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"
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
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
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,
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
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
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
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
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
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,
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
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,
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
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"]
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.