Academic journal article Yearbook of English Studies

Where Are We Now with Authorship and the Work?

Academic journal article Yearbook of English Studies

Where Are We Now with Authorship and the Work?

Article excerpt

I Why Ask At All?

In the humanities and social sciences, knowledge is not accumulative and progressive as it is in the sciences. Paradigm shifts in scientific practice are rare, but thinking in the humanities is marked by the frequent emergence of new perspectives and vocabularies which reconfigure the existing landscape of thought, introducing topographies which first alienate and then annex, by redefinition, parts of the old one until the entire territory is covered, and swamps and backwaters that were overlooked under the old dispensation are brought into connection with the new mainstream. A previously untapped power of explanation is enjoyed; intellectual muscles are flexed. But it all happens with too great a rush: as the older concepts are rejected much that had been accounted for is pushed aside. Enduring habits of thought, pockets of resistance, which the latest intellectual movement has overlooked sooner or later return, in a self-reinvented form, to disturb the new, always multi-faceted, potentially conflict-ridden, never-quite-achieved consensus. Bibliography has recently become one of these revenants haunting the shifting sands of that field defined by the literary and cultural theory that has gradually saturated the thinking encouraged in postgraduate education in the anglophone world over the last twenty years. Theory in its various forms has come to seem to many students simply the established and accredited way of producing knowledge rather than as the force that liberated its teachers from an earlier, restrictive form of literary criticism.

The rise of activity in editorial theory (which largely derives from practice) is a sign that literary theory has not, in fact, covered the field; and one could point to D. F. McKenzie's potentially fruitful marriage of bibliography and textual sociology, as well as the recent attempt to meld literary theory (especially new historicism and discursivity) with bibliography in the idea of the 'material Shakespeare'.[1] Concepts that have been left underexplained tend not to go away if they have work to do: so authorship as a form of explanation of complex literary phenomena has not died despite Foucault's distinction between the empirical individual who writes and the author-function, and his influential preference for discursive forms of explanation of which the author-function (and indeed individuality) can be seen as merely an effect. Even as they corrected Foucault's faulty chronologies, subsequent studies of the history of copyright and connoisseurship have revealed further the sense in which authorship may be said to be a social, juridical and more generally ideological formation.[2] The concepts of forgery and plagiarism have been, as a result, partially undermined in theory, but in practice they retain their moral bite. Author-based cataloguing systems still perform their positivistic task of uniquely identifying particular works, only now they are propelled by the remorseless efficiency of the computer. Habits of citation-by-author have been unaffected, author biographies have become a publishing growth area, and interviews with authors in the various media seem if anything to have increased in number. At least at the pragmatic level, there seems to be a continuing need for author-work differentiation despite a prevailing intellectual commitment to explanations based on discursivity and intertextuality.

Despite the synchronic requirements of Saussurean structuralism which post-structuralism inherited, the finely tuned, because long-practised, diachronic methods of philology and bibliography have continued to realize their explanatory potentials in the post-structuralist period: in epigraphy, papyrology, semitic studies, biblical studies, folkloric studies, textual criticism of the early modern and modern periods, to name but a few areas. It is true that some of their organizing concepts, such as authorial intention or the search for origins represented, say, by the Urtext or the Shakespearean foul papers have come under sustained attack by literary theorists and practising editors alike. …

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