Daniel Wickham, Eliza Anyangwe, fan culture, H. P. Lovecraft, information society, journalism, LAPIS, Matthew Kirschenbaum, Michel Foucault, participatory culture, Twitter, William Faulkner, William Gibson
Our third week of LAPIS continued to explore the wide-ranging philosophical concepts of authorship, and the socio-cultural effects of how these concepts have changed over time. We also benefited from a guest appearance from The Guardian’s commissioning editor, Eliza Anyangwe, to offer a journalist’s perspective on current issues of authorship and publishing, which proved to be a useful addition to our existing LIS paradigm.
One of the major themes discussed was how the greater access to information that has taken place throughout human history, and particularly over the last twenty years with the development and exponential growth of Internet communications, has blurred the traditional distinction between “author” and “audience”, and led to a far more participatory culture.
The American author H. P. Lovecraft is best-known for his works of fantasy-horror, exemplified by his conception of the Cthulhu Mythos (pictured above), but he also wrote essays and letters on a number of subjects, including one on amateur journalism. Written circa 1920, much of it seems quaint: much of it is concerned with the potential decline in quality when journalism is carried out by amateurs rather than professionals, whereas citizen journalism is an accepted part of the modern profession. (A notable recent example is that of Daniel Wickham, whose Tweets exposing the hypocrisy of many of the world leaders who attended the recent Charlie Hebdo memorial in Paris were subsequently widely reported by the “mainstream” media.
Nevertheless, I was struck by this passage that occurs near the end of the essay:
Above all, let mutual comment be encouraged. We should make it virtually a rule to see that as many articles as possible receive printed replies.
This anticipates the widespread (albeit not universal, and still much-debated, practice) of news outlets allowing members of the public to make comments on their online articles, one of the key elements of modern media culture.
We also discussed the essay What is an author? by the philosopher and cultural theorist Michel Foucault, whose definition transcends the simple definition of simply the person who produces an artistic or intellectual work, but is instead “a certain functional principle” which is shaped by societal influences that have the potential to stifle his or her output by circumscribing it within established conventions and received knowledge. This led us to the very recent, and similarly-titled essay What is an @uthor? by Matthew Kirschenbaum, which updates many of the questions raised for the contemporary digital age. Kirschenbaum compares William Faulkner with the contemporary author William Gibson: Faulkner was a pioneering figure in the communication of literature, as he allowed a series of classroom conferences he held at the University of Virginia to be recorded and published; Gibson is a current example of this approach taken to extremes, with the entirety of a recent book tour recorded, in addition to frequent interactions with his audience through social media such as Twitter. The question that Kirschenbaum raises is simple: when studying contemporary authors, is it now to be expected of the researcher that he or she must trawl these extensive digital archives in search of illumination on a particular subject, in addition to the author’s works themselves and the standard additional sprint sources of information?
A key part of authors’ use of social media is their direct interaction with their audience, and this raises the additional questions that surround fan, or participatory culture, and whether or not the audience can, in effect, secure “ownership” of an artistic or intellectual creation over its original author. A relevant example is the current Star Wars Uncut project, which aims to remake the original Star Wars trilogy with each scene shot by a different group of fans. To many of us in the lecture, this seemed like a new and rather indulgent form of artistic expression, but we were then asked to consider if the underlying concept was really so very different from an established, artistic form, the parody? And is the desire to film this project perhaps borne out of frustration about the subsequent direction of the franchise under George Lucas and, latterly, Disney, and therefore a (possibly subconscious) attempt to claim “ownership” of the original films?
Eliza’s lecture on contemporary trends in journalism raised many of the same points, and emphasised the fact that, outside the theoretical discourse of the lecture theatre and in news agencies across the world, there is a greater reliance than ever before on the traditional, professional side of the discipline being supported by the work of amateurs, essentially “fans” of newsworthy stories. She concluded that there is currently a choice between two models in the journalism sector: first, a culture in which everyone is encouraged to contribute content and everyone can view the news agency’s output, the drawback of which is that it may not be economically sufficient; and secondly, a subscription-based model which restricts necessarily participation and access, but may provide a more solid financial basis providing that the agency’s reputation is already high enough to encourage readers to pay for content. Something tells me that we will encounter the choice between these models again throughout the LAPIS module!