What difference does it make who is speaking?

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:

Posted by Nate Angell

Wandering IQ. Raised by wolves. Friend to cheese. Working to bend the arc of justice. Learn more about my professional and educational history on LinkedIn and on this blog, or if you really want to get to know me, follow me on Twitter.

2 Replies to “What difference does it make who is speaking?”

  1. I’m really, really interested in this–partly because I studied and wrote about Foucault back when I was still doing research on philosophy rather than (as now) about teaching and learning. And I was fascinated with his argument about authorship. Still am.

    Though he says the following is a romantic notion, I wonder if some aspects of how we interact online today might start to move in that direction:

    “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.”

    Not just the fictive, but the non-fictive as well (assuming he is using “fiction” in the “usual” sense). Choral explanations is one example. I hadn’t heard of the NPR thing before, and perusing their story and the Hearken site, I can’t quite tell how it all works well enough to understand how that might affect the “author-function,” as Foucault puts it.

    I have another example as well. I work with a few teams of people at my institution on our school’s wiki site: http://wiki.ubc.ca. We use the wiki to create content that goes onto other websites, such as http://open.ubc.ca. I am also working with professors who are creating open case studies with their students–case studies on various topics (most are on environmental and sustainability issues at the moment) that are co-written by instructors and various sets of students in different classes. The content created in such spaces is written by multiple people, sometimes even at the sentence/word level.

    And yet, most of that content is licensed CC BY or CC BY-SA. Which raised a question for me: if someone wants to attribute, who does the “BY” attach to? There are multiple authors–one can get to the contributions of each through the wiki page “history,” but the work as a whole is quite collaborative. Is there a single author?

    It seems like this and the choral explanations example could be ones that fit the idea quoted above, of work not having to pass through a “constraining figure”. True of Wikipedia too, on those articles that have multiple authors/edits (which I think is most?).

    Thanks for a thought-provoking post!


    1. Christina:

      Thanks for commenting! Sorry it took so long to surface, but my Disqus settings weren’t set to notify me right.

      First, I’m really excited about the work you are participating in on the UBC Wiki, which aligns with what I now call “renewable assignments”—I’ve started posting on this blog more about what I’m pretentiously calling “Renewable Experiential & Applied Learning”—or #REAL—that is directly related to that kind of work. I’ll add your example to the list of #REAL examples I’m starting to collect.

      Like you, I find returning to writings like Foucault’s can be thought-provoking as we labor in such practical realities of knowledge production. On the surface, CC BY does seem to be a mechanism that underwrites (ha ha) the author function. And in the #REAL context, CC BY is so important as it gives learners the opportunity to exercise their “authorial muscles” in a culture and economy where being able to claim authorship still counts for a lot.

      OTOH, your example of a CC BY wiki does also seem to shift the author function as the work itself is not as tied to individual authorial activity as much as to the collective work of multiple authors. Practically, if I were attributing such a wiki, I’d likely attribute the “author” to the organization behind the wiki (eg, UBC), but with the hope that the wiki itself had an effective way of listing the individual authors that had contributed (which most do).

      When we get to choral explanations, my next stop is the fedwiki work that @wardcunningham @holden & others have been up to that inspires the choir. I think of fedwiki as a distributed wiki, where the organization “behind” the information is not something as addressable as UBC, but instead is a network so much harder to attribute. The author function in fedwiki gets even more complicated as on one hand you can view it as individuals taking more of a central role in the production and sustenance of information they have authored, but also at the same time as a breaking apart of monolithic authorial activity. So on one hand, wiki-culture is eroding the established author function, but also making individual authorial activity even more evident as very specific and local authorial activity can now be tracked and surfaced far more effectively and completely than the collective activity in earlier discursive formations.

      Which leads me to think that wikis are a very interesting place to be looking for and thinking about the archeology of knowledge as Foucault would inspire, and I’m betting there is a whole flock of folks already doing so that I need to read ;)

      Hopefully we can talk about this more at #opened16 or elsewhere!


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *