Paper #3 for my Theory of Authorship class

February 26, 2008

In Foucault’s “What is an Author?”, he summarizes his theory of what he calls the authorship function as having four distinct characteristics. The very first of these is that “the author function is linked to the juridical and institutional system that encompasses, determines, and articulates the universe of discourses.” He more fully explains this passage as the “penal appropriation,” and argues that authorial ownership is first appropriated on behalf of the writer by the relevant local judicial authorities- whether the writer wants it or not. The story that is related in Malcolm Gladwell’s “Something Borrowed” is a good case study for the practical implications of Foucault’s penal appropriation.

A key point of Foucault’s theory of authorship is that it is culturally defined. “The author function is linked to the juridical and institutional system that encompasses, determines, and articulates the universe of discourses.” In other words, the author function begins to be codified into law and culture when writers first get into trouble because of things they have written. The penal appropriation forces authors to take responsibility for their work. One of the consequences of this is that by forcing the author to own his or her work, the author gets ownership privileges, including the right to assert control over the text and to claim financial compensation. This creates the possibility of intellectual property theft and plagiarism, which can have profound implications for the people working in the fields that are subject to the authorship function.

A feature of the authorship function that can complicate the matter is that at different historical moments, in different civilizations, different productions have been subject to this kind of appropriation. Foucault uses the example of the European judgment of scientific texts formerly being very closely linked with the author’s name, while poems and romances of the era could quite comfortably be left to anonymous authors. Today, almost the exact opposite is true. This shift illustrates that what we currently think of authors and their work is not natural or universal, but rather a characteristic of our current historical moment. This changing assumption about what is and isn’t worthy of being attributed to an author can lead to conflict and charges of plagiarism.

The play “Frozen,” written by Bryony Lavery, was embroiled in a controversy about plagiarism. There were thematic similarities between Lavery’s “Frozen” and Lewis’ “Guilty by Reason of Insanity.” There were about 675 words in “Frozen” that appeared to have been lifted verbatim from Gladwell’s profile of Lewis and her work, entitled “Damaged.” Lavery’s research extended beyond Gladwell and Lewis’ work. Her other major inspiration came from Marian Partington, who wrote about the abduction and murder of her younger sister. Lavery was very scrupulous in crediting Partington because of the emotional sensitivity of her relationship to the story.

Lewis’ “Guilty by Reason of Insanity” was a work of non-fiction that, from the descriptions of it that appear in book reviews, appears to have included significant elements of memoir as well. Lewis was greatly upset by the play her book helped inspire because one of the main characters appeared to be a thinly fictionalized version of herself. She considered a lawsuit because she “wanted her life back (Gladwell 42).” This quote appears to show her conflating her life- with the all birthdays, job interviews, and phone bills that come with that- with her book. The author function’s psychological implications have run amok here, forcefully convincing her of her ownership of the story to such a degree that to lift from her book is to hijack her life.

But she wasn’t only upset because of how the events detailed in her book were used as the inspiration for a fictional(ized) character, she was also upset because that fictional character did things that she herself never did. “I’m recognizable in that. Enough people have called me and said, ‘Dorothy, it’s about you,’ and if everything up to that point is true, then the affair becomes true in the mind. So that is another reason I feel violated.”

Here we can see that Lewis has come to personally identify so closely with her work as an author that she not only feels violated when she thinks she hasn’t been given enough credit for writing that appears to be overly-similar to her work- she also feels violated when that same writing is at times dissimilar! It is as if she is saying, “If you’re going to steal from me, steal from me correctly!” This process of identification with her writing is probably helped along considerably by its status as a work of non-fiction that contains elements of memoir.

Why Lavery didn’t credit Malcolm Gladwell or Dorothy Lewis? It didn’t occur to her to do so. Not all discourses are considered to merit the presence of an author figure- “I thought it was news.” This is a more-or-less reasonable assumption on her part: nobody cites the reporter when they talk about a news story, they cite the publication. And even that amount of authorial ownership is only recognized on a regular basis within the media itself. Rarely to the authors of fiction credit the New York Times for its invaluable inspiration. News, by our currant standards of discourse, is only granted the dignity of an author when the reporter’s work gets somebody in serious trouble. Again, we run headlong into the penal appropriation, where the need to determine who is responsible- or who is to blame- motivates the effort to determine ownership.

I’m bad at conclusions; if I haven’t made my point by now, what difference will this last paragraph make? If you really want one, go back and read the introduction again, but pretend you haven’t seen it before.

Or maybe, yeah, try this

Authorial ownership can be tricky, and the stakes are made higher by the courts stepping in and imposing punishment on those who fail to navigate the subject well enough to appease the prevailing standards of acknowledgement.

Okay. That sucked. It was trite. Yeah, just go back and read the introduction again. If my grade takes a hit for this, I might try to say “It wasn’t me, it was the sleep deprivation my crowded academic schedule forces upon me!” If that’s what happens, do you think I could get extra credit for ironic meta-humor?



  1. Did you actually hand this in?

    • Fucking A I did! Got a pretty decent grade on it, too.

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