Bakhtin, Authorship and Authenticity
So what's with the "auth" in authorship, authority, and authenticity?
I’ve been thinking about authenticity lately in the context of people management, dialogue, the difference between video chats and telephone calls, and the contrast between structured and unstructured conversations. I’ve written here about a tension between the formula of a protocol and the spontaneity of dialogue, and how both can be present at the same time (both/and, anyone?). Basically, I’m really enjoying the opportunity to exercise some people management skills I wasn’t sure I had—and I’ve joked with friends and colleagues that I’m turning into my mom: the lady who’ll lose her voice after the party ‘cause she’ll talk and talk and talk to everyone.
What’s this connection of talk to authenticity? Let’s start with an examination of some etymology:
mid-14c., autentik, "authoritative, duly authorized" (a sense now obsolete), from Old French autentique "authentic; canonical" (13c., Modern French authentique) and directly from Medieval Latin authenticus, from Greek authentikos "original, genuine, principal," from authentes "one acting on one's own authority," from autos "self" (see auto-) + hentes "doer, being," from PIE root *sene- (2) "to accomplish, achieve." Sense of "real, entitled to acceptance as factual" is first recorded mid-14c.
I think it was in some wild scholarship on Petrarch and Dante that I first encountered this interplay between authorship and authority—what’s spelled out here as “authorized” in the context of authentic, or the autos sense of “self-doing/being.” This has me thinking about Bakhtin, answerability, and the sociocultural reality of dialogue, discourse, consciousness and—really—being.
Bakhtin’s theorizing and scholarship are pretty difficult to pin down—likely due to the values underlying his theories: those of spontaneity, a certain dismissal of systemization, or a recognition of the unfinalizable in dialogue and interaction. He’s primarily viewed as a literary theorist who speculated about the novel, and secondarily as a philosopher of language. His work around the novel may help us triangulate some insights around authenticity and authority.
Bakhtin characterized the “unity” of the novel through a variety of aspects: (1) the author’s narration, (2) dramatization of everyday speech, (3) the pseudo literary such as epistles or texts within a novel, (4) philosophizing, moralizing, or other specialized rhetoric, and (5) the speech of individuals within the plot. Bakhtin’s work names and examines the polyphony, or simultaneous sounding, of these different speech types within literary works—within works of authors. In fact, he defines the novel as “a diversity of social speech styles (sometimes even diversity of languages) and a diversity of individual voices, artistically organized.”
mid-14c., auctor, autour, autor "father, creator, one who brings about, one who makes or creates" someone or something, from Old French auctor, acteor "author, originator, creator, instigator" (12c., Modern French auteur) and directly from Latin auctor "promoter, producer, father, progenitor; builder, founder; trustworthy writer, authority; historian; performer, doer; responsible person, teacher," literally "one who causes to grow," agent noun from auctus, past participle of augere "to increase," from PIE root *aug- (1) "to increase."
It’s been neat to shift to a different organization and reflect upon what I’m bringing to work, what I’m bringing home, and the interplay between the two. There’s been a lot of ink spilled about the fragmentation of the modern world, the disintegration of institutions, and the dissolution of the contemporary self in an almost desacralized world. Yet, realities like remote and flexible work inspire some reflection on work/life balance, and what one’s authentic self might really be. Do you bring your authentic self to your work? Does it best come out in formal protocols or structured conversations? What about in spontaneous dialogue?
Bakhtin invites us to consider thoroughly the sociocultural and historical moment of our being, our situation in the world—constantly in dialogue with others, within this ubiquitous reality of language and conversation. His concept of answerability may be helpful for us here as we conclude some reflections on authorship. Within this human consciousness, whenever I’m drawn into dialogue with an other (when am I not?), I’m required to answer for my situation—my location in space and time, my sense of identity, the sociocultural and historical moment in which I’m addressed. One might even say I have the responsibility to answer for that space and time.
Which leaves me with a few concluding questions: How might we be the ultimate authors of ourselves? What roles, jobs, institutions and expectations may be limiting our sense of authorship of our own being? What strategies might one employ to grow this sense of authenticity in personal and professional relationships? Please let us know in the comments what your thinking is around bringing your real, authentic self to our shared, human, unfolding dialogue.