Redefining Authority in Authorship: Future of Text is More Than Text

“Writing unfolds like a game that invariably goes beyond its own rules and transgresses its limits.”
(Michel Foucault, What is an Author)

Kathleen Fitzpatrick at Duke University

Hans Dillaerts has recently posted a video to his Infodoc hub which aggregates such jewels for scholarly authors, that records a lecture made by Kathleen Fitzpatrick, a professor of Media Studies at Pomona College and a co-founder of Media Commons, on The Future of Authorship: Scholarly Writing in the Digital Age, given at the Duke University.

Recorded a year ago, the video is on track with change phenomena that have only began to seriously disturb the scholarly community members. The lecture tackles the pressing issues of how we communicate and exchange ideas in a digital age, including social, intellectual and institutional changes that will be required, more than a technological change.

The shift from creating something that can be printed towards creating something that is truly digital, changes the very nature of authorship, it redefines who we are as authors. Focusing on social aspect of reading and writing will question our assumptions of authorship; “We have been thinking about authorship.” Fitzpatrick repeats, “but that thinking was theoretical, not in respect of our practices.”

What do these practices mean, then? Fitzpatrick reminds us that now everyone operates on his word processor, technology is at the core of the writing process, not separated from the thought flow. “We write and rewrite,” she insists, we are focused more on process and the process is more recursive, more open ended. Finally, the very openness ethos of the web has made a strong impact on information industry and it required reinvention of the business models, as is the case of book publishers. In order to succeed, Fitzpatrick continues, “the industries need to work with new information challenges, not against them.” To try and prevent the open exchange of data and neutrality of this process will simply not work, and “attempting to replicate the permanence of print makes little sense.”

The assumptions that go with creating what is printed, and shaped by the culture of the print technology, but not only technology, even more by the economic and legislative system that governed these technologies in the 18th century, are the values of individuality and ownership, intellectual property – “the assumption that author is a unitary voice, expressing original ides, owning intellectual property to those ideas.”

The assumptions that go with creating a living, digital text online, however, are process oriented, and the work is widely distributed, collective and even anonymous. “Digital authorship practices will require a shift in thinking of ourselves and our relationship with text,” Fitzpatrick explains. She then draws a parallel back to Foucault’s asking whether this theoretical death of author has actually affected the production of text and to what extent? She also reminds of a comparison of scholarly authors to characters in Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times, with them madly working to – produce.

What authors are actually doing is engaging in conversation, with conversation in focus of all their work and the multiple forms in which audience can be addressed. After all, “author has never operated in a vacuum,” and at the very core of creation process lies – interaction. Authority in authorship lies not at the same place when creating something online, as it does when creating something in print. However, our anxieties about creativity, originality, ownership, anxieties in lives of writers, come from this constant need to make text static, while it is live and develops like a part of network among which those ideas flow; to create a sense of completion to it to get credit, while, it is open ended; to call text by the name of books or journals, another entry of a new item on cv, while it could link to other words and other discussions. The status of the text is that it is simply – a text, and still, web has tools that do not fit this assumption.  “My hope for future authors is that their work may startle me about what is possible for the author,” Fitzpatrick says.

“We need to shift our attention away from – publication – and focus on many stages of our work coming into being,” we need to look at it as on an “ongoing process, more holistic, not a discrete set of closed projects, we need to value process over product, the relationship of others to our work.” Actually, Fitzpatrick continues, “there should be no separation between person who writes the text and the person who reads it.” There is an interconnection and the voice of the author today is multi-voiced which significantly transforms our sense of – authority. Yet, single authorship remains mostly the norm in – academy. “We need to rethink how we give credit to this, more collaborative sort of work,” Fitzpatrick professes. In a network based publishing, words of authors need to be linked.

Fitzpatrick is aware that these new assumptions will bring to surface the question of originality, “if boundaries become fuzzy between our texts.” She also wonders how can our texts remain unique in an environment determined by A COPY. The network in which we create has shifted from “read-only” to “read-write” structure, every text ever written was always a fabric of quotation, and only lately we can feel the growing importance of remix culture which profoundly affects threads of online discourse. “Can this culture influence our authorship practices,” Fitzpatrick is eager to find out, “bringing forms of discourse together that originated somewhere else, curating them, might resemble journal editing but also creating playlists of sort.” The trick will be to make this kind of work into the one that counts – in academy, she concludes.

The motive for not clinging to our own intellectual property but giving it away could lie in a gift economy – in the general “advancement of knowledge” ethos, where the
primary purpose of work is to be reused and – re-purposed. If the same ethos may not apply to all writers, new kinds of interaction may help authors find their audience helped by the sudden expansion in our tool set provided by the network that can make our writing into “something more than TEXT – something that does not need to be translated into something printable!”

“We must locate the space left empty by the author’s disappearance, follow the distribution of gaps and breaches, and watch for the openings this disappearance uncovers,” Foucault warns us and Fitzpatrick illustrates wonderfully in this 45 minutes lecture that I strongly suggest for handling your text-creating anxieties and making a case for creating in the open.

Kathleen Fitzpatrick is an author of The Anxiety of Obsolescence: The American Novel in the Age of Television, and of Planned Obsolescence: Publishing, Technology, and the Future of the Academy, published by NYU Press and previously made available for open peer review online.

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