Author, Authority, Authoritarian

While thinking about the dichotomies involved when we talk about authorship of a work, it struck me that when I think about the word “authority” I don’t usually associate it with the word “author” — though pretty clearly that was the idea behind the concept whenever some old Latin guy or gal coined it yesteryear.

As Wikipedia lays it out for me:

Middle English: from Old French autorite, from Latin auctoritas, from auctor ‘originator, promoter’ (see author).

[I “see author”]:

Middle English (in the sense ‘a person who invents or causes something’): from Old French autor, from Latin auctor, from augere ‘increase, originate, promote.’ The spelling with th arose in the 15th century, and perhaps became established under the influence of authentic.

So now we’ve conglomerated a family of meanings and associated terms: author, authority, and authentic denoting originality, promotion, and invention. In the most denotative sense of the term, authority stems from the original author or writer’s creation of a thing. They have (?) the innate authority — or power, as we’ve come to view the term — over that work.

In the digital age of global marginalia and annotations, we’re now challenging those ideas of authority, or perhaps redefining them. There is nothing in particular in the etymology of the word authority that gives us an idea of a timeline; we can decide, perhaps, that an author has authority over a piece until it is passed to the next person (Copyright law, anyone?), or we can decide that an author has authority over a piece ad infinitum. At some level, I think the discussion is one of respect, but on another I think that publishing something — making it available to a public — is in the act itself asking for a response from your audience.

Though their complications with audience interaction didn’t manifest in the same way, I believe Audrey Watters‘ views on marginalia echo those of fiction author Anne Rice. Rice, back in the early 2000s was so vehemently against fan’s appropriation of her content for fanwork purposes — art, fanfiction, et cetera — that she sought legal action against her fans. The contention then was that she was alienating her own fanbase. Though many authors who shared Rice’s opinions turned around and came to accept fan culture, those sentiments are still harbored by many today, as we can see. A public is hard to form if the members of that public have no way to communicate with one another, and an effect of that is that the author/authority of that content works against their own interests.

So, should readers be able to interact with or shape the text? Should is hard to say, but will is definite. It’s an inevitability that authors will have to face. And annotations software like Hypothes.is don’t affect the original copy of the work; that maintains its shape.

Does a writer have the right to define who can comment? The writer has the right to give that comment context, of course, but to define “who can comment” is inherently discriminatory. In practical terms, most writers aren’t in control of the platforms they publish on anyway, and most websites have some means of moderation. Ever more popular these days is also the Reddit-style peer review system in which readers of a particular piece up and down vote comments according to how valuable they feel that comment to be. Peer reviewed community commenting seems to me a lot more reader-friendly than banning a particular group of people.

Should audiences be limited in their socialization over a text? Not if authors want an audience. But ultimately, it is and should be up to the author.

One Reply to “Author, Authority, Authoritarian”

  1. You bring an interesting perspective to the debate of online annotations, Taylor. One would assume that the author has the authority to dictate who can interact with their text, but the mere act of making it public repeals some of that authority and makes the text available (and in some cases vulnerable) to all manner of comment. If every author took offense to someone interacting with their text and became litigious, we would have very little freedom of speech. The great boon of the internet is that it’s a platform for anyone from anywhere to voice their opinion. Writer can, as you suggest, use platforms that enable some sort of moderation, but to shutdown feedback altogether – the way Audrey Watters has – is to limit the formation of a public for your work.

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