things too, but didn’t really, and would never promise to take care of you and teach you, but sometimes did anyway.

Norton’s patient exploration of the ways of Anonymous offers a powerful rejoinder to the digital Maoism Jaron Lanier calls us to fear. We’re already confronted by groupthink; it’s a residue of the mass-media age. What Anonymous offers isn’t Maoism, or any other cult of principle or personality. It’s sheer wakefulness; everything else proceeds from there.

— via @anindita.

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Matthew Battles, Hilobrow's cofounder, has written about language, history, and the natural world for many publications. When he makes poems, he puts them here. A fellow at Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society, he's also the author of Library, An Unquiet History.