Apr 072007

Author vs. Authority

The words “author”  and “authority ”  both have the same root, fairly obviously, but in attention-economic terms they are almost opposites. We pay attention to an author as a person, with a history, feelings, experiences, actions, etc. An authority, on the other hand, is someone whose personal attributes should not matter; it is the position she holds or the body of knowledge she is supposed to represent completely impersonally that mark her as one.

Only in the case of someone like a textbook author do the two concepts come anywhere close to overlapping. What makes a textbook work is that it is impersonal; someone else in the field could have written something that would lead to more or less the same alignments. The author(s) act as representatives of a whole group who share the same outlook, or as spokesperson(s) not for people, but for the field of inquiry itself. We rarely become fans of a textbook’s author(s), even when we pay attention, or if we do, it supposedly only that they have found unusually good ways of organizing or explaining what any author of a similar text would have somehow organized and explained also.

When courts call on expert witnesses, they are assuming that experts are authorities; the fiction, at least, is that any duly qualified expert ought to present essentially the same testimony as another. Of course, that is no more than a fiction; usually each side in a legal confrontation finds experts to back its own position. The question then becomes which is the true authority, possessor of the more authentic and impersonal knowledge; that is to be decided largely on how well the so-called expert projects assurance and knowingness, that is, on her personal qualities and abilities, including her abilities to bring the audience, or at least the jury or judge along with her.

A related use of the term authority is for a holder of power, or that power itself, especially the power that comes from position: “By the authority vested in me;”  or, “ The authorities charged her with a crime.”

In essence this kind of authority enforces or attempt to enforce attention, not by doing anything necessarily that would draw attention, but by the strength of position. Thus, the attention that is supposed to go to authority is a leftover from an earlier time; you do not obey authority out of seeming volition, but by compulsion. On the contrary, when you are attentive to the wishes of a star or a more ordinary attent, by dint of having aligned with her, that feels voluntary and unconstrained.

(This subject needs more exploration, some of it coming tomorrow.)

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