By Steven Mihailovich
If you believe the current assault on the artist’s originality through rapid technological advances in media and the resulting piracy is unprecedented, then you’re a prime candidate for Santayana’s axiom “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
UC San Diego’s annual James K. Binder Lectureship in Literature last week featured Roger Chartier (French scholar, author and cultural historian of books, writing, reading and education), whose lecture on April 9 provided a glimpse of the modern dilemma by taking a long look back at the antecedent set by European authors and their manuscripts in the mid-18th century.
Titled “From the Writer’s Hand to the Printer’s Mind: Who is the Author in Early Modern Europe?” Chartier’s presentation focused on the history of literary manuscripts autographed by their authors to illustrate the evolution of
writers wrestling ownership from publishers and other entities, who had previously held sway and manipulated the author’s output for centuries.
The process led to the development of the modern copyright as well as the contemporary concept of the writer as an expressive artist.
“In order to consider text as individual property, they are to be divorced conceptu- ally from any particular ma- terial embodiment and must be located in the author’s mind or hand,” Chartier said. “Indeed, the nearest that man could come to a material form of an immate- rial world was addressed by the author’s hand.
“The autographed manu- script thus became the out- ward and visible sign of the inward and invisible genius of the writer. It was not the case in the 16th and 17th century, when the signature could be delegated.”
By addressing the dual nature of the book as a physical object and as a manifestation of the writer’s mind, Chartier noted the displacement of the author’s ownership of the text in today’s brisk dissemination and permutations of his or her writings through technology, such as the Internet, potentially regressing the culture to a time when the original writer was obscure.
“What is missing (today)
is the foundation of books, that is to say a text sufficiently stable to be recognized as an object of property and as a creation of an individual,” Chartier said. “The computer is not the book. So another perspective [emerging], sometimes by the reader, mainly by the publisher, also by the author ... is to accept their own disappearance in a sense.
There is a resistance. There are cases in front of courts to keep the categories of the past.”
Chartier gave his talk before an audience of about 60 people at the Atkinson Pavilion at UCSD’s Faculty Lounge. His appearance marked the return (after a two-year lull) of the Binder Lectures, inaugurated in 2005 to foster links between
UCSD and universities specifically in France, Germany, Italy and Spain. Lectures are open to the public.
According to Stephanie Zed, chairperson of UCSD’s Literature Department, the hiatus was the result of conflicting schedules and difficulties in obtaining visas. Zed added that the Binder Lectureship is critical to promoting the university as a multidisciplinary institution.
“The fact is that this is a science school,” Zed said. “Although arts and humanities are very excellent, we’re not making discoveries.”
The short list for next year’s guest lecturer includes Dario Fo, the Nobel Prize-winning Italian playwright, and Luciano Canfora, distinguished Italian historian.
Chartier said his trip was especially significant because two dearly departed friends and colleagues, Louis Marin and Michel de Certeau, taught at UCSD during the 1970s and 1980s.