The Original Author: A History of the Concept
by Laura Mandell

(last updated 1 June 2004; here is a site map [under construction])

We are accustomed to seeing ourselves as individuals modelled in some way like an original author whose selfhood is expressed in his or her works, so much so that we have all kinds of definitions for moments when an author "borrows" words from others: allusion, imitation, plagiarism.

original author

But even at the very moment when the notion of the canonical text was being formed, and with it, the notion of the author, works by the most canonical, most "original" poets can be seen as tissues of quotations:

The notions we have of the author as a genius and a great man were devised, it has been argued, not by authors themselves but by publishers ("booksellers") who wanted to make money by owning copyright. How can you claim that the ideas in one person's mind are not shared by others who may also have thought them? As Mark Rose has shown, lawyers in Britain during eighteenth century sometimes conceptualized intellectual ideas as eminently shared in the way that we now think of technological ideas: they discussed the possibility of obtaining patents for them. But booksellers stood much to lose if Shakespeare’s ideas could not be permanently owned. Lawyers supporting their interests began to think about literary ideas as “property.” While the notion of intellectual property seems commonsensical to us now, it is really quite an achievement: how can one make ideas into a person's exclusive property? Rose shows that innovative eighteenth-century lawyers and legislators seized on the notion of style: it's not really the ideas that matter (so it is not a question of patent) but the particular manner in which they are expressed. A treatise written by someone is seen as a specific piece of property (house or land in all its particulars) because it contains ideas that can never be expressed that particular way by anyone else.

To summarize, then, publishers fought to proclaim that literary texts - not the printed texts themselves, but the words in them that can appear in any particular material instantiation - are more like private property than like any invention for which one would obtain a patent and thus can be permanently owned by one publishing house (see Mark Rose, Martha Woodmansee). That fight produced a distinctly modern idea we of what it means to be a self -- not just an author, but any "self." Transforming literary style into a permanent estate, it produced the idea that style is a person's soul rather than an analytic tool, as Joseph Williams insists that it is in promoting good writing style to improve one's thinking (Williams).

The Norton Anthology contains Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge, . . . . This sentence confuses people and texts: it says that authors are literature rather than that they wrote it. The ideology of authorship fosters such a confusion, and it simultaneously imposes expectations on people as to how to behave. Do you feel that you personally ought to "be consistent" in the way that "good" literature is unified and coherent?

Whenever we talk about “great literature” using an author’s name, we confuse people and texts, subtly reinforcing the unconscious idea that authors are literature rather than that they wrote it. The ideology of authorship fosters such a confusion, and it simultaneously imposes expectations on people as to how to behave. That is, some people think that print technology brought into the world a new notion of authority, and with it, personhood. When we see labeled as a person a printed text that has such apparent univocity and coherence, do our expectations change for what personhood involves? Mightn’t consistency matter less if we didn’t harbour the idea of a coherent personality, metonymically connected to the symbolically unified literary work?

Much has been written about the unoriginality of the author, even in his or her signature, which, of course, can be forged.

If someone else can forge a person's signature, is that signature really unique? Mightn’t two instances of one person’s signature penned ten years apart differ more than a forger’s from an original? Is an iterable (that is to say, repeatable in speech or writing) mark, be it a signature or a word -- is it really unique? One point of Wittgenstein’s private language argument (Wittgenstein) is that only shared language is comprehensible: it is impossible to assign permanent meaning to a word through some private mental act – would one mean the same thing if one wrote or uttered it ten years from now? How could one be sure that it was exactly the same?

In sharing language, one necessarily “quotes” one’s predecessors. All the words one uses appear in the dictionary. We don’t typically think of using words as “borrowing” them, but in effect, every sentence we utter is like a chain of forged signatures: every word we utter is "borrowed" from somewhere else. A sentence one utters contains words that have been uttered by others – parts or even all of any sentence one utters now may have been uttered before. When speaking in trite phrases, one could even be said to be "plagiarizing" -- from the dictionary, if from no one else.

Postmodern literature and theory, of course, question the concept of author. Jorge Luis Borges writes several stories that dismantle the cult of personality surrounding authorship ("Borges and I," "Everything and Nothing"), and his repeated assertion "There is no whole self" (in "The Nothingness of Personality") can be seen as attempting to undo some of the unfortunate results of that cult of personality. Roland Barthes's essay "The Death of the Author" describes our desire to create an author's personality as a way of completely interpreting a text, and the necessity of resisting that desire. Michel Foucault's essay "What is an Author?" -- which has been summarized beautifully by Roger Chartier -- points out that, before the Enlightenment, truth and value depended upon a scientific author's name while the author of a literary text was irrelevant, whereas now the scientist's name is irrelevant. Now, however, it is the opposite: the scientist's name is irrelevant, truth in science depending upon the reproducibility of scientific data, while a literary author's name absolutely determines the value of a text.

The literary author, one might say, is not one who draws ideas from within but from without, from other literary texts. The personality of the “great author” is created out of words drawn together from innumerable sources into a new, or another, text, just as our personalities are cobbled together out of the various possibilities of being offered to us by our culture (Goffman, Hacking). That is, instead of imagining single authors single-handedly constructing great works, we might see literature as does Ted Nelson: "Literature is an ongoing system of interconnected documents." The cumulative effect of postmodern literary theory by Derrida, Barthes, and Foucault is a



though one may wonder whether unified authors such as Thomas Gray or Alexander Pope are not in fact unified into whole, self-centered personalities by the activity of readers and critics rather than themselves being unitary in fact.

Maybe the self is really defined by its interaction with media that are not merely extensions of ourselves, as Marshall McLuhan argued persuasively long ago in "The Medium is the Message." Media reorder our understanding of what it means to be a self at all. The materiality of the book as a discrete object read alone in one's closet (it has been a while since people read aloud to each other for entertainment ) may reflect back to us a sense of self. In other words, there may be a material basis -- related to typography and the codex, two very material forms -- of our internalized body image (and with it, our sense of our own ego).

In Lexia to Perplexia, the "code poet" Talan Memmott describes the sense of self generated by writing on a computer that presents us with images which refer to something other than themselves, something “elsewhere”:



Laura Mandell, Dept. of English, Miami Univ., Oxford, OH 45056;