The Invention of the Author

I have created a video about the invention of the idea of authorship. This is related both to the first enclosures, of the English common lands, and to the second enclosure of intellectual property:

Here is a transcript (added 2012-06-16):

The idea of authorship is central to our understanding our society and our economy today.

Yet the idea of the author only became popular in the past one or two hundred years. Before that it was not human beings who were creative: it was God. God created the world, and it was the role of the artist or the writer to accurately reflect the majesty of God’s creation.

But with the upheavals of the Industrial Revolution, the rise of capitalism, and the enclosures in England that I talked about in another video, society was under great pressure. People lost their place in the social structure. They were often impoverished: just seeking a way to make a living or get enough to eat.

England’s vision of itself as a rural society – one in which the peasants lived in a certain harmony with nature – no longer reflected the reality. For the peasants, with the enclosures lost their ability to live off the land, and went to the cities looking for work.
And the relationship between the common people and the country squires and nobility was disintegrating.

So thinkers asked: How are the common people to learn how to live? How are they to learn ethics and morality? How are we to structure our society for people to learn deference when things are all in flux?

The romantic poets at the same time looked back on England before all this turmoil, at the peasent rural economy of the past, with nostalgia.
They even wrote about the ruins – as Wordsworth did, for example, in Tintern Abbey, talking about a ruined church surrounded by birds singing in the trees.

One of the places that a solution was found, was culture. Culture doesn’t only mean art and writing and literature: it also suggest something to do with ethics: the idea of a cultured person as someone who appreciates the finer things in life and also someone who knows how to act correctly and behave correctly within society.

So the artist, who in the past have been essentially a crafts person: just as a carpenter might make a table or chair, the painter would paint a picture, or writer would write a poem: now the artist had a special role to educate the population.

The poet . . . is . . .an upholder and preserver, carrying everywhere with him relationship and love . . . the poet binds together by passion and knowledge the vast empire of human society . . . Poetry is the first and last of all knowledge – it is as immortal as the heart of man.

wrote the romantic poet William Wordsworth in 1798.

Now the artist isn’t simply reflecting reality, he – for it was usually he – is iluminating it. He is contributing a certain light or understanding that is bringing forth the truth of the natural order of things.

Meyer Abrams writes about this transition in his book The Mirror and the Lamp. As the artist now had a special role in society, the artist started to be seen as a special person in society, with unique characteristics.

I am certain of nothing but the holiness of the Heart’s affections and the truth of Imagination. What the Imagination seizes as Beauty
must be truth . . . The Imagination may be compared to Adam’s dream – he awoke and found it truth.”

wrote John Keats in 1817. Here the poet, the writer, is doing more than reflecting, or more than even illuminating. There is something special and unique in the individual that is being expressed in his or her art.

This is the full-fledged vision of the romantic author. We can imagine the individual working alone by candlelight, feverishly writing in the dark of his room at night, trying to express on paper the dreams in his head: and create something new, something original that had not existed before, and that is unique to him.

Shakespeare’s . . . works are so many windows, through which we see a glimpse of the world that was in him.

wrote Thomas Carlyle in 1840. J. Middleton Murray provides a more contemporary variation on the same idea:

To know a work of literature is to know the soul of the man who
created it.

This is at the heart of criticism today: that understanding art, understanding literature, entails understanding the person who wrote or created that thing.

That idea of the romantic author as an individual who creates something for the depths of his or her soul, something new and original in the world, is the heart of copyright and patent law and how they’re applied today. This is explained in death by James Boyle in his book Shamans, Software, & Spleens, where he looks at a number of cases in U.S. copyright and patent law that would appear to be inconsistent. But when he looks at them through the lens of romantic authorship, they make sense.

The idea of the romantic author, although there is truth to it, is also something of a myth: and it sustains today’s mass media industries.
I’m going to explain some of the problems with that in another video or videos.

2011-07-28

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