The Unfolding of the Discourse

A couple of friends and I are putting together a panel on technology and new models of authorship and intellectual property for Computers and Writing 2005. The deadline is October 28, but one person on the panel emailed us suggesting we get started with the panel and added, "I know Clancy likes to get started early." :D This is my reputation now? All because I'm paranoid that my proposals for CCCC won't get accepted, so I always try to goad people into getting a draft ready by the coaching deadline? Okay, I guess I do like to get an early start. Here's the nascent idea -- a feminist analysis of weblog authorship -- which has been floating around in my mind off-and-on for a few months now. Because of said nascence, I'll do much meandering before I get to the point, if I even have one yet.

In "Rhetoric, feminism, and the politics of textual ownership," Andrea Lunsford critiques the solitary, originary, proprietary model of authorship and warns readers of the implications of the appropriation of authorship by corporate entities such as Disney and Microsoft (for a preliminary exploration of these ideas, see her 1997 keynote at Feminisms and Rhetorics). The article first appeared in College English in 1999, and much of it is a review of debates within postmodern theory about authorship and recent changes in U.S. copyright legislation. Postmodern/poststructuralist and feminist theorists, most notably Barthes and Foucault, have de-reified the Authorial Genius, showing him to be an historical construction and yielding two significant insights:

  1. Authors do not exist outside a social and historical context; social and material conditions enable and constrain authorship. "Men of letters" are, historically speaking, usually men, usually white, and usually economically privileged enough to afford the leisure time it takes to write.
  2. A text is not the product of a sole author. As Barthes writes, "a text is made of multiple writings, drawn from many cultures and entering into mutual relations of dialogue, parody, contestation." The act of composition is exposed as a weaving together of other texts the writer has read and voices he or she has heard in conversation.

Lunsford juxtaposes these theoretical claims with large-scale efforts on the part of corporations to assume the role of author and hyperprotect content, e.g. Mickey Mouse and the Windows source code, and she rightly insists that in practice, the author is alive and well, so well that fair use (including for educational purposes) and the sharing of knowledge are threatened. This review is intended as a wake-up call for scholars in rhetoric and composition; five years ago, these issues were not discussed as often as they are now. (I'd still argue that intellectual property debates aren't as high a priority as they should be on the discipline's scholarly agenda; what do others think? Colleagues sometimes say to me, "I still don't understand why I should care about intellectual property." How can the stakes be better communicated? Does one have to have a direct encounter with "permission culture" before he or she fully understands?)

Lunsford highlights others' efforts to reconceptualize what authorship is now, especially now that we have the technological capability to copy and distribute content cheaply. She cites Esther Dyson's "Intellectual Value", in which Dyson argues that value lies in the process of producing content and in the perceived expertise of those who produce the content. For example, if you buy Microsoft Word, you're not paying for the content so much as you're paying for the guarantee that the software was made by Microsoft's expert developers, who will catch bugs in the software and send you patches to fix them, and Microsoft's tech support team, who will help you if you have trouble with the software. The same content is available at no cost. Lunsford doesn't see this model as having much potential for the democratization of authorship, though, because the corporations have so much power to be perceived as the experts and to influence copyright law (the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act had just been passed at this time). She calls for "a new rhetoric of authorship, one that rejects the naïve construction of author as originary genius or as entrepreneurial corporate entity, without diminishing the importance of agency, and of difference, to the lives of working writers" (p. 185). She calls for

ways of owning that would shift the focus from owning to owning up; from rights and entitlements to responsibilities (the ability to respond) and answerability; from a sense of the self as radically individual to the self as always in relation; and from a view of agency as invested in and gained through the exchange of tidy knowledge packets to a view of agency as residing in what Susan West defines as the "unfolding action of a discourse; in the knowing and telling of the attentive rhetor/responder rather than in static original ideas" (as cited in Lunsford, 1999, p. 185-186).

She directs our attention toward what this new rhetoric of authorship might look like by citing Lani Guinier's "(re)definition of authority," one which

steers a course between the individual and the group, between libertarian individualism and identity politics, situating authority in the connections a person makes among the discourses available to her and out of which can come what Guinier celebrates as a medley of component voices that is singular and plural at the same time. (p. 189)

Do you see where I'm going with this?

Let's look at Dyson again:

the most promising businesses in the Net world will be services and processes. They will include selecting, classifying, rating, interpreting, and customizing content for specific customer needs. Other services will include access to various sorts of performing, interacting with people, and all kinds of other activities that require the time of a live, talented person.

I'm seeing all of these ideas as being germane to blogging in some way: owning up (accountability), answerability (insofar as someone is able to, for example, reply to what I'm saying now, in the form of comments or trackbacks), self in relation, the unfolding action (these ideas are incomplete and won't even come close to completion unless someone responds to them), authority as situated in the connections one makes among discourses (right now, I'm connecting Lunsford, Guinier, and Dyson in a new way, bringing them to bear on blogging, which not many people were doing when these pieces were written), and the selecting and interpreting of content (filter blogs, for example).

I have a lot more work to do here, obviously, but I'm hitting pause for now. Today's my 30th birthday, and I want to pamper myself a little: you know, put my feet in the foot spa and watch the Alias DVDs I rented last night.

Lunsford, A.A. Rhetoric, feminism, and the politics of textual ownership. In G.E. Kirsch, F.S. Maor, L. Massey, L. Nickoson-Massey, & M.P. Sheridan-Rabideau, (Eds.) Feminism and composition: A critical sourcebook (pp. 140-159). Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's.


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Permission Culture

Does one have to have a direct encounter with "permission culture" before he or she fully understands?

Most cases, I'd say yes to this, Clancy. Direct encounters give life to IP as the rare, out there--v. quickly. Folks who've tried to take their work online when a publisher holds its rights or who've brushed with idea thievery from a corp-niversity probably care a whole lot more about IP. Although I can't say with certainty that this holds true for others, it certainly worked that way for me. I didn't do any homework on IP until contract talks grew strained for one of my adjunct gigs.

None of which is more important than to wish you Happy B-day!

-Derek (I'd have signed in, but my Drupal ID was refused...)

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