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One of the most important issues brought out by the advent of Wikipedia is the displacement of the traditional model of the encyclopedia, elaborated by specialist teams and based on enlightenment ideas, and its replacement by a new model - a collective and shared venture, produced by a multitude of people who, whether or not they are recognized specialists, collaborate in a joint effort to compile knowledge. Therefore, what comes to be questioned is the authority (ability or merit) of those who produce knowledge. It is no mere coincidence that the words “ author” and “ authority” share etymological roots (from the Latin, auctor). In this vein, the theme of authorship itself merits further discussion, as we search for a better understanding of Wikipedia as a contemporary cultural phenomenon. My contribution to the debate at the WikiWars congress thus consists of reflections on authorship processes, which I see as historical constructions that have correlates in the different cultural and subjective constitutions of particular societies and epochs. My analysis will also attempt to include the technological platforms that provide the support base for discursive production in each historical period, or “writing spaces” - to adopt the concept Jay Bolter uses to define the interaction between the material properties of each support base and social practices surrounding the appropriation of writing. My hypothesis is that Wikipedia represents a new model of authorship for our times that, in turn, is linked to the way discursive production is socially validated. My point of departure is located in Michel Foucault’s thought, and particularly his argument regarding the historicity of the concept of authorship. Thus, I begin with a brief review of his ideas, meant to clarify the methodological direction I follow here. I then go on to discuss Bolter’s concept of remediation, which he developed in order to reflect on the dynamics of media evolution as a process of cultural construction of new
Paper presented at the WikiWars Conference, Bangalore, 2010. Beatriz Cintra Martins is a Brazilian journalist specialized in Internet projects. Holds a Master's Degree in Communication and Culture from the School of Communication, Rio de Janeiro Federal University, and a PhD in Communication Sciences at the School of Communication and Arts, São Paulo University.
This is followed by a third moment in which I sketch out some
correlations between authorship processes throughout history and the different writing spaces created in different periods. Finally I engage in some considerations on the authorship model that has unfolded through communication networks, placing emphasis on the Wikipedia case. The ideas that I have developed herein are a part of the doctoral research on the theme “Authorship through the Web” which I am currently carrying out at the University of São Paulo. Thus, more than proposing conclusive arguments, I hope to
raise issues, establish interlocutions and perhaps pose some new questions – the very challenge that has made the research process itself so instigating.
2. What is an author?
I begin, then, with Foucault, and his reflections on what an author is. For the French philosopher, an author is that which makes a discourse take shape, giving it unity and coherence. He believes that the author plays a role in the circulation of discourse in a given society that goes beyond personal attributes. In order to think about this role, Foucault creates the concept of the “author function”; in his own words: “The author function is therefore a characteristic of the mode of existence, circulation and working of certain discourses within a given society.” (FOUCAULT, 2006: 46) At the same time, from his point of view, the author function does not have a universal character. Its configuration varies from one historical period to another. There was a time when literary texts circulated with no concern for attributing authorship, yet this did not detract from their relevance nor quality. Thus, according to Foucault, in the Middle Ages, scientific texts acquired credibility only insofar as they were connected to a name that conceded validity. “Hipocrates said”, Foucault states as an example of authorial reference. This type of “signature” loses its importance during the 17th and 18th centuries, the same period in which literary discourses begin to require an authorial endorsement to be considered as worthy of reception: “all texts of poetry and fiction are now subjected to questioning regarding where they came from, who wrote them, when they were written, in what circumstances and as part of what type of project.” (FOUCAULT, 2006, p. 49). What I should make salient in these reflections, in order to think about the current phenomenon of collaborative processes, is the emphasis on the historical nature
of authorship. In other words, I draw attention to the importance of researching how modes of discourse circulation vary across time, the ways and forms in which they are valued, whether authorship is or is not attributed and if attribution is individual or collective, and whether it is carried out through naming or through anonymity. In this task, particularly, as Foucault points out, it is interesting to identify the conditions reigning within the order of discourse that made the emergence of the subject possible. There is a particular moment in which the individual author appears as a central figure sustaining discursivity, in a way that was not necessarily the case during other periods of history. For purposes of articulating this investigation on different models of authorship throughout history with the evolution of writing spaces, we will take the concept of remediation as our our key, following a line that is consistent with Foucauldian thought.
2. Remediation as a logic of media evolution
In analyzing a new communication technology, there is a temptation to employ what we could call a “rupture bias”, that is, the perspective that claims that what has emerged today is absolutely different from all that existed in the past. What is seductive about this kind of analysis is that we are able to imagine that, in placing ourselves before a new technical object, something revolutionary may occur, whether in the relationship that we establish with the media or – in more deterministic analyses – in social and political organization itself. Yet in reality, a new media never arises out of the blue, as if transcendental and removed from earlier points of reference. Much to the contrary, in order to understand the cultural dynamics that are involved in the appropriation of each new media, we must take into account that what is apparently a novelty is in fact remediation, as Bolter calls it, that is, a remodeling of the media languages that came before. The study of remediation processes is based on the notion of genealogy, that is, a search for historical affiliations or resonances rather than origins. Therefore, research of this sort requires a meticulous gaze that enables us to explore the traces, details and clues that make it possible to establish lineage. As Foucault asserts, genealogy is the research of lineage that “permits the discovery, under the unique aspect of trait or a concept, of the myriad events, through which – thanks to which, against which – they have been formed” (146).
Within this logic, what is really new in a means of communication is the distinct way in which it reshapes that which came before it, the characteristics through which it reinvents or gives a new format to earlier mediations. Or perhaps, the way in which it relates, dialectically, to other languages. This is a dialectics that also includes movement in the opposite direction: the old means, in turn, undergo constant re-creation, incorporating some of the traits of the emergent ones in order to remain up-to-date and keep up with the new languages. As Bolter argues, remediation is a movement that is both pays homage to and fuels dispute among medias. The concept of remediation is particularly adequate for thinking about the language of digital media, understanding it not as a revolution in relation to earlier media but as a re-formatting of other languages and social practices. Through this notion we will now explore the evolution of writing spaces, and more specifically, the constitution of writing within digital media.
3. Writing spaces and authorship models
Keeping in mind that the authorship process is a historical construction and that writing spaces, in turn, are socio-technical creations involving the cultural appropriation of technologies, we will try to correlate them, giving salience to forms of digital interface. In order to do so, we will explore some characteristics of textual production in other moments in history, attempting to identify elements that can configure a language of references for composing within processes of digital writing.
3.1 Authorship in antiquity.
Tracing the historical lineage of authorship, from oral narratives through electronic writing, would demand careful detailing that time and space do not allow. However, I will try to sketch out some routes that the passage from one model of authorship to another have taken in order to suggest nuances that we can consider important for our research here. One initial consideration is required, that of trying to describe the socio-cultural practices of other periods without the interference of contemporary mindsets. For the particular topic we are studying here, this is a very sensitive issue, since we are obliged
to set our current notion of authorship as something individual or proprietary aside in order to adequately perceive what has gone on in the past. We can begin with the question: who is the author of the Illiad and the Odyssey? A hurried answer would be Homer, since this is the signature that appears on the cover and title page of the book. But who in fact was the writer of these poems? This question is revealing of the mentality that we have cited above, the search for an original reference, the author who is responsible for a work. In the debate around what has been called the “Homeric Question” there is one current that defends the position that Homer is in fact its sole author. The other current attempts to demonstrate, through an analysis of narrative construction, that the poems are made up of a variety of smaller compositions by a number of anonymous authors belonging to an oral culture. (NUNES, 2004) Within this context, each person who recited poetry was simultaneously someone who repeated already known poems and one who created them anew; no two performances were ever the same and invention was a part of presentation. Thus, no writer could be thought of as original. Each recital, throughout time, meant recreating the work itself. Works could thus be considered fluid. Another point that deserves attention is the anonymous nature of this process. This does not mean that the reciter was not identifiable at the moment of the performance, but that his/her contribution – that is, that which was added on to the poem that was recited – was not registered for posterity. There was no such concern nor practice. Narrative of this sort was part of a common tradition and the recreations that sprung up around it were also steeped in this culture, belonging to everyone or to no one. Looking backward may help us to better understand current socio-cultural processes, to the extent that we are able to perceive their historical filiations. If the fluid nature of the authorship process in oral narratives reminds us of what we see in the today’s communication networks, some of the characteristics of medieval authorship also sound familiar to us.
3.1 Medieval writing.
It is interesting to note that, while it may not be self-evident, the electronic text also contains elements of medieval manuscript production. Interactivity, for example, which refers to the possibility of intervening in a text, can be understood as a re-
mediation of the medieval practice of notating comments on the margins of manuscripts. Today’s commentaries in blogs and websites are reminiscent of this, insofar as they show some visual traits similar to the books of that period. Technologies, support bases, and even meanings within cultural contexts change, yet in practice, some kind of kinship is maintained. Similarly, the collective production of texts that are disseminated through communication networks – of which Wikipedia is a prime example – have their own characteristics, yet in some way incorporate elements of a practice that was common during the Middle Ages. Writings, during that period, were constructed by diverse agents under the aegis of a collective authority (auctoritas) and were understood as common property3. This mode of writing, known as the scholastic method, is seen by Raffaele Simone (1996) as an industry of textual manipulation. As a hermeneutic exercise, texts were divided into parts, dismembered, notated and expanded, primarily for purposes of study. Notions of completeness or closure did not exist at that time. Therefore, texts with multiple authors were common then, strewn throughout with commentaries and read aloud in public, on which occasion new commentaries could be added. From the point of view of authorship processes, another characteristic that is frequently posed as proper to current textual production through the web network yet also common during the Middle Ages is anonymity. According to Bennett, during that period people were less concerned with the name of the author than with that which the person’s writings revealed. This was because the text did not carry connotations of personal subjective expression but was seen as the interpretation of a divine truth. Sean Burke (1995) endorses this analysis when he argues that collective writing during the Middle Ages was part of a cultural context in which God was considered the supreme source of inspiration for all works, their true author. The artist or author was seen as one who transmitted work of divine creation and therefore not the one to whom particular creative authorial merit was attributed. According to this scholar, this model of divine inspiration, situated above human authorship, was not limited to biblical texts but extended to all intellectual production. It also referred to public revelation of a transcendental knowledge and never an intuition that was private in character.
Regarding authorship during the Middle Ages, see Eisenstein, E. L. The Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe. 2nd ed. New York: Cambridge University, 2005. Print.
3.2 The era of the book
Nonetheless, this more open, interactive and collective model of authorship was transformed during Modernity, a period which provided the conditions for the emergence of a vision of authorship as a process centered around the individual. It is important to note that Modernity was also the era in which the project of the autonomous subject was born. In reality, this was the product of the coming together of a variety of influences, among which we can cite Cartesian thought, the Cartesian notion of the subject – the conscious, rational being who is the agent of knowledge-; the Protestant Reform, which endorsed direct contact between individual consciousness and God; Renaissance humanism, which put Man (sic) at the center of the universe and the Enlightenment, a political movement that sought rationality and autonomy, above religious dogma and beliefs .(HALL, 2002, pp. 25-26). Within this new conjuncture, knowledge is displaced and comes to revolve around the subject. English empiricists, as early as the 17th century, began a movement which questioned the limits of knowledge beyond that which can be perceived through the human senses, the first steps toward the construction of rational and objective notions of knowledge. Kant went deeper into this kind of questioning, promoting a critique of reason aimed at determining the conditions that made knowledge possible which always included an analysis of the subject. The human being thus acquires the autonomy to create and to know, on his/her own and assuming the necessary risks. Within this context, the figure of the author as an individual creator is strengthened. This new cultural context took the printed format as its writing space, which in turn led to new parameters for a textual production market through a growing tendency toward closure and individualization. In this regard, it is the book in particular that lies behind changes in reading and writing practices. Numerous researchers (Bolter; Chartier; McLuhan; Ong) identify the book as the element that strengthened notions of authorship as pertaining to an individual and to the written work as a closed structure. The text became “closed” in a two-fold sense: on the one hand, it had an individually-identified author, and on the other, it was not open to addendums or commentaries. The individualization of reading was a parallel process: the public readings of the medieval period were little by little substituted by the silent and solitary type of reading during what has been referred to as the High Middle Ages. Thus, the separation between author and reader became clearer, as the text itself became closed off to interventions.
What we want to emphasize here is the assertion that authorship is a historical construction that is constantly being displaced, acquiring a diversity of formats that adapt to different cultural contexts. Similarly, the invention of each distinct writing space remakes earlier models and creates the conditions of possibility for each model of authorship. In this regard, the notion of authorship as an individual property is something very specific to the cultural context of Modernity and uses the book as its main platform. Medieval writing, as we have seen, was already collective and interactive; these are characteristics that have imprinted themselves again on textual production today. Nonetheless, as we have already indicated, it is fundamental to perceive what the new medium brings with it that is unique and distinctive, as it reformats earlier models. With this purpose in mind, we now go on to analyze what distinguishes writing within electronic media.
4. The specificity of digital media
We will explore the specificities of digital media from the point of view of their particularities as technologies of writing, in order to identify what distinguishes authorship within this context. For these purposes, we will use remediation as a methodological key, that is, we will attempt to identify how discursive production within this realm maintains connection to earlier authorship processes and how it introduces other characteristics that constitute its distinctive traits, its genuine innovation. In this regard, we are able to verify that, through remediation processes, electronic technology combines the peculiarities of the manuscript – such as interactivity and collective production – with those of the printed text, such as silent individual reading. To these characteristics, those of oral culture are added on, especially insofar as a common cognitive process can be identified. According to De Kerckhove, collective life in oral society always unfolds within context, that is, all its members depend on shared experience for survival. The principal interface of communication is therefore, the human body itself: “The whole body speaks, the whole body remembers, each person’s body makes up part of the body politic” (8). Rituals, dancing and festivities act as mnemotechniques bringing forth the presence and shared nature of the community’s entire semantic repertoire. Songs and rhymes are
socially-shared techniques of memorization. In this way, knowledge and memory are sensorially experienced in a collective way. And thus it becomes possible to keep accumulated knowledge of the past present and alive. If digital media take on these characteristics that belonged to discursive production in other epochs, what in fact can they be seen as inaugurating? For De Kerckhove, what distinguishes digital interface is its “connectivity,” directly linked to another attribute: electricity. Electricity, according to McLuhan, is sense of touch. This means it stimulates all the senses, “ it demands the participation and involvement of the entire being” (375). Following this line of thought, De Kerckhove asserts that electronic interactivity is above all sense of touch, since it involves much more than a point of view in perspective, engaging all of existence, perceiving reality in a proprioceptive way through technological prosthetics of the senses (sight, hearing, touch and in some cases, even smell), as a kind of immersion in a digital environment which is integrated to human and machine relations at a worldwide scale. The hypertextual mind, for this author, is similar to that of the context, yet is not completely collective. While on the one hand it externalizes users’ minds through the computer screen, connecting them and thus configuring a collective public mind, it also promotes individualized navigation. It combines characteristics of both written and oral stages, to which it adds electricity and connectivity. In this manner, it impels the human mind toward another perceptive and cognitive dimension dealing not only with the speed but more notably with the scope of interactions and thus promoting collaborative strategies, particularly in authorship processes. Within this environment, a new type of space emerges, promoting original modes of connecting public and private as extended and collective spaces that launch new potential for creativity. Thus, we can speak of a cybrid space, molded from the interconnection of material and virtual worlds. Thereby, as one sits by himself or herself in front of the computer, one has access to shared (social) memory as well as the possibility of interacting with it. cognition. Electricity, therefore, is a specific trait of digital media that gives another dimension to the attributes that it inherits or remodels from other media. Interactivity and collective production gain a previously unknown breadth and memory, as the capacity for storing data becomes virtually infinite. Together with this, technological In this regard, the hypertext promotes shared
speed permits ever wider and quicker connections, promoting geometrical multiplication of cognitive and creative potential. This sharing of common memory, allied with interactivity, is indicative of another model of authorship which is characterized, above and beyond all, by its transindividual, collaborative, open and unfinished character. Wikipedia can be
considered one of its clearest examples. One way of thinking about the emergence of this phenomenon is to think about how digital writing’s technology of space can contribute to the constitution of this thought community. Its high connectivity and speed, its openness to multiple forms of interaction, added to the emergence of a common memory with planetary dimensions, gives web writing great collective and dialogic potential. Another question that bears a direct relationship to Wikipedia is the way in which content validation is transformed within the web- based model of authorship. Again, Foucault can help us to think about what underlies these displacements, with his understanding of the author as a principle for the rarefication of discourse, part of a set of procedures whose goal is to organize and control the circulation of discourse within society. This means thinking of the author as a form of authority that lends legitimacy to discourse. This authority has been construed in particular ways in different periods. According to some researchers, during Antiquity, it was the muses’ inspiration that validated the poets’ verses. During the Medieval period, a specific type of collectivity, auctoritas, defined the value given to manuscripts. Procedures of scientific validation have occupied a similar place in defining truth within Modernity. It is during this latter period that the figures of the individual author and the creative genius emerge as those who have the authority to express themselves. Today, however, through communication networks, a new type of validating model has been established, in the same molds as web-based authorship: as an interactive and inter-subjective process which has come together through the collective action of a multitude of agents who partake of processes that attribute value. Within this context, it is important to keep in mind that mediation in itself does not come to an end, but rather takes on new contours. Although no longer tied to
individuals, specialists or those with great talents, it can not be considered a practice free of constraints. Wikipedia is, quite evidently, a site of dispute where meaning is negotiated, where a wide range of sectors of society participate in critical definitions of
content. To what extent this process is made up of pressures and limitations is a matter that still calls for more research. I would like to leave the issue of what this new webbased discursive production and collective form of authorship means in terms of the rarefaction of social discourse open for further debate. Are we experiencing the free circulation of discourse or the gestation of new forms of control? 5. Final Considerations.
I have attempted to engage here in reflection on the historical nature of processes of authorship, looking at them as socio-cultural practices that also include the appropriation of technologies of writing. The study of the different models of discursive production of particular historical periods can enable us to better understand the meaning of the Wikipedia model of authorship: which traits of older social practices it incorporates, contributing something new to them; in what terms we should think of this trans-individual and collaborative author that produces content and how, at the same time, we can conceive of the collective authority that lends legitimacy to the former. I have thus attempted to present a field of references that can help us come to a clearer understanding of the phenomenon, its potential and its limitations. I thereby hope that I am able to contribute to enriching discussions on the panel, Designing Debate, in this congress.
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