Thanks to an ongoing discussion with @twigz that has now taken place over so many days and channels that I expect she’s ready to unfriend me (or worse), I’ve been thinking on the role of the author in networked digital culture and how it might be different from the established role of the author.
At the very end of his essay, What is an author?, Michel Foucault imagines a dramatic shift in the cultural role the author plays in the “modern” era that he so carefully lays out in the rest of the essay:
In saying this, I seem to call for a form of culture in which fiction would not be limited by the figure of the author. It would be pure romanticism, however, to imagine a culture in which the fictive would operate in an absolutely free state, in which fiction would be put at the disposal of everyone and would develop without passing through something like a necessary or constraining figure. Although, since the eighteenth century, the author has played the role of the regulator of the fictive; a role quite characteristic of our era of industrial and bourgeois society, of individualism and private property, still, given the historical modifications that are taking place, it does not seem necessary that the author function remain constant in form, complexity, and even in existence. I think that, as our society changes, at the very moment when it is in the process of changing, the author function will disappear, and in such a manner that fiction and its polysemous texts will once again function according to another mode, but still with a system of constraint – one that will no longer be the author but will have to be determined or, perhaps, experienced [expérimenter].
While Foucault first delivered this essay in a lecture some time ago (in 1969), I’m here interested in updating “the historical modifications that are taking place” he mentions to be those of today, including those arising out of digital networked culture. I’m not sure what social changes Foucault was thinking about in 1969, but a lot of change has happened since then for sure.
All discourses, whatever their status, form, value, and whatever the treatment to which they will be subjected, would then develop in the anonymity of a murmur. We would no longer hear the questions that have been rehashed for so long: Who really spoke? Is it really he and not someone else? With what authenticity or originality? And what part of his deepest self did he express in his discourse? Instead, there would be other questions, like these: What are the modes of existence of this discourse? Where has it been used, how can it circulate, and who can appropriate it for himself? What are the places in it where there is room for possible subjects? Who can assume these various subject functions? And behind all these questions, we would hear hardly anything but the stirring of an indifference: What difference does it make who is speaking?
So I’m starting to collect examples of discourse that might bear on the question of whether new roles for the author are in play. Is it starting to matter less who is speaking? And if so, what matters now? Is a new “system of restraint” emerging? What answers can we find to the other questions Foucault asks at the end of the essay?
Possible counter examples—the “modern” author lives on:
- @jason published a fake letter from Twitter CEO @dick calling for verified accounts for all as a way to intervene in harassment on Twitter. A case of digital authorship being redoubled?
- In the same vein, social credibility systems like those used in environments like eBay, Uber, Stack Exchange. Although interestingly, authorship and identity in some of these systems can be pseudonymous, and identity is established via authorial actions over time and social validation.
Possible examples that something is changing in the role of the author: