Authority, Authorship, Seeing

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASo this is ‘personal publishing’, as John Lennon didn’t sing. It has, I have learnt, a ‘frontstage’ and a ‘backstage’. Right now, I am backstage, typing this, preparing it for frontstage viewing. I have even found a canny picture to accompany it, suitably stage-y, and with a mask to boot (ooh, exciting).  In fact, I’ve been reading a lot about personal publishing and pictures this week, and I’m not sure I believe it all. But then, this is only the end of week 2 of a long journey – there is much more to read.

According to Eisenlauer (2011), himself adopting linguistic terms from Halliday (1985), social media images – avatars – can ‘demand’ or ‘offer’: the pictorial equivalents of Halliday’s ‘Give me a drink!’ and ‘Would you like a drink?’. According to this analysis, on facebook I demand that drink (for I am looking directly at the viewer), yet here, I am offering you the drink.


In some senses I can relate to that. After all, my facebook page is non-acadmic, it is personal in the sense of ‘free time’ – if you want it, you take me as I am. Whereas this webpage, this blog, is indeed an offering of my research, a sneak preview, a live commentary, for you, dear reader (for you are lonely in your singularity) to do with as you see fit. These are the humble musings at the start of a journey; the facebook page is me me me – my family, my (other) life.

That gloss is certainly possible. It is not, however, the reality. The facebook image was supposed to be a photo of the Eiffel Tower. My companion was taking a long time perfecting the shot. I playfully stuck my head in front of the lens to hurry him on just as the shutter closed. By accident, a rather jaunty picture of my last days of living in Paris holds a dear place in my heart, and so I chose it for my facebook profile. Unlike many users of that site, I have never changed it. (Nor have I ever pressed the ‘like’ button. Just because I can doesn’t mean I will – there is an instance of an ‘offer’ that I, unexpectedly from the offerer’s point of view, choose to refuse.)

The avatar on this site has a far less interesting story. Two weeks ago, I needed a picture. I failed to find a decent, recent photo, so decided to take my own. I have eyesight problems (the pink glasses may be funky but I don’t wear them through choice), so had to switch off the flash. But the flashless pictures were all too dark. Ach well, I decided to hold the camera over my head, eyes cast down to avoid the necessary flash, that’ll do. This blog’s first reader looked at me incredulously when he saw the photo (for he was looking at the computer over my shoulder) – ‘why on earth did you choose a photo where you’re not looking at the camera?’ he asked. When I queried why that should be necessary, he hesitated, before replying, with a hint of Celtic wit, ‘you’re supposed to have a picture of you in your office, studiously surrounded by books – manuscripts, I corrected him – indeed, with one open in front of you, perhaps touching it…’

And what would such a photo have said? Oh yes, an academic in her milieu. Perhaps I would be looking at the books (ahem, manuscripts), and you would be disturbing me. Perhaps I would be writing, making notes in my pink notepad. Then I would have a true image that was an ‘offer’. We would also have a fully-fledged manuscript authorship image, wouldn’t we? Machaut in his study, busily writing. G 74 Manuscript F-G, the most author-focused of the core manuscripts, presents just such an image at the head of its music section. In contrast, manuscript E for the Louange des dames presents a group of singers, with a manuscript on a barrel, clearly having fun (and, this reader wonders, perhaps drinking the barrel’s contents somewhere ‘backstage’). E 16r What is noticeable about the core Machaut manuscripts is that the traditional dedication to the patron, where the author offers the book to a noble personage, is missing. Instead, in the famous frontispieces to manuscript A, it is the mythical creatures of love and nature who offer their children to Machaut, to the author. Our author is not looking at the viewer, but at his visitors, yet he is not offering anything. Should we use one of these frontispieces as our ‘Machaut avatar’, the ‘offer’ would be misleading, just as it is with my own photo. Of course, these images were painted long before the printing press, never mind the Internet. But my point is that authority does not have to look us in the eye.

a frontispiece

M avatar?

Again, according to Eisenlauer (2011), personal publication does not carry the authority of traditional publication. Apparently, even a blog is a ‘collaborative text-creation process, at least to some degree’ (p. 134). Well, the only other person here with me is the dog, and he’s not been too helpful. Oh, wait a minute, you mean online collaboration. But we are still backstage; as I write this, it is entirely my voice that is speaking. However, should my reader care to comment (and should I choose to accept it), there will indeed be another voice, one that is clearly distinguished from mine. Of course, I can choose to edit my text at a later date, but only I have the permission to do that.

I am being deliberately obtuse here (just for a change). Of course, i can claim no credit for the design of the site, which was made using a WordPress template, devised by some clever person on the interweb. But there is the point – that person is anonymous. Silent. It was me who chose the pink background (it matches the glasses), the images, the text, the links. I am the author of this ‘text’. The designer of the background template (which I have adjusted) therefore holds less power of authority over the content of this site than does the typesetter in a printing press, and far less authority than the scribe(s) of a medieval manuscript. For while the pink background, the snippet of artwork, the photo, and all the page elements do indeed work together to create the whole, it was I who put them there. No medieval author can claim that – I say that as a Machaut specialist, for he, if any, is a candidate – indeed, few modern-day print authors can claim full control over the typography and layout of their books, unless they self-publish. Publish personally. Personal publishing on the internet.

Of course, personal publishing can be collaborative, as Hoem (2004) has discussed, and as is demonstrated in the medieval blogosphere – if I may call it such – by In The Medieval Middle ( I am even part of a fledging collaborative site myself over at the Medieval Song Network ( But it ain’t necessarily so, and, as my multimodal literacy increases, that is something which I shall bear in mind.


Bibliothèque nationale de France, fr. 1584 (Machaut ms A)

Bibliothèque nationale de France, fr. 9221 (Machaut ms E)

Bibliothèque nationale de France, fr. 22545-6 (Machaut ms F-G)

Volker J. Eisenlauer, 2011. ‘Multimodality and Social Actions in “Personal Publishing” Text: From the German “Poetry Album” to Web 2.0 “Social Network Sites”’ in Multimodal Studies: Exploring Issues and Domains eds Kay L. O’Hallaran and Bradley A. Smith (NY: Routledge), pp. 131–52

M. A. K. Halliday, 1985. An Introduction to Functional Grammar (London: Edward Arnold)

Jon Hoem, 2004. “Personal Publishing and Media Literacy”, , accessed 15 Feb 2013.

  1. d said:

    Hi Kate, I’m impressed that you’ve set up this blog. You touch on some ‘big’ issues here. A few stand out. I don’t understand the assertion that ‘manuscript F-G is the most author-focused of the core manuscripts’. Machaut was certainly dead before this ms was created – are you referencing the preponderance of generic ‘author portrait’/teaching images a la Joyce Coleman? And what constitutes a ‘core’ ms?

    • Hi Domenic, thanks for popping by!
      These blog posts are going to be sketches, initial workings-out of larger ideas. So I beg forgiveness if the ideas aren’t as fully fleshed-out or referenced as they should be – but that’s what the comments section is for. In the research on multimodality I’m being faced with a whole load of concepts which I’m sure apply to the middle ages (and Machaut) to a greater or lesser degree, so these blog sketches are my chance to test that out on a wider audience. So your input is wholly welcome.
      I argue that F-G is the most author focused of the ‘complete-works’ mss (in this post I use ‘core’ for brevity, so I didn’t have to take the words to explain the whole ‘complete works’ thing) in my dissertation.
      In terms of author dedication images, I was actually thinking of one of the Christine de Pizan ones, where she offers the book to queen whoever-it-is; these dedicatory images are, to my mind, notably absent in the Machaut ‘complete-works’ sources, though I couldn’t find the exact one yesterday. (Perhaps I’ll have another look around next week.) Yet I feel very strongly that ms E comes closest, with the focus readjusted from Machaut to the house of France – my upcoming article on the lays in E argues that strongly (in press, in the Caley and Powell volume listed on the publications list, contact me if you want more info than is on there).
      Sorry I have to dash – it’s breakfast time on a Saturday and hungry little people are getting grumpy!

  2. d said:

    That’s fascinating! What about the ‘double’ presentation scenes in Vg52 and Vg53? I’m very interested in your ideas on F-G (you must know by now that the armorials in F-G have been identified by Yolanda and Uri). Most often I approach this ms as having ‘simplified’ iconography in comparison to C and A. This is especially the case with the Prologue and to some degree with the images of Lady Fortune. I have your diss somewhere but can’t find it. Could you sum up the ‘author-focus’ theory? Does this intersect with Deborah’s Controlling Readers or Julia’s work?

    • Quick summary – you ask for the hard stuff, eh?
      I assess the overall page layout, specifically its clarity and its ease of use, together with its relative simplicity, as revering the author. Why? Because there is a reverence there that suggests that this ms is a monument to a master. Conventional – in terms of ordering and ‘officialdom’ it’s like A but more so, if you get my meaning – and often favoured for its readings (as the Imbs/JCT edition of the VD attests). The coat of arms (I organised and presided the session where it was unveiled by Uri) only serves to enforce this, for it is present, yes, but in the background: an ‘offer’ rather than a ‘demand’: it is the author who ‘demands’. It echoes with Deborah, yes, and I think with Julia too (you don’t expect me to re-read my own diss, do you?!).
      More on Vg anon, I hope!

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