Marco Deseriis, Improper Names: Collective Pseudonyms from the Luddites to Anonymous
Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2015; 296pp; ISBN 9780816694877
Through an entertaining and informative combination of theory and case studies, Improper Names weaves together a well-researched narrative of various collective identities. The book travels from Ned Ludd and dissenting workers in early nineteenth-century northern England, through the open pop star Monty Catsin and anti-establishment mail art communities of the late 1980s and early 1990s, to Anonymous activists and their involvement in the Tunisian revolution. Improper Names makes connections between various groups through their use of collective monikers as they emerged within periods of uncertainty towards established forms of political and aesthetic representation. The book is a genealogy but it is also an analytic argument for the improper name as a 'distinctive authorial strategy that performs specific aesthetic, political, and technical functions' (p 3). Delving into various conceptual references to build a theory of the improper name, this form of group identity functions as a tactic which contains a 'disowning-function (p 11); the improper name works against the state's 'fixing of a reference' (p 23), becoming a shield for collective or individual acts of dissent. The improper name is a theory of the group pseudonym as a floating signifier, going beyond the stable relationship of the group moniker because 'it is the lack of a proper domain or stable referent--that is, the instability of the relationship between the signifier and signified--that puts in crisis the proper name's putative function to designate a referent in all its possible universes' (p 10). This means that not all collective pseudonyms are improper names because the improper name's disowning-function operates at the limits of stable representations. The efficacy of the improper name as a tool for collective pseudonymous identity in moments of crisis becomes clearer throughout the narrative-building chapters.
Among the case studies, the chapter on Luther Blissett--a Black British footballer who played a fateful season in Italy's...