Is authorship worth the candle it lights?

In my previous blog, I wrote about fiction writers and the issue of language as experience versus language as representation. These are just different perspectives about the status of language and its function.

If we view language as experience, then there’s something to be said about the need to have certain experiences as a writer; or as long as the author can invoke a certain experiences within the reader, then fiction can tell a “truth” and that there is a legitimacy for the fiction.  

If we view language as representation, then the question arises as to the extent to which the author can or should represent someone or some experiences that they might not have had. This too begs the question of what or whom can be represented by the author, and how might such representation turn the represented into objects of the author’s stories as opposed to giving them the rights as subjects of their world.

These issues are not binary although they are often if not always debated as if they are.  

I want to entertain a different way of thinking about these issues. Perhaps we should think about literary fiction, or writing in general, not only in terms of their expressive values, that is what stories or purpose they serve, but how we privilege the notion of “the author”.

The problem of cultural appropriation may be less about the representation of the people and the social relationships between the representor and the represented but more about our “ideological status” of the author.

By giving the author a status of representor, we assign the author with an authority to limit fictional characters as heroes or villains, victims or agents of the situations, which situation is marginalising or inclusive. The author is the principle in the communication of meaning and we are assigning legitimacy of what is being said to the author.

Might we consider the reverse – a do away of authorship? The author is not the creator of any work, but merely draws on the ideas or symbols of what are already out there. It’s the readers who are assembling these ideas or symbols through shared understandings of grammar or logic of metaphors that ultimately come up with their meanings. Meanings do not reside in the what the authors puts on the paper. Rather, meaning is formed by what readers assign to those words. There is no story until the readers make meanings that themselves precede the words appearing on the pages.

What I am suggesting is that the authors does not precede the writing that they produce. In fact, what they write abide with a functional principle by which we as a collective in society generally choose to accept or reject. In Foucault’s words, the author is an “ideological product” that we represent them to be. So, we could reverse the problem with representation by not giving authors the legitimacy of proliferating a certain meaning through their stories. We won’t then have a problem with cultural appropriation as there is no “representation” as such, only a production of a certain culture that we already know or perhaps fearful of knowing.

This may suggest that culture cannot be limited by any author, or a culture in which fictitious characters can operate freely and would develop freely without an author controlling them. In other words, we can all imagine culture within fiction without any constraining author. This could be seen in ghost writers or even blog writers – who is the real author? Or is there a real author? Does anyone care?

This idea of non-authorship is less about who is the real author but what is being said and the manner in which fiction can function as truth telling, which bring us back to how fiction is experienced. The limits of our imagination or truths are determined by the experienced, not by the person who writes the experiences.  

Perhaps I am suggesting a dangerous idea where authors are anonymous. We would no longer concern with who’s speaking? who spoke? for whom do they speak for? are they really them or someone else? with what authenticity or originality do they write?

Instead there might be questions like what is being experienced? what is the discourse? how can it be circulated? who can appropriate these ideas for themselves?

We also might hear nothing but an indifference: what difference does it make who is speaking?

As an academic whose lifeline is on publications and citations that ultimately privileges not only authorship but the knowledge that they advance, which paradoxically is constructed on the knowledge that was founded and therefore preceded their work, my suggestion of a do away with authorship is mad – so mad because it counters the very idea of academia, one that Foucault would refer to as “transcendental narcissism”.  

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