I rediscovered this wonderful paper by Siân Bayne of the University of Edinburgh entitled “ Temptation, Trash and Trust: the authorship and authority of digital texts”.
In his influential essay ‘What is an Author?’ (Foucault, 1977), Foucault explores the notion of the author – conventionally taken for granted as a knowable entity existing in a stable relation to a discrete body of texts – and exposes it rather as a historically specific and therefore fluctuating function of discourse. For Foucault, the individualisation of the author is a particularly resonant instance of the working of discourse, representing as it does a ‘privileged moment’ in the history of ideas (p. 115). Foucault in this essay replaces the figure of the humanistic, individualised author with the concept of the ‘author function’.
In what sense does the concept of the author function problematise the Romantic image of the author as an individual in possession of a creative soul from which the unified text emanates? Foucault’s historicising approach reveals, as just one example, the way in which we use the name of the author to perform a classificatory function, permitting us to group together certain texts, define them, and contrast them with others. An example might be the Iliad and the Odyssey – products of centuries of collective oral storytelling, quite possibly ‘authored’ by two or more individuals, one of whom may or may not have been the blind poet, who may or may not have actually inscribed the epics with his own hand (Nagy, 1996; de Jong, 1999), which are nonetheless attributed by modernity to ‘Homer’ as though ambiguity in the issue of authorship were something intolerable.
Certain discourses, certain texts are endowed with the author-function while others are not (Foucault, 1977, p. 202). Novels, textbooks, monographs and poems are all authored. Private letters, public notices (Foucault’s examples), graffiti, advertisements, emails and many websites, though they may have writers, can not be said to have authors. We might write and send fifty individual emails every day, yet we would still not be able to say, ‘I am an author’.
In the case of websites the terminology of authorship is made even more complex by the way we designate ‘authorship’ to the process of generating the design and code behind the web page, rather than its ‘content’. Within the context of the printed and bound artefact, to say ‘I am an author’ is to claim the privileged status of a generator of a uniquely meaningful text. Within the context of the Web, to say ‘I am an author’ is to take a relatively lowly position as a practitioner of behind-the-scenes geekery. If ‘authorship’ is the activity ‘behind’ the Web, perhaps other terms are needed to designate the discourses which operate on the surfaces of our screens.
Foucault’s future eviscerates the author’s presence from the text, shifting interpretive focus on the relation of the reader to a discourse understood in its exteriority, without resort to a founding creator, without reference to the patriarchal insemination of text with meaning. His utopia of writing would seem to contravene both Benjaminian aura and culture industry celebrity. Here in his own words is the Foucaultian heterotopia:
All discourses… would then develop in the anonymity of a murmur. We would no longer hear the questions that have been rehashed for so long: Who really spoke? Is it really he and not someone else? With what authenticity or originality? And what part of his deepest self did he express in his discourse? Instead there would be other questions, like these: What are the modes of existence of this discourse? Where has it been used, how can it circulate, and who can appropriate it for himself? What are the places in it where there is room for possible subjects? Who can assume these various subject functions? And behind all these questions, we would hear hardly anything but the stirring of an indifference: What difference does it make who is speaking? (pp. 119-120)
I contend that digital writing, linked to electronic networks, is the mediation Foucault anticipated but did not recognize. Digital writing separates the author from the text, as does print, but also mobilizes the text so that the reader transforms it, not simply in his or her mind or in his or her marginalia, but in the text itself so that it may be redistributed as another text. Digital writing functions to extract the author from the text, to remove from its obvious meaning, his or her intentions, style, concepts, rhetoric, mind, in short, to disrupt the analogue circuit through which the author makes the text his or her own, through which the mechanisms of property solidified a link between creator and object, a theological link that remains in its form even if its content changed from the age of God to the age of Man. Digital writing produces the indifference to the question who speaks that Foucault dreamt of and brings to the fore in its place preoccupations with links, associations, dispersions of meaning throughout the Web of discourse. And this is so not simply for alphabetic text but for sounds and images as well. The issue rests with the mediation, with the change from analogue to digital techniques.
But can you monetize it?