Authorial Intention and I

Early in graduate school, I believed in authorial intention. The undergraduate students in my classes still believe in it reflexively–with a fierce loyalty to the authority of authors and a conviction that their instructor is continually adding un-needed complexities–but I’m usually struck by the socialized nature of any utterance. An author might seem able to control a great deal about the form of his or her words for the length of a haiku or a sonnet, but words are slippery, and nobody has the patience to exert excruciating attention to every mark of punctuation in a novel. I should not say “nobody” because some authors give superhuman attention to minor details, and scholars with access to collations may well devote the detailed attention that authors without access to similar tools would be unlikely to have time and patience to grant.

Let me recover from the aside and get back to my subject. CLIR asked me to describe the result of my fellowship, so that I might help them entice other Ph.D.’s in the humanities to consider the same librarianship path. See CLIR fellowship application site. I replied as follows:

During the period of the CLIR fellowship, Wesley Raabe expanded his
knowledge of digital projects and came to better appreciate the
collaborative relationship between scholars and librarians as
co-creators and as disseminators of knowledge. He also used the
fellowship period to build communities and to push his own work forward,
and he trusts that his work will appeal to a broader audience than it
would have without the fellowship experience.

A few days after I sent my note, my editor at CLIR responded with a note informing me that other former fellows had responded in first person. So the editor responded with a revised version of my description.

During the period of the CLIR fellowship, I expanded my
knowledge of digital projects and came to better appreciate the
collaborative relationship between scholars and librarians as
co-creators and as disseminators of knowledge. I also used the
fellowship period to push my own work forward. I trust that my work will appeal to a broader audience than it would have without the fellowship experience.

As you can see, all of my third-person references to myself–like former Senator Bob Dole’s–have been replaced with a typical politician’s first-person confidence that accomplishments are my own. In the original draft, I sought to hide that, because I thought I had been invited to hold forth with journalistic third-person objectivity. The sins, had they been included, would have been attributed to my nameless opponents, but in a venue devoted to promotion such complexities are omitted for the good of the order. This is a common activity for scholars. When we publicize our work for the good of the department, the university, the press, the funder, third-person bragging is a necessary evil. But I know with a certainty as profound as I can manage that I would have written differently had I originally assumed that I was to write in first person.

I reclaimed the editor’s version of my words with the following reply: “The rewrite is fine with me. I hereby re-intentionalize the socially constructed text with the authority of the author.” In re-writing for this post, I have omitted most of the cajoling formulations of courtesy that characterized our exchanges, an omission that again signals a social constraint that informs this post, which resembles a Bob Newhart phone conversation with a nameless other (without the humor). Because I have chosen to write about this exchange without my conspirator’s permission, I have protected his/her words and anonymity.

After the nth frame is wrapped around an utterance, it’s difficult to imagine that there’s actually an intending wizard behind the curtain.

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