One of the greatest and most repressed aspects of language during the Gutenberg era now coming to a close is that it is not a static but an ever-evolving living thing—sequences of linguistic codes that have historically divided our species Homo Sapiens into domains, phyla, groups, families, dialects, and idioms, the speakers of which all too often cannot effectively communicate with one another, a circumstance articulated so well by the clichéd expression “lost in translation.”
Correlatively, the meaning of words constantly changes as their historical, cultural, socio-economic, ecological, and technological contexts evolve. Through an active social feedback loop, those changes in meaning can and often do have a direct bearing on whether or not a word is perceived to be politically correct or fashionable—i.e. whether or not its use confers either an increase or a decrease to the social status of the speaker in his or her community from time to time.
In this context it’s worth taking a slightly closer look at what’s happening to the word “author” in the evolving digital age of our 21st century. The Latin auctor comes into English usage through French, and means: “the originator of an event, a condition (as in being the author of one’s own condition), and particularly a book.”1
If we follow the trail of that word’s cognates, we find that authorship (the mere historical circumstance of being the originator of an event, condition, or artifact, like a book, for example) is deemed to convey upon the individualized author the moral right [Fr. droit moral] to transfer his or her exclusive authoritative position with respect to the event, condition, or book at issue to the authority(s) of their choice, usually by legal social contract. These words together construct the way power relationships operate in an authoritarian as opposed to an egalitarian world. (You’ll notice that so far neither property nor money has been mentioned. We’ll return to this.)
Increasingly, our digital age is moving toward a world conceptualized in terms more egalitarian than authoritarian. No public issue illustrates this more starkly than the ongoing debate between supporters of Encyclopedia Britannica and those of Wikipedia. Supporters of the former argue that as an information publisher (curator, aggregator, or mediator), Britannica adds value to the content it makes public by having the world’s leading authorities in every subject and field it offers attest to their entries’ veracity and safe utility; whereas supporters of the latter argue that as an information aggregator (curator, mediator, or publisher) Wikipedia adds value to the content it makes public by the very non-hierarchical and inclusive diversity of views it represents.
Despite the fact that Wikipedia specifically disavows any responsibility for the veracity, safety, and utility of the material posted to its site(s), its supporters among seekers of information far outnumber those of Britannica.
Roland Barthes once blithely observed that since it is language itself that speaks through the author, any particular interpretation of that language applied to the specific text an author “creates” is irrelevant to an understanding of it.2 Thank God Michel Foucault immediately set him straight by asserting that while all authors are writers, not all writers are authors, (which also handily explains the deluge of useless crap we encounter every time we access our social media portals).3
Perhaps the word “author” and its cognates have become so out of fashion lately because in our histories the “authority” of the religious or de facto secular priesthoods that supported the “moral right” by which the primarily totalitarian or oligarchic political regimes have governed us to date has been too often successfully challenged and disavowed.
In recent years the phenomenon of collective authorship has grown exponentially. Beginning most famously with Wired Magazine editor Chris Anderson writing his book The Long Tail on the Internet in real time, allowing for helpful editorial input and questions from any and all readers of his evolving draft, the trend continues with Adam Hyde touting the virtues of the “unstable” multiple-authored open-source eBook last January.4
How strange then that in The Slow Death of the American Author5 the novelist, lawyer, and president of the American Authors Guild Scott Turow claims that the American Constitution promotes science and the useful arts by commodifying them: “The idea is that a diverse literary culture, created by authors whose livelihoods, and thus independence, can’t be threatened, is essential to democracy.” Is he actually saying that only independently wealthy authors are capable of creating the diverse literary culture essential to democracy? Even more bizarre is his conclusion: “The Constitution’s framers had it right. Soviet-style repression is not necessary to diminish authors’ output and influence. Just devalue their copyrights.”
First of all, it is hard to believe that anyone has attempted to “diminish [American] authors’ output and influence” since the McCarthy era, and furthermore, it’s even harder to comprehend how the slavery “the Constitution’s framers” sanctioned was more benign than “Soviet-style repression” in terms of the threat it might have posed to the diversity of literary culture and democracy in America.
So what is Scott Turow really saying? It’s simple: he is expressing nostalgia for the America of yesterday. In the emerging digital world, power can no longer be bought and sold in the marketplace—it has to be earned by what you do: if you want to publish, become a curator of the credible; if you want to write, don’t give up your day job. »
2 Roland Barthes, The Death of the Author, 1968
3 Michel Foucault, What is an Author? 1969
4 O’Reilly, Tools of Change for Publishing [LinkedIn blog], January 23, 2013
5 New York Times, April 7, 2013
From subTerrain #64 (Spring 13)