Dear Reader, when last we met we were discussing authorship and authenticity, a subject that brought me back to work I did as an American historian (interested in literature) on William Styron. The Elena Ferrante drama put me mind of it. In closing my last post, I promised to make connections in this one to hate speech, which I shall rename “actionable speech” to distinguish it from legally protected speech, and the internet. But first, a little dive back into some recent, relevant, history on the subject of “deconstructionism,” the literary critique much in vogue in the years of my graduate training and young career life as an academic.
To even speak its name, I know, opens the potential to a Pandora’s box of comments about its very definition, interpretation and schools. Have at it if you want, but to do so is not my intent. Rather, I mention it because as an intellectual matter, it functions as a cultural bridge between the physical world and cyberspace. If, as I have offered in the past, the internet acts as a canvas upon which we can observe humanity, or Mount Tabor where we can experience anew its divine spark, then deconstructionism acts as a metaphor for an interesting aspect of that experience: anonymity.
Yes, I know true believer, I am butchering the theory. In its fullness it was not directly so much about the death of the author but the structure and relationship among and between words, their meaning and significance towards a theory of social order, power and politics. But it is nonetheless still true that a literary theory that made social constructs its singular emphasis had the result of minimizing the author to the point of non-existence. Hence the caricature of the dead author. Maybe authors were never alive in the first place. At any rate, from this theory’s lens, authors became nothing more than mediums, vessels transporting cultural constructs.
Fast forward to the internet, which heavily influences our culture. Technical masking has created a new manifestation of this notion. Danielle Citron, among others, argues that virtual anonymity is the fly in the ointment for victim’s redress of outrageous speech. As a result of defamation, libel, invasion of privacy, public exposure of private facts, false light and harassment, victims have had to legally change their names, go into hiding, get therapy, and/or shut down their presence on social media. Many have lost jobs or had great difficulty in securing employment even when everything else about their record is excellent. Perpetrators, for the most part, fly below the radar and continue to wreak personal havoc. Only in rare cases (e.g. Facebook husband rapping about his ex-wife), are these actors ever brought to light and made to account in a court of law. Until the law does something to correct this lapse, beginning with closing the technology gap and perhaps also amending section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, will society begin to act in a way that resembles in cyberspace the rules and mores in physical space that strive for justice.
How interesting is that connection! A literary theory that attracted many a woman or minority – gay men were prominent adherents -- for its promise of laying bare the social structure of oppression presages an environment abetted by technology that kills the author and furthers the foment of oppression through actionable speech. Those who benefit from traditional structures can spew their attacks with abandon. Anonymity provides cover and victims have little recourse. In a metaphysical sense, it almost does not matter who those authors are. They are mere actors on the stage of categorical oppression. Misogyny, homophobia, racism -- you name it -- it’s all there in history. Why should anyone expect the internet to be any different? It isn’t. It is just that now the perpetrators can get away with it.
Deconstruction and technological masking on the internet have something in common. Each distorts, and therefore fails to adequately represent, reality. As useful as deconstruction was to unmasking the relations of power embedded in words, it becomes useless to demonstrate individual agency. As freeing as anonymous speech is on the internet (a concept almost totally dependent on circumstances, think People’s Republic of China), in the U.S. (where free speech is legally protected but not actionable speech) it also strips away agency. Where there is no identity, there is no individuality. Where there is no individuality, there is no responsibility. While theoretically interesting to observe how the same tropes for misogyny, racism, etc. play out over and over again from one generation to the next, it is also counterproductive to ideals of fairness and justice to allow those forces to remain unchecked. Once again, the law must catch up with technology and close the gap.
What does this have to do with issues of authenticity and authorship? Twenty-five years ago in that colloquium on Styron, I argued that the identification of emotional qualities between authors and historical events enhances literature and our understanding of people in different times and place. Of course, as with just about anything in life, it is important to consider the source. No one book or author, no matter how compelling, should be taken totally on faith. Readers can be the judges of whether the author’s imagination is misplaced or hits the mark. So, too, with the kafuffle over Ferrante. Tellingly, American reactions focus on gender issues; European on privacy. Both reactions speak more about each culture’s obsessions than they do the main point. Can someone who does not have the exact experience of the characters and story lines be authentic? I believe the answer is yes, if everything else about the book evokes emotion. Might it not just be possible, for example, that the daughter of a Holocaust survivor might know something about oppression and the complications of human relationships. With literary imagination such a person might well be able to transpose it on little girls growing up in the impoverished, corrupt neighborhoods of Naples.
Authorship and authenticity are vital components in history and literature and life. As such, they are woven into our experience on the internet together with individualism, personal agency, accountability, fairness and justice. Those who critique “political correctness” or “identity politics” by hiding behind the anonymity of the internet to express actionable content create their own ironic feedback loop. Often strikingly unoriginal, those comments tend to reduce people to categorical social identities. Thus, the anonymous speakers spouting the same old bromides reduce themselves to a sociological box. Without an identity of their own, those speakers become mere vessels for transporting cultural constructs. That role hardly speaks freedom. In fact, it is freedom’s opposite. True freedom comes from standing on one’s own two feet, claiming authorship in whatever way a person manifests it, and wrestling with culture’s conceits. Authenticity emerges naturally out of that struggle, in history and literature and life, in physical space as well as it should on the internet.
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