The Specter of the Author

“I find nothing so singular to life as that everything appears to lose its substance the instant one actually grapples with it.” — Nathaniel Hawthorne, The House of the Seven Gables

(Originally published as part of Digital Writing Month, 2012)

Photo by joctaviothomas

The author is dead. She is become as a specter. Faceless, genderless, subject not now only to scrutiny within her own text but to exorcism from it. That text never again will be her own, but a relic of her fondest desire, her wish toward something that mattered, something that made her matter. Yet, she becomes no more than a wisp behind the words, a half-embarrassed face in the mirror, bodiless, wordless.

Authors drain all their lives into their words. They die into them sometimes, and then resurrect themselves within the fashion of letters, phrases, and sentences that describe what they know, what they’ve seen, how their bodies have felt, what their ears have heard, and also what they cannot know but pine to know. Anyone who has committed to paper the story that woke him at night understands the plight of author, desperate for vivid, livid language to deposit that dream, that narrative, that true true story into the mind and heart of a reader. Anyone who has stared unblinkingly at the deep, dark line of the cursor for minutes and hours, deliberating and waiting on the next word — which. will. be. the. right. one — would happily share a beer, a shoulder, a cry with any other author. For the writing process, in the end, is always the same. Write what you know, and hope your readers will know what you’ve written.

Our words are greater than ourselves. They are our memories, and what we’re remembered by, how we’re referenced, how we’re thought of. These words as I write them inform you of me, and in ways you cannot be otherwise informed of me. Dinner conversation won’t do it. Intimacy won’t either. Hold my hand as we walk through the city and you may soak in a part of me that these words are, but you cannot catalogue that, cannot preserve it. These words are me, and they remain me long after I no longer do. Words are the author, and he writes them as a testament. More than that, traditionally the reader has sought the author through the words: who is this speaker? where has he lived? to what does he testify? The “explanation of the work is always sought in the man who has produced it”, says Barthes. Readers have looked for the mind behind the voice in the work, even to the point of cherishing that mind in ways greater than the works it produced. Shakespeare matters as Shakespeare, not as the words alone which he wrote. Melville was a man who wrote about a whale; the whale did not write itself.

To now, the honor of being an author has been knowing your name is attached to a work.

But words are not now what words once were. No testament is final on the Internet. Where ink holds things in place, pins them to the page pretty and still, code behind digital writing is unquiet and shifting. Our words are not even words any more, but strange combinations of numbers, symbols, commands. Our words appear to our fingers as permanent as they did upon the blank sheet rolled around the carriage of an old Underwood, but they are not. Behind the letters we type, our words prefer first the company of the computer before they cozy to any reader; even they speak in secret with the machine’s brain before they register at all to the writer’s eyes. This is not handwriting, and this is not printing. This is a ghostlier writing; and the computer is the medium, staring into the crystal ball, telling those who listen (and he who writes) what communications come from afar.

When words are made of such ectoplasm, the author himself becomes the specter. He dies, and it is not his words which are the relic, but the proposition that he is the author, that a thing-called-author really even is. Indeed, we are coming to a time when people are as likely to believe in authors as they might believe in ghosts. If he is born at all, it is a birth by text; the “modern writer (scriptor) is born simultaneously with his text; he is in no way supplied with a being which precedes or transcends his writing”, says Barthes. This is literally a performance, an actor coming to life on the stage through the words he utters. But today that act is not the act of original creation; today, texts are uttered through acts of distribution, sharing, revision, repurposing.

Writing is an act, and the original writing (like this typing I am doing now) is merely performance, a first utterance which necessarily — if it is to live — will be followed by countless other utterances; and each utterance makes a new writer, a new author of the old words (made new).

Write what you know, and the world will write upon it. The world will tweet it, like it, share it, parse it, abbreviate it, duplicate it, splice it, excerpt it. And each new iteration and variation on your text becomes less your text and more the text of the world. Your testament, which you so carefully crafted and which your mother said was so you, becomes ever more recrafted as it is dispersed; and, ever more applied to others, it begins to resemble that text their mothers would recognize as so them. But of course that text is only them as long as it hovers in suspense, unredistributed, unrepurposed, unshared, unreauthored.

The digital reader holds the power of the life or death of the text. It is in the readers hands that words populate the web, that they roam freely and breathe, or meet an untimely end. The digital writer writes, and no one notices. Unless a reader takes those words so carefully crafted and disperses them, the writer’s words fade into the indiscernible background, the mayhem and buzz of all that comes to nothing on the Internet. “The true locus of writing is reading,” we are told. As readers, we do not receive words of an author, we receive words as good as unoriginated, which we author by the act of the reading and the act of passing them on. But this cycle is perpetual. All our efforts to be an author come to nothing but to serve as machines for transmission, as if all writing is like tuning the radio, or answering our cell phones.

Authoring, then, is momentary, impermanent, a solitary, lonely act of the mind; in contrast, reading is perpetual, a communal, celebratory act of manifestation. “The unity of the text is not in its origin, it is in its destination.” But in the world of digital writing, we are origin and destination, reader and author, spirit and medium. As origin, we are mechanical, creating words like creating mulch, making texts only to push up daisies; it is in being destination that we find joy and meaning in the work of the text.

What are your thoughts on digital authorship and readership?

Add to the comments below, and join us for further discussion of this and other topics at 6:00 PM EST tonight, Wednesday November 7 using hashtag #digiwrimo.


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