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Pretexts of Authority: The Rhetoric of Authorship in the Renaissance Preface (review)

From: Philosophy and Literature
Volume 19, Number 1, April 1995
pp. 181-182 | 10.1353/phl.1995.0010

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Philosophy and Literature 19.1 (1995) 181-182

Book Review

Pretexts of Authority: The Rhetoric of Authorship in the Renaissance Preface

Pretexts of Authority: The Rhetoric of Authorship in the Renaissance Preface, by Kevin Dunn; xii & 198 pp. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1994, $32.50.

This study is of broader interest than its title might suggest; it engages many of the current issues in literary and cultural studies, and does so with exceptional intelligence. Drawing on Jürgen Habermas's notion of "the public sphere" and recent research on the history of private life, Dunn focuses on prefatory rhetoric in order to study the ways in which writers of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries struggled to establish their authority, to define themselves as authors and to regulate their relations with their readers. As they challenged collapsing medieval models of authority, Dunn argues, Renaissance writers had to invent different strategies of self-presentation and discursive legitimation, developing in the process the Renaissance conception of authorship, and eventually a new model of intellectual activity in the service of the public good.

The first part of the book discusses Luther's effort to ground an oppositional discourse in a personal narrative of suffering and redemption, and Milton's later recognition of himself as a "member incorporate" of a (Puritan) body for which he can speak as a representative; these represent two termini of the development of Protestant prefatory rhetoric. The second part traces a parallel development in "scientific" writers (Descartes, Bacon, Hobbes, Locke, Sprat), moving from the Cartesian effort to ground science in a personal narrative of discovery to Bacon's institutionalization of science and Hobbes's theory of representation based on "common sense."

These chapters offer many insights that deserve close attention. However, since I lack space here to discuss each of them in detail, I will mention only a few points that suggest the wider implications of Dunn's study. First: he is alive to the role of the body in prefatory rhetoric, as a "private" proof of spiritual authority (in Paul), as a flawed textual corpus (in Luther), and as a model of the body politic (in Hobbes and others). Second: he challenges -- correctly, in my view -- Foucault's famous claim about the role of "penal appropriation" in the development of the modern conception of the author, arguing that "texts, books, and discourses begin to need authors at the moment when their transgression itself seeks institutionalization. In other words, it is when the subversive discourse finds itself on the brink of empowerment, of articulating something more than a negative critique of reigning orthodoxies, that the authority of the author becomes necessary" (p. 10). Third: he describes the conflict in Renaissance authors between self-authorization and the desire to prevent readers from following their example -- that is, they strive both to open up and to shut off a discursive potential -- and offers a subtle account of the persistence of this desire, in the form of the claim to authorial ownership, in writers fully involved in the literary marketplace. Fourth: most of the authors examined here are not traditionally regarded as "literary"; Dunn is casting a broader net, including theological, philosophical, political, and scientific writing, and this is, of course, very much in the spirit of the times -- both of our own, and that of the writers discussed. For as Dunn observes, the modern notion of "literature" arises sometime around the end of the Period with which he is concerned in this book -- and, perhaps, as a result of the development he describes in it. He argues that "with science having secured its discursive boundaries through the complementary myths of objectivity and public utility, literature became the new site for working out the completing claims of public and private. It is at such a site that literature begins to emerge as an independent category, a place crucial for cultural and political negotiations" (p. 16). As Dunn shows, this is reflected in the way late seventeenth-century French and English prefaces abandon advocacy for critical judgment, handing down sentences based on publicly accepted, secular norms.

This fine, illuminating, readable book makes a stimulating contribution to our understanding of the history of cultural authority...


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