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Cosima’s Problem with Authority

Editor’s Note: Cosima is a real person… sorta. The character “Cosima” is loosely based on co-creator Graeme Manson’s old friend…

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Cosima, who happens to serve as Orphan Black’s science consultant. Each week, the ‘real Cosima’ will answer your questions about the science of Orphan Black… because science. Leave yours below and it may be chosen as the subject of a future post! Until then, read the ‘real Cosima’s’ introductory thoughts below.

 

“Supposing a social revolution dethroned the capitalists, who now exercise their authority over the production and circulation of wealth. Supposing, to adopt entirely the point of view of the anti-authoritarians, that the land and the instruments of labour had become the collective property of the workers who use them. Will authority have disappeared, or will it only have changed its form? Let us see.”

Frederick Engels, “On Authority,” 1872

Not so long ago, during my somewhat tempestuous graduate student days, I was less than politely informed that I would do better in my career if I ceased behaving in an “insubordinate” manner. After being told that I seem to have a “complicated understanding of authority” (and that I would be wise to correct it), my informant offered me an opportunity to respond. I courteously objected with an earnest confession that I have, in fact, great reverence for authority, and that in the instance at hand I had not been insubordinate at all. Insubordination, I explained, was a willful refusal to submit to authority, and in this case I did not believe that this particular senior faculty member held any authority at all in respect to the circumstances with which I was being asked to comply. Needless to say, that conversation didn’t end well.

Before I go on, let me clear about something: I am not anti-authoritarian, at least not in principle. There are many kinds of authority to which I voluntarily defer and adapt. And, there was no doubt in my mind that this person occupied a position of institutional authority which held great sway over my activities at the time, nor that such an erudite thinker with a quarter of a century of learned expertise in a particular scholarly field was endowed with authoritative knowledge on a vast range of subjects; this is knowledge to which I willingly submit my own scholarly innocence in hopes of achieving some kind of intellectual maturation. What I questioned was not whether there was a recognizable authority to which I might be subject, but rather, what kinds of authority legitimately demand capitulation of one’s own agency in a specific situation. Authority is embodied in various kinds of overlapping ways simultaneously, not all of which we must concede to with equal measure, and not all of which we should allow equal reach. But how does one gauge the degree of one’s necessary deference? Certainly authority does not operate on a sliding scale. I had to decide whether to act by the authority of my own self-awareness about what is best for me as an individual, or by the authority of the structural requirements imposed by the department about what is best for the institution.

This tension between authority and autonomy is a theme we’ve explored in a wide variety of contexts throughout this season of Orphan Black. One such way was to advance the complexities involved in subordinating the individual will to the operations of a particular organization or system. “We all have a part to play,” Delphine reminds Cosima, and that part is a necessary condition in the survival of the group. Delphine, who ruthlessly (if not begrudgingly) sacrifices her own romantic desires in order to effectively manage Leda, voices this again when she threateningly questions whether Dr. Nealon can put the needs of Leda above that of its individuals. The stewardship of the “whole” must be put before the idiosyncratic needs of its “parts,” and this is accomplished by agreeing to act in alliance with its structural demands—that is to say, by following the rules and obeying the captain who steers the ship.

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