I’ve continued reading Karin Littau’s Theories of Reading. The second chapter is mostly a schematic History of Reading that will be familiar with anyone who’s read some stuff about that history. Still, I was struck anew or again by two aspects of that history.
First, Littau rehearses the manifest distinctions between our own (gradually eroding??) views of textual authorship and those of earlier periods. According to Littau there’s no real way to distinguish the copying of a text from the creation of a text in the Middle Ages (which makes me think that more than a few of our students would be more textually at home in the middle ages than in our contemporary academy). According to Littau, one reason for the fluidity between “copying” and “creating” was “‘the common classical and Christian view of poetic inspiration’, in accordance with which ‘the poet does not originate the poem but is the inspired channel for a divine act of creation’ (Selden 1988: 303). In pre-print culture an author, or auctor, was therefore less a creator of a given work than its assembler, whose rights to the work extended merely to the physical object of the manuscript he or she had produced in the first instance rather than the text as the fruit of his or her private consciousness, as is the case in the copyright law now” (16).
The relationship to our own modes of electronic creation almost don’t bear pointing out. How many blogs are simply compilations of materials generated elsewhere, and yet we still think of them as something we’ve somehow produced or written, unique only in their assemblage, not in creation?
Still, I’m more interested in the implications of the latter part of the quote. I wonder especially whether this doesn’t reaffirm the notion that trying to get back to original intention springs from a god-like view of authorship. However, in the ancient world, the idea that the words were divinely inspired allowed them to be disseminated endlessly into new texts and new assemblages, without worrying fastidiously about the point of historical origin in a particular writer in a particular time and place. By contrast, our own view of the author as Godlike locates that divine authority in a specific moment of history, to which we have to return to the point of exhaustion.
I wonder how this plays out especially among Christian views of scriptural authority and inspiration. Our own view of historicism insists that grappling with the historical uniqueness and situatedness of the point of creation–with the author is one can be determined–ironically discards a sense of authorship, authority, and inspiration that would have been common at these earlier points in history. To some degree we make the text captive to history, rather than releasing it to new and unforeseen forms of assemblage and creativity.
Well, this is too much for me to flesh out right now, and I’m not sure it would go anywhere anyway.