[Home]TheAuthor

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The Modern concept of TheAuthor is entirely wedded to the printing press and PrintCulture?. Before print, information in the public agora was transferred primarily by recitation in an OralCulture, such as by minstrels. This meant that the originator of a particular work was unclear and irrelevant, as a work was modified by each reciter, relearnt by TheAudience, and recited once again in a new form to another audience. Once print created a method to fix a work in time (the authoritative version) and distribute it to the entire potential audience as a single market. Indeed, there is a correspondence between the number of creators, versions, and audiences/markets of a work. Print reduced all of these towards one because it reified TheAuthor from TheAudience, and thus split creation from reception. As Eisenstein writes, "until it became possible to distinguish between composing a poem and reciting one, or writing a book and copying one; until books could be classified by something other than incipits; the modern game of books and authors could not be played." (Eisenstein, 1983, p.84).

She further quotes someone else [Eisenstein never cites quotations] quoting Saint Bonaventura describing the four ways of making books--that is just as a cobbler makes shoes--

A man might write the works of others, adding and changing nothing, in which case he is simply called a "scribe" (scriptor). Another writes the work of others with additions which are not his own; and he is called a compiler (compilator). Another writes both others' work and his own, but with others' work in principal place, adding his own for purposes of explanation; and he is called a "commentator' (commentator) . . . Another writes both his own work and others' but with his own work in principal place adding others' for purposes of confirmation; and such a man should be called an "author" (auctor). (p.84)

Note that the symmetry is broken: there is no concept of authors writing wholly original works.

In contrast to OralCulture notions of authorship which belonged to TheCollective, such as societal myths or folk tales or proverbs (Ong, 1982), Once creators were reduced to one identifiable person, the notion of TheAuthor as TheIndividual was created by publishers as a way of justifying the introduction of CopyrightLaw (Vaidhyanathan, 2001). Unlike a scriptoria, operating a printing press was a remarkable expensive venture, and one of the major initial capitalist enterprises. The only way to justify operating a press was by selling hundreds of copies of books. However, publishers that took risks printing new books were plagued by pirates who hung back waiting for bestsellers to emerge before reprinting them, and thus eliminating their risk. To address this problem, publishers created the tactic of parading "poor authors" in front of parliamentarians and claimed they were suffering. They did this because authors were far more popular than the publishers, who were just businessmen. As such, despite proclamations that restraining the flow of information went against Natural Law, CopyrightLaw was enacted to protect these authors' livelihoods. At that point people stopped thinking of written words as being part of the Natural order, only written down by authors acting as conduits for this knowledge, and began focusing on the authors themselves as TheIndividual originator of the works.

The value of authorship is not to be underrated, though. It provides an incentive to publish (Eisenstein, 1983). While the Catholic church had been clamping down on Italian scientists, their academic publishing system opted to publish ideas anonymously to protect scientists from persecution. This left Italian academics uninspiring for many, and did not compel publication. Meanwhile, the Protestant presses particularly in England were publishing results sometimes much after the Italians had discovered the same concepts, but with the authors' names alongside. This served to cement the credit to these Protestant scientists rather than those who sat still. Publish or perish, indeed.

Further, authorship provides accountability. Without knowing who wrote the data, it was difficult to put PeerPressure to assure their accuracy and that a good method was employed in their collection (Eisenstein, 1983). Further, it gives an obvious way to know how many people stand behind an idea, simply by counting the number of names on the original paper and subsequent papers lending their support, thus giving a would be dissenter an understanding of just how many people he is up against (Latour, 1987).


The Vaidhyanathan reference is from memory, and I don't know if I believe it on face value just yet. It seems to me that the creation of TheAuthor started a long time earlier, and took a lot longer to reach the ridiculous place it is now. Plus, thinking back on it, I am not sure if he was lying to create a parallelism with current the music industry today parading starving musicians in front of Congress while personally reaping profits. -- SunirShah


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