By happenstance I read Foucault’s “What is an Author?” and Paul D. Miller (aka DJ Spooky That Subliminal Kid–yes, that’s the name on the cover) in succession. It might be that that Miller “remixes” many sources in his work, but I found so much overlap here that I’ve just got to note it before I forget.
There are some echoes in the source material both use–both Miller and Foucault reference Arabian Nights, and talk about écriture (the French word for writing/handwriting, but both use it in the similar ways to mean contemporary self-referential writing), which makes me think that Miller had read the essay and is, at least somewhat, responding to it.
The Nobody Author
One of Foucault’s central arguments is that the name of the author is defined by his/her works in the way normal people’s names and other knowledge-producers (like scientists) are not. When we say Dickens is this or that, we are, at least in part, talking about the author of Great Expectations. If Dickens were found out not to be the author of Great Expectations, the meaning of his name would change. So, says Foucault, that means that the product (work) precedes the producer…but that doesn’t make sense, so the product is actually the author: “We are accustomed…to saying that the author is the genial creator of a work….The truth is quite the contrary: the author is not an indefinite source of significations which fill a work…the author is an ideological product” (118-119). In other words, the author is kind of optional–Foucault isn’t being literal, but spinning this culturally. The single monolithic author-genius concepts we rely on when we talk about the cannon greats, Shakespeare, Dickens, Poe and all the rest, are just concepts, ones that *poof* we can do without: “I think that, as our society changes…the author function will disappear” (119).
Similarly, Miller comments on this lack/death/optionality of the author throughout his work, calling the author-center, “The person without qualities who cannot say ‘I'” and the “idiot.” The author who is a “slave to the moment” is where he begins his work, replicating the function of sampling technology. Here also, the center of creation is not a monolithic author–the DJ cannot claim credit, and the closest thing to an author is the technology melded with the capabilities of the DJ, using the music of many other voices. Like Foucault, Miller is saying that the central concept of an author is nonsensical, and, in some ways the work of a DJ does just what Foucault predicted with the disappearance of the author-function.
The Networked Author/Text
Part of the reason why the author is “dead,” according to Foucault, is that the body of an author’s work is not unified. Foucault says we attribute a “curious unity” to the body of an author’s work, but this is also merely a de-stable construct—what is an author’s work? His letters? His drafts? His laundry lists?
In this issue, I agree with Foucault, finding the reasonable boundaries of an author’s literary product is a real problem in (mostly historical) literary studies. In my Emily Dickinson course, we looked at letters, at scraps of poems which might have been drafts or just notes to remember, and it felt as though, at times we were investigating the author rather than her work—but what is the boundary between these concepts? I’m also reminded of the awful movie, Possession, in which the literary “scholars” were obsessed with finding the romantic minutiae of an author’s life, completely apart from his work or any interpretation of it—scholars tittering over antique bedclothes in a fan-type, Oh-My-God-he-touched-it way.
Foucault focuses on this ambiguity of the author’s work based on the fuzzy boundaries between the life and the work of the author, but he also briefly explores the ambiguity between the work and the rest of the world, that “discourses are objects of appropriation” (108) but he doesn’t dwell on proving this concept; instead, he quickly moves to a critique of writing (discourse) as a product rather than essentially an act (a concept to come back to as I read Oral vs. Literate culture essays).
Miller, however, explores both concepts with equal force. Miller dives into the language of hypertext to describe the way that we construct out of appropriation, calling it “life in the data-cloud” (21) and “the web is the dominant metaphor for the way we think” (24). In fact, we are so surrounded with information that we both cannot help but to appropriate, and may even lose our identities in the sheer quantity of information (Foucault takes this as a foregone conclusion in the very act of authorship): “We’re in a delirium of saturation…If I internalize the environment around me, who is going to control how the information eventually resurfaces? It’s an uncanny situation; the creative act becomes a dispersion of self” (25). This “dispersion of self” becomes the focus of the work, if one can be gathered through repetition, and is the note Miller ends his book on, seemingly in an effort to both embrace the environment that allows this dispersion, and to ultimately regroup an attributed self out of this networked morass.
Foucault compares the “death of the author” to Nietzsche’s “God is Dead” statement. Because the work precedes the author, the author is multiple, the concept of an author is culturally-constructed, and really not stable. But it goes deeper than that–he says that the author’s identity is canceled by his writing, the author is sacrificed through his writing is a way opposite to an subsumed by immortality (that’s deconstruction for you–you can have the opposing evidence as proof).
In the beginning of his essay, Foucault mentions a Beckett’s rhetorical question “What does it matter who is speaking” to demonstrate the lack of an author. Miller ends with a question that goes a step further: “Who speaks through you?” In a way, this statement assumes Foucault’s starting point, that there is a lack in the space where we think the author should occupy, but, interestingly, in a statement that seems to start from a position of negating identity, it has a ton of implied identity in it. First off, the person or persons speaking through you have agency, they have a voice and an identity, a “who.” Miller actually asks us to identify these people/influences (a hidden pro-attribution message here?).
Secondly, who is “you”? The other (the “who”) is doing the speaking, but what are you doing? If you are at least in control of selecting who speaks through you, “you” has creative control. It’s still a depressing view of creativity, in my view, which panders to the “there’s nothing new under the sun” ideology, but at least there is a “you” there. It’s a fair backing-up from Foucault—there is the potential for an author.
In a funny (and appropriate) way, Miller sets himself up in a position before Foucault. Miller asks the question “Who speaks through you?” and Foucault answers “What does it matter who is speaking” to which Miller could answer, “Hi, Beckett!”
Fun stuff. I didn’t particularly agree with either work, but they are definitely useful in pinpointing the ideas of lack of authorship, multiplicity of authorship, the fuzzy boundaries of an author’s work, and the criticism of the author as an immutable godhead.