History and Future of the Book: Attacking the Form of Original Authorship

Reading about the extent to which the evolution of the idea of the Author took place within a legal framework, as people sought to settle questions of how/whether authors should be compensated for their work, how much this compensation should be relative to the compensation of other people involved in the production and distribution of books, who should be given primary copyrights to individual works, whether a perceived need for copyright should outbalance the public’s right to have greater access to works, etc., I find it kind of impossible not to notice how much all of these questions are still being hashed out in contemporary debates about all of the same stuff.

Some people worry that the challenges copyright protection faces from digital distribution present serious problems for the ability of writers to make money off of their work. At the same time, some writers use their work to attack the very notion of originality, thus challenging the extent to which copyright can really be seen as a way of protecting writers. For example, Jonathan Lethem’s essay “The Ecstasy of Influence: A Plagiarism” which argues for the eager plundering of earlier art to make new art is made mostly out of quotations from other sources. In some sense, we might see a practice such as this as an acceptance of—really as a way of embracing—what Barthes argues in “The Death of the Author,” that “the text is a tissue of quotations drawn from the innumerable centers of culture,” and “the writer can only imitate a gesture that is always anterior, never original.”

Another example: Kenneth Goldsmith promotes his idea of Uncreative Writing, both as a pedagogical practice, encouraging students to create poetry purely by plagiarizing or appropriating the work of others and ‘remixing’ it in order to, and as a writing practice. He writes about his Uncreative Writing classes that they help his students realize “the  suppression of self-expression is impossible. Even when we do something as seemingly ‘uncreative’ as retyping a few pages, we express ourselves in a variety of ways. The act of choosing and reframing tells us as much about ourselves as our story about our mother’s cancer operation. It’s just that we’ve never been taught to value such choices.”  The fact that Goldsmith adopts this particular tack in writing a defense of his Uncreative Writing classes given the apparent stridency with which it might be said he attacked even this version of creativity in his big works of conceptual poetry over the last decade: Day, which he composed by taking the September 1, 2000 issue of the New York times and “retyping the day’s NEW YORK TIMES word for word, letter for letter, from the upper left hand corner to the lower right hand corner, page by page”; The Weather, a transcription of the radio weather report every day for an entire year; and Traffic and Sports, which form a trilogy of radio-transcription works with The Weather. All of these push even the element of choice to a minimum, calling into question just where in the process of creating these works there is room for the genius of an author. And yet, even that space is under attack in Kent Johnson’s Day, which is almost literally just a copy of Goldsmith’s ‘original’ with Kent Johnson’s name pasted over Goldsmith’s in the author position. Johnson’s provocation has been read as “as a return to one of Johnson’s favorite themes: the continued dominance of the author-function in contemporary otherstream literature.”

These works all seem to aim more or less directly at the notion of individual creativity as the center of artistic creation. Woodmansee’s “The Genius and the Copyright” explains how, as the notion of author copyright was being created and defended in 18th century Germany, Fichte’s defense “distinguish[ed] three distinct shares of property in the book: When the book is sold ownership of the physical object passes to the buyer to do with as he pleases. The material aspect, the content of the book, those thoughts it presents also pass to the buyer…. The form in which these ideas are presented, however, remains the property of the author” (444-45). We might note that the tactic Lethem, Goldsmith, and Johnson all employ in order to make their attacks has to do with has to do with this final part of the property, the still present idea that it’s the specific form of a work that entitles the author to a claim to creativity and originality (and therefore according to copyright law to a share in any profit made from that material). Even as Barthes and Foucault called our attention to the unstableness of our notion of Author half a century ago, it seems like this aspect of our idea of originality based specifically on form is where all the real action is.

But why is all this energy spent trying to undermine or undo the author function anyway? We’ve talked about issues like this so far in terms of ‘denaturalizing’ things, and it does seem like Barthes and Foucault kicked off a line of work that denaturalizes the author, helping us see that the way the author function works has been invented and modified over time. But I wonder why the reaction to this awareness seems to be reflexively lead to a negative reaction against it. Why not wonder after the usefulness of the author function? Instead of asking how it can be undone, why not ask how it has helped? What benefits has it given artistic discourse? What about this invented author function might be worth defending, or even potentially nurturing so it becomes stronger?

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3 Responses to History and Future of the Book: Attacking the Form of Original Authorship

  1. c2ross says:

    I like the questions that you leave with. I think the denaturalizing is useful in part because it lets us get back to thinking about “If ‘author’ is not this, then what is it?” In the Johnson/Goldsmith example, how does it matter that there is a different name on the ‘work’? Does the author function actually, perhaps, operate through the audience which perceives the author-as-entity, connected to a particular literary work, rather than operating as individual(s) or group that assembles the literary work? With respect to some best selling books, the “author”‘s name serves as a guide to what to expect from the contents, rather than necessarily being the individual who wrote the words or even an actual individual. Some are ghost written, others are presented as collaborations and yet others imply an association without claiming authorship. An example of the latter would be “Tom Clancy’s OpForce” novels. They are presented as “his” but with another author on the byline. For an example of the first kind, the Tom Swift books were all written by “ghost writers” but published under the name of Victor Appleton.

  2. Shandi Wagner says:

    As someone who finds it nearly impossible to ignore the author and cultural context when writing papers, I, too, find it hard to view such considerations as wrong and/or limiting. While I can see the value in sometimes choosing to ignore the author during literary analysis, I have been unable to accept a complete disregard for historical and cultural context. My inability to divorce a work from its context may be largely due to my interest in a period vastly different from my own, yet although I believe that the who, what, when, and where of writing is necessary to a full understanding of said writing, I do not believe that we should be searching for a single “true” meaning intended by the author. So perhaps my response to Barthes would be that the limits created by acknowledging an author are beneficial when used “correctly” or wisely.

  3. Kemael Johnson says:

    The question about why there seemed to be a negative reaction to the author was interesting to me too, particularly in the Barthes article. It seemed to me to be because the author wields so much power as a kind of arbiter of culture, so to speak. He or she has a certain amount control over how a culture, which the reader encounters through the author’s lens, and the people living in it appear in the text. The author can make various implications about what the culture has been and what it is, a power of defining for the reader that almost seeks the reader’s acquiescence. I may be overstating there. But if that is the case, that the author “controls” perception for the audience, in essence making reality through the text, then the desire to “kill” the author–especially in an individualistic culture–seems nearly unavoidable. Not entirely beneficial, but unavoidable.

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