The murmur of the snarkmatrix…

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Author-functions and work-functions

There are many, many noteworthy things in this interview with Clay Shirky, but this caught my attention (bold-emphasis is mine):

[W]hat we’re dealing with now, I think, is the ramification of having long-form writing not necessarily meaning physical objects, not necessarily meaning commissioning editors and publishers in the manner of making those physical objects, and not meaning any of the sales channels or the preexisting ways of producing cultural focus. This is really clear to me as someone who writes and publishes both on a weblog and books. There are certain channels of conversation in this society that you can only get into if you have written a book. Terry Gross has never met anyone in her life who has not JUST published a book. Right?

The way our culture works, depending on what field you’re operating in, certain kinds of objects (or in some cases, events) generate more cultural focus than others. Shirky gives an example from painting: “Anyone can be a painter, but the question is then, ‘Have you ever had a show; have you ever had a solo show?’ People are always looking for these high-cost signals from other people that this is worthwhile.” In music, maybe it used to be an album; in comedy, it might be an hour-long album or TV special; I’m sure you can think of others in different media. It’s a high-cost object that broadcasts its significance. It’s not a thing; it’s a work.

But, this is important: it’s even more fine-grained than that. It’s not like you can just say, “in writing, books are the most important things.” It depends on what genre of writing you’re in. If you’re a medical or scientific researcher, for instance, you don’t have to publish a book to get cultural attention; an article, if it’s in a sufficiently prestigious journal, will do the trick. And the news stories won’t even start with your name, if they get around to it at all; instead, a voice on the radio will say, “according to a new study published in Nature, scientists at the University of Pennsylvania…” The authority accrues to the institution: the university, the journal, and ultimately Science itself.

The French historian/generally-revered-writer-of-theory Michel Foucault used this difference to come up with an idea: In different cultures, different kinds of writers are accorded a different status that depends on how much authority accrues to their writing. In the ancient world, for instance, stories/fables used to circulate without much, if any, attribution of authorship; medical texts, on the other hand, needed an auctoritas like Galen or Avicenna to back them up. It didn’t make any sense to talk about “authorship” as if that term had a universal, timeless meaning. Not every writer was an author, not every writing an act of authorship. (Foucault uses a thought-experiment about Nietzsche scribbling aphorisms on one side of a sheet of paper, a laundry or shopping list on the other.)

At the same time, you can’t just ignore authorship. Even if it’s contingent, made-up, it’s still a real thing. It’s built on social conventions and serves a social function. There are rules. Depending on context, it can be construed broadly or narrowly. And it can change — and these changes can reveal things that might otherwise be hidden. For instance, from the early days of print until the 20th century, publishers in England shared some of the author-function of a book because they could be punished for what it said. At some point in the 20th century, audiences became much more interested in who the director of a film was. (In some cases, the star or producer or studio, maybe even the screenwriter still share some of that author-function.) And these social ripples — who made it, who foots the bill, who’s an authority, who gets punished? — those are all profound ways of producing “cultural focus.”

Foucault focused on authorship — the subjective side of that cultural focus — because he was super-focused on things like authority and punishment. But it’s clear that there’s an objective side of this story, too, the story of the work — and that the two trajectories, work and author, work together. You become an “author” and get to be interviewed by Terry Gross because you’ve written a book. And you get to write a book (and have someone with a suitable amount of authority publish it) because you accrue a certain amount and kind of demonstrable authority and skill (in a genre where writing a book is the appropriate kind of work).

It’s no surprise, then, that the Big Digital Shake-Up in the way cultural objects are produced, consumed, sold, disseminated, re-disseminated, etc. is shifting our concepts of both authorship and the work in many genres and media. What are the new significant objects in the fields that interest you? Pomplamoose makes music videos; Robin wrote a novella, but at least part of that “work” included the blog and community created by it; and Andrew Sullivan somehow manages to be the “author” of both the book The Conservative Soul and the blog The Daily Dish, even when it switches from Time to The Atlantic, even when someone else is guest-writing it. And while it takes writing a book to get on Fresh Air, to really get people on blogs talking about your book, it helps to have a few blog posts, reviews, and interviews about it, so there’s something besides the Amazon page to link to.

Maybe being the author of a blog is a new version of being an author of a book. I started (although I’m not the only author of) Bookfuturism because I started stringing together a bunch of work that seemed to be about the future of reading; through that, my writing here, and some of the things I wrote elsewhere, I became a kind of authority on the subject (only on the internet, but still, I like who links to me); and maybe I’ll write a book, or maybe I’ll start a blog with a different title when it’s time to write about something else. I don’t know.

It’s all being reconfigured, as we’re changing our assumptions about what and who we pay attention to.

Chimerical post-script: Not completely sure where it fits in, but I think it does: Robin and José Afonso Furtado pointed me to this post by Mike Shatzkin about the future of bookselling, arguing (I’m paraphrasing) that with online retailers like Amazon obliterating physical bookstores, we need a new kind of intermediary that helps curate and consolidate books for the consumer, “powered” by Amazon. It’s not far off from Robin’s old post about a “Starbucks API.” See? Even your coffee has an author-function.

Anyways, new authors, new publishers, new media, new works, new devices, new stores, new curators, new audiences — everything with a scrap of auctoritas is up for grabs.

July 7, 2010 / Uncategorized


I’m totally on board with what you’re saying here; I’m living it. I got a (more lucrative than grad school) book deal which was primarily based on me curating reader-submitted photos and adding captions. If it weren’t for blogging in a very new media type manner, there would be no object.

Great post Tim, you hit so many nails on their heads. In computer programming there are programs; in computer science there are algorithms and optimizations of algorithms. On one hand, I take this assumption for granted—it is the assumption of both pop and high culture, of news-hook based journalism, of academia, of white collar resumes and crafty portfolios, of protest and outrage politics, even of blogospheric celebrity. You are right, all kinds of new modes of authority are opening up, and that’s great; it’s also sad that some others are dying even though they were the cherished dreams of so many. But I don’t know if they are necessarily opening up to the things I’d *want them* to open up, of the ones I’d want to open up can open up. Some major piece of my life experience makes me want to rebel against the very nature of this assumption, regardless of the its changing manifestation: I know so many invisible people whose quiet habits, disorganized acts of kindness, and many consistent but unsharable modes of excellence generate my respect and impel me to cherish their conversation; their invisibility in these channels of conversation is disheartening, like a nutritional deficiency, yet there is so often no good way to safely transfer them over into the buzzing channels. There are so many Boo Radleys in the world; you cannot pull them out into the light because that would be destructive and cruel.

I suppose that’s the special power of art, and the explanation of why writers and artists often feel like thieves: certain kinds of literature and journalism and music and art are the only ways these invisible people can get indirectly representative without busting their privacy and fragile lives. It’s like the book that’s published at the end of The Lives of Others—the playwright gets all the authority points but as the spymaster quiety says, “it’s for me”. This might even be a specific explanation for why Harper Lee has so persistently not taken advantage of the considerable authority her work has given her. Only she knows if there was, actually, a real Boo Radley out there, so only she can feel bad at being the proxy recipient of his accolades.

Tim Carmody says…

I think that’s absolutely right: as Shirky points out, the people you most need to talk to aren’t always the people who’ve just written a book.

There’s a kind of informal, indirect authority, the kind that used to be more like the relationship between journalists or detectives and their sources, that’s easier to come by now. It’s generally easier (I think) to build networks of people interested in the same general (or specific) subject, and to find the guy/girl who’s a peculiar, quiet expert in their field. Sometimes these people stay trade secrets, sometimes they get missed altogether. These people tend not to be interested (at least very much) in recognition anyways, as long as they’re able to do their work and be appreciated by people who know what they’re talking about.

And especially when you want to move outside that circle, where people are more likely to say “okay — who are you again?” — that reminds hard without more traditional laurels. There’s nothing utopian about it.

Dan says…

As long as we’re invoking French theorists, I’ll drag in Bruno Latour’s notion of “cycles of credibility.” The basic premise is: for many scientists (or scholars generally), the goal of one day’s work is to be able to work better another day. All the trappings—grants, recognition, citations, professorships—have value unto themselves, but they are most valuable because they grant access to the material, connections, data, and labor necessary to do even better work in the future.

Latour obfuscates the concept in this diagram:
(I love Latour’s diagrams—mostly as absurdist art.)

Tim may have been alluding to the cycle of credibility with this throw-off: “These peo­ple tend not to be inter­ested (at least very much) in recog­ni­tion any­ways, as long as they’re able to do their work and be appre­ci­ated by peo­ple who know what they’re talk­ing about. “

Dan says…

Saheli: I adore the sympathy and pathos in this line— “it’s also sad that some oth­ers are dying even though they were the cher­ished dreams of so many.”

Just sayin.

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