Intellectual property, that is to say the private ownership of words and ideas: it doesn’t sound like the kind of relationship with knowledge that a place of higher learning like a university ought to foster, does it? Besides, how do you even steal words, or ideas? They are hardly gone after you have snatched them. How about ‘lying about whose work it is,’ then? Perhaps that’s the crux of the matter. Producing knowledge requires an effort, which is usually defined as ‘work’. If anybody could simply claim the credit for the work of anybody else then the knowledge industry – which is regulated by market relations that monetise this credit in various ways – would cease to function. But surely the social good lies in the knowledge itself, not in its attribution, and besides the example of the anonymous authors of so much oral poetry, traditional music and contemporary street art, it is quite possible to imagine a utopian pinko knowledge industry where ideas circulate freely, thus facilitating and accelerating the production of more knowledge.
Because in truth, how can you locate the point of origin of an idea or a certain sequence of words except in the culture itself? Roland Barthes, circa 1968, in ‘The Death of the Author’:
The text is a tissue of quotations drawn from the innumerable centres of culture. […] [T]he writer can only imitate a gesture that is always anterior, never original.
The following year, Michel Foucault began his essay ‘What is an author?’ by posing a question originally formulated by Samuel Beckett: ‘What does it matter who is speaking?’ to which Barthes had replied in advance:
writing is the destruction of every voice, of every point of origin. Writing is that neutral, composite, oblique space where our subject slips away, the negative where all identity is lost, starting with the very identity of the body writing.
Now I don’t want to dumb-down these two essays and their peculiar conversation to a couple of easy-to-digest snippets, nor ignore the specific historical and cultural conditions in which they were produced, at a time when what Foucault dubbed ‘the-man-and-his-work-criticism’ held full sway. But one could legitimately ask: if an understanding of intertextuality and the ideas of the death of the author and the author-function have been around for so long, why haven’t they changed the way the publishing industry operates, or forced a rethinking of what constitutes plagiarism in publishing and academia? Is it simply a case of those critics and those ideas having been cast aside?
I would say yes, and no. On the one hand, yes, the publishing industry has changed its ways not an iota, nor did Barthes or Foucault themselves to my knowledge ever renounce their name on the cover or the customary protections and moral rights afforded to a published author. Ditto Ihimaera. Hell, even Bansky has claimed these, albeit ‘against his better judgment’. But I think more profoundly the idea that authorship and its integrity matter has proved equally as resilient. Pierre Menard himself tell us that we can’t quite dispense completely with it – even as he goes about turning it upside down – by showing how differently we would have to read Don Quixote if we knew it to have been written by a 20th century Frenchman as opposed to a 17th century Spaniard.
Of course, you say? Well, yes. But consider how electronic writing and the Internet were meant to change all this, further unsettling traditional ideas concerning just who it is who does the writing and possibly killing the author all over again by circulating near-infinite variations on a near-infinite number of texts without a discernible point of origin, or a shred of attribution. This remains a source of anxiety, but I would argue it really hasn’t happened yet. If anything, people who write on the Web have developed a whole new and highly sophisticated sensitivity towards issues of textual attribution and historicity. I’ve touched in the past by way of example upon the edit history of Wikipedia entries, which shows an attention to intricate philological issues on the part of a writing community that consists largely – and I mean this in the most non-derogatory way possible – of amateurs.
The credible bloggers are also very careful to acknowledge their sources, and the manner in which they do so is interesting, for the hyperlinks provided often point to the pages where each discovery took place. It’s only by means of further hyperjumps, following a Star-Trek-like wormhole of sorts, that one is likely to get to the source proper, the location where that particular text came to be, the ‘mothertext’ if you will. Or not, of course, there’s always the possibility that one or more of the pages might have expired by then, but that for once doesn’t matter: it’s in that pattern of connections, however provisional and unstable, that one can glimpse a new way of mapping the 3-dimensional space where authorship and readership come to coexist.
I want to steal this talk again, and to discuss what the author-function of a blogger, amongst others, might be. I suspect we’ll find it is highly plastic and I’ll go as far as to reserve a word to describe this, allthor, an extremely catchy and MBA-friendly term that perhaps some of you might help me fill – I have but vaguest of ideas at present, save for the fact that I think it would be an interesting question to explore.
But in the meantime, what of Ihimaera’s indiscretions? Would it even matter that he neglected to credit those sources, were it not for the legal framework within which the publishing industry operates, or the possibly antiquated notions of originality and individuality that we choose to entertain in this particular medium? I think that even under those conditions it does, it would. For crediting a source, the site where some particular words came together in the way that they did, means also preserving a trace of the text’s place within the culture that produced it, of its genealogy. But as in a genealogy, the presentation of the copied text is better viewed as the re-presentation of the original, a facsimile perpetuating a forgotten past to an unknowing or unwitting reader anew, perhaps guiding them closer to a history they may well otherwise have lost.
Consider a remote and fanciful future where Menard’s Quixote survived while Cervantes’ didn’t, and furthermore there was no knowledge that the earlier of the two books had even been written. This is the kind of loss – of metadata, of history, of memory – that you would be measuring every day.