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What is an Electronic Author?: Theory and the Technological Fallacy

From: Configurations
Volume 2, Number 3, Fall 1994
pp. 469-483 | 10.1353/con.1994.0039

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Configurations 2.3 (1994) 469-483

At the end of his now-classic essay "What Is an Author?" Michel Foucault writes: "The author -- or what I have called the 'author-function'--is undoubtedly only one of the possible specifications of the subject and, considering past historical transformations, it appears that the form, the complexity, and even the existence of this function are far from immutable. We can easily imagine a culture where discourse would circulate without any need for an author." Foucault's essay has most often been read as proclaiming the much-celebrated "death of the author." In posing the question of electronic authorship, I take up one particular version of the death-of-the-author story, the increasingly fashionable tale that the technologies of electronic writing have brought us to the verge (if not into the very midst) of this imaginary culture "where discourse would circulate without any need for an author." By examining the critical discourse in which the theory and practice of electronic writing are being articulated, I want to single out the discursive logic that structures the current articulation of electronic authorship. I focus mainly on four of the most important recent books on electronic writing: Mark Poster, The Mode of Information; Jay Bolter, Writing Space; George Landow, Hypertext; and Richard Lanham, The Electronic Word--all but the first of which have appeared both in print and in electronic formats.

Given the limited aims of this essay, however, I do not undertake an analysis of the electronic versions of these texts. Rather, I articulate the logic of authorship that emerges from these works as emblematic of the contemporary discourse of electronic writing -- a discursive logic that frequently takes the form of a kind of technological determinism, which we might best characterize (with a nod toward Wimsatt and Beardsley) as constituting a technological fallacy. This fallacy most often manifests itself in propositional statements that ascribe agency to technology itself, statements in which the technologies of electronic writing are described as actors. For example:

The electronic word democratizes the world of arts and letters.

Pixeled print calls this basic stylistic decorum [the best style is the style not noticed], and the social ideal built upon it, into question.

The computer rewrites the history of writing by sending us back to reconsider nearly every aspect of the earlier technologies.

[E]lectronic texts naturally join themselves into larger and larger structures, into encyclopedias and libraries.

Electronic writing . . . disperses the subject so that it no longer functions as a center in the way it did in pre-electronic writing.

Computer writing, instantaneously available over the globe, inserts itself into a non-linear temporality that unsettles the relation to the writing subject.

[H]ypermedia linking automatically produces collaboration.

Hypertext systems, just like printed books, dramatically change the roles of student, teacher, assignment, evaluation, reading list, as well as relations among individual instructors, courses, departments, and disciplines.

In calling attention to these formulations I do not mean to suggest that they are in any way unique. Indeed, it is precisely the unremarkability of such propositions that I mean to remark. The fact that any number of similar sentences could have been drawn from these or other recent works on electronic writing attests to the powerful discursive logic that these works exemplify in thinking about the relation between electronic technologies and the theory and practice of authorship, a logic that I start to articulate in this essay. My argument has three parts. I begin with a discussion of the idea that the new electronic technologies realize or instantiate the theoretical assertions of poststructuralism, postmodernism, or deconstruction. I next look at some of the ways in which claims for the agency of electronic technologies in changing cultural practice often elide or marginalize the materiality of these technologies. Finally, I conclude with some speculations about why the discursive logic of electronic authorship tends consistently to represent new technologies as the primary, if not the sole, agents of fundamental change, and some suggestions about the direction that future discussions of electronic authorship might best take.

Although differing on the precise details of the relation between theory, technology, and culture, all four authors would probably assent to...

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