Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Pseudonyms and Alter Egos

In a recent edition of Kaelah's Corner, titled Almost (Un)real, Kaelah mused about how "real" our kinky personas which we present on the web really are. It is a fascinating question, which I would formulate as: to what degree are the pseudonyms we use alter egos? Are they just pen names (literally, "pseudonym" simply means "false name", nothing more), or are they, at least in the case of some of us, actual alter egos, second selves with personality traits that may be different from our normal, day-to-day personalities? I am going to share a few thoughts of my own about that question with you today.

First off, I believe that most kinksters would probably answer that the nicknames they use are just that, nicknames. They would reject, and probably feel a tad offended by, the notion that their kinky personas are in any way "constructed" or "artificial". If anything, they would argue, the kinky persona is the "real me", because it can be open about kinky fantasies and desires, while the supposedly real me which they usually present to the world is a "character" of sorts, having to behave at times in a way that has to be less honest about such an important facet of their lives. Abel of The Spanking Writers made that point in the discussion of Kaelah's post. And it is a very good point, of course.

Why do we use nicknames in the first place? Well, obviously, to protect our privacy. This has nothing to do with shame and everything to do with common sense. I am not ashamed of my kink and I do not consider what I do to be in any way unhealthy or morally wrong. But unfortunately, we live in a world where so many misconceptions and prejudices still exist about BDSM, where a spanking top like me is all too easily reduced to "someone who likes to beat women", that it is wiser not to use one's real name on the internet so that every neighbour, work colleague or casual acquaintance can google for one's fascination with whips n' chains.

Does this mean that, if we lived in a perfect world where everyone regarded BDSM as simply an assortment of unusual erotic practices indulged in by otherwise perfectly "normal", well-adjusted people (a view taken by most of science today, but certainly not by all of politics or by the tabloid media), we would not be using nicknames? Again, I believe that many spankos would spontaneously answer: "Yes! In that case, we would not be using nicknames." But when I examine my own feelings on the matter, I am not sure that this would be true for me. I believe that, even in such a perfectly tolerant world where I would not have to fear any prejudice or negative repercussions for being kinky, I would still write under a pseudonym.

Actually, fear of negative repercussions is pretty low on my list of reasons for writing as "Ludwig". That fear is not very strong at all. If you read my recent posts Respecting Reader Privacy (a rant on the subject of privacy protection) and Paranoia 101 (which put a humorous spin on it), you may have gotten the impression that I am deathly afraid of being outed, a shivering nervous wreck almost. That impression would be totally false. I accepted the possibility that I might be outed one day the minute I started this blog, and I can live with it very well. My close family members and (vanilla) friends, of whom I do not have many, know about my kink, anyway. I would not expect too many negative consequences in my field of work, either. And as for "the public" in general, I am not bothered - perhaps it is the historian in me, but I put very little stock in what "the mainstream opinions" of society are at any given time, or what they might say about me.

Sure, it would be awkward to be outed and bring some immediate annoyances. But I do not have sleepless nights because of the prospect. If it happens, it happens. I think my biggest gripe with being outed would be that it happened against my will, which would annoy me as a matter of principle, and that it would take away some of the mystique of "Ludwig" in my view. Wanting to be in control and wanting to uphold a certain mystique are far stronger motives for me for keeping my real identity secret than the fear of any concrete, negative consequences. You could say that my motives are mainly aesthetic or artistic in nature, not social or practical.

As a matter of fact, I am quite fascinated with pseudonyms as a historical, cultural and psychological phenomenon. When you think about it, they are everywhere. Authors use pen names (Richard Bachman, George Sand). Actors and musicians use stage names (Winona Ryder, Slash). Terrorists and resistance fighters use "noms de guerre" (Carlos the Jackal). Communists used "party names" or "cadre names" (Lenin, Stalin, Pol Pot). Serial killers apply names to themselves or get names applied to them by the media or the police (Jack the Ripper, Zodiac, Son of Sam). Hackers use "handles" or "screen names" (Hagbard). In many cases, the pseudonym eventually becomes more famous than the person's birth name - how many people today know that writer George Sand was born as Amandine Dupin, or that Stalin was born as Iosif Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili?

It's always interesting to look at people's reasons for picking a particular pseudonym, inasfar as they are known. I believe that can tell you a lot about the person. Take a few examples from the spanking community. While some of us might just pick the first nickname that comes to our mind, there usually seems to be quite a bit of deliberation going into the choice. After all, you are going to be stuck with the name for a long time (unless you want to change it constantly) and you have to be able to identify with it. You have to be able to say: "This is me!"

Niki Flynn talks about how she picked her model name in her memoir Dances With Werewolves (p.39-40). After filming her debut movie with Lupus Pictures, she wanted a Czech-friendly model name, but one that would be pronounceable for non-Czechs as well. She picked Nicki as a first name because of Nicki Brand, a masochistic movie character from David Cronenberg's Videodrome. She easternised it by dropping the c, so it became Niki. She wanted an Irish surname and settled on Flynn, because Niki Flynn rhymed with Mickey Finn, a drug-laced drink used to incapacitate and take advantage of women. Sounds like her, doesn't it?

Pandora Blake describes her name-finding process in on not being a moth: wanted a mythical name, preferably from the classical canon, eventually chose Pandora, the first woman created by Zeus (actually, created by Hephaestus on the orders of Zeus), and the very traditionally English Blake, inspired by poet and painter William Blake, as a surname to "balance out" the Greek first name. Adele Haze basically combined the names of two book characters to get her model name, one from Jane Eyre and the other from Lolita, as she explains in an interview I did with her. My girlfriend Kaelah originally called herself K'Ehleyr, after a half-human, half-Klingon character from Star Trek: The Next Generation. The human side represents the "normal", day-to-day side, very thoughtful and analytical and quite shy at times, while the Klingon side represents the brave, more reckless warrior side in search of (kinky) adventure. It was also a sufficiently geeky name. We eventually decided to change it to Kaelah, which is more easily pronounceable and won't get us into conflict with Star Trek copyrights. As for me, it is well-known that I named myself after mad, eccentric king Ludwig II. of Bavaria. I went into the reasons in the first post I ever made on this blog.

When you look at the amount of thought and, indeed, artistry that often goes into these pseudonyms, it gets difficult to cling to the idea that they are "just nicknames". I believe that, for many of us, whether we know it or not, they serve a purpose that is far more essential than protecting our birth names. I believe that they also have an aspect of alter ego to them, in the sense that they are, to some extent at least, idealised selves. By idealised, I do not mean that they are totally artificial constructs that have nothing in common with our real selves, or that they are "perfect" in some superhero-like way and have no weaknesses (actually, tradition demands that every superhero has at least one characteristic weakness, but let's not get into that). I simply mean that they, our kinky pseudonyms, emphasise certain personality traits which we want to show to the world. Perhaps because we regard them as particularly essential to ourselves, at least in the context of kink. Or perhaps because they are personality traits we wish we had, or wish we had more of. Or perhaps the pseudonyms represent to us certain types of experiences we wish we had, like the experiences of movie characters or book characters we name ourselves after. In any case, there often seems to be some kind of idealisation or wish-making process going on there.

It actually is not too different from what we do all the time in our day-to-day lives: whenever we talk to someone about ourselves, or write a diary entry about our thoughts and feelings, or write a curriculum vitae for an application for a new job, we have a subconscious (and at times conscious) "filter" at work that results in us emphasising certain things, downplaying others, and painting a certain picture overall. That picture does not always have to be perfect or present us only in the best possible light - as a matter of fact, one of the fundamental desires most of us have is to let those close to us know about our weaknesses, and to be liked in spite of them. Nonetheless, the pictures we paint of ourselves are usually an idealisation of one degree or another. Or even a fictionalisation: basically, you are telling a story about yourself, and on second thoughts, you will often find that not all elements of the story are perfectly in tune with what really happened at the time. It is not lying, because it does not happen to intentionally fool anyone. It is just our normal process of defining ourselves. Memory can be a tricky thing.

It is not unreasonable to assume that this process of idealisation and fictionalisation is even stronger when you are writing about erotic fantasies and fetishes, under a pseudonym, in an online community. A community where most people do not know your real name or much at all about your day-to-day life, where most people never meet you face to face or only at selective and somewhat unusual events (parties, video shoots), and where the whole subculture you belong to has certain "underground" traits. Again, this does not mean that we set out to create "false", fictional characters who are not ourselves here. But I believe that the process of self-defining which we are constantly going through tends to be a bit more disconnected from day-to-day reality in the kinky community, in the sense that we tend to be a little less concerned with who we are, and a little more concerned with who we want to be. It lies in the nature of erotic fantasy, and it is augmented by the semi-anonymous nature of the community.

In a follow-up post, I will tell you a bit about how I think this applies to "Ludwig", and what I think "he" is. For now, though, I am interested in hearing your opinions about my little theory here. Does it in any way describe what is going on with you and your kinky persona? Would you say that there is any degree of truth in it? Or is your kinky persona really just a nickname, period, end of story?


Karl Friedrich Gauss said...

Ludwig, I think you're right in your assessment that pseudonyms carry a meaning of their own -- that they're a means of expression for the self who at the same time is hiding behind them, and simultaneously revealing a whole other dimension of themselves

Karl Friedrich Gauss said...

I should add a thanks for the interesting stories I for one haven't heard before, about how the various folks you mentioned chose their noms de plume, as it were.

Kaelah said...

I agree with you, Ludwig, on your point that the names we chose for our spanking persona tell a lot about ourselves and also about who we want to be. Still I'm not absolutely convinced that Kaelah is much more than a nickname.

As you wrote correctly, I've chosen the name because I'm a trekkie and a geek, and I wanted others to know that about me right away. In addition to that I've got a crush for warriors and their principles, honour and bravery, which was the reason why I selected the name of a half-Klingon character. I don't only admire warriors and their bravery, I also wished I were like them and feeling like a brave warrior is something I especially seek from my spanking play, probably because I don't always feel strong and brave in real life.

Using the name to describe my desire for bravery as being the Klingon part of my personality and my rather shy and rational personality streak as my human side was something that wasn't intended when I chose my name. If I remember it correctly, it just came up in the afternoon before our first play, when I tried to explain to you the ambiguous state of mind I was in. I suddenly remembered a certain Star Trek scene where another half-Klingon character, B'Elanna Torres, is split into two individuals, her Klingon and her human part. The human B'Elanna is angry on the Klingon part because of her impulsiveness, while the Klingon B'Elanna finds the human part too weak for her taste. So it turned out that the two parts of the character I named myself after provided a good way to describe the different voices that are usually in my head when I'm making decisions.

But, does the fact that I'm using a name containing all that information make me behave differently as Kaelah? My point is, I would still be a geek and I would still long for bravery if I used a completely different name. Although I use a name that I consider being cool and that tells a lot about me and about who I would like to be, I still think that it is rather a nickname, because I don't feel or behave different when writing posts or going to a party as Kaelah. Naming myself after a Klingon warrior also doesn't make me feel stronger or braver. I guess that is because in that special context I don't want an artistic character; I want to be accepted as the person I really am and write about the things that really move me. Of course I'm behaving differently in the kinky environment than for example at work and of course I try be nice because I want people to like me, but I think I would also do that under my real name.

It can for example be different when I use a certain character in spanking play, because then I might (not very often actually, I'm not a role player, but maybe sometimes) want to behave differently or even feel different than I would normally do. And it would definitely be different if I created a character for a pen and paper role-playing game like D&D because in a game like that I would really like to play a character that is different from my real persona. Concerning blogging the artistic aspect you've described comes into play when I'm posting pictures or writing fictional stories. Kaelah and the thoughts and real life accounts I write under the pseudonym – that's just me under a cooler name.

(to be continued)

Kaelah said...


But I definitely wouldn't want to write under my real name, even if the world would be perfectly BDSM-friendly. And that's not only because choosing a name that tells very much about my fantasies, desires and interests is so much fun or because a fantasy name is so much cooler. The main reason is that even if there weren't any negative consequences I wouldn't want everyone I meet for the first time to know about my intimate sexual desires. And besides, even in a world without any prejudices there would probably still be the same high number of idiots that we have today. I definitely wouldn't want to attract the attention some of them by writing about such an intimate topic if I knew that they could be standing at my front door any time! ;-)

Ludwig said...

@ Kaelah: It is "just a nickname" in the sense that you don't really behave any differently when you appear "as Kaelah", such as when writing on the blog. But the idealisation and wish-making aspects I talked about are there, in my opinion. In that sense, I would argue, Kaelah is more than "just a nickname".

I don't really disagree with what you wrote, perhaps I just have a different definition of what being "just a nickname" means.

Kaelah said...

@ Ludwig:

I guess you're right, it's just a matter of the definition one uses. If you define nickname as a pseudonym used for online-chats in order to protect one's privacy, "Kaelah" is definitely more than that. If you define nickname as a descriptive or a pet name telling something about the person who uses it or who has been given that name by others, then "Kaelah" isn't much more than a nickname.

I think you mean that "Kaelah" is more than just a pseudonym used for the protection of my privacy when you say that it is more than a nickname. And I agree with you on that. What I mean when saying that "Kaelah" isn't much more than a nickname is that I haven't created an artificial character, that “Kaelah” is much closer to being just a descriptive name than to being a role play character.

Ernest said...

I don't read blogs as often as I would like, but wanted to put in my 2p on this one.

My name (used for occasional blog comments and for a googlemail address to email spanking contacts) is that of a mainstream 20C novelist who (I believe) left sufficient clues in his works that we can guess he was one of us!

Yes, I agree with you that ultimately any use of a separate name for a particular topic will tend to develop a separate persona, and be more than just a convenient name.

Have fun with Leia - I once met her at a party, and shall look forward to reading about the belated repayment of your debt to Niki!


Ludwig said...

Belated reply @ Ernest: I see, so it is *that* Ernest you named yourself after. Good choice. I must confess that I am not familiar enough with Hemingway to know about the clues you speak of. Which is one more reason why I should finally read him and close that glaring gap in my literary education, I suppose.

As a historian, I read lots of non-fiction books, so I have rarely had the time and energy to read as much fiction as I would want to. That is one of the reasons why I am a movie buff rather than a literature buff - movies take less time.