Power, Authority, Authorship

1. Power, Authority, Authorship

[1.1] This continues my MiT5 conference report. Here I discuss some of my thoughts about the historical moment we’re in and the notion of authorship.

[1.2] During Plenary Session 1, Folk Cultures And Digital Cultures, Thomas Pettit spoke about a moment in time (1600s, 1700s, 1800s) that he calls the “Gutenberg parenthesis.” This singular parenthesis (not a dual parentheses) is a moment in time that privileges original composition and passive reproduction, and he argues that this time is coming to an end. The preparenthetical time (1400s, 1500s) focused on unstable, traditional, collective, and performative texts; and the postparenthetical time (1900s, 2000s) appropriates, recontextualizes, borrows, and, again, performs. During the parenthesis, notions of individuality, originality, and canonicity are important, but the focus is on composition rather than performance.

[1.3] Pettit’s ideas were echoed by Heather Blatt in her paper on “Medieval Fan Fiction: The Manipulation Of Continuity,” in which she talked about a particular text that she saw as an antecedent of derivative texts, and she mentioned that during the medieval period, originality was not as highly valued as skilled appropriation and allusion. This links a text’s reception to the worldview of the culture that creates it: What is valued? What is rewarded, and how? During the medieval period, a derivative text that continues the Canterbury Tales is regarded in a way perhaps similar to the reception of a mashup today: a derivative text that comments on a text even as it is itself a new piece of artwork.

[1.4] I’ll discuss the implications for authorship below. But implicit during the entirety of MiT5 was the understanding that the Gutenberg parenthesis, along with all the modernist baggage that allowed it to be privileged in the academy during the 1900s, is coming to an end, and this end is causing anxiety. Part of the anxiety is the need for a new interpretive framework to place the works in: postmodernism? deconstruction? posthumanism? post–something else in some other field? And part of the anxiety is the lack of structures in place to permit a smooth transition. Copyright law regarding derivative works has not kept up, for example, which stifles an entire mode of creativity; and academics who work in the postparenthetical mode also have to worry about things like getting jobs, getting tenure, and getting published while the very validity of their field of study is being contested. Related to validity is, of course, gender, with women more likely to create more derivative, and therefore less valid, work on the margins.

2. The Death Of The Author

[2.1] Roland Barthes‘s 1967 poststructuralist essay, “The Death Of The Author,” collected in Image-Music-Text, argues that the reader, not the author, is the locus of interpretation, thus reversing the traditional view of texts, where the reader tries to find a meaning presumably placed there by the author. Language creates meaning for the reader; the author (or, as Barthes has it, “scriptor,” because he wants to get rid of connotations of authority) generates a text, but the text itself is endlessly reread and recreated, each reader and reading unique. The reader and her interpretation are privileged over the author and the author’s intent.

[2.2] The idea of the death of the author takes on a new meaning when we apply it beyond this author-reader reversal and consider it in terms of a postparenthetical era. The move here is in the nature of the reader’s engagement with the text through analysis: appropriation, not citation. The reader disregards the author’s authority in that the integrity of the canonical work is violated. The reader will borrow snippets of the author’s creation and create something new. This new thing simultaneously critiques the original artwork and is itself an artwork, thus turning the active reader into an author and rereversing Barthes’s reversal. Yet for this to happen, the reader-author’s creative engagement with the text is needed. Many readers will simply access and consume the new artwork, with their interpretations still overriding authorial intent even as they perform the work of linking together allusion and inferring new meaning. Some readers will always be lurkers, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t creatively interpreting through the work of consumption.

[2.3] Here is a new kind of death of the author: we see an author less as a creator and more as a provider of content to be borrowed. The new author might be called the remixer. Yet the remix itself is a creative act. Recontextualizing information to generate new meaning brings together text, context, primary source author, remixer, and reader-consumer in a sophisticated rerendering of deploying meaning. The move to appropriation results from both the cultural moment and from the new tools available to create texts: wikis, blogs, mashup Web pages, image manipulation software. Kristina Busse and I argued in the introduction to Fan Fiction And Fan Communities In The Age Of The Internet that the tools will affect the creation. Out-of-the-box fic-archiving software such as eFiction, for example, results in Web pages with a particular kind of organization, including title, author, date, length of text, genre, and rating. This replicates and continues well-understand, useful, but existing modes of organization. Yet this same software can be used to create recommended-reading lists, or to organize voting for a fanfic award—the software repurposed to fit a situation it wasn’t intended for. As new tools develop, fans and others will appropriate these tools and put them to creative new uses. The tool itself, not just the artifact created by the tool, may also be appropriated, and redeploying it is also a creative act—the traditional act of an author.

3. Composition, Authorship, Attribution

[3.1] The Gutenberg parenthesis relies on composition as a writing activity versus performance. But I’d like to extend the term composition to include the term as used by the publishing industry. During composition, the corresponding author is the person who approves or overrides my copyediting choices, corrects the page proofs, corresponds with the production team, and in general shepherds the document through the printing process into its final form. This final form may be traditional printed pages, or it may be an online publication. Increasingly, particularly for journals (as opposed to books), it is both, with the same XML-tagged electronic document used to generate both online and print versions. All this active work goes toward what will become the passive reproduction, on giant printing presses or on the computer screen, of an immutable text.

[3.2] In the publishing industry, we talk about “authors,” never about “writers,” continually reminding ourselves of the primacy of the author’s will in the creation of the text by invoking their authority. “Do whatever the author wants, no matter how insane!” is our motto, because when all is said and done, the publishing industry serves to bring about the will of the author. The reason this is so is attribution: the author’s name appears on it, and so she has the final say, even if it was rewritten by the copyeditor, or entirely ghostwritten by someone else, or written with extensive input from colleagues and students. The entire collaborative corpus of people responsible for bringing a text into being can never be properly acknowledged.

[3.3] Rebecca Tushnet, whose MiT5 presentation was about “Fandom, Fair Use, and Technology: The Uneasy Relationship?”, discussed attribution in legal terms: credit may be given in lieu of money, and in fact, if the author can’t be found to release copyright, it’s acceptable to make a good-faith effort, then reproduce the text or image while crediting it with the information at hand. In derivative texts, particularly those that fly under the copyright radar and are not part of the publishing economy, credit is all that can be given. Fan fiction, for example, relies on attribution. Most Web sites that archive fanfic include a disclaimer line on every page that hotlinks to the copyright holder. Such footers usually also emphasize that the site is the result of fan activity and that no money is being made. Money literally cannot be exchanged, and so attribution is provided in lieu of it. Tushnet noted that the owner or author, as part of her role, has three things: control, compensation, and credit.

[3.4] I argue that the author exists at the intersection of creativity and economy. In the Venn diagram of these two realms, the part that overlaps is the site of the author. She creates, and she stands as the person to credit. Yet this space is contested. Authorship is fraught when the text is collectively formed: a piece of fanfic posted at the blog site LiveJournal is embedded in its context, Kristina Busse has argued, and the fanfic can’t really be considered apart from the comments appended to it, or the social climate and concerns of that moment that inspired the work. In this sort of instance, the author becomes a shorthand way to categorize the text so it can be found. Authorship is also fraught when the basis of the economy moves away from the one created as part of Pettit’s Gutenberg parenthesis—the kind of economy where a stable text is composed and distributed. Underground economies, like those that hold up activities like vidding and writing fan fiction, have different mores and rules, many of which serve to bolster, not undermine, the existing economy based on sole ownership and control.

[3.5] One main reason why derivative activities are so contested is that copyright holders—the big corporations that own the content—continue to agitate to keep the economy the way it is, because they profit by the old organization. YouTube may remove all Comedy Central content, or more than 100,000 Viacom clips uploaded by fans. Star Trek fans have been asked to remove content from their sites for reproducing infringing materials. Trademark Wars On The Web outlines some of the infringing sites and the copyright holder’s response. Sheila Williams, in a wonderful editorial for IAsfm entitled How My Heart Breaks When I Hear That Song, bemoans the impossibility of reprinting modern song lyrics or poetry. Quoting such things, she notes, can have tremendous emotional resonance—and yet current law forbids their use.

[3.6] In such a climate, fan response is to try to fly under the radar. As Tushnet noted in her MiT5 talk, to avoid litigation, they make themselves complicit in maintaining an economy that does not benefit them, and in fact curtails their creative activities.

4. Conclusions

[4.1] The realm of the author, poised between creativity and economy, has become more difficult in the postparenthetical era because ways of creating, interpreting, and disseminating texts are moving faster than intellectual, economic, and legal networks can be created that will legitimize this activity. Although ad hoc methods have sprung up, including intellectual realms like postmodernism and digital realms like YouTube, the transition to a new economy that values and rewards activities that are based on borrowing, appropriating, and recontextualizing has not yet occurred. Even YouTube, which has managed to straddle both economies and make money off the derivative activities of others, has to bow to The Man and remove huge swaths of content.

[4.2] Much is needed before appropriating and recontextualizing can be legitimized. Copyright law needs to be broadened to include a space for creative, derivative texts that will permit free play, and eventually income. Systems of reward, such as tenure, need to be unlinked from the Gutenberg parenthesis of publishing, particularly as texts continue to move away from print. A system of aesthetic evaluation flexible enough to permit performance as well as composition needs to be created. Remixers themselves need to stop making content so difficult to get: they hide it behind locked Web sites, don’t permit copying and distribution, and won’t permit it on YouTube. And derivative authors need to start talking about new ways to handle content that moves beyond helping the corporations with their task of reiterating sole ownership, even when the text has been reshaped.


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