Collaborative authorship: death of the individual?

If we axed the “author” completely, what other device would replace the author to effectively constrain and police the proliferation of meaning? What would step in as the necessary medium through which we receive a text? Foucault slapped this sentiment onto the finale of “What is an author?”, a shrugging suggestion for the future. Well, I think we’re well on our way to that shift. The individual and his pen are giving way to the masses and their keyboards.

Enter: the Internet.

Enter: pluralism, or the death of the individual.

Marx gave our notion of evolution a unique and irrefutable spin. Namely, he suggested that massive changes to our economies (and even organizing principles) are driven by changes in technology. Shifts in our production processes, generated by technological shifts, give rise to different classes as new groups come to control these means. These leaps often unseat existing hierarchies, alter our conceptions of the divine (see Wright’s Evolution of God), and affect the very content produced and consumed by our cultures. I.e., technology begets revolution.  During the neolithic era, unearthing farming techniques and laying the foundations for agriculture allowed nomadic hunter-gatherer tribes to settle down. Societies took root and expanded. People were able to do more than, well, hunt and gather. And new gods and rituals were conceived to guide the variety of new, unforeseen occupations that emerged – like carpentry and architecture. Indeed, Marx predicted that new technology would develop to upend the capitalist economy and its crooked class structure. Of course, as he grew impatient, Marx opted for a worker’s revolution instead.

Similarly, with Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press in 1439, the “shift to print” gave rise to a new concept: an idea can be owned by a person, attributed exclusively to the individual alone. “Appropriation” is one of Foucault’s four elements of the author-function. And gradually, the “author” was born, given both centrality and authority over the text. Even today, we trace particular discourses to names,  and hence, to individuals. (e.g. when you think of psychology, you think of Freud). Barthes lamented the ways in which people tore through a text trying to find what motives or psychological factors could be identified to link the work to author. According to Barthes and other critics, a literary work should be freed from the proverbial cage of author-as-person, so that its real meaning(s) can take flight and  ultimately rest with the experience of the reader.

In a (not altogether) different sense, the line between author and reader has blurred as more and more of our content is produced and published online and in new, interactive forms. These settings allow for collaborative works to emerge, drawing the author out of focus. And probably not in ways many experts and writers, like Barthes, would appreciate. As the curtain falls on the “author” in the singular, it rises on authorship in the plural. How? The “shift to digital.” See: Wikipedia and the Death of the Expert.

This article discusses the rupturing relationship between author and reader, or formerly the writer and recipient. In a one-way relationship, a narrative was dictated to the reader, who cannot necessarily respond to or engage in a dialogue with the author.  With the Internet, this relationship can be completely reassembled. Now, not only do some scholars aim to bring together seemingly disparate disciplines and discourses to produce knowledge, but as with Wikipedia, we see multiple authors arranging, adding, disputing, and editing content. Consequently, the quality of the content vastly improves (under the scrutiny of many an eye) and the emerging picture is what Maria Bustillos calls the “foreshock of an epistemological revolution.” Interactive digital forums revolutionize the way we create knowledge and content, how we express it, and what is deemed necessary for authenticity of content. If Wikipedia seems like the only blatant example, look at the various documents, artwork, and social movement activity that was authored – that is, molded –  by thousands on the Zucotti OWS web forum. I know I mention OWS a lot in class, but seriously, check this out.

Furthermore, if we follow Bustillos’ logic, the nature of creating content online reveals what we have always known about knowledge: it is constructed by conversation, arguments, and interaction. If you take that to the extreme, a work becomes a dynamic “polylogue”, where the spread of content to new audiences does not suffer the same limits as the physical text and those audiences are no longer passive recipients (they can tweet, comment, rework, etc.). I suppose this does not apply well with certain forms of artwork, like the novel. But online content created by the “hive mind” is rarely the length of a novel. And this raises an important question in my mind. Will people grow so accustomed to shorter content without a single author, and begin to think of text in a different way – especially texts made popular in our age? Where will the place of the novel be (besides a Kindle) as more and more of what we consume is online, not in books? (See: Moodle). Will people begin to collaborate more when they write? Will the most elemental processes that guide the creative process be altered?

A final thought: there are obvious limitations to this so-called revolution. There is something about creating a poem, novel, or article on your own that is irreplacable (Orwell’s #1 reason for writing). But maybe the Internet and the proliferation of online forums and collaborative content (see: google docs) will truly bring about the shift in “author” that Barthes and Foucault were talking about. What will be lost? What will be better?

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One response to “Collaborative authorship: death of the individual?

  1. First off I agree with what you are saying about the role of the author is becoming the authors in the plural through the use of the internet. This leaves the role of the author irrelevant but not quite in the sense Foucault and Barthes were talking about, but of course how could they? They were not abel to take into account the involvement of the internet. I guess that could be a context issue. Anyway, a few questions come to mind. With so many authors, anyone can edit information in Wikipedia, how do we determine what is the “truth”? It is also interesting that at the same time the lines of authorship are becoming increasingly blurred, the crackdown on plagiarism and illegal downloading is rising at a fast rate.

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