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mediacommons-press2
Publishing, Technology, and the Future of the Academy

the rise of the author

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 As Poster also indicates, however, our modern ideas about authorship are relatively recent inventions. Early books, he suggests, were products of the socio-cultural structure of the guild, and thus were the product of collective labor rather than the individual intelligence: “Our print culture contains two principles,” Poster points out, “neither of which applied in the first century or so of book production: that the copy one sees in one’s hands is an exact duplicate of all others, especially those of the same edition, and that the ‘author’ of the book may be trusted to have written the words one reads” (87). The suggestion, of course, is that the values that we currently associate with print authorship, and in particular with book authorship — individuality, originality, completeness, ownership — were not a direct product of their technologies, nor were they the proximate cause of the development of those technologies. Instead, the technology of print and the concept of authorship that we associate with it each grew out of related but distinct historical formations affecting the breadth of western political, social, and economic structures.

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 This is of course not the history of the book that provided the conventional wisdom for much of the late twentieth century. Beginning with Marshall McLuhan’s The Gutenberg Galaxy, continuing through Elizabeth Eisenstein’s The Printing Press as an Agent of Change, and beyond, scholars conceived of modern notions of authorship as part of “print culture,” literally, that culture brought into existence by the form of print. As Adrian Johns argues in The Nature of the Book, the “self-evidence” of many of the assumptions that we make when approaching a book – for instance, that it was in fact written by the author named on its cover, and published by the organization named on its spine, that the copy we hold is complete and identical to every other copy available, and that those facts together create an imprimatur for the text through which we grant it authority — “encourages us to ascribe all these characteristics to a technological order of reality. If called upon, we may assert that printed texts are identical and reliable because that is simply what printing is” (Johns 2). Such is the argument made by both McLuhan and Eisenstein: print created print culture, of which the modern author was a key aspect. However, as Johns goes on to argue, these assumptions about print’s authority were not always self-evident, and in fact were brought into being alongside, not through, print technologies, a process requiring the active labor of those who worked on the book’s behalf. By focusing on these social processes that existed alongside the new technology of print, more recent scholars exploring the history of the book have argued that there is a direct relationship between the reliability of texts and the individuality of the author — in both cases, “authority” — and the production of modern political and economic states.

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 Enough such work has been done that rehearsing all of it here would be both unnecessary and impossible; I will instead focus on one key text in this line of thought, Carla Hesse’s “Books in Time,” in which she explores the political purposes served by the transformation in the notion of authorship in revolutionary France. At the outset of the revolution, the right of monopolistic ownership over a text was a concession granted by the king, rather than a fact emerging from the text’s composition. In response to this manifestation of monarchic privilege, Enlightenment thinkers such as Condorcet argued that knowledge could best be disseminated through “authorless and opened-ended [sic] texts, circulating freely between all citizens: he imagined the periodical press supported through the mechanism of subscription rather than through the institution of royalties to authors or monopolies to publishers” (24).[2.8] Such an “ideally transparent mode of exchange” led, however, to a chaos of sedition, libel, and piracy, and as the revolution settled down into the first Republic, Condorcet himself sponsored legislation reinstating the legal notion of authorship, but in a liberal mode: “Through the legal notion of a ‘limited property right,’ the National Convention reshaped the political and legal identity of the author, transforming that cultural agent from a privileged creature of the absolutist state into a property-owning civic hero, an agent of public enlightenment” (Hesse 25-26).

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 In unpacking this history, Hesse demonstrates the weaknesses in the assumption that the printing press produced the author as a function of print culture, and instead focuses on the emergence of what she calls the “modern literary system” from the political revolutions of the late 18th century, a system that reflects those revolutions by embodying, within the person of the author, “the ideals of the autonomous, self-creating and self-governing, property-owning individual,” as well as such liberal values as the “universal access to knowledge, and the assurance of cautious public reflection and debate” (28). Our assumptions about authorship, then — that the author is a unitary voice, expressing original ideas in a complete and polished form, over which he retains legal property rights — derive less from the technologies and processes that produce the author’s texts and more from the legislative and economic systems that govern those technologies and processes. This is not to say, however, that such a modern literary system would have evolved without the assistance of print; as Mark Poster argues:

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 The legally defined rights of the author required a print technology that could reproduce large quantities of texts, a market system that could determine printed products as objects for sale, and distribution institutions that could make identical copies available in many places, a discursive regime in which individuals were understood as agents capable of inventing new things and as proprietors with interests in accumulating capital.… Authorship also required, as I shall argue below, a technology of the analogue: a conviction that what was printed in the book was a direct representation of an author’s intention, be it in the form of idea, style, or rhetoric; in short, that the book was an analogue reproduction of an original, authentic author. (What’s the Matter 65)

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 In other words, the development of the modern concept of authorship required both the facilitation of print and the influence of the multiple social systems within which print was embedded.

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 This understanding of the origins of authorship bears significant consequences for thinking about ourselves as authors and ameliorating the anxieties that our work as authors often produces in us; if in part our attachments to the idea of authorship arise from deeply-seated beliefs about the locus of individual intelligence and about the placement of the individual within liberal society, we might recognize a certain conflict between that notion of authorship and the more communally-oriented ideals of academic life. And if, as Carla Hesse suggests, we are today “facing the anxieties that attend the possibility of losing the means of associating a particular work or text with an individual agency, or of losing the writer’s and even the reader’s individuality, the possibility of a disappearance, perhaps, of the Enlightenment sense of self and of a sociability based upon a Rousseauesque model of intellectual community and of a liberal model of public life rooted in individualism and private property,” we must explore the possibility that these losses arise less from technological shifts than from “sociopolitical choices” and other legal, economic, and institutional frameworks surrounding authorship today (Hesse 27-28). This is to say that our anxieties about writing are not produced by our tools, but by the cultural significance of the ways in which we use them. Similarly, those anxieties won’t be assuaged by new tools, as the shift from a print-based mode of authorship to one based in digital networks cannot in and of itself produce a new mode of authorship; rather, changes in our understandings of the nature of the author might on the contrary be required in order for us to embrace new network technologies.

  • Hesse notes that this mode of textual circulation “looks a lot like a mechanical version of the Internet” (24); it certainly bears resemblances to the mode of Internet communication that utopian thinkers like John Perry Barlow applaud, and that more pessimistic respondents such as Andrew Keen and Jaron Lanier deplore, if not to the Internet as it actually functions.
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    Source: http://mcpress.media-commons.org/plannedobsolescence/two-authorship/the-rise-of-the-author/