What is an author (anyway)?

Still blowin' in the wind.

Still blowin’ in the wind.

Sometimes it’s fun to show off how much one knows—NO! what one has read, obviously not the same. When I was taking classes at the University of Texas at Dallas, I was in a seminar every semester in which we pursued ideas about language, rhetoric, and teaching. We read piles of books on the subject.

My background in topics such as linguistics and rhetoric and philosophy was limited (virtually nonexistent), so I had to struggle to understand any of it—even the assigned readings. The first semester we started with Michel Foucault’s “What Is an Author?”

Unlike everyone else in the seminar, I had never heard of Michel Foucault.

A lively discussion ensued debating the fine points of Foucault’s theories. All of us were graduate teaching assistants in the Rhetoric (first-year writing) program under the careful supervision of Professor Cynthia Haynes. For the most part, I had no idea what they were talking about (and, truth be told, don’t to this day).

The discussion had progressed only as far as the first paragraph of What Is an Author.”

The coming into being of the notion of “author” constitutes the privileged moment of individualization in the history of ideas. . .  Even today, when we reconstruct the history of a concept, literary genre, or school of philosophy, such categories seem relatively weak, secondary, and superimposed scansions in comparison with the solid and fundamental unit of the author and the work (1).

My only even oblique reference to any of this was the curious musicological fact that the first music composer whose name can be, with any certainty, attached to specific musical compositions is Léonin, one of the composers of the Notre Dame school of polyphony who lived about 1150-1200. Exactly why I have remembered that fact since university music history class I do not know.

In the 1995 seminar at UTD, I asked what I thought was a direct and simple enough question. “Is Foucault saying that knowing a piece of writing is ‘by’ a given author instead of its being ‘anonymous’ changed the position of writing in culture in the same way attributing a musical composition to one person changed music from an amorphous communal effort to a personal artistic expression, as happened with Léonin in the 12th century?”

What is an author?

What is an author?

All I had in mind was that, in the 60s when we sang “Blowin’ in the wind” by Bob Dylan, I think our purpose was different from singing “Good night Irene.” An overtly political statement by a single known composer was (is) much different from a song people have been singing around campfires for decades (centuries) just for the fun of it. Understanding that is not rocket science (you see, I know this is not a profound statement because I use a cliché to explain it).

But you would have thought I had just stated the Theory of Relativity for the first time. I immediately became the “authority” on rhetoric in music or music as rhetoric or some such absurdity. I want to quote that awful line from “Gone with the Wind,” I don’t know nuthin’ about rhetoric or music history.

I really don’t.

Whatever it may seem I know about anything is dilettantism.

In 1964 I met Joan Baez. I had no clue who she was. She had released perhaps three enormously popular albums by that time, but we serious music students couldn’t be bothered. She came to the University of Redlands to give a concert, and my organ teacher, Leslie P. Spelman, Director of the School of Music, made a fuss over her and planted me in the audience with a bouquet of flowers to rush up on the stage and hand her when the concert was over.

Her singing, of course, was spell-binding. She sang folk music I knew and “American folk” (not really “folk” music but composed songs), even songs she had written herself. I was duly and properly impressed and intimidated when Dr. Spelman introduced me to her after the concert.

OMG. You’d think this blog has become my memoirs, and I’m stuck in university days. I’ll get on with it soon.

A couple of years later I came to understand why Dr. Spelman was solicitous of this non-classical musician. He had known her all her life because her father was a professor at the university, and they were neighbors.  As a senior, I lived with nine other “honors” (which is not to say “honorable”) students in an off-campus “dorm,” which was a house where Baez had lived.

So I’m back where I began. Is this writing my memoirs? I don’t have a clue. I’ve never really gotten past that first paragraph of Foucault’s (I’ve read his History of Sexuality and Discipline and Punish without, I must hasten to say, understanding much of them). And I was aware of his death from AIDS in 1984.

All I mean to say here is that “when [I] reconstruct the history of a concept, literary genre, or school of philosophy, such categories seem relatively weak . . .  in comparison with the solid and fundamental unit of the author and the work.” Don’t worry, I’m not claiming to have created any concept, literary genre, or school of philosophy.” Yikes! But I do know that if I ever have had an idea worth thinking about, it happened because I wrote it down.

I don’t write because I have an idea. I get ideas from my writing. Whether or not anything I’ve ever written is a “solid and fundamental unit,” all of my writing helps me understand this “author.” If you want to go along for the rocky ride, I’m honored and pleased.
(1) Foucault, Michel. “What is an Author.” The Foucault Reader. New York: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 1984 (101).

The most beautiful campus in America

The most beautiful campus in America

About Harold Knight
Retired English prof, SMU. Old man. Musician. Passionate about justice, equality, freedom. Therefore, I am a fervent supporter of and advocate for the Palestinian People as they struggle to survive genocide. That also means, of course, I have no use for US 45.

One Response to What is an author (anyway)?

  1. Pingback: A bit of old man excogitation and cat consideration | Me, senescent

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