The Valorization of the Author


Michael Betancourt



Authorship—the role and status of the author—presents both an empirical (or naive) interpretation and a critical interpretation of the concepts "author" and "authorship." The empirical usage of "author" is unproblematic: it aspires both to simplicity and to transparency, assuming a direct connection between text and the one responsible for it. (It is an ontological connection based on production.) For this understanding, the author is the one credited with a "by line": the person responsible for the existence of a specific text. Coupled with an equally simple and transparent conception of "originality," it produces the "plagiarist" as a negative form of author—those authors who falsely claim authorship over works produced by others. For the empirical interpretation, the plagiarist is thus the "false-author" whose actions establish and support the empirical conception of authorship through the implicit embrace of the claims made. This empirical version of authorship is the most common, intuitively recognizable even in the critical interpretation's referencing of sources for its argument about a more complex, problematic view of authorship found in writings by Roland Barthes, Michael Foucault, Umberto Eco, et. al—each of whom propose some variant of authorship that questions the status and importance of the author in determining the meaning of the 'text.'

The critical understanding is complex, and views "authorship" as problematic. This critical conception blurs the lines between one author and another based on their sharing of common ideas, etc. that have been suggested as the general (indexical) state of language and meaning. (It is a semiotic/epistemological approach.) By invoking suggestions of a commingling between the empirical version of author and false-author (the plagiarist) the critical view shifts the interpretation's emphasis to the "reader":

The reader is the space on which all the quotations that make up a writing are inscribed without any of them being lost; a text's unity lies not in its origin but in its destination. Yet this destination cannot any longer be personal: the reader is without history, biography, psychology; he is simply that someone who holds together in a single field all the traces by which the written text is constituted.

The critical view of authorship emphasizes the structural aspects of language and culture that produce the concept of "author" as a specific interpretation generated in relation to a text—what Barthes means by the reader "is simply that someone who holds together in a single field all the traces by which the written text is constituted." This concept of authorship, rather than as an a priori figure that determines meaning, emerges from the relationship between a specific text and its context. This reversal of relationships is a displacement of the common meaning of 'author' as the determinant of meaning onto the interpreter. The agency of the author in creating the meaning of a text is displaced on to the interpreter. The designation "Author" becomes an invented (interpreted) role emergent in how the "reader" engages the text; this is the meaning of Foucault's author-function.

Yet, this critical view of "author" is not antithetical to the empirical one. Displacing the meanings of a text from the "author" onto the "reader" in Barthes' The Death of the Author only appears to reject the empirical author's ontological relationship to the text. It is a fundamentally different understanding of the "author" concept. What Barthes' analysis focuses on is not the physical, material object-nature of a specific text but the ascription of meaning to it; consequently, Barthes' "reader" is epistemological, and so is compatible with the empirical (ontological) concept of "author."

While the critical and empirical interpretations are not mutually exclusive, their conflation leads to interpretative confusion when Roland Barthes declares the author "dead." His claim is at least partially rhetorical since it signals a shift in concerns from the singular, intended meaning imposed by recourse to an "author," to an open-ended range of potential interpretations and approaches that could be applied with differing results to the same text.

1. Authors and Interpretations

Roland Barthes' idea that "all the quotations that make up a writing are inscribed without any of them being lost" could be a literal description of the recombinatory process where the quotations themselves are explicit, physical reproductions of their sources. Instead of problematising authorship this methodology reifies it and enables the valorization process whereby authors become commodities in themselves: the conversion into material for manipulation objectifies its source, emphasizing not the interpretation but the physicality of the original "text." Barthes' shift in emphasis exceeds Michel Foucault's observation about the emergence of an ontological view of authorship where

Speeches and books were assigned real authors, other than mythical or important religious figures, only when the author became subject to punishment and to the extent that his discourse was considered transgressive.

Recombinant practices, instead of focusing on transgressions of discourse, focus on transgressions of property. The complicity of the critical view in the valorization process derives from the distinction between the epistemological (critical) and ontological (naive) approaches and how those differences impact the interpretation of authorship. If the empirical view acts to limit and restrict authorship, the critical view serves to expand it, and this expansion is essential for valorization to occur: valorization of the author as a stand-in for the author's produced works follows from this framework.

If Barthes' argument that the author's role in writing is to vanish, to become "dead" so that the text may be encountered as a form of "performance," where the one speaking disappears within that which is being said, then Barthes' argument necessarily also expands this largely semiotic and performance-oriented view of interpretations to include context. He argues that authorship is an illusion, and that the structure of all texts is quotational; i.e. that there are no authors in an epistemological sense who (via their unique, original work) can provide a singular final meaning in a text:

The text is a tissue of quotations drawn from the innumerable centers of culture. Similar to Bouvard and Pecuchet, those eternal copyists, at once sublime and comic and whose profound ridiculousness indicates precisely the truth of writing, the writer can only imitate a gesture that is always anterior, never original. His only power is to mix writings, to counter the ones with the others, in such a way as never to rest on any one of them.... Once the Author is removed, the claim to decipher a text becomes quite futile. To give a text an Author is to impose a limit on that text, to furnish it with a final signified, to close the writing. Such a conception suits criticism very well, the latter then allotting itself the important task of discovering the Author (or its hypostases: society, history, psyche, liberty) beneath the work: when the Author has been found, the text is explained--victory to the critic.

Within this description it is also possible to recognize the concept of sampling or appropriation—"his only power is to mix"—a conception of authorship that corresponds to and implies a "database culture" where the texts any author "creates" simply employ preexisting materials (re)organized, broken down, or (re)arranged into a "novel" form.

In the critical view, the emphasis falls on the interpreter's engagement with that text's indexical (appropriational, recombinatory) relationship to all other texts, both previous and future. Within this view, the suggestion that meaning is constrained in any way by the text becomes nonsensical—it is this specific constraint that Barthes argues against. Understood from within this theoretical framework, the idea that all forms of database culture represent a critique (if not a direct assault) on authorship becomes a logical necessity.

Thus, works that make their quotational nature apparent would be revealing the situation to their audience, making them aware of how authorship is illusory: a simple, easily understood and applied critique; however, this critique relies upon a misconception of the interpreters who encounter a work and the role authors play within this situation, as is revealed by those explicitly quotational works that seek to make the interpreting audience aware of the assembled, "Frankenstein's monster" quality of authorship. Instead of critiquing the "author" as suggested by the critical view of authorship, the critical in an inversion of what might be expected from Barthes' argument, recombinatory (art) works serve to valorize the author and assert not only its continued survival, but its increased and reinforced importance to the interpretation of recombinant or database (art) works.

As the aura of the digital makes the restriction of access to digital (art) works via "DRM" inevitable, at the same time it also combines the empirical and critical interpretations of authorship in what could be called a "digital author." Their combination is essential to the valorization process because it implies an expansion of the empirical understanding of authorship along contextual axes suggested in the critical view: the conversion of context and interpretation to "authorship." The recombinant modes of production are the most visible, but not the only avenues of this expansion.

2. Context and Interpretation

An interpreter who is unaware of the network of relations that inform the interpretation not only of individual words (terms) in a text, but the various quotations and references implicitly deployed there would not be an interpreter but a direct inventor of meaning: the text would be unknown, literally written in a foreign language. Jonathan Culler recognizes this contextual role in his semiotic discussion of Wittgenstein's "Bububu":

Wittgenstein asks, 'Can I say "Bububu" and mean , if it does not rain, I shall go for a walk?' And he replies, 'it is only in a language that one can mean something by something'. [...] Once Wittgenstein produced this positing of a limit [to semiosis] it became possible in certain contexts (especially in the presence of those who know Wittgenstein's writings) to say 'Bububu' and at least allude to the possibility that if it does not rain, one might go for a walk. But this lack of limits to semiosis does not mean, as [Umberto] Eco seems to fear, that meaning is the free creation of the reader.

The context Culler mentions, "the presence of those who know Wittgenstein's writings," is the crucial component for the meaning Wittgenstein suggested for 'Bububu' to emerge: that if it does not rain, he might go for a walk. Without that context it does not have this meaning; without a context meaning is not possible. It is the reader's recognition of 'Bububu' as possibly referring to Wittgenstein's comment that offers the possibility of it having the meaning Wittgenstein suggested; failing to recognize that about 'Bububu' negates the possibility for this interpretation. In a more general form, this contextuality is also true of all language. Thus, the critical interpretation is inherently contextual: any wholly unique text without specific parallels and contextual identifiers is subject to what can be called "semiotic fantasy": the invention, tabla rasa, of meaning.

2.1 The Phaistos Disk

Discovered in the Minoan palace at Phaistos in Crete, Greece by archaeologist L. Pernier on April 1, 1908, the Phaistos Disk is a ceramic disk with suggestive stampings on both sides divided into boxes and arranged in a spiral. Because it is a unique object/text, it problems for interpretation. "Semiotic fantasies" arise in its interpretation because there is no generally accepted, established semiotic context that enables the work to become "transparently" meaningful; i.e. the nature of the images on the Phaistos Disk, (and the disk itself as an object), is unclear.

Objects such as the Phaistos Disk reveal the contingent and referential bases of interpretation. It is unclear what its "text" contains, or even if it is a "text" at all. Before being interpretable as a text, any object to be interpreted must have a linguistic context for its meanings, a tacit recognition of the parameters; this is the "audience familiar with Wittgenstein" that is needed for 'Bububu' to have its meaning. While suggestive of language, the specific form of the Phaistos Disk is sufficiently different from known languages in the ways that enable interpreters to engage it semoitically—it looks like a text, but one in a foreign, new language—that it lacks the necessary contextual identifiers used in creating meaning.

Thus, while its form is suggestive of language, and the arrangement invites comparisons to printed documents, the Phaistos Disk is currently uninterpretable as a text, its purpose and meaning a subject of speculation. It is a mute object.

There are insufficient comparable works (i.e. none) to enable a translator to suggest possible meanings for its symbols through parallels and specific relationships to already understood and translated texts: inventing a context for it to be meaningful is not currently possible. It is thus evocative, but hermetic.

Nevertheless, there are many translations available in tourist stores throughout Crete; none of these translations agree on the meaning of the disk beyond its actual physical form. Instead, they propose a variety of novel interpretations ranging from instructions used by Egyptians to create a "flying machine," to a more plausible but no less invented mythological tale about a hunter and his travels. None of these interpretations has achieved credibility within the archaeological community because of the lack of parallels that would enable the creation of sufficient context to render the text meaningful.

These issues of contextuality and past experience are the same fundamental problems that confronted early interpretations of ancient Egyptian Hieroglyphics: without an index of the already-known to enable the creation of a context for interpretation, these early writings were indecipherable. Their interpretations can be recognized as semiotic fantasies. Because the Rosetta Stone provided parallel texts to the hieroglyphics that could be read, it was possible to create meaningful interpretations that were not simply an exercise in speculation. It was the prior knowledge of the other languages on the Rosetta Stone that allowed the translation of the hieroglyphs—the other languages provided a basis for inventing the needed context to create meaning. Prior to this ability to establish a context for the hieroglyphs, their meaning was subject to semiotic fantasies that have been recognized as incorrect in their characterization of the language.

2.2 Past Experience

Past experience is essential to creating fruitful interpretations that are not simply inventions of the interpreter. (This is the awareness of "Wittgenstein.") Meaning arises from the relationship between presently examined work and this previous database of knowledge; Barthes' claimed "death of the author" does not eliminate past experience, it elevates its importance. The audience's established expertise in recognizing and interpreting is what enables the recognition of quotation—of meaning, as Umberto Eco notes in his discussion of serials:

Any difference between knowledge of the world (understood naively as a knowledge derived from an extratextual experience) and intertextual knowledge has practically vanished. ... What is more interesting is when the quotation is explicit and recognizable, as happens in post modern literature and art, which blatantly and ironically play on the intertextuality ... aware of the quotation, the spectator is brought to elaborate ironically on the nature of such a device and to acknowledge the fact that one has been invited to play upon one's encyclopedic knowledge.

The awareness Eco observes is the same as an awareness of the death of the author since it is the absence of the author that the quotations appear to suggest; however, this is not entirely the case. The awareness of an a priori text that is sourced/cited by the "sample" presented within a new work does not necessarily mean the lack of a previous author, nor does it necessarily mean the non-presence of the author in the new instance.

Implicit in Eco's argument is that the significance of the author is redoubled by this quotation and referencing: aware of the quotation, the audience feels they are "in on it" with the new author—i.e. they feel a part of an authorial position based upon their use of past experience to identify the quotations employed. This factor serves to emphasize the role of author. The presence of authorial determinations becomes more significant in those cases where the quotations are explicit and recognized than when they are implicit and unrecognized. By drawing attention to the assembly through quotation, the actions of the new author gain emphasis and assert authority over the previous texts. In choosing which pieces to use and which to leave, and what/how to organize them, the quoting author dominates the earlier text, highlighting issues around the author's intention.

The use of quotation enables the audiences-who-recognize the quotations to assume a superficially critical posture in opposition to those audiences-who-don't-recognize. Recognition of the quotation may create a false consciousness of a critical position because it can move the engagement away from critical examinations of the text, substituting the "I know that!" of recognized quotation for other possible questions of meaning and use within the new text. Thus, quotation can serve as a nostalgic reverie focusing on past experiences and other texts referenced only in passing. Instead of inviting considerations of authorship, this activity reifies the authorship of both the quoted author and its deployment in the new text, making both authors' presence and position in relation to the texts (current/quoted) more explicit.

3. The Recombinant Mode

The database model for culture implicit in appropriation and sampling, and suggested by both Umberto Eco's conception of past experience and Barthes' layering of quotations and previous texts (the palimpsest nature of language and interpretation) is recognizable in almost every avant-garde's approach to new technologies. Thus sampling / appropriation / cut-up / mash-up / remix / collage / montage have adopted new terminologies with each new reproductive technology. It is intimately tied to the common availability of reproductions, but is implicit in the organization of moveable type. The recombination of a limited number of physical stamps, their storage and organization (upper case/lower case), and arrangement (alphabetical order) differs from digital database culture only in speed of access, variability, and scale. The underlying principles of fragmentation, storage and retrieval remain constant.

Reassembly of new work literally from fragments of reproductions is characteristic of artistic responses to the emergence of technological reproduction over the course of the twentieth century, and extends into present uses of digital technologies without any sign of abatement. Eco observed that

In the most typical and apparently 'degenerated' cases of seriality, the independent variables are not all together the more visible, but the more microscopic, as in a homeopathic solution where the potion is all the more potent because by further 'successions' the original particles of the medicinal product have almost disappeared. … We are thus facing a 'neobaroque aesthetics' that is instantiated not by the 'cultivated' products, but even, and above all, by those that are the most degenerated.

While recombination of existing works into new ones has origins in folk art and elsewhere before the twentieth century, historical discussions of this approach often begin with Pablo Picasso who combined reproductions with his cubist paintings in the 1910s; the Soviet filmmaker Dziga Vertov who experimented with wax recordings to make "remixes" in the late 1910s and early 1920s. Soviet montage itself owes its existence to experiments with the reassembly of existing film materials. Surrealist Max Ernst cut up engravings to make "novels", and Joseph Cornell re-edited Hollywood films with other movies to create his own film, Rose Hobart. The author William Burroughs created "cut ups" with audio tape.... As new technologies of reproduction became available, new artists performed some kind of recombination of those materials. The listing of these artists and their works could easily continue. This approach is so common it could be called "typical" when artists confront a new technology.

But what is most striking about the repeating pattern of artistic reuse is the increasingly strident claim that this approach constitutes a "questioning of authorship," especially evident in the later forms that appear at the end of the century around the idea of "appropriation art." It is against this background that the reappearance of these forms (with new names like "mash-up" and "sampling" and "database") in computer based media art—new media—should be considered.

Their historical continuity with work by the historical avant-garde suggests these approaches (whatever their name) have become banal rather than disruptive since popular entertainment can successfully redeploy these approaches. Acknowledging this fact raises a basic question about how these recombinatory practices challenge traditional author/viewer conventions, as well as why this approach continues to make fundamentally the same claim that these actions constitute a "questioning of authorship."

By examining the belief that recombination "questions authorship," it becomes apparent that these approaches constitute a means to avoid the potential shocks each new technology implies by an assertion of traditional roles for audience and viewer. Thus, their repetition takes on a dual character: at the level praxis where it appears through the reuse of reproductions (the "raw" material of the work), and at the conceptual level as the specific procedure of adoption and reassembly.

These repetitions, instead of disrupting conceptions of authorship, (and originality, etc.) serve as a means to assert these values through the principle of "variation." Umberto Eco has noted that viewers, aware of the rupture in appropriated or quotational works (and sampling cannot be anything but quotational) is aware of their nature as a repetition. What is of interest to the viewer is the way the new work reconfigures the old:

The real problem is that what is of interest is not so much the single variation as "variability" as a formal principle, the fact that one can make variations to infinity. Variability to infinity has all the characteristics of repetition, and very little of innovation. But it is the "infinity" of the process that gives a new sense to the device of variation. What must be enjoyed—suggests the postmodern aesthetics—is the fact that a series of possible variations is potentially infinity. What becomes celebrated here is a sort of victory of life over art, with the paradoxical result that the era of electronics, instead of emphasizing the phenomena of shock, interruption, novelty , and frustration of expectations, would produce a return to the continuum, the Cyclical, the Periodical, the Regular.

With the shift to "variability", the more explicit the quotation, the more the audience may be expected to recognize it, and thus the more directly it plays the new instance against the original one. Variations imposed by the artist become the critical focus in relation to the original work. Instead of eliminating the authorship, or even critiquing it, the remix/appropriated work emphasizes the role of the author precisely because it is the differences (if any) that matter: the role of artist-as-author is not minimized here, it is maximized. The artist reestablishes traditional positions for both artist and viewer: the artist dominates, transforming an existing work into something "new."

This image of artistic domination over materials is familiar—it is the traditional view of "genius" in a different guise. The coupling of such a traditional view of authorship with a consistent artistic practice whose name mutates, (but whose procedures vary only slightly), imposes a specific conclusion about the recombinatory procedure: that instead of challenging traditional notions of authorship, it tends to assert them while inviting the audience to (un)critically engage the work using their encyclopedic past knowledge of the sources for the "new" work. The audience is active in their engagement with the work, but such "activity" is a potential in any viewing situation and should not be regarded as unique to recombinatory works.

At the same time, this engagement with a "critical" or "active" audience is only superficial. The "activity" is one of comparing the new instance to established forms. This action assumes the prior authority of the existing work. The recombinatory actions exist in parasitical relation (as variations) to their source materials. By drawing together existing materials in new ways, the "variability to infinity" Eco describes comes into the interpretation, creating a false consciousness of challenge to authority and the conventional role of the viewer: the repetitions inherent to remixing existing materials escape the psychological dangers unheimlich works may pose through a reliance on established expertise and the implicit understanding of the "rules of the game" involved in appropriations.

To claim the recombinatory practices commonly found in new media—sampling, appropriation, remixes, mash-ups, etc.—challenge traditional author/viewer conventions can not be accepted as true. As Eco has noted, these practices constitute a shift to a pre-modern convention set where the traditional established work that is the subject of the transformations is elevated in status, and the artist appropriating serves to reify that status, while viewers, aware of the conventionalized variability at the heart of appropriation, recognize in the artist's actions an assertion of authorial dominance over the original work as well as a (paradoxical) subservience to that work.

4. Valorizing the Author

The empirical sense of author appears within and is supported by the practice of quotation and appropriation by digital technology. It emerges in the development of the Internet between 1996 and 2006 from the practice of link pages containing "hyperlinks" on personal web pages, to the later forms of personal sites such as "blogs," and in the concept of "social networking" based on shared links and relationships. The commercial development of "portals," such as the website Yahoo.com that present a variety of links to other sites (in the form of search and as indexed categories of sites), are recognizable as business adaptations of the earlier personal, non-commercial web page.

This kind of authorship is based on interest and citation, rather than production: the early practice of "surfing" from website to website following their links to each other is the simplest (and most direct) variety of quotational authorship: by linking to another text, the author gains value from the referenced text; blogs retain this linking practice. Authors who have the "best" links within this framework are the "best" authors gaining status (thus value) within their communities, a position determined by what they appropriate.

Thus, the commercial "portal" presents a great variety of content, and will often incorporate a search feature as a way to gain access (thus authorship) to as much material posted on the Internet as possible; this model is recognizable in both Yahoo.com and in sites such as Technocrati.com (for blogs) or del.icio.us (social networking based on links—"bookmarks"). Group-based projects such as open source software, or the various wikipedias where skilled authors collaborate on common projects, are different from the authorship apparent in social networking only in degree. Participation in these activities requires expertise and the same donated labor that builds (is) the databases of social networking.

In every case, value accrues to the business based on its ability to locate and organize authorship and connect that audience to merchants and advertisers; at the same time, authors will actively seek to add their works to these sites, and in the case of del.icio.us, open source projects, and social networking generally, such as Myspace.com, the business itself is valorized by the work of large numbers of individual authors whose contributions generate the database (are the database) that lies at the center of all these technologies. By shifting all activities into potential varieties of authorship—ranging from personal interests to highly skilled labor requiring training and experience—it becomes possible to recognize the conversion of all activities into potential commodities via authorship.

Valorization proceeds through the appropriation process on both sides of the quotation—as the source who is referenced and as the one who references as the reversibility apparent in the mirroring of Barthes's death as valorization shows. Thus appropriation becomes a signifier for authorial value: the more often an author is reused that greater the value assigned to that author. This understanding of authorial significance is appears in the rankings (thus importance) of scientific and medical journals, as determined by the number of citations to articles published by those journals appearing in other articles. In recombinant music, no matter how small the sample, the original artist or artists gain control over the new work that employs that sample by virtue of their being appropriated. Within the structure of websites it is even more explicit: Technocrati.com ranks blogs based on how many other blogs link to their contents; Google.com's search results are weighted not just by relevance to the search terms entered but by linkages; advertising rates on websites is based on "click-through"—how many people follow the ad link—not simply on audience delivered as with traditional print and television media.

This link procedure reveals the connection between social networking and authorship. Social networking only appears to suggest a transformation of these connections; it is an extension of the author-cult where all actions are reconfigured as quotational, all relationships quantified as affinity groups. Barthes' reasons for declaring the author dead become the supports and proof that authors exist. As Nicholas Rombes has noted, the empirical sense of author has proliferated throughout digital technologies:

Rather than extinguish once and for all the auteur, the rise and hegemony of digital technologies and culture have only reinforced the author concept, and have in fact helped to create new forms of authorship that are being acknowledged in the broader public. ... And yet, denunciations of authorship have always tended to strengthen the cult and authority of those doing the denouncing. In fact, it was Barthes who called the author into being and whose denunciations helped create the conditions for the dictatorship of the author in the digital era.

These "conditions for the dictatorship of the author" take the from of the assumed critical position assigned to recombinant procedures: recognizing the fabric of quotations, references and reuses that characterize language and the interpretation of meaning does not mean the "death of the author." It produces through the recognition of quotations by the interpreting audiences the simultaneous database nature of culture and the expertise deployed by both author and audience in their encounters via the text. The indexicality Eco observes in the use of direct, obvious sampling from past works serves to valorize both those past works specifically and the role of the author generally.

The mirrorical return of the author marks the expansion and extension of the author concept proposed by Barthes as a critique, not as proof of its disappearance, but as demonstration that anything can be interpreted (thus treated) as authorial. The authoring of activities that previously would not have been regarded as authorship is essential to the valorization of these actions: for example, the browsing of products (Amazon.com's "page I made" that lists products viewed while on-site), or the proposition that collecting links to websites of personal interest (del.icio.us and social networking generally) can be understood as productive actions. By treating these activities as forms of authorship it becomes possible to recognize Barthes' layers of past actions and references being made explicit, and then treated as potential commodities, with authoring as the vehicle for the exchange of value. Without the ability of digital computers to record and track actions, this kind of authorship would be infeasible, if not entirely impossible (and improbable) because of the scale of labor required to perform these same tasks without automation.

Expanding concepts of authorship are produced by the digital technologies that enable their existence. Thus the expansion is symptomatic of the aura of the digital: the transformation of everything that can be digitized into a digital form (the universal aspiration to the state of information) also transforms every action recorded into a demonstration of individual authorship. The universal authoring of lives serves the valorization process that requires both constant surveillance and the imposition of digital rights management (DRM) as a way to extract value from digital works. Expansion of the author concept therefore signals the commodification of all activity.

5. The Digital Author

What the valorization of authorship demonstrates is how the empirical and critical interpretations can interact, reinforcing both the extension of authorship beyond its traditional boundaries (as per the critical emphasis on contextuality and recombination) while at the same time reifying the implicit potential of the empirical interpretation's basis as a productive activity. It is the combination of productive action and contextual extension that creates the digital author. Neither the hypothetical actor of the empirical view, nor the figure vanishing into the ground of its sources proposed in the critical conception, the digital author is an immanent effect of the aura of information where all actions, activities, events, objects (ad infinitum) become digital, and thus elevated to the state of information.

The digital author is valorized by this transformative fantasy into information, not as consumer or producer (hence a subject with human agency), but as a commodity. Achieving the status of 'author' within a database culture means a transfer of role from actor to commodity—this is the end-result of the valorization process, not simply the maintenance of previously valuable commodities produced by the traditional actors of the empirical interpretation, but an extension of authorship-as-commodification, of author-as-commodity.

Once all decisions that might previously be considered instances of human agency become instead forms of authorship (the effect of combining the critical and empirical interpretations), the author becomes a commodity: the digital author. It is an inversion of the disappearing-into-context proposed by Barthes, et. al. The digital author emerges as the specific contexts apparent through each individual action: human agency redefined as authorship, as a range of authorial actions that when taken together define a single, specific author. The collection and trading of these authorial entities is simply the logical extension of the business relation implicit in the empirical view's ontology.

Roland Barthes' argument, instead of heralding the death of the author, shows the way to its inevitable extension, expansion and subjugation. It is a side-effect of how the aura of the digital imposes a steadily larger domain for property rights via the concept of "intellectual property" as a necessity for maintaining the circulation of capital. Within a database culture all forms of authorship are potentially valuable, and all information necessarily requires an ontological link to a specific source (the "author"). This then demands the valorization process just as it is the underlying mechanism for the extension and maintenance of authorship. Contextuality thus creates more and new varieties of author and authorship, in the process proposing to eclipse human agency. The digital author lacks agency precisely because there is no longer any distinction between action and inaction—both are equal. The valorization makes each choice significant and therefore valuable: all decisions produce authorship and so have an equal commodity status.

Thus the valorization of authorship reiterates the fundamental conflict of "DRM" (digital rights management): the ownership and possession of digital works (such as the digital author). Even as database culture transforms all actions into varieties of authorship, (such as Amazon's "the page I made" that tracks and reveals shopping as authorship), the valorization process implicit in this transformation equally raises the question of ownership: the empirical interpretation's 'author' who acts and so creates the work, or the database collector who is the critical 'author.' In effect the link between the digital aura and capitalist expansion of both markets and commodities inevitably appears as the valorization and extension of authorship along with the simultaneous elision of the ownership role traditionally assigned to authorship by the empirical interpretation. The change in status for digital authors corresponds to the dissolution of human agency inherent in this transition.

However, such tendencies towards elision are not simply linear or unidirectional—instead, by observing one tendency it is possible to recognize a resurgence of human agency at the same time and employing the same means. While recombinant methods do valorize the authorship of their sources, they also generate novel works whose place and role within this schema are ambiguous. Their ambiguity—as valorizers and violators of the commodities valorized—that offers a space for human agency to re-enter. The paradox that ensues from the assertion-elision of human agency suggests the fractious nature of the digital (valorized) author. The transition to a database culture does not replace previous authorial conceptions. The conflict between these conceptions—naive, critical, digital—is symptomatic of the false consciousness that defines the aura of the digital. The illusion of production without consumption (in the expansion of authorship via valorization) encounters the physical reality of the particular individuals whose actions are commodified in this process; it collides with the issue of human agency embodied in the authors it valorizes.

The valorization-authorship relationship presents a paradox that depends on human agency, since without human agency, the valorization process cannot proceed (on any level.) What this valorization means for human agency is much closer to the idea of 'disenfranchisement' where agency becomes impotence and actions only proceed so long as the outcome is regulated or predetermined. The digital is an imaginary domain (false consciousness reified) where in the guide of 'information' all actions become types of authorship (as informed by the aura of the digital). From within this framework human agency becomes both the method of valorization and the commodity produced. It is elided in the process of conversion.


In returning from the imaginary domain of the digital to the physical domain, the valorization of authorship reveals itself as not as authorship, but as theft. By achieving the state of 'author' without compensation for the capital generated through their valorization, these extensions of authorship transform all activity into capital-producing labor (without compensation). Thus the valorized digital author represents a new 'slave' class in database culture, one where the 'slaves' fail to recognize the conditions of their slavery.

The underlying dynamic of the valorization process is not production—nothing is actually produced that could not exist otherwise—but neither is it a form of consumption. The valorization is a shift in meaning, a transferal, accompanied by a process that resembles a form of automated surveillance. It is a form of opportunistic exploitation.

By extending authorship, markets discover an expanded arena for the extraction of wealth, but not one accompanied by an increased production of capital or shift in the production-consumption dynamic. Instead, it is an extension dramatizing the false consciousness generated by an interaction of the aura of the digital and the aura of information: valorizing authorship serves to more efficiently expedite the transfer and expand the accumulation of existing capital (wealth). No new capital is produced by this activity. Each new form of authorship is merely an expansion of an existing market into new areas of (social) activity with the goal of converting all (social) activity [uncommodified forms of "labor"] into commodities.

Thus, the recombinant mode and the critical view of authorship serve to increase the aura of (established) digital (art) works. Just as they validate the expansion of authorship, recombinant works are also complicit in the valorization process, serving to expand and extend the value of established works, thus making expansions and impositions of DRM necessary to maintain and assert the property value essential to commodity status.

The increase in value that recombination provides is the underlying feature of database culture generally. (It is the economic basis for it, and for its expanding view of authorship.) However, no valorization has meaning except as part of an exchange value schema. Exchange value demonstrates the slavery of the digital author; expanded authorship is only possible with the complicity of the individuals being valorized: the transformation of human agency into exchange value is not (generally) reciprocal for the valorized. Hence, valorization serves to extract wealth from the valorized: the databasing process that renders all actions equally valuable does not compensate those whose actions are the source of that database.

While the extension of authorship implicitly suggests a differentiation between the recombinant mode and the valorization of human agency, the distinction between these is simply one of degree rather than category: both, rendered as information, are commodities within the marketplace. The recombination of existing works increases the value of the appropriated originals; the transformation of human agency only appears to produce new commodities (authors) for commercial exploitation—in both instances the valorization is not productive. It is simply a sifting of functions within an established system (capitalism)—but is neither an enlargement of the 'system,' nor an annexation of additional "spaces" that are not already included within that 'system.' Instead, it is exploitation of the ability (already present and in use) of digital technology to record actions and activities. Like the worm that swallows its own tail, these valorizations only appear to produce new sources of capital, labor and wealth. This extension of authorship is therefore a symptom-effect of the fantasy of production without consumption that defines the digital. Within such a conception of authorship, the empirical and critical interpretations no longer function as they historical have; each gives way to a hybrid, "digital author" whose identity is apparent in its function as commodity.

This digital author—a commodity—is as foreign to the empirical and critical conceptions of author as the epistemological and ontological authors are to one another. It should be recognized as a third term in the authorship concept, related yet fundamentally independent of ontological and epistemological concerns: where Barthes' "reader" (the critical author) resides in an impersonal construction without history, biography, or psychology—the context of a work's reception, the digital author translates history, biography, and psychology into commodities. They are the parameters defining the differences between one digital author and another. Where both critical and empirical authors are productive—both entail the generation of new texts because both authors entail the extension of agency. The digital author's status-as-commodity presents a closing off of potential production for the digital author, where instead of agency, this author is treated as a token of exchange.


Barthes, Roland. "The Death of the Author." In Image — Music — Text, trans. Stephen Heath. New York: Hill and Wang, 1977, p. 148.
Foucault, Michel. "What is an Author?" in Language, Counter-Memory, Practice trans. Donald F. Bouchard and Sherry Simon, ed. Donald F. Bouchard. (Ithaca, new York: Cornell University press, 1977) pp. 124-177.
Foucault, Op. cit., p. 124.
Barthes, Roland. "The Death of the Author." In Image — Music — Text, trans. Stephen Heath. New York: Hill and Wang, 1977. pp. 142–148.
Betancourt, Michael. "The Aura of the Digital," in 1000 Days of Theory: td041, CTheory, www.ctheory.net/articles.aspx?id=519.
Olivier, Jean-Pierre. Le Disque de Phaistos: Édition Photographique, École Français d'Athèns, 1975.
Athanasius Kircher's ideas for example. See Fred Brauen, "Athanasius Kircher (1602-1680) in Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 43. No. 1, (Jan-Mar, 1982) pp. 131-133.
Eco, Umberto, "Interpreting Serials," in The Limits of Interpretation, (Bloomington: University of Indiana Press, 1994) pp. 87-89.
Eco, Op. cit., p. 97.
Petric, Vlada. Constructivism in Films: The Man with a Movie Camera, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987); see also: Vertov, Dziga. Kino-Eye: The Writings of Dziga Vertov, ed. Annette Michselson, trans. Kevin O'Brien, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984).
There are many sources for this claim, but it figures prominently in Douglas Crimp's "Appropriating Appropriation," in On the Museum's Ruins, (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1995) pp. 126-136.
Eco, Op. cit., pp. 83-100.
Rombes, Nicholas. "The Rebirth of the Author" in 1000 Days of Theory: td016, CTheory, www.ctheory.net/articles.aspx?id=480.
Betancourt, Michael. "The Aura of the Digital," in 1000 Days of Theory: td041, CTheory, www.ctheory.net/articles.aspx?id=519.

Michael Betancourt is a curator, avant-garde theorist, and multi-disciplinary artist. He has been making movies, site-specific installations, and non-traditional art forms (and exhibiting his work in unseen, unusual, or public spaces) since 1992. Journals such as Leonardo, Semiotica and CTheory have published his essays. His blog is located at cinegraphic.net.











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