Tag Archives: stylometry

my disagreement with authorship attribution

I’m torn: I’m very interested in stylometry, but I have issues with the fundamental questions that are asked in this field, in particular authorship attribution.

In my research, I’ve thought and written quite a bit about authorship. My dissertation looked at changing concepts of authorship – the singular, cohesive, Romantic genius author as established in collected editions in Japan at the turn of the 20th century – and also at actual practices of writing and authorship that preceded and accompanied these developments. My conclusion about authorship was that it is a kind of performance, embedded in and never preceding the text, and is not coextensive with the historical writer(s) behind the performance – pseudonymous, collective, anonymous, or otherwise.

These performances are necessarily contextualized by space, time, society, culture, literary trends, place of publication, audience. They are more or less without meaning if one doesn’t take context into account, even if not all relevant contexts at once. For a performance takes place within a historic, cultural, and literary moment, and does not exist independently of it. I see that place of performance as both the text and its place of publication, its material manifestation; and it is a performance that is inextricably linked to reader reception.

I also don’t see these performances as necessarily creating a unified authorial identity or unified author-function across space, time, and texts. This may sound extremely counterintuitive given that many performances of authorship share appellations and can be “attributed” to the “same” author, and I recognize that my argument is downright bizarre at times. I blame it on having spent too much time thinking about the implications of this topic. But in a way, our linking of these performances after the fact is artificial, and these different author-functions are, for me, so linked to the time and place of both publication and reading – whether contemporary or not – that they can be seen as separate as well. This is why I concluded that collected literary anthologies are constructing – inventing – an entirely artificial “author” out of the works associated, after the fact, with a historical, individual writer, whose identity and name may not have coincided with that of the authorial performance at all in the first place.

So, that said, let me get to my disagreement with authorship attribution. It’s fundamentally asking the wrong question of authors and authorship: who “really” wrote this text? My argument is that the hand of the historical writer “behind” the authorial performance is a moot point; what matters is the name, or lack of a name, attributed to the text when it is published, republished, read, and reread over time. It’s the performance that takes place at the site of the text, coinciding with and following the creation of the text, deeply associated with and embedded in the text, and located within reception rather than intention. It takes place at a different site than the hand of the historical writer holding a pen or the mind creating an idea. And so the search for the “real” identity of the author is beside the point; what is happening here is really “writership attribution” that is something separate from authorship.

A colleague recently asked me, too, what the greater goal of authorship attribution is – what is it beyond finding out the person behind the text? What is it besides deciding that the entity constructed with the name Shakespeare “really” wrote an unattributed or mysterious text? And I couldn’t answer this question, which brings me to my second fundamental problem with authorship attribution. I don’t see an overarching research question guiding methodology, besides the narrow goal of establishing writership of a text. This could be my own ignorance, and I’d be happy to be corrected on it.

I’m interested to hear your thoughts!