I’ve become very concerned about the use of the pronoun ‘Who’. I can feel the thickness of the sound, ‘W-H-H-U’ unpleasantly penetrating my ears with such an insistence that it has become an intolerable noise. But, I’m aware I’ll never completely get rid of this process of putting one word in the place of another, since this process with nouns, pronouns, verbs, adverbs adjectives, conjunctions is an endless: a thought put into language can be addressed, reversed, amended, adjusted, adapted, twisted, re-addressed, reinvented, turned upside down or inside out, but the fact is that language never slips away, it remains there, ready for new combinations. A friend told me that he is writing a letter to a concept. I thought: Whhooow, this is serious. You must be able to write a letter to a concept in the same way that you may feel the need to write a letter to someone, your beloved, for instance. It’s about communication, expressing your concerns, disappointments, but also your commitment to a relationship. All in the space of an exquisite letter. I would love to write a letter to Mr. Who to express all my concerns, I thought. But … then, what to write? How to write? And more importantly, why should I write a letter to a pronoun? Since I was clearly unable to answer all these questions, to make sense of the many thoughts crossing my confused brain, the only thoughtful thing I could do was to stop asking questions and try to meditate. Actually, I’ve kept on thinking about this unlucky pronoun that torments my life with its authoritative sound ‘W-H-H-U’. For a while, I stared at its shape like a doped fish observing with certain surprise the spherical glass tank he cannot escape, but only tries to make sense of. And to make sense of this exasperating situation, I thought that a viable solution would have been to change the question the pronoun addressed, or change the pronoun and entirely get rid of the question or get rid of pronoun and question together. Nonetheless, Mr. Who is still there. But, you know, these days one should feel obligated to deal with certain weighty presences. With patience and by applying a certain logic and method, I should be able to torch the head of this ferocious animal and transformed my irritation into a productive impulse. Poor Mr. Who, who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time: it isn’t its fault! The thing is that he happens to be sited in the wrong question.

Right now, I consider Mr. Who an unwelcomed guest: to be honest I cannot bear the sound of his bossy presence. As disappearing is akin to exiting from view, Mr. Who is like a ghost—never got rid of entirely but always remaining somewhere in the background. But I have thought of a means of making Mr. Who disappear from my horizon, by trying a different trick—changing perspective. I don’t think that my question needs to be addressed with a Mr. Who, I would rather go for a different perspective or another ghost, perhaps Miss What can become a more friendly presence. I want to choose the right pronoun to make sure I will be able to sharply articulate my question. Pronouns take an enormous responsibility for the rest of the group whilst maintaining a certain strange anonymity, included Mr. Who and Miss What. They possess the power of opening up the space in which a question can be asked, a world sketched out and thoughts be propelled towards new territories. And since the aim of this edition of the journal is to think about forms of authorship, following a certain tradition, I really desire to ask—what is an author and avoid the fatidic question—Who is the author?

We know that authorship is first of all a question of property—intellectual, economical, political, social: it is about things and how things take on humanized shapes keeping us alive. If a discursive function—how Foucault defined it1—or a gesture—as Agamben described it2—sounds too abstract, then we can perhaps think of the author as a thing. Whether political, cultural or magical, the thing is practising the world, a peculiar and ever different way of touching, smelling, hearing and experiencing the world. I can see how it looks and functions when I place Miss What within the other words on the page: she is gorgeous, charming, gifted with an extraordinary energy, so that I can hardly contain the undisciplined excitement shown by nouns, pronouns, adjectives and verbs at her presence. The moment I decide that yes, she was what I really needed, I welcomed her and with a resolute tone she asked: what are we doing here? I was so delighted to hear her gentle voice, you cannot imagine. Then, I looked for a good way to articulate a couple of sentences and said: ‘well, I am looking for the author and I need your help.’ She was enormously surprised and asked: ‘what did bring you to me and why do you think I could be of any help to you?’. I had a moment of discomfort, I didn’t know exactly what had brought me to her, but I knew it was the right thing to do: I could have explained my reasons resuscitating Foucault or bringing some example of recent debates about authorship, collective authorship, ownership, property, copyright, copyleft, private and public, forms of resistance, open culture, appropriation and dispossession, but everything sounded so vague and abstract compared to the genuine simplicity of Ms. What that I felt uncomfortable putting such sophisticated arguments on the table. With elegance and intuitiveness Ms. What took the initiative and said: ‘OK. Don’t worry, I don’t expect you to give me any answers. We may better have a look at the vocabulary’—she said—‘It is often worth starting from simple things these days, since the world sounds already so complicated that perhaps the basics can help a bit more to understand what we are talking about’. And she was right. In fact it really helped, for when we checked the vocabulary it wasn’t so difficult to understand how the author deals with things:

 ‘AUTHOR’, from L. verb ‘Augere’—augeo, augere, auxi, auctus;  ‘to increase; to enlarge; to make greater’ n. auctorem (nom. auctor) “enlarger, founder, master, leader,” lit. “one who causes to grow,” agent noun from auctus. Meaning “one who sets forth written statements” is from late 14c. The -t- changed to -th- 16c. on mistaken assumption of Greek origin. c.1300, autor ‘father’ from O.Fr. auctor, acteor ‘originator, creator, instigator (12c., Mod.Fr.auteur)

When Miss What read the definition, she pointed out that it reminded her of an old story she had heard some time ago which surprisingly remains in the back of her mind for she could make any sense of it, but somehow it was extremely fascinating in its implausibility. So she kept recounting it: It is said that in the final days of the Roman Empire, the byzantine emperor Flavius Petrus Sabbatius Lustinianus Augustus, also named ‘Justinianus I’—who was well-known for being the most educated emperor and whose impact extended far beyond the boundaries of his time and domain—had an auctus disease which caused him physical weakness and mental paranoia. This auctus disease was apparently caused by a bacterium known as the possessum bacterium that colonized the entire body of the affected person—from the stomach to the toe, to the fingertips to the brain—provoking a sense of possession, but also poisoning the person with a strong desire to possess.

He heard voices like refrains that pressured him to become great. I imagine something like loud voices screaming in his ears: ‘Augere! Augere! Augere!’ (Make greater! Make greater! GREATER!). The illness was so tormenting that his loyal council suggested in treating the disease with ‘property therapy’—mainly consisting of the act of conquering more territories for his Empire. Indeed, Justinianus looked for a way to revive the Empire's greatness and re-conquer the lost Western half of Roman Empire. He tried everything with very little success. Finally, he decided, rather than the impossible expansion of his empire, to opt for expansion by a new means of individual possession so that instead of trying to subjugate other populations and new territories, he would simply become the most powerful man in the entire empire. This option was very simple. This was because it would have been easier to possess as many things as he wanted within the limits of his already limited Empire, instead of seeking other forms of expansion. So, the council invented and devised a law—the right to possession (or what constitutes ‘ownership’ today)—a more accurate and also restricted version of the ‘property therapy’, and camouflaged it into a public law. This right was about establishing a clear relationship with the ‘thingness’ of the world, for it was this ‘thingness’ (accumulation of wealth and slaves) that could cure the disorder.

So, Miss What—who was clearly horrified by the entire story and the discovery that there was a Mr. What competing with her in another time and space, whereas she thought she was the only honourable creature with this name—explained that according to this story, the law that Justinianus, promoted, serves to legitimize the position of the emperor by means of establishing a right on things. In this what, the author (this process of enlargement, of possession, of thingness) became a tool and Justinianus became Mr. What. Indeed, It was the becoming ‘thingness’ that the right to property was addressing and that it legitimated the subject that exercises this right. The traumatic experience of acknowledging the existence of a Mr. What that was playing around like a gambler seeking for new comrades to join his club of possession, put Miss. What in a state of confusion, and she started thinking seriously about this previously unknown ancestor. If it was her ancestor at all—she carefully made clear—perhaps it was a simple rival that was disgracing her name. I understood her concerns, but I couldn’t really help the situation. I found again myself discomforted staring at the glamorous shape of Miss What and then suddenly I realised. Whether an ancestor, a gambler or an antagonist, there was a simple thing that needed to be acknowledged: Mr. What was affected by auctus disease and this has made his presence not only unpleasant and irritating, but also contagious and very dangerous for the people living in the emperor’s neighbourhood. Instead, Miss What was almost an angelic figure, her presence striking and so reassuring; she was healthy, no doubt. So, I felt I should explain her that yes, there may be other Whats and other Whos, and that they will always be around to make us feel uncomfortable; some with their paranoid behaviours, others with their tendency to betray and gamble. ‘But—I said—what really make the difference is that you are the living evidence of a different possibility of existence, you make clear that it is possible, Miss What, to be a figure of speech untroubled by a contagious disease. So please, dear Miss What, you are helping my research, you are making me change my perspective and giving me the chance to understand that it is a matter of choosing, of making clear your position. Don’t be so sad’. She cried: ‘Well, I would have loved to meet Mr. What and made him assume a different perspective’.

She was very aggressive, but then she came back to her senses and said: ‘Well, perhaps Romans were too stubborn and trivial, I couldn’t have done that much. Who knows! They made the author not only become a thing, but also a means of expansion and a reason for possession in order to cure Mr. What ‘s disease. What a horrible thing!!! Have you ever thought about turning an illness into a right to possess and turning a process of decadence into an enjoyable thing? Perhaps you are right, but really … do you think it is possible to imagine a Mr. What without auctus disease? And can we conceive of a proliferation of Whats that doesn’t respond to this pestilential illness, that it is free from possession and can make Mr. what a generous person?’
 

  • 1. Michel Foucault, “What Is an Author?,” in: Aesthetics, Method and Epistemology, ed. James D. Faubion, trans. Robert Hurley (New York: New Press, 1998), pp. 205–22.
  • 2. Giorgio Agamben,“The Author as Gesture,” in: Profanation, trans. Jeff Fort (Zone Books, 2007).