June 07, 2017
GENEVA — Daft Punk and J. T. Leroy. Romain Gary and Gorillaz. Elena Ferrante and The Residents. You may have already spotted the element connecting these creators: all conceal their identities behind avatars, aliases or pseudonyms. It is either a way to play with our changing times or intensify public interest; and it can help trigger scandals, question the very concept of what it means to be a celebrity, or even illustrate a whole new mode of existing in the world. It is a new twist on the classic story of the one who wears the mask becomes a legend.
In the Odyssey, Homer recounts how Odysseus deceives the Cyclops by swearing to him, "My name is Nobody," which helps him escape a cruel fate by becoming anonymous, an "incognito: being complex, elusive, multifaceted, mysterious," as the French journalist Yann Perreau writes in his essay "Incognito."
While practices of anonymity have always existed, their benefits began to multiply during the late 20th century. In our times where mass surveillance and self-promotion coexist with the Internet's power to obliterate individual identity, all areas of both public and private creation are being transformed.
Characters in the shape of a question mark
But a deeper exploration is needed of such strategies of laughingly deceiving the world, mocking the star system or denouncing the failings of public leaders. And it is not about uncovering the identities of those who want to remain anonymous. After all, who really cares about knowing the face behind the French street artist Invaders or the English producer SBTRKT? Rather, we should try to better understand this reinvention of self that both haunts popular culture and mobilizes fans. "What does it matter who the actual person behind the fiction is?" says Yann Perreau. "It's only the invented characters that are interesting. Characters in the shape of a question mark."
An author claiming their work through an individual signature: this actually would have seemed quite curious to the earliest creators, for the conception of art was once considered a collective undertaking. But this came to an end in the early Middle Ages. "The Word then bans anonymity, considering it as heresy," says Perreau. The very notion of authorship began with the invention of the printing press and was reinforced in 1537 when French King Francis I imposed legal deposits on writers for their works, a maneuver that paved the way for state censorship and forced intellectuals to use borrowed names in order to express themselves freely without ending up in jail. François Rabelais published his work Pantagruel in 1532 under the anagram Alcofribas Nasier, Montesquieu attributed his Persian Letters to the mysterious Usbek and Rica in 1721, and later, Arthur Rimbaud wrote satiric articles for the newspaper Le Progrès des Ardennes under the pseudonym Jean Baudry.
We could find a multitude of examples, but let's fast-forward to 1917 when artist Marcel Duchamp sent a white porcelain urinal signed "R.MUTT" to the Selection Committee of the Society of Independent Artists of New York. Scandalous. Once unmasked, the master claimed, "The art of tomorrow will be clandestine."
"Singular, but without identity."
A steady flow of artists would follow over the next few decades. Romain Gary, who employed the pseudonym Emile Ajar, would become the only author to win the prestigious French literary award Prix Goncourt under two different names; David Bowie took multiple identities on stage and film; Michel Foucault engulfed himself in his study of the "process of subjectivation"; Andy Warhol added production value to emptiness; Banksy makes himself a masked hero on walls around the world.
Banksy's work on display — Photo: Bruce Krasting
If we turn back to the final years of the 20th century, and the dawn of 21st, we see the Mexican anti-globalization activist Subcomandante Marcos, nebulously anonymous hacktivists or whistleblowers like Chelsea Manning and Fuat Avni. "It was because they were invisible that these actors were able to denounce authoritarian excesses and express a demand for democracy," explains Perreau.
Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben described the phenomenon this way: "The being that comes: neither individual nor universal, but whichever. Singular, but without identity. Defined, but only in the empty space of the example."
What then of this contemporary nothing? Warhol had an answer: "Look, nothing is exciting, nothing is sexy, nothing is not embarrassing. The only time I ever want to be something is outside a party so I can get in."
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Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.
October 22, 2021
"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.
Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.
But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.
The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."
Criticism of any 'royal project'
The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.
Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.
In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.
Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release
Freedom of speech at stake
"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."
The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.
The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.
Activist in front of democracy monument in Thailand.
Shift to social media
While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.
The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.
Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".
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