Friday, March 3, 2017


"Agency" and "Authority"
   In discussions of textual criticism, the word "agency" often is used to answer the question: Who wrote this or who edited this or who made this change in the text.  The answers often are: the author or the publisher or the censor or, perhaps too often, I don't know. Answers to these questions supposedly lead to understanding why the changes were made and whether the changes were authorized or have authority.   
   Authority is a word with a variety of connotations.  If it means having the power to control how a reader understands the text, the reaction of many if not most readers has often been, Oh, yeah, watch me.  But if it means, exercising the rights of an author to have the words and punctuation of a text be what he or she wishes them to be, the word authority suggests instead that the change is not spurious.  Literary critics since the 50s have rebelled against the authority of authors to determine what they meant by a text.  They have rebelled against the notion that an expert critic can determine the meaning of a text to be the author's meaning and therefore the meaning that is to be taught to students.  The author is dead as the authority over he meaning of the text.  The author, at best, is just a function that initiates a discourse.  The author is a convenient fiction of the reader's imagination.  Authority, in that realm of meaning is abhorrent.  For critics, the word authority means what it means by contrast to liberty, freedom, flexibility, imagination.  Authority is an "anti-" term.
   That attitude has troubled textual critics whenever they forget or fail to see that their own interest in the authority of a textual change, in the author of a sequence of words, and in the authentication of sources of texts has nothing to do with the authority abhorred by critics.  Instead, for textual critics the word authority means what it means by contrast to spurious, fake, inadvertent, error, mistake, or interference by some interloper.  The contrast between the literary critic's objection to authority or authorities and the textual critics preference for authoritative or authentic texts is sharply seen in censorship.  Censorship is the exercise of the kind of authority literary critics hate.  Censorship is also the interference and introduction of unauthorized work that textual critics object to.
   In literary criticism, agency has had at least one additional meaning and function, which also has a bearing on the questions textual critics ask.   The question of agency in literary criticism is often connected to epistemology, how do we know, or is it possible to know, and who or what is it that is doing the knowing.   This is a double problem: our human distance from the objects of our attention, a gap that makes it impossible to be objective about objects, on one hand, and our human inability to pin down who it is that knows what we think we know, a problem of one's self as subject.  The question of agency is thus limited by the uncertainty of knowledge: both the knower and the  (supposedly) known.  Thus, even if one answers the textual critic's question, who wrote this, by saying, the author wrote this, the literary critic's response is likely to be two-fold.  First, what is an author or who is the author or how can you know what is meant by the author, on one hand, and secondly, who are you who claims that you know the author wrote this.  And having answered that you do not know for certain, the critic might wish to know why you tried to ask and answer the question in the first place.  That is, if you were trying to pin down agency in an effort to understand the author's meaning, you would have to contend with a series of questions about agency that undermine it as a means to that end.  In short, regardless of how you define authority, they will have none of it.
   Put a slightly different way, uncertainty about how one knows anything and uncertainty about one's own base of knowledge are together a definition of the human condition.  All social interactions, indeed all interactions that anyone experiences are rendered uncertain by these observations about agency.  And there is (as yet?) no way round it.  Many, maybe most, people proceed unbothered by this fundamental uncertainty.  Either they proceed unaware that there is a problem because, pragmatically, the uncertainty factor is small enough not to be noticed.  They believe they understand for the most part what was said to them and they believe for the most part what they say is understood by their audience.  Perhaps with less force, this contentment with some slippage also applies to writings, letters, laws, contracts, and even poetry and fiction--which are generally successful in being "taken for what they say."  So the problem, if it is a problem, is not noticed by many and felt to be negligible by most. They do not perceive it to be a significant problem.   Or, others proceed fully aware of the problem of uncertainty and fully aware that there is no way round it, but manage not to go crazy because they also know that it is a condition shared in common by all, and that life must go on as best it can. 
    For this second group, those who have learned to live with uncertainty, there are also two sub-groups: those, who having accepted the uncertainty of life, decide that any choice they make is as good as any other choice and that success is measured, not by truth, integrity, or right and wrong, but by dominance--survival of the fittest or might is right.  The other subgroup, having accepted the uncertainty of life, choose to proceed tentatively, always ready to concede that new evidence or a different point of view might have value.  The first sub-group is capable of cruelty--where there is no certainty, they merely have to assert their own certainty and impose it on others; the second sub-group is incapable of cruelty--where there is no certainty, one must always be ready to admit one's own limitations and self-deceptions.  That is to say, although recognition of the fundamental uncertainty at the base of all knowledge is a significant problem, it is rather  like gravity, neutral and universal in its effects and does not give grounds for any new kind of behavior.  The discovery that everything that we had taken to be at least relatively determinable and understandable is in fact always up for question, does not give us grounds for saying that nothing means anything determinable or that everything can have any meaning we are able to ascribe to it.
    Nevertheless, in textual criticism, acknowledgement of uncertainty about agency entails three areas of uncertainty.  First, evidence is often insufficient to establish who (which agent) was responsible for the text found in a document.  Second, it is not determinable with certainty what was meant by the agent of change. And third, it is not certain that you (or the reader) has taken up the words and their meaning in a the same way that motivated the writing.
   It is important to understand that the literary critic's revolt against the hegemony of what has been called author meaning is not a rebellion that textual critics need object to.  Textual critics can also object that the imposition of author meaning is or can be authoritarian in the worst meaning of that word.  Textual critics are not interested in author meaning as a goal of their work to be imposed on all readers.  They are not interested in restricting the liberty of readers to do whatever they wish to do with text in whatever way they want to do it.  
   But, it is telling to note that some literary critics, embracing the freedom to do what they like with their texts, have ceased to ask, what might the originator(s) of this text have meant by their text?  They have been so keen on establishing their freedom to ignore the author meaning that they seem to have forgotten how to seek author meaning out as one of their options.  The textual critic, more than any other branch of literary investigation, is devoted to providing the tools to increase access to author meaning as one of the options readers have.  Understanding which text of a wok one it reading, knowing where the text came from and who prepared it and how it was prepared, knowing how that text differs from other texts of the same work, and knowing the contexts surrounding its creation and the audience(s) to which it was directed--all these are crucial to the reconstruction of what could have been author meaning(s) and the elimination of meanings that could not have been author meaning.  The point is that it takes work and discipline to make author meaning even plausibly available.  It is not a question of imposing the correct author meaning; it is a matter of making author meanings available as one of the reader's options.
   Finally, it is good to remember that when textual critics speak of authorial intention, they are not speaking about author meaning; they are speaking about the choices authors make for the text: the choice of words and punctuation may be the most obvious, but they include the choices of paper and writing instruments, the choice of publishers, the choice of audiences.  What does the surviving evidence indicate were the author's choices.  We can argue about what was meant by these choices after we have determined who made the choices.  That is why agency matters to textual critics.