Peter and Gesa Kirsch. "On Authority in the Study of Writing.” On Writing Research: The Braddock Essays, 1975-1998.
Ed. Lisa Ede. New York: Bedford St. Martin’s, 1999. 321-335.
Clearly enough, Mortensen and Kirsch set out to complicate conceptions of
authority beyond the autonomous, paternalistic, heavy-handed sort long
understood to be the source of oppression, as in a hegemony of control and
order. This essay emphasizes the role of ethics and care in
contextualized authority systems, where power is understood through community
assimilation and distrust of autonomous authoritative forces are out in the
open. Mortensen and Kirsch urge a shift away from long-accepted connotations of authority
as the continuation of autonomous and paternalistic legacies.
More complex variations of authority look at knowledge sources as contextual,
assumable, provisional, situated (or locally distributed), and ethical. By
turning to feminist critique, the essay seeks to loosen and re-associate the
significance of authority in relationship to discourse, power, and
community, the buzzwords of the 90’s
in writing and rhetoric.
"On Authority in the Study of Writing" leads with a note about Barthes and
dead authors, followed by mention of modernity’s unraveling of authorship
resulting in language re-styling English Studies, followed by the
question, "How are we to account for the theoretical erasure of the authority
that constitutes the writers–the authors–we face every day in our composition
classrooms?". Authors are dead; authority is dead. Right? That’s
the linch pin for Mortensen and Kirsch, since authority is alive and well.
But where? They’re certainly not faulting Barthes for his excise of
authors; in fact, his move gave us good cause to look at all of the other,
perhaps more complex manifestations of authority, various forms wrapped in
power, discourse, and community dynamics. I’d say this essay does a
terrific job of sizing up those forms, pointing them out, and reminding me that
they aren’t all evil (which is often my suspicion). In fact, M&K’s answer
to the question is that there are at least two predominant perspectives on
authority–assimilation and resistance–and we (with our students) ought to know
both of them as well as other, subtler forms.
I’m not ready to answer M&K’s question about "theoretical erasure" because
I’d prefer to ask it just a bit differently, replacing "erasure," I think, with
"complexity." Of course this kind of critique can give way to endless
tinkering. I won’t do that. But just this one turn–complexity
rather than erasure–would allow the question to point out what I think this essay does.
Old, autonomous authority isn’t dead; it’s just buried (read: nested, resting).
And maybe we should be just as distrusting of new authority (contextual,
assumable, provisional, situated, ethical) because it’s more elusive, harder to
know, but potentially as controlling, power-wielding, and uncaring.
Potentially. And then "how are we to account for the theoretical [complexity]
of the authority that constitutes the writers–the authors–we face every day in
our composition classrooms?". Rhetoric: running the range of persuasive,
effective, compelling postures in variously authority-laden situations.
In differentiating cognitivist views of writing as situated between the "twin
seats" of the "individual mind and the autonomous text" and social views of
writing as co-constructions of knowledge, M&K’s essay makes some interesting
suggestions about the place(s) we often locate authority. Whatever the
perspective, cognitivist and social approaches to writing struggle with embodied
authority–in the unified mind-strength, the tome, or the community. One
answer is to turn toward foundationalist/anti-foundationalist binaries and Pat
Bizzell’s contention that, "using gender as a lens," we can re-vise models of
Other interesting bits: reference to John Trimbur on disensus (324)
and Bakhtin on centrifugal (gravitational, centering) and centripetal
(agitational, radiant) forces and "internally persuasive discourse" as "the
constellation of voices we appropriate as we learn how to differentiate
ourselves as individuals in a particular social setting (326).
As I read Mortensen and Kirsch’s article, I had Milgram’s Obedience to
Authority on my mind, too. See, I read through the bulk of his study
on subjects, teachers, shock distribution, the agentic state and so on back in
March or thereabouts, but I left off at chapter twelve, "Strain and
Disobedience." Picked it back up the other day, and in c.12, Milgram says,
Theoretically, strain is likely to arise whenever an entity that can
function autonomously is brought into a hierarchy, because the design
requirements of an autonomous unit are quite different from those of a
component specifically and uniquely designed for systemic functioning.
Men can function on their own or, through the assumption of roles, merge into
larger systems. But the very fact of dual capacities requires a design
compromise. We are not perfectly tailored for complete autonomy, nor for
Of course, any sophisticated entity designed to
function both autonomously and within hierarchical systems will have
mechanisms for the resolution of strain, for unless such resolving mechanisms
exist the system is bound to break down posthaste. (153)
The characterization of human systems as designed and autonomous
reverberates with a kind of gross, mechanistic industrialism. And
Milgram’s work on strain resolution reads like a self-help checklist. But
it’s useful, I think, to consider the blend of authority with strain, to wonder
about what authority does and how authority does it, and to reflect on what it
means for design compromise to figure into this. Is it more than
obedience? We have an entire pharmaceutical industry getting filthy rich
on "mechanisms for the resolution of strain." It’s also interesting to
think about this in the context of the hot potato of suspended accountability
related to the WMD reports. An authoritative intelligence community
absorbs the nebulous charge of failure (spread around air-thin), the CIA
director takes a bounce, the community’s reputation undergoes strain followed by
a new call for diligence and obedience, and everything is fixed. When
authority belongs to a community (particularly an inexact, classified
community), the "design compromise" involves a rhetorical shift of dispersion
which basically amounts to a vanishing act. [Please forgive this
dizzy-making; I’m reluctantly posting it to EWM, but these are mostly rough notes to
"How are we to account for the theoretical erasure of the authority
that constitutes the writer–the authors–we face every day in our composition
"So alive or dead, functional or not, the concept of authority is very
much with us. Or perhaps we should speak of concepts of authority,
concepts that we might array from the most contingent to the most
"Among these limits is a tendency to objectify authority, to cast it as
something fixed and autonomous that writers or writing can possess.
We propose, instead, a dialogic model of authority, one which infuses authority
with ethics" (322).
"Models of autonomous authority presuppose that discourse communities
function largely as egalitarian forums" (322).
"For Bakhtin, communities always contain forces contending oppositely
for stasis and change (270-72). On the one hand, community members maintain a
predictable state of affairs through acts of accommodation. That is, for
the sake of mutual benefit, people accept the conventions which constitute
authorized ways of doing things in the community–like interpreting
"We entertain this discussion of care and authority not because we see
it as a simple or even necessary approach to interrogating authority, but
because it provides a heuristic for thinking through alternative ways of
reconceptualizing authority. Yet unlike authority, care can never be fully
autonomous, autonomous care being essentially narcissism. Rather, care inheres
in relations between people and, therefore, assumes community as its first
"Rather than understanding authority as stemming from a totalizing
impulse, then, it becomes a phenomenon knowable only in context, as it
continually constitutes (and is constituted by) particular communities"