Such shifts in thinking about authorship have been underway, at least theoretically, since the late 1960s; the rise of poststructuralism within literary theory and philosophy brought into prominence a number of arguments that have sought to change our understandings of the relationship between the author and the text. The most famous among these, of course, is Roland Barthes’ 1967 essay announcing the “death” of the author, which seeks to undermine the critical and political “authority” invested in that figure, in part by insisting upon the structuring power of language over the subject, such that it becomes impossible for any author to fully “own” or control the text he or she produces, as the language with which those texts are produced has already itself constructed the consciousness of the writing subject:
linguistics furnishes the destruction of the Author with a precious analytical instrument, showing that the speech-act in its entirety is an “empty” process, which functions perfectly without its being necessary to “fill” it with the person of the interlocutors: linguistically, the author is nothing but the one who writes, just as I is nothing but the one who says I: language knows a “subject,” not a “person,” and this subject, empty outside of the very speech-act which defines it, suffices to “hold” language, i.e., to exhaust it (Barthes 51)
The author, therefore, comes into being at the moment of writing — the author is not, Barthes says, the subject of which his writing is predicate, but is rather born subject to the process of writing itself — and in so “holding” language, in claiming ownership over the product of writing, perversely deprives it of meaning: “To assign an Author to a text is to impose a brake on it, to furnish it with a final signified, to close writing. This conception is quite suited to criticism, which then undertakes the important task of discovering the Author (or his hypostases: society, history, the psyche, freedom) beneath the work: once the Author is found, the text is ‘explained,’ the critic has won” (Barthes 53). If the purpose of the critic is closing down the text’s meaning, and that meaning is thus closed through the identification of the Author (and, one assumes, his intention, whether conscious or unconscious) or the broader societal structures that support and sustain the author (and thus determine his intention), then the figure of the author is actually detrimental to meaning, rather than productive of meaning, as our conventional wisdom assumes, and the intimate association of a text with its author serves not to give the text life but instead to choke it off. In order to give life to a text, by granting it openness, to prevent the work of criticism from degenerating into an act of butterfly-pinning, and “in order to restore to writing its future,” Barthes finally argues, “the birth of the reader must be requited by the death of the Author” (Barthes 55).
As contemporary critics, thoroughly inculcated in poststructuralist and postmodernist thought, we can read this and nod: yes, of course, the death of the author, a moment of radical empowerment for us, as we can finally fully overcome the intentional fallacy, ignore the author, and focus instead on producing more imaginative new readings of the texts with which we work. But — and one almost hesitates to ask — what does this death of the author bode for ourselves as authors? Given that our work with the texts in our field is itself productive of more new texts, are we willing, or indeed able, to find ourselves so decentered, to think of ourselves as “scriptors” rather than “authors,” equally called into being subject to language rather than exercising authority over it? If the author is dead, how can we continue to think of writing as part of our work — and how can we continue to evaluate the careers of academics based upon their writing?
Foucault provides a partial answer, if not a particularly reassuring one, in his 1969 rejoinder, “What Is an Author?” In contrast to Barthes’ sense of the liberatory effects that the author’s death might produce for the reader, Foucault seems to suggest that though the author is indeed dead (in his analysis, killed off by the act of writing itself, a notion that might go some distance toward understanding anxieties about writing), the networks of power that produce cultural “authority” remain fully in place, existing wholly independently of the figure of the individual author. True, the author may have been demoted to the status of an “author function,” which is the result of “a complex operation whose purpose is to construct the rational entity we call an author… these aspects of an individual, which we designate as an author (or which comprise an individual as an author) are projections, in terms always more or less psychological, of our way of handling texts” (127), and thus the role of the author function is no more than “to characterize the existence, circulation, and operation of certain discourses within a society” (124). The author, as a function of language, becomes a convenient handle by which to pick texts up and carry them around, something significantly less than the independent liberal actors we like to imagine ourselves to be as writers. Of course, the possibility remains that we can think of ourselves as that special category of author that Foucault argues arose in Europe during the nineteenth century, whose “transdiscursive” position resulted in their “distinctive contribution”: “they produced not only their own work, but the possibility and the rules of formation of other texts” (131). Such transdiscursivity, the ability to transcend the mere production of discourse, perhaps, or to transform it at its root, appears reserved, however, for a precious few authors: Marx, Freud, and, one might expect, Foucault himself.
The rest of us are ostensibly working in a post-authorial era, an era when the “removal of the Author” has become “not only a historical fact or an act of writing: it utterly transforms the modern text (or — which is the same thing — the text is henceforth produced and read so that the author absents himself from it at every level)” (Barthes 51-52). But the question remains: how has this theoretical death of the author actually changed the text’s production? Has it had any material effect on our writing practices? Early proponents of new modes of electronic writing and publishing, including George Landow and Jay David Bolter, have pointed to hypertext as a digital manifestation of the poststructuralist decentering of the author, fragmentation of the text, and activation of the reader. Landow, for instance, points toward the convergence of literary theory and computing in hypertext, noting that practitioners in both fields “argue that we must abandon conceptual systems founded upon ideas of center, margin, hierarchy, and linearity and replace them with ones of multilinearity, nodes, links, and networks,” and that “critical theory promises to theorize hypertext and hypertext proposes to embody and thereby test aspects of theory, particularly those concerning textuality, narrative, and the roles or functions of reader and writer” (2). What Landow describes as the open, intertextual, multivocal, decentered, rhizomatic mode of hypertext thus becomes the emblem of deconstruction; moreover, as Bolter notes, electronic writing “complicates our understanding of literature as either mimesis or expression, it denies the fixity of the text, and it questions the authority of the author” (Writing Space 153). If literary theory had not succeeded in putting the figure of the author in its grave, it seems, hypertext would be along behind, ready to finish the job.
And yet authorship remains far from dead, even in such electronic forms; these arguments, like those of Barthes and Foucault, are compelling in theory, but in application, hypertext did not result in the revolution in authoring practices, the decentering of authority, or the empowerment of the reader that had been projected. As I’ll explore further in the next chapter, hypertext is somewhat deceptive in its claims to activate the reader; though the reader is required to make choices, and to click on them, in order to advance a hypertext narrative, such activities have always, to differing extents, been part of the reading process. Do I want to keep reading this book? Then I’ll turn the page. Do I just want to find out how it all turns out? Then I’ll flip to the end. While arguments such as these — that the book-reading process has always been as active, if not more active, than the process of reading hypertext — are often tendentious, designed to defuse the significant claims made for electronic modes of communication, reducing them to mere novelty, they have a point: upon picking up a book to read, I have the entire text in my hands, all at once, and I can do anything with it that I choose — read the entire thing in a linear fashion, read the end before the beginning, use the index to find the only three pages I really need to read, flip back and forth between different sections. With a hypertext, not only do I not have the entire text available to me at the outset — some pathways only becoming activated by prior choices; some choices remaining hidden — but it is also often unclear what options I do have before me, what choices I can make, and what relationship those choices bear to the shape of the text as a whole. All I can do as a reader is follow the choices that the author has allowed. The process of reading a hypertext is thus, in its way, more determined than the process of reading a book, and the experience of reading can at times seem more focused on attempting to divine the author’s encoded intent than on creating a reader-centered text.
One might, perhaps, find the apotheosis of such a reinscription of authorial primacy in Shelley Jackson’s “Skin”; Jackson, previously best known for her experiments in hypertext fiction such as Patchwork Girl, launched this project in August 2003 with a call for participants, each of whom “must agree to have one word of the story tattooed upon his or her body” (Jackson) [see screenshot 2.1].
The story would thus be distributed, not just across physical space but across the bodies of those who elect to interact with the text. Moreover, though the story is legible, at least in part, to anyone who encounters a participant in the project, the text in its entirety — all of the words, in the correct sequence — is available only to those who participate, as well as, of course, the author herself. And lest this sense of “participation” come to sound like a mode of active readership, the participants, those few who have the option of reading the full story, are potentially deactivated by the project, considered something simultaneously more and less than readers:
From this time on, participants will be known as “words.” They are not understood as carriers or agents of the texts they bear, but as its embodiments. As a result, injuries to the printed texts, such as dermabrasion, laser surgery, tattoo cover work or the loss of body parts, will not be considered to alter the work. Only the death of words effaces them from the text. As words die the story will change; when the last word dies the story will also have died. The author will make every effort to attend the funerals of her words. (Jackson)
Aside from the arguable violence to be found in the author’s desire to inscribe — literally — the text into the flesh of her audience, the project’s description manages both to convey the potential for shifting relationships among author, reader, and text in the contemporary moment while at the very same time re-centering the author within the structures of meaning-making; readers disappear, transformed into signs, and signs “owned” by the author, at that (“her words”). The author remains singular, unique, individual, while the words she uses, and the readers she inscribes them upon, are an indifferent, effaceable mass.[2.9]
One must wonder, then, whether authorship, or at least our thinking about it, can have changed all that much in this ostensibly postmodern, poststructuralist, decentered, digital world. While Mark Poster argues that “[d]igital writing may function to extract the author from the text, to remove from its obvious meaning his or her intentions, style, concepts, rhetoric, mind — in short, to disrupt the analogue circuit through which the author makes the text his or her own, through which the mechanisms of property solidify a link between creator and object” (68, emphasis mine), the difference may be one of degree, in which the “digital author connotes a greater alterity between the text and the author” (69), suggesting rather than absolutely determining a separation between the two. Rather than existing in the “postauthor utopia” Poster derives from the end of Foucault’s “What Is an Author?”, in which “discourse would circulate without any need for an author” (Foucault 138), our actual digital authorship practices seem instead to be caught between two regimes, bound to assumptions about the ownership and originality of texts that derive from older, Enlightenment-era notions of the self, while using technologies that lend themselves to the distributed, the collective, the process-oriented, the anonymous, the remix. The digital has of course already begun to have significant effects on our work, both in terms of the ways that we write and the ways that our writing moves throughout the academy and the broader public sphere, but a full acknowledgement of the the benefits of digital authorship practices for our writing, much less any further acceptance of the digital as a primary mode of our work, will require significant shifts in our thinking about ourselves in the act of writing – what we’re doing, how and with whom we’re doing it, and the relationship between ourselves and the texts we produce.