Notes from New Sodom

... rantings, ravings and ramblings of strange fiction writer, THE.... Sodomite Hal Duncan!!

Monday, June 15, 2009

The Assumption of Authority 1

If I take your meaning, then the authority you're talking about here isn't the authority to decide what is good and bad, but the authority to claim that one's own standards of good and bad are universal, or simply better than others'. I have to say, I don't think this is the sense in which most of the people who lob the authority grenade at reviewers use it. — Abigail Nussbaum, comment on a previous post here

“Assuming authority.” What do I mean by the phrase, what does Abigail mean by the phrase, and what do those who attack reviewers on that basis mean by the phrase? I want to explore this because there’s an interesting disjuntion between my position and Abgail’s rearticulation of it — one that turns on the word “authority”. Because to me that distinction is virtually meaningless. The authority to decide what is good and bad is the authority to claim that one’s own standards of good and bad are universal, or simply better than others. Or not quite, for reasons that I’ll come to, but as good as.

Thing is, “authority” is a multi-faceted term, and Abigail and I are clearly talking about different facets of it here, given that she sees a distinction between those clauses. I read her comment and for me “authority” just doesn’t fit. In fact, the latter actually sounds weaker rather than stronger, a less extensive authority, less worthy of taking issue with — it’s being authorised to make a statement, to speak, rather than authorised to make a decision, to adjudicate. My immediate response to that comment is: why would I react against someone empowered to make noise rather than against someone empowered to make judgement? I want to take a scalpel to that quote, slice out the word “authority” and splice in something else to make sense of why, for Abigail, the latter would seem stronger than the former.

My handy MacBook thesaurus offers five loosely connected sense of the term, with five example usages: 5) evidence, testimony, word (as in “on good authority”); 4) expert, pundit, specialist (as in “an authority on the stock market”); 3) officialdom, establishment, police (as in “they failed to report the theft to the theft to the authorities”); 2) license, mandate, right (as in “the authority to arrest drug traffickers”); 1) jurisdiction, command, power.

The notion of power and rights might be the thing to focus on here, and the legitimacy of such. It seems to me that Abigail’s phrasing of it makes perfect sense if one looks at it as a distinction between the (individual) power/right to decide standards, and the (individual) power/right to claim universality or pre-eminence for those standards. The latter changes the focus from personal decision-making to an action in relationship to others, which is clearly an extension of powers/rights, and it isn’t far off what I’d be meaning if I used the phrase “assuming authority”. One can see how some of the other senses of the term fit in here, how that power/right might implicitly assert its legitimacy on the basis of evidence (5), how it might constitute an implicit assertion of expertise (4). But it’s eliding a sense of the term “authority” that I’d see as intrinsic to it, the reason to use the term “authority” rather than simply “power” or “right” — because for me “authority” is not just a power/right to act as an individual, but rather is explicitly an empowerment over others (3), one that is mandated (2), one that commands submission (1).

1. The authority to decide X =/= the right to decide X.

A right, to me, implies something we have naturally, even if we can subsequently have it taken away. Authority implies something we do not have naturally but which must be given to us in an act of authorisation. One is a basic entitlement of any individual. The other is a mandate, a privilege. I have the right to make fuck with a hot twink. PC Plod has the authority to arrest us if we do-do-do it in the road.

It is, of course, more complicated than that, as rights can be taken away *before* birth. As when the civil rights of a race have been historically eradicated by subjugation — though the argument most would make, I think, is that the subjugated still have those rights, really; it’s just that they’re not recognised, they’re actively denied, in fact. I wouldn’t have had the right to make fuck with a hot twink back when I was twink-aged myself. Except that, as far as I’m concerned actually I would have. That right was just not recognised, was in fact denied.

A privilege meanwhile is something we can inherit, be born into. As when a prince in a system of non-constitutional monarchy is born into the privilege of elevated power/status, into a form of authority. But the argument most would make here, I think, is that the aristocracy have still taken those privileges; the privilege may be treated as a “right” by virtue of their supposed superiority, but peel the rhetoric away and you find the idea that it’s a privilege bestowed on them. Saul, David and most European monarchies saw their privilege as bestowed on them by God. The Declaration of Arbroath came up with the rather neat idea that sovereignty resides in the people, and that the authority is bestowed on the king by the people. By way of power-mongering lords, of course.

The right to decide something seems like a pretty basic freedom of conscious thought. The authority to decide something is… a little more sneaky.

2. The authority to decide what is good and bad =/= the right to decide what is good and bad.

The right to decide what is good and bad is something we all have, surely. We all have autonomy of judgement as individuals, the right to decide for oneself, one person’s evaluation being as legitimate as the next at a base level. Even if that decision is not to like The Smiths. To me, the authority to decide what is good and bad implies something only a few have — else why talk about authority? It implies that only the authorised have authority of judgement, that their judgement is authoritative. Which is to say they have been mandated to make judgements as individuals in relation to others. They have the privilege of deciding for others, this person’s evaluation being treated as predominant over others at any point of conflict.

I have the right to decide that (man + man) = good times while (man + woman) = not my bag. Every government in the world has the authority to decide that (man + woman) = good and proper while (man + man) = bad and to be punished.

3. The authority to decree =/= the right to evaluate.

There are decisions and there are decisions. The right to decide is the entitlement to make a personal evaluation, independent of others. The authority to decide is the mandate to make a personal evaluation which takes precedence over all others, is effected as a decree. The authority “to decide” is always, in actuality, the authority “to decide for”. When the authorities decide that me making fuck with a hot twink is wrong, that’s not an abstract decision that echoes round the halls of Westminster; it’s a decision for me, a decision which takes precedence over my wanton lusts, which prescribes them.

This authority is a privilege, as far as I’m concerned, that comes into existence when the entitlement of individuals to make a personal evaluation is surrendered to the one being privileged as an authority; it is born from that act of authorisation, the inauguration of an individual as judge, or MP, or senator, or president, with a mandate to decide in place of those individuals who have abrogated their right. Sometimes we want those authorities, need them. Otherwise we might be pulling out of the driveway on our way to work one day only to find our path blocked by people do-do-doing it in the road. And then we’d decide to shout at them. And they’d decide to flick us the finger. And it would all get really messy. Hence the whole social contract malarky.

The abrogation of rights is, of course, no more than a disrecognition of them, if rights cannot be removed, only denied. Authorisation does not and cannot therefore actually affect either the ability of an individual to make a personal evaluation or the legitimacy of that personal evaluation. As an establishment of privilege however it functions by denying the legitimacy of all personal evaluations other than that of the authorised individual, the privileged judge. You’re perfectly entitled to want to do-do-do it in the road. It’s just that your opinion doesn’t matter.

4. The authority to claim that X is universal = ?

I think we need to clarify this. A claim is an assertion of belief, an advocacy of a proposition. It is, in effect, two things: the decision and the expression of that decision. If I’ve claimed that making hot homo fuck is the best making fuck there is, I’ve made an evaluation and I’ve articulated it. So we can rephrase this as “the authority to decide (& express) that X is universal.” Why is this important? Because the distinction between an unexpressed decision and an expressed decision is irrelevant if we’re thinking in terms of rights. A decision that X is universal adds a degree of essentialism to the evaluation, but it’s still only a personal evaluation, a basic entitlement. We’re quite entitled to believe that whatever axiom we hold to is universal. And to express it. I can go around proclaiming, to my heart’s content, that making hot homo fuck is the best making fuck there is. I can shout it to the skies, sing it to a merry ditty, scream it on street corners, and friends will nod and smile, strangers will look at me askance, neighbours will call the police because they can’t get to sleep, and eventually I’ll end up with a nice padded cell and some crayons to eat.

So. The assertion of that belief — “X is universal” — is not what I mean (and not what I think others mean) by “assuming authority”.

5. The authority to decide (& express) that X is universal =/= the right to decide (& express) that X is universal.

The right to express our decisions, our personal entitlement as individuals to assert our beliefs, is something we have within limits — free speech. If we apply the argument above: the authority to decide that X is universal is the privilege of deciding for others that X is universal (2); the authority to express that decision is implicit in the mandate to decide in place of those individuals who have abrogated their right to do so (via the act of authorisation), implicit in the privilege of having one’s decisions taken as decrees (3). Removing the redundancy we can therefore rephrase this as “the authority to decree that X is universal”.

Which is to say, the authority to decide that making hot homo fuck is essentially / absolutely / necessarily / categorically / universally a bad thing and to be punished is already the privilege of deciding for me that it’s wrong, the mandate to impose that decision on me as a decree. Such authority would, one hopes, be limited, but the decision is legislative. It comes in the form of an imperative. The authority to decide is the authority to decree even if only to the limits of that authority, even if only to the extent of the mandate.

And if it goes beyond that mandate? If there is no mandate?

This is what I mean (and what I think others mean) by “assuming authority”.

6. The authority to decree that X is universal = prescription =/= description.

A decree that X is universal is an attempt to legislate the truth. It does not affect the actual truth-value of the statement one way or the other — X will be or not be universal, regardless of the decree — but it does have socio-political power. Where one individual has been authorised as judge, with a mandate to decide what’s true for all individuals subject to their authority, where the legitimacy of all contrary opinions is denied by that privileging, the exercise of that authority requires that all individuals acknowledge that X is universal whether it is or not. Systems of such assertions may model the reality, but they are prescriptive, not descriptive.

Morality is often prescriptive in this way when it comes to making hot homo fuck, asserting that (man + man) = ABOMINATION, YE SODOMITE!!! This does not affect the fact that (man + man) = good times for values of man(1) equalling Hal Duncan and man(2) equalling hot twink. It does however have socio-political power. The mechanisms of authorisation are more complex, convoluted even, with decrees often characterised as coming from God, his absolute authority, (actually the right of a sovereign creator,) invested in written texts and human representatives, all humanity naturally subject to it, with no rights to be abrogated, but with free will to do what he says. (You’re perfectly entitled to want to make hot homo fuck. It’s just that your opinion doesn’t matter. And actually, come to think of it, wanting to make hot homo fuck constitutes impure thoughts.) This is in some respects a more honest form of prescriptivism, because it asserts that all truth is decreed. It offers no justification for its imperatives in systems that pretend to model reality descriptively, simply asserts an absolute license possessed by the absolute power.

It is not hard to see, however, that in practice the human “representatives” are authorised by their community, who abrogate their rights (largely willingly), privileging these “representatives” with the mandate to authoritatively decree those mores considered righteous by the community. This becomes more obvious when the religious aspect is stripped away and the religious authority takes the secular form of govenrment. Here though there may be a sense of injustice associated with a moral dictum such as (man + man) = ABOMINATION, YE SODOMITE!!! Members of the community such as Hal Duncan may decide that this decree goes beyond the extent of the mandate in prescribing his wanton lusts. If he is mouthy enough for long enough, sympathetic members of the community may recognise that the decree is attempting to legislate a truth, and that it is wrong for many values of man(1) and man(2) where (man + man) = good times. Since the act of authorisation is a communal abrogation of rights, while Hal Duncan can be forced to comply by way of a pointy stick, the more individuals come into conflict with the decrees of authority, the more that authority may be legitimately challenged in an attempt to limit its mandate. It may even be rejected wholesale. In such circumstances we see systems of decrees reformulated as purportedly descriptive models, as in the assertion that (man + man) = AGAINST THE LAWS OF NATURE!!! Such pseudo-descriptive prescriptions are attempts to legislate that the legislation is just.

The same strategy in fields other than morality — grammar, language, music, art — is equally unjust. In many such fields normative rule-based aesthetics take the place of the normative rule-based ethics that constitute mores. This may seem to be a trivial matter in the field of art, but those normative aesthetics may be founded on the exact same sort of prejudices as (man + man) = ABOMINATION, YE SODOMITE!!! Most commonly, prescriptivism applied to grammar and dialect will assert that, for example, a double negative such as “I didn’t do nothing” is NOT SPEAKING PROPER ENGLISH!!! or that, for example, the use of Scots vocabulary such as “Aye” is NOT SPEAKING PROPER ENGLISH!!! Both of these are not just descriptively wrong. They are decrees which seek to prescribe the natural speech patterns of segments of the population identifiable by features like class or nationality. Just as the moral dictum (man + man) = ABOMINATION, YE SODOMITE!!! is founded on homophobia, these linguistic dicta are founded on prejudice aimed at the economically underprivileged and therefore undereducated (the “vulgar”, the “uncouth”, the “common”) and/or the geographically marginalised.

And in writing?

Once the writings of Scottish intellectuals like Hume, Boswell, or Smollet reached England, British editors reviewed them with hawk-like eyes, “Bowdlerizing all traces of perceived Scotticisms” (Jones 1999: 113). London reviewers frowned upon Scots inflections as a stain upon English… This sense of implicit linguistic superiority is obvious in much English writing, but none had a greater influence on the negative codification of Scots than Samuel Johnson’s 1755 Dictionary… Johnson clearly states in his preface that he wishes to guard English from intruders. Wherever he chooses to include Scottish terms he is “careful to brand the word as low,” “vulgar,” and obsolete (Siebert 486). His snobbery against Scots shines through in some definitions, as it does for oats: “a grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people.” Johnson thus built a negative perception of Scotland generally, and a disparagement of the Scots language, into the book hailed as the first true standard of English.


I’d gey huv a rammy in a midden than haud ma wheest at some gowk’s haverin. It’s a sair fecht an a’, but ah’m affy thrawn.

7. The authority to decree that X is universal =/= the attempt to decree that X is universal.

Authority can only be given in an act of authorisation. An attempt to decree that X is universal is not an exercise of authority if no such authorisation has taken place. It is an attempt to exercise a mandate that does not exist, a privilege that has not been granted. The application of prescriptive systems in critique is such an attempt. The application of such as a critical strategy is prescriptivism. The critic does not have authority when it comes to personal evaluations of a text. The author themself does not have authority. This is the point of Barthes’ essay, “The Death of the Author,” . Both have legitimacy, but neither has authority. They can only assume it, pretend to it. This is the assumption of authority in two senses of the term “assume”: to presume (to assume that one has authority); to affect (to assume the attitude of authority).

You can tell me that (hokum + hi-jinks) = Big Pile of Horseshit. You can tell me that this is so because (hokum + hi-jinks - kittens) = Big Pile of Horsheshit. So you want kittens in your fiction? Fair enough. You can tell me that (hokum + hi-jinks - kittens) = Huge Big Bloody Fucking Pile of Steaming Stinking Maggoty Horseshit, and if you’re entertaining I might enjoy it — even if all you’re going on (and on and on and on) about is the absence of kittens, and I was kind of curious about how the hokum and hi-jinks were pulled off. You can try and tell me that there is no question, no doubt, no need to consider the hokum and hi-jinks because, as everyone knows, (anything - kittens) = BIG PILE OF HORSESHIT!!! I might even enjoy it if you can pull it off with panache. But in so far as the latter asserts a prescriptivist arbitration in the same form as (any utterance - RP accent) = COMMON VULGARITY!!! it constitutes an attempt to decree taste. This holds equally true if you try to tell me that (anything + puppies) = BIG PILE OF HORSESHIT!!! because this asserts a prescriptivist arbitration in the same form as (any utterance + Scots accent) = COMMON VULGARITY!!!

And for me the hollowness of that as a universal descriptive, the fact that it is really an imperative, is revealed in the legitimacy of my own personal evaluation that (anything + puppies) = Awwwww! Wook ad the widdle puppies!

But my own response has a point here, is deliberately offered to set up a caveat to my own argument. It takes a positive form, but it might well be asked how we can distinguish this as a descriptive assertion of my own general tastes from a prescriptive decree that seeks to arbitrate taste: (anything + puppies) = AWWWWW!!! WOOK AD THE WIDDLE PUPPIES!!! I can distinguish the prescriptive form here with a convention of capitalisation and exclamation marks, but to what extent will the “distinction” in practice merely be a matter of perceived tone and therefore uttery subjective? How can we be sure that what we read as (anything - kittens) = BIG PILE OF HORSESHIT!!! is not better read as (anything - kittens) = Big Pile of Horseshit! For any value of kittens, the latter could basically stand as a definition of the form of a conventional review.

So with that in mind, I’m going to leave it here for now and leave the next post for getting to grips with the idea of how you might identify prescriptivism.


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