Thursday, August 8

the meanings of

I've been wanting to write something about this fascinating triad of animator, author, and principal ever since I learned about it in the spring. why haven't I yet? the summer has been crammed. so delightfully, crazily crammed.
{ photograph by friend Trevor Crane; used here by permission }

one of the five and a half textbooks we used for my Intercultural Communication class was called, everso fittingly, Intercultural Communication: A Discourse Approach, by Ron Scollon, Suzanne Scollon, and Rodney Jones. in a section on forms of discourse and plagiarism, they cite the work of sociologist Erving Goffman, who in studying the ways we communicate with each other in speech, divided the process among three roles: an animator, an author, and a principal. adopting this three-part version of authorship means we have to question a lot of things about inherent creative sovereignty. my role in any communicative act may or may not give me the kinds of control I might want over whatever aspect of the communication I am involved in. my role might infringe on the kinds of control others might want. their roles might overlap. creation and communication--they aren't so straightforward anymore.

the first (and thereby most important, you know) of these textbook authors, Mr. Scollon himself, also wrote an earlier article called "Plagiarism and Ideology," where he engages in more detail with Goffman's work. while Goffman deals with spoken language (I need to get my hands on his Frame Analysis, perhaps...), Scollon applies the animator-author-principal distinction to printed communication, using it to make some cool points about "rights to animation." who do we want to let produce the words and messages we want to share with the world? why do we choose any certain publisher or other agent? what should we expect from all these relationships among various levels of communication? digging around in all this scholarship is fascinating. I don't need to tell you how much I'm looking forward to more graduate classes starting in a few days, do I?

anyway--now that I've thrown this triangle of terms at you a few times, let me find a way to tell you what they mean.

the animator in Goffman's sense would be the speaker or actor--whoever might be heard and seen making the words physically audible. for written communication it could be a scribe or typist or designer. this person does not necessarily own the words or meanings he is putting down on paper or recording on video. he could... but that isn't part of this job description.

the author doesn't quite own the words or meanings either, I don't think. or does she? Scollon relates Goffman's definition: "Someone who has selected the sentiments that are being expressed and the words in which they are encoded." this is a poet. a wordsmith. she composes and arranges and expresses. she dances and paints with all those words--but as Scollon reminds us, she "may or may not choose to take responsibility for them." 

the principal seems to have the most claim on whatever is being said here. this person is responsible for and committed to the message. in some real-enough sense, it is this person's beliefs and perspectives and truths that are being shared. (there are a dozen more questions I could ask about what it means to be responsible or committed to the things one says, but they might have to wait.)

the traditions of creative/communicative rights and ownership aren't the same in all spheres of discourse, of course. Scollon points out a few varying standards--in corporate settings, the animation of messages is often done by secretaries or office assistants, who in turn make use of pencils and sticky-notes and keyboards and email software. the messages they write could be composed by PR committees, and broadcast under the principal name of the company as a whole. in the literary world, writers delegate the animation process to publishing houses, and they in turn share the job with printers and binders and booksellers.

we could think of plenty other examples here-- among my dear Lubbock friends, Sarah, Meekayla, Melanie, and the girls spend evenings animating and re-animating the carefully recorded words their general acquaintance, all selected specifically for their hilarity and immortalized in Cathy's Quotebook (now in its third volume). on stage, performers recite words originally animated on paper by a playwright, but ostensibly claimed by the principal of Shylock, Lady Macbeth, or some other personality. in political realms, would-be congresspeople have speechwriters to dress up the ideas they want to share with the masses. in my little apartment, I author and animate my own random thoughts in my own shabby notebooks with my own ballpoint pens. sometimes I put down other people's thoughts, too (or at least approximations of them): friends' or strangers' or imaginary characters'.

the point of these careful distinctions isn't to assign ownership once and for all, though, or to figure out where the responsibilities of each role begin and end, really. there can be overlappings, and negotiations, and uncertainties. the point is to pick apart the traditional notion of communicator and stare thoughtfully at all the assumptions we often make about authorship. really looking at this stuff can teach us something. maybe even many somethings. Scollon uses it to pull apart cultural understandings of plagiarism. I like to think about where in this triangle you and I might be standing when we copy-and-paste snips of code from one place to another or when we post lovely quotes on pinterest or tumblr.
how many kinds of animation can there be? do photocopies or repeatedly played recordings count? if I rephrase the message a little bit, or change the punctuation, then do I get to share the authorial corner of the triangle with the original arranger of words? and how do we know everyone is fulfilling their roles in the process honestly? what happens when it gets too difficult to trace where the animator ends and the principal or author begins? and what if we can't trust any of these people to say what they really think or go by their proper titles? what then?

no one ever said the process of getting ideas from your head to mine and back again was simple, did they? even asking your sister how her day went might very well be fraught with problematic inferences or misunderstandings. you never know. so when you think about how much time and how many people, roles, technologies, settings, and steps can be involved in all the various kinds and modes of communication we use beyond the in-person kind, it gets even more complicated. keeping track of all this role-switching seems an exciting task, one which the part of my brain that finds sentence diagramming so relaxing would probably also love.

Scollon et al. in my slim little textbook from Dr. Rice's course last spring do observe that "even though the elaborate system of attribution in academic prose is designed to preserve scholars' 'ownership' over their words and ideas, one rarely has the same kinds of control over what happens to one's words as one does over other things one owns like cars of houses which one can secure against trespassers or thieves and bequeath intact to one's relatives after death" (151). the immateriality of words and ideas makes them such a special case. there's something important, even urgent at times, in tying every message clearly to a messenger. to give up on that would seem a sad, chaotic fate. but treating ideas like cars and houses doesn't sound very marvelous either.

so what are we to do? how do we best navigate this twisty triangle of writerly, communicatorly roles?

I'm going to keep looking at it, to start. maybe Goffman's triangle (or is it a triangle? it could be. or it could be a spectrum with three parts, or something more like a Venn diagram, or...who knows?) is not the only way to map such things. but for now it looks like a neat little map to use.

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