Law in Contemporary Society

Who Said That?

And Why Do We Care?

-- By StephenSevero - 18 Jun 2010

Last week, my father talked to me about the book he was currently reading. It "proved beyond a doubt" that William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon wrote all the plays now attributed to that name. Thinking about this in conjunction with my first paper, I began to wonder. Why was he so invested in the question? If the author is one man, as opposed to another, does that matter? Always?

Why We Say We Care:

The two main ways it appears we use an author are 1) to tie works together and 2) to tie facts and authority to an individual work. We say to ourselves that each of these is designed solely to deepen our understanding and appreciation of the work, but they often have their downsides. For this paper, I will focus on point 2, why does it matter that this particular author wrote the piece.

My father told me that he cared because historical fact (or what little of it we know) can add layers and depth to a work. If we know that the author is as geographically limited as Kant, it could add a bit of whimsy or the fantastic to any description of exotic locales. On the other hand, if we know facts about an author that make the story seem more autobiographical, then that adds an element of gravitas to the scene. By tying the story to the metatext of history we achieve much the same affect as when we view an author's corpus as a whole - except this time we have a more "honest" view. The author as an author can dissemble, but a real history can ground the work in truth.

While I found myself agreeing with his first points, I was troubled by the idea that the life of an author could add "reality" to the work. I was stuck contemplating the dangerous aspects of that association.

Why We Should Worry:

We often rely on heuristics in making judgments, and the collective opinion of an author can easily inform our opinion of a work. Further, any statement (and here I'm thinking particularly of trenchant quotes and other supposed statements of "fact") can be given more credence and more bite by being attributed to a famous figure. "The best argument against democracy is a five minute conversation with the average voter" can move from cynical elitism to funny but slightly depressing truism when you append "-Winston Churchill". Rather than reevaluate all the evidence, we are more likely to save ourselves the trouble and rely on the conclusion of a trusted figure.

By trusting the pedigree of the author, we may be overestimating the value of a work. We cover up our dislike for fear of seeming uncultured or lacking in taste. But at the same time, the pedigree can buoy us up and inspire us to keep mining a difficult work. I can think of many books where the initial goings were rough, but in light of the author I slogged through until my dedication was rewarded. Conversely, the author may be used to discredit the work, much to our own detriment.

This way of using the author as "cultural" support primarily influences our aesthetic appreciation of a work, but often we overstep that line and use the biography of the author as "factual" support. An unattributed work may be just the ravings of a pothead, but if we know that Carl Sagan wrote it we give it more credence. Why should it matter whether the unfactual, unsubstantiated opinion is that of a scientist? Perhaps this might suggest a greater sensitivity to reality and "deeper thought" on the issue, but both of these should be secondary to our own personal assessment.

The factual support is much more dangerous than the cultural support, particularly where individual quotes are removed from all context and then distributed widely. "Misevaluation" of a cultural sense isn't all that troublesome, as anyone out of the loop in high school could attest. But it can be quite dangerous to rely heavily on the authority of the author in factual matters - some may be genius in one area but woefully misguided when outside of their expertise. Too often people confuse a specific and limited preeminence with a general one. (Tom Cruise is no doctor.

The Benefits of Focusing on Text

At all these points we are abdicating part of our duty to evaluate the information being presented to us. The phenomenon is not limited to cultural appreciation (I see it more often and more dangerously used by students responding to professors), in fact it affects everything we do. But it's easier to notice ourselves doing it with the printed word. We're not trapped in a public moment, being expected to convey our immediate conclusion - we're given the time to reflect and digest, and at no point will the author be able to step outside the text and influence us directly. We should take advantage of the opportunity to strengthen our analysis, so that when we are pressed for time we can still be appropriately critical.

By not relying on our own appreciation, we stifle our creativity. Hemmed in by an overly strong desire to connect art to historical fact, we place a false border around the work and prevent ourselves from coloring outside the line. Certainly, what we can state with any authority about the history of an author should influence our opinions, but it should not dominate them.

* The line between Carl Sagan and pothead may be more blurry than this piece suggests, given Sagan's writing on the benefits of marijuana. It is also perhaps relevant to the theme of this piece that Sagan wrote his essay under the pseudonym "Mr. X."

-- DevinMcDougall - 04 Sep 2010

Thanks Devin, I was going for the reference (could you imagine the coincidence value if I hadn't been?) but I guess it was more obscured than I thought. I'm going to include a link to the original piece to make it more clear. The original anonymity of the piece is why I think it's important. If it stayed as just "Mr. X" it would have been forgotten relatively quickly.


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r15 - 13 Jan 2012 - 23:14:28 - IanSullivan
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