Thursday, February 11, 2010

The question of truth and authorship in the face of wikipedia and hypertext

While reading, “You Say You Want A Revolution?”, the question of hypertext as a tool of liberation struck my interest, less out of what it means for the laws of media, but what it means for the complicated question of authorship.

As Moulthrop wrote, “Hyperreality privileges no discourse as absolute or definitive; critique becomes just another form of paralogy, a countermove in the language game that is techno-social construction of reality. The game is all- encompassing, and therein lies a problem.” I see a distinct parallel between this statement and that of Foucault in What is an Author?, when he wrote “Writing has become linked to sacrifice, even to the sacrifice of life: it is now a voluntary effacement that does not need to be represented in books, since it is brought about in the writer's very existence. The work, which once had the duty of providing immortality, now possesses the right to kill, to be its author's murderer, as in the cases of Flaubert, Proust, and Kafka. That is not all, however: this relationship between writing and death is also manifested in the effacement of the writing subject's individual characteristics. Using all the contrivances that he sets up between himself and what he writes, the writing subject cancels out the signs of his particular individuality. As a result, the mark of the writer is reduced to nothing more than the singularity of his absence; he must assume the role of the dead man in the game of writing.”

In short, Foucault argues that once a text is written, the will of its author no longer matters, as he has been superseded by his creation. As Barthes puts it in the conclusion of The Death of The Author, “the birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the Author.”

To return to Moulthrop, “We are far more likely to hear technology described as an instrumentality of change or a tool for liberation. Bolter (1991), Drexler (1987), McCorduck (1985), and Zuboff (1988) all contend that postmodern mode of communication (electronic writing, computer networks, text-linking systems) can destabilize social hierarchies and promote broader definitions of authority in the informational workplace.”

With the creation of hypertext, this death of the author does not occur. The hyperreal text is not an immutable entity that stands apart from its creator’s intention, but as with the example of Wikipedia, a democratic confluence in which the line between writer and reader is blurred: anyone may add their own content and voice to an always editable page. Whereas before, a text’s meaning was separate from its author’s intent and was left to each reader’s interpretation, the meaning of every topic is subject only to the number of people/ users/ readers/editors/authors one can get to agree with them.

As Moulthrop writes, “With Xanadu, Nelson invalidates technological abjection, advancing an unabashedly millenarian vision of technological renaissance in which the system shall set us free. In its extensive ambitions Xanadu transcends the hyperreal. It is not an opium vision but something stranger still, a business plan for the development of what Barthes called "the “social” space of writing" (81), a practical attempt to reconfigure literate culture. Xanadu is the most ambitious project ever proposed for hypertext or "non-sequential writing" (_Dream Machines_ 29; _Literary Machines_ 5/2)… Because it is no longer book-bounded, hypertextual discourse may be modified at will as reader/writers forge new links within and among documents. Potentially this collectivity of linked text, which Nelson calls the "docuverse," can expand without limit.”

To continue with the discussion of Wikipedia, the idea of truth has never been more of a simulation, if only because the information read on the site is based only what the most people agree on and its community of users write for themselves. There is no voice of the individual, god-like author nor of the text and no real from which it derives, there is only the “society” of author-readers and the mark they choose to leave.

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