Author, Authority

I keep returning to the questions surrounding these two terms. I’m a writer and therefore aspire to Author, have in a limited sense been one with my book on Design, but here I’m talking about the role of Author of Fiction, the capitals are semi-ironic, just as my thoughts on the subject are semi-muddled.

I spend a lot of my time trying to come to grips with the world’s gatekeepers. I am most concerned these days with the way elites are cratering all around us. The dynamics surrounding the accretion of authority, versus its holders capacity to use that authority well, has never been so wildly skewed to produce bad results as it is today. The tendency, in this situation, is to discount the very idea of authority, experts, elites of all kinds. If the current crop is so bad, then perhaps the whole concept is bankrupt as well.

I’ve spent most of my life thinking as a designer. The root of design is desegno, to draw. As a designer one is constantly drawing, but the physical act of drawing is only a manifestation of the conceptual act of making distinctions, drawing distinctions. Look at Genesis, the first act described there is the separation of the light from the dark, first by creating the light, and then by placing it in relationship with the dark, cleaving the void; there follows a list of finer distinctions; placing and relating each element into the greater whole.

This “First” story puts the act of desegno as the prime, the first, action in a first story. The identification of this action with God, whatever one believes on that subject, can be seen as placing this action, the ability to create and make distinctions, as the activity with the highest priority, the one without which the rest cannot find a place.

This may be seen as self-serving, I identify myself with a certain activity and then find a rationale for claiming it as the highest calling. Particularly if we see design only in the light of the “profession,” or group of professions that have accrued around the concept in the last century. It smacks of a particularly pitiful delusion of grandeur to equate what we’ve come to know of as design, and designers, with something so exalted. Another instance when our disgust with an elite has colored our perceptions of a broader sphere of action, another sphere that has been trivialized by its current practitioners. My purpose is to connect myself with an aspiration that I find central to life and to broadcast my sense of its validity, to proclaim why I’ve dedicated so much effort and time in that direction.

While these questions have loomed large for me, there have been many stones strewn along my path. In this, as in any discussion, they represent the repeated need to stop and define terms, to leave the paths of “efficient” communication, in which everyone is familiar with the terminology, with what the words mean; and stumble along, filling in “what I mean by that,” and “No, that’s not what the term really means….” This path is strewn with minor stumbles and veers around obstacles and runs along a dangerous precipice to one side and a blank wall of indifference on the other. Might as well get comfortable with it….

This leads me back to the point of an author’s authority. Why do we give it? It is bestowed by readers, cannot it be taken upon oneself? Certain voices have developed levels of interest and trust in their readers that create a sense of “authority.” This has been confused with the other usages, power figures who coerce and control; “experts” – I cannot leave the quotes off that one – who accrue badges of authority and have paths opened to them to influence others, those in control. The relationship of authority to power is central to the distinction I’d like to make. Authorial authority presupposes no direct connection to power, neither to those who wield it, or those who curry its favor. That is not to say that many have not traded on their authority to gain power or influence, but that such connections are made after the fact and have – if any – a negative impact on their true authority.

This is moral authority in a way, but not the way we usually think of it – another pebble to stub our toes against. The same distinctions can be made between those who wield moral authority and those who have it. The same dynamic in the relationship to power prevails here. We end up sidestepping, making little progress perhaps, by calling it simply moral authority.

I return to this issue again and again, because these questions are central to my tasks, as a writer, as a designer, as an individual attempting to find a place and make a contribution in this world. I have found the greatest guidance from those to whom I’ve given this kind of authority over me, and as I mature I find I have more and more of a desire, and a personal need, to establish such a position for myself as a means to create the kind of legacy I’d like to leave behind.

There, there was a loose patch of rocks, a stick, and a puddle of mud on that last bit of the trail! Let’s see if we can regain our balance!… No, let’s just push ahead.

This brings up another aspect of this question, one that constantly comes up. The question of trust in the other direction, from writer to reader. One of the few benefits of an earlier alignment between the forms of society and its activities, when it was possible to imagine that there was a “consensus” of what it meant to be an educated reader, the expectation a writer had that he – and he most often was a he – would find his audience, and that they would understand him. That consensus is weakened today. I don’t mourn it in most respects, but I do fear that in the throes of creative destruction we have tended to go too far in allowing the positive and perennial yearning behind those withered forms to atrophy as well.

Another detour, or perhaps a turn in a maze. I keep coming back to a sense that whether in coming to grips with reality in all its broad aspects and finely grained particulars; or in this one question regarding authority, that what I am always fighting for is the quality of looking and listening for quiet hints that provide us the earliest inklings of where things are heading, instead of falling for the tumult and dust of the broad and busy road. Established consensus, is always out of date. Whatever is broadly “known” is probably no longer true, just because of the time it’s taken to be disseminated widely and the errors of transmission it’s accumulated along the way. Take the old experiment, say, “I’m cold, pass it along.” By the time this has reached the hundredth listener, I am no longer cold and I would not recognize what they have been told on my behalf if I heard it.

What I trust in my own perceptions of the quiet hints that have not fallen into the mass maw of “understanding,” mirrors what I find valuable in the voices I find authorial and what I hope to gain for my own voice. It is an ongoing tension between what is graspable and an ultimate conviction that anything that matters is unknowable in the sense of one being able to hold onto it, to grasp it and keep it safe. As with all of life, it can only be held loosely in the experience of it, we continue to “spend” it as we gain it, like the oxygen we inhale or the nourishment we take. We can no more grasp, and keep, our constructs than we can keep yesterday’s lunch, or our next breath.

Why I am writing here is tied directly to these questions. I continue to seek the vestiges of the older outlets, partly out of habit. These were the paths taken by those before me, finding a “publisher,” finding an editor, finding an “imprimatur.” There is strong precedent there, hundreds of years of tradition. But I don’t just think I continue to respect that path for those reasons alone, I also hold onto a sense that there has yet not been developed a new path that allows for the kind of concerted effort, the long and slow distillation of experience and expression that has been possible within that tradition. To say that what Cervantes started and has been ongoing for all these centuries is outmoded, smacks of too great a conceit. Especially when the most visible alternatives are so thin and truly lacking in substance.

Current conversations, ranging from mere “pings,” to longer, but unmediated “posts” – like this one – don’t replace the long form. They increase my hunger for what they are unable to provide, just as they feed my curiosity over their effects on our society and culture going forward.

One thing I feel both paths share, when done well, is authenticity. Together they may provide the full range of what that can mean. It is authentic, up to a point, to ping “I’m here!” over and over, but is that enough? There is value in creating in a “garrett,” but if your creations don’t get out, that is surely not sufficient either.

At the start, I specified “Author of Fiction.” Why do I make that distinction, draw that line? This was my intended topic today, though it’s taken so long to get back to it! I’m afraid now to rush it and give it short shrift. Still, let’s risk another stumble.

The second archetypal act that makes us human is the story. Picture a different Genesis tale, a troop of early hominids. Someone in authority has pointed in a particular direction, made a distinction, “We will go there, not there.” If they chose wisely, this was as much an affirmation of a consensus as an act of authority; alignment of that kind should be an attribute of leadership in a well functioning society. This path allowed a certain leeway for exploration and contingency. At the end of the day, someone, or more than one voice, was raised in the telling of stories. This was the other fundamental act of a community’s expression. It kept their purpose and their sense of destiny in front of its members; it allowed that sense to evolve over time, at a pace with the changes in the surrounding conditions, without loosing sight of what had come before.

Just as design, desegno, is that first act; so is writing fiction the continuation of that second primal act. Both of these tasks have been modified over time, necessarily, though not always wisely. The second has evolved into the writing of fiction, its dissemination via publication as physical books to be read in a concerted act of purposeful “leisure.” This is the equivalent to the time spent around the fire, that time of repose, curiosity and introspection. The ongoing discussion these stories bred, can have many equivalents today, from the book club and the occasional face to face discussion among readers, to the various online virtual gatherings, of which this one is a part.

There is, or will be, a way for these perennial needs to be met, although as with anything else, we cannot rely on “They” to do something to perpetuate it. It is up to us to discover what that synthesis will be, what are the various elements and their proportions, and how they can come together, and be vital, and robust moving forward.

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