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Publishing, Technology, and the Future of the Academy

from originality to remix

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 3 There is, moreover, an added level of concern to be addressed in contemplating the movement of texts and ideas across what previously seemed firmly delineated authorial boundaries, concerns that do not solely revolve around the notion of having to share the “credit” for authorship of a text that is open to communal interpretation, analysis, and, in the form of comments, revision. Digital publishing of necessity bears profound implications for our assumptions about the originality that authorship implies. These two facets of conventional authorship — individuality and originality — are complexly intertwined: insisting that a dissertation, for instance, must consist of one’s “own” work is to insist that it make an original contribution to the field; the bottom that every tub sits on must not simply be its own, but uniquely its own. But not only does the operation of the digital network exclude the possibility of uniqueness in its very function — the web page I open in my browser window is never the document itself, but a copy of the document, and, in fact, my browser’s representation of a copy of the document — but the links and interconnections that the network facilitates profoundly affect the shape of any given text. If, in digital scholarship, the relationships between the authors whose ideas we draw upon (now traditionally cordoned off from our own ideas via quotation marks and citations) and the texts that we produce in response are made material — if the work of our predecessors is some sense contained within whatever increasingly fuzzy boundaries draw the outlines of our own texts — how can we demarcate the thing that constitutes our own contribution to the discourse? How can our texts possibly remain unique, discrete, original in an environment so thoroughly determined by the copy?

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 2 The historical formation of the notion of authorship in modern literary culture has of course held originality among its key values. As Rafaelle Simone argues, the closed text that we associate with print carries with it several key assumptions; one of these assumptions, which appears to be a common-sense, baseline pre-requisite for publication, is that the text is finished: “the text is presented to the reader in the final version intended by the author, or at least in a single, final, and ne varieteur form” (241). Finished, in this sense, implies not simply completion but perfection, existing without the kind of flaw that would make possible the requirement of the text’s retraction. In addition, however, the text, “assumed to be perfectum, has also to be original, and the well-educated reader takes it for granted that this is the case. The reader assumes that the text derives wholly or mainly from the author’s ideational effort and that the author has distinguished himself or herself from the work carried out by others, even if he or she cannot disregard the existence of texts by others” (Simone 242). It’s thus not enough that the text be finished; it also has to be new, springing entirely from the head of the author, and always distinguishing itself from the writing of other authors. As we have already noted, however, digital technologies force us to reconsider these presuppositions with respect to the published text; writing within the network may both be published and yet, at the very same time, incomplete, remaining open to continued revision. Further, the openness of the digital text implies potential openness in our attribution of authorship, while the closed text carries with it

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 the presupposition of the pre-eminence of the author. If the text is closed, it generally has an author (or a definite number of authors). Not only is the author the pure and simple generative source of the text but he or she also acts judicially, as it were, because he or she assumes specific rights and duties by the pure and simple fact of making him or herself author of that text. (Simone 240)

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 The ownership rights that come with the attribution of authorship of a closed text include the reservation to the author of the ability to re-open and revise a text, but those rights are accompanied by a number of responsibilities, including the obligation to “distinguish the original parts (= resulting entirely from his or her own invention) from those which are not original (= resulting from the invention of others)” (Simone 240). The combination of these two assumptions – that the only author of a text is its named author, and that the author has scrupulously given credit for any borrowings – together produce the borders of our notion of plagiarism, an idea that “cannot be applied to the author who copies him or herself; only by plagiarizing someone else does plagiarism exist” (Simone 241).

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 The specter of plagiarism makes clear that some of our anxiety about originality in our writing has to do with the dangers presented by its potential failure: we as scholars, as the producers of closed texts, are permitted to interact with the texts of others only in a passive, clearly designated fashion — and, by extension, others can only interact with our texts in a similar manner. Such is one of the most crucial assumptions of the print-based modern literary system. But as the dominant mode of text delivery shifts from the read-only structure of print to the read-write structure of digital technologies, can this assumption of authorial primacy, and its attendant pressures toward pure originality, continue to make sense?

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 It’s important to note, of course, that the kind of closed text that produces the presuppositions about authorship Simone describes has not always been the norm; numerous other modes of textual production — Simone points to the compilation, the miscellany, and the commentary — have at various times come into popular circulation, and have even at particular historical moments become the dominant form that authorship practices have taken. These forms, in which the words of others achieve pre-eminence over the voice of the author him- or herself, indicate not only that our notion of authorship is “not native and does not originate together with the texts (not even the written ones),” instead waxing and waning with changing historical circumstances, but also that, under certain of those circumstances, originality presents itself not as a virtue to be sought, but instead a danger to be avoided: “Theoretic and doctrinal innovation is created only through small increases, per additamenta, through additions, always gradual and suitably apportioned. If the text is original and evinces its own claim to originality, it risks being untenable. Originality is dangerous” (Simone 246, 247-48). The preferred act of authorship, under such circumstances, is that of bringing together the words of others, such that their juxtapositions, harmonies and dissonances, might produce an argument by implication.

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 I do not want to suggest that we are in such an era today, in which originality has become once again dangerous; our very language reveals through its connotations our preference for the original over the derivative. On the other hand, I do want to suggest that we no longer inhabit a world in which originality reigns unchallenged. Challenges to the premium placed on originality have been raised by theorists of authorship for some decades, dating back to Roland Barthes: “We know now that a text consists not of a line of words, releasing a single ‘theological’ meaning (the ‘message’ of the Author-God), but of a multi-dimensional space in which are married and contested several writings, none of which is original: the text is a fabric of quotations, resulting from a thousand sources of culture” (Barthes 52-53). Barthes refers here not simply to literal miscellanies or other compilations drawing together pieces of many texts, but to all writing; every text is “a fabric of quotations,” whether its author is conscious of such borrowings or not, as the language that we use is never our creation, but rather that which has created us. Similarly, Julia Kristeva’s development, during the same period, of the notion of “intertextuality” suggests that even the most ostensibly “original” of texts is in fact rife with references to other texts, and that it is in fact impossible for a reader to approach any given text without reference to everything she has previously read or seen.[2.22]

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 5 Such intertextuality becomes even more pronounced in the era of digital networks, as the structure of the hyperlink causes every text in the network to become part of every text that links to it, and thus each text is completed by every other, and becomes raw material for every other. Scholars of hypertext have long explored the ability of the link to make material the previously implicit relationships amongst texts, but in more recent days, scholars in media studies have explored another form of authorship within digital culture which consciously focuses upon the bringing together of that “fabric of quotations,” under the umbrella of the “remix” or the “mashup.” Within the sphere of music, these forms have roots in the Jamaican culture of the late 1960s and early 1970s, attaining broad penetration through the sampling practices of hip-hop artists from the 1970s forward. The phenomenon of the audio mashup may have achieved its greatest prominence with the release in 2004 of Danger Mouse’s The Grey Album, a coupling of Jay Z’s The Black Album with The Beatles, more commonly referred to as The White Album.[2.23] More broadly, however, remixes and mashups of multiple media forms have become a significant feature of internet-based fan culture, as inexpensive and widely available audio and video editing tools and a proliferation of digitally available texts have encouraged the grassroots production of new kinds of content from the raw materials of the media.[2.24]

9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 The question remains, however, whether such remix culture might fruitfully influence our own scholarly authorship practices. If, as Rafaelle Simone puts it, the moment is coming when “the protective membrane of the texts [we produce] will decompose and they will once more become open texts as in the Middle Ages with all the standard concomitant presuppositions” (Simone 249), we might be well served in considering the ways that our authorship practices might be affected. We might, for instance, find our values shifting away from a sole focus on the production of unique, original new arguments and texts to consider instead curation as a valid form of scholarly activity, in which the work of authorship lies in the imaginative bringing together of multiple threads of discourse that originate elsewhere, a potentially energizing form of argument via juxtaposition. Such a practice of scholarly remixing might look a bit like blogging, in its original sense: finding the best of what has been published in the digital network and bringing it together, with commentary, for one’s readership. But it might also resemble a post-hoc mode of journal or volume editing, creating playlists, of sorts, that bring together texts available on the web in ways that produce new kinds of interrelationships and analyses among them.

10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 The key, as usual, will be convincing ourselves that this mode of work counts as work — that the editorial or curatorial work of bringing together texts and ideas might in the age of the network be worth as much to us, and perhaps even more, than the production of new texts. As we’ve already seen, in contemplating peer-to-peer review, the greatest labor involved in transforming the Internet into a venue for the publication of serious scholarship may well be that of post-publication filtering — seeing to it that the best and most important new work receives the attention it deserves. Moreover, much of the writing we currently produce serves this same function, if in different form: recuperating overlooked texts, reframing past arguments, refuting earlier claims. Today, in the current system of print-based scholarship, this work takes the form of reviews, essays, articles, editions; tomorrow, as new mechanisms allow, these texts might be multimodal remixes, mashing up theories and texts to produce compelling new ideas.

  • See Kristeva, “Word, Dialogue and Novel.”
  • EMI, holder of copyright on The Beatles, ordered the album to be withdrawn from retail distribution, an order that in fact may have created the notoriety that spurred its widespread success on the internet.
  • See Lessig, Remix, and Jenkins, Convergence Culture, on the historical development, cultural significance, and legal implications of remix/mashup culture.
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    Source: http://mcpress.media-commons.org/plannedobsolescence/two-authorship/from-originality-to-remix/