Authors Constructing Authority

Books have always been directly associated with authority and power.  The history of the ‘book’, their authors, and their authority is a small thread of a larger project about professional institutions and the ways they instrumentalise authorship and authority to obtain certain goals, in the case of my research: changing architecture education.  Over the next two blogs (the follow-up will come tomorrow), I’ll discuss some reading I’ve been doing on the history of the book, and then apply this to some contemporary contexts in the hope of understanding a little bit more about institutional authority, and the practice of writing for change.

My recent reading (I wont get into footnoting with any rigour, rather I have a few books listed at the end which I’ve been looking at) started out pretty predictably, looking historically at the rise of the book and any association it might have with authority and professions.

Things kicked off between 3000BC and 3500 in Egypt and Sumeria, when the first ‘shift’ occurs from an oral to a written system of communication.  This signals a shift to a specific type of mark-making (recording of certain information), which these researchers (Bazerman et al -see below) link primarily to economic trade, ownership, and eventually politics rather than a narrative or literary need.  So for example, if you were going to swap some goats with Osiris, you could record the trade, and claim new ownership.  This was useful as things were getting more complicated in ‘urban’ (more populous) areas with sophisticated agricultural development and trade.  Recorded ‘writing’ becomes an encoded way to make a power play, and uphold it.

So quite predictably, I also delve into some etymological research in an attempt to understand the seemingly obvious connection between the words author and authority.
It seems that the Latin-to-French auctor is the fork in the road of the two, happening around the 12C.  The older Latin root auctoritas connects to the idea of an ‘authority figure’, with terms like ‘invention’, ‘advice’ and ‘influence’ being significant.  It wouldn’t be until the 14C that the meaning ‘power to enforce obedience’ would be used, such as auctorite (prestige, dignity, gravity, right), and autorite (the ‘c’ dropped to imitate the French usage) referring to a book or quotation that would settle an argument – which fits in with the uptake of literacy and reading by acadmia/scholarship in the 12C, and the ‘professions’ in the 13C.

On the author side of auctor, the Latin root auctorem, and with it, auctus and augere refer to ‘one who causes to grow (eventually ‘augment’) or increase, an ‘enlarger’ or ‘founder’.  By the 14C it is used in the common sense as ‘one who sets forth a written document’ (coming after the two mentioned expansions of literacy in liberated (secular) scholarship and commercial professions).

Until the advent of the printing press in the 15C, the written word is sacred.  Protected by monasteries during the Dark Ages (a mighty innings from the 5C to the 11th) the practice of writing and publishing is carefully and skillfully upheld for centuries.  The practice becomes increasingly specialised, with spaces (scriptoria) and specialists dedicated to calligraphy, others to script, others to binding, and so on.  If there was ‘authorship’ (as we know it now), it would be described as collective, with little status accorded to any individual.

To reproduce – to replicate a text – was an exacting and esteemed task, reserved for the most significant words.  Clearly inherited from the status of oratory performance, the word itself held almost mystical power. The recording of the written word therefore is understandably volatile and daring, laying down such weight was an immensely powerful tool.

In 1448, the Gutenberg press rips it apart, to their disgust and imaginable disapproval.  Like Victor Hugo, they cried that this shall kill that.  Within 50 years the printing press has spread across Europe.  The Crown and Tudors got amongst it in the UK where they suppressed “seditious and heretical literature” by essentially controlling the publishing market for a couple of hundred years until the 1700s: an early (or the first?) attempt to monopolise the printed media for political gain.

From here print essentially internationalises.  News, events, (Bibles and newspapers for the colonies -New Zealand for example was printing by 1814, with an expanded programme of newspapers by the 1840s) spread the world much faster and in greater volume, and literary culture becomes increasingly central in the development of societies and nation-states around the world.

“Printing engaged writers in a manner that was different from previous scribal activity. It also undermined previous social beliefs in authorship as part of an established, collective authority – no longer were they merely cogs in an ecclesiastical wheel.”


This “preoccupation with the individualised authorial agency” signals a crucial shift in the practice of authors in the construction of authority.


“Printing shifted communication structures by being able to duplicate exact copies of texts very quickly, so allowing knowledge to be transferred more efficiently and more reliably across time and space. In the second place, this “fixing” of print would become a key factor in establishing authority and trust in the figures (authors) who produced these works.” -Finkelstein.

Tomorrow’s bit will drag this through the last hundred years of authorship and authority.

Some reading:

“History of the Book, Authorship, Book Design, and Publishing” by David Finkelstein, in:
Handbook of Research on Writing: History, Society, School, Individual, Text.
Edited by Charles Bazerman.  Taylor & Francis, 2008.

The Book History Reader, 2nd Edition

Edited by David Finkelstein and Alistair McCleery.

New York: Routledge, 2006 (2002)

Architecture and Authorship
Edited by Tim Anstey, Katja Grillner, Rolf Hughes. Black Dog Publishing, 2007

And for a bit of theory, you can’t go passed Roland Barthes’ “The Death of the Author” (1967), and Michel Foucault’s reply “What is an Author?” (1968 I think), who both contribute significantly to the theoretical and socio-cultural analysis of the idea.