Excerpts – 2: On Texts: Writing/Authorship/Authority/Vision

How are people positioned in texts? Who is responsible for this positioning? What did they “see” before they wrote, and what might have they missed “seeing”? Where are the limits to the technologies used in “seeing” in qualitative research? When I read, how is the writing informing me on implicit levels as to how to think about people I read? (By “the writing”, I mean more than the content of what is written. I mean the style and the implicit assumptions directing me to read a certain way, and the connections I make as parts of what I read resonate with me. I mean the connections that are offered there for me to make – and to take – and also the hidden ones that require some digging on my part.) What is the subject-position of the writer, and how explicated is this position? What happens when this subject-position is masked, hidden, entirely erased in the finished textual product? (Is a textual product ever “finished”? How does meaning continue to be made in how texts are circulated?) What happens to the hierarchy between the researcher and the researched, between the observer and the observed – how is this mitigated, acknowledged, discussed? Who is doing the positioning and what ways of knowing is the author drawing on when they do this?

In asking that question just now, I could not help but be startled by the similarity between the words “author” and “authority”. Why had I never noticed that before? There is a cold chill I feel sometimes when I know I have hit upon something – and I felt so sure about this connection. I had to know more – and I wish I could say I googled with some restraint, but I think I looked it up to prove to myself what I felt had to be true. I enjoy these tiny moments of clarity; perhaps an epiphany feels something like this on a much grander scale.

In looking up the etymology of the word “author”, I discovered that the word showed up around the year 1300, and meant “father”. The word draws on the Latin root auctor with meanings such as “enlarger, founder, master, and leader”. The word “authority” shares its origins with the Latin root, auctor; in its nominative form, the word is auctoritas, and has meanings such as “invention, advice, opinion, influence, and command”. I am sitting in a coffee shop corner, totally stunned by the implications that the relationship between these two words have to writing, and to qualitative research – I feel it is an obvious, literal connection that I missed entirely, though one I have thought about extensively in metaphorical terms. I cannot help but look at “author” now, and see how the word echoes notion of “fatherly” or paternalistic influence through its etymological connection with “authority”. Similarly, I see how “authority” so strongly resonates with the purpose of writing: Advice. Opinion. Influence. Command. What else so accurately describes the effect or purpose of writing? Writing is all these things, and becomes something more when functioning through research institutions or any institution explicitly dedicated to intellectual pursuits of knowing and understanding. The project of writing has an implicitly authoritative quality that is reified in particular ways when laying claim to truth through institutional and academic supports.

I am a little furious with myself for not picking it up earlier – I think that I was taught to construe “author” and “authority” as serving distinct purposes. We equate, in every day speech, the word “author” with “writer”, and in doing so, we obscure the power of inscription. Do we, as a society, really think of writing as so harmless? Or is this something I have to contend is my own failing? After reading books like Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 or Orwell’s 1964, after leading a presentation on texts (in all their forms, written and otherwise), why did I never think to clarify this link before? To be sure, I have spoken about the power of writing and inscription in other responses and I have thought about authority. And yet, it never occurred to me to connect the words “author” and “authority”, sitting there as similar as cousins, to each other. I severed the meaning behind “author”, in some way, from how I think “authority” functions. I hesitatingly want to defend myself a bit in saying I think most of us, in every-day speech miss this link. I want to explicate this link clearly to myself, and in this response: To write is to exercise some measure of power in presenting a particular, situated truth. And to write about others and have it be heard, listened to, accepted as “the truth” – that is some measure of authority. Authors have authority through their authorship.

What might this authority entail? To Donna Haraway, “vision is always a question of the power to see – and perhaps the violence implicit in our visualizing practices.” There is a certain overlap between technologies of vision and how they apply to writing: do we not describe passages as “perceptive”, “insightful”, “keen”, or “observant”? The way we describe sharp eyesight, and the power to see, reflects this mode of understanding our world in writing. Who does the seeing? What are the limits to vision and sight? What do we produce by “looking”? I ask this because what we see, of course, does not exist “out there” – it exists as a projection of some reality, mapped to our retinas, in a way that allows us to understand our world: edges, borders, corners. The mapping helps us navigate, but never let it be said that what I see, with cone-cells in my fovea, is an objective reality. What I see is the result of millions of nerves interacting, manipulating, filtering, erasing and highlighting, underscoring and reflecting – What I see is the result of a “natural” photoshopping process that human eyes are capable of engaging in to produce what is relevant to our survival as a species. But it is, if anything, a subjective reality. How might the technologies of vision I have access to limit what I see or write? If authority and vision are so tightly linked to writing practices, how might having “the power to see” influence the “power to write”?

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