Tuesday, 21 September 2010

The Death of the Author

Intellectual property could not accommodate the structure of the community of scholars: and yet it also relied on the collectivity of university knowledge to justify institutional claims. In 1993 the Australian Vice-Chancellors Committee released advice to universities, a how-to guide for claiming staff and student intellectual property. Research was almost never a purely individual act, they suggested. Even when research had been individually constituted, academic association with the university demonstrated their reliance on the institution to be able to conduct research. The infrastructure: “rooms, electricity, gas, water, telephones”, were just the beginning. Science relied on expensive laboratories, the humanities on expensive libraries.  The scholarly environment, claimed Macquarie University, though intangible and unquantifiable, acted as the inspiration and enabler of quality research, validating their claim to income derived from it.  Furthermore, in much contemporary research, it was simply “not possible to identify one person as the author, inventor, creator, maker or originator”, asserted th Australian Vice Chancellors’ Committee.  As George Eliot had said in Middlemarch:
There was no need to praise anybody for writing a book, since it was always done by somebody else.
Unlike Eliot, the Australian Vice-Chancellors’ Committee did not think it was funny. They were concerned that its complexities carried the potential for exploitation. Students and research assistants, they said, might “have difficulty in claiming any rights if a person of comparative power is permitted to claim sole ownership or to assume control”.

They had a point. Critical legal studies have long noted connections between power, constructions of the individuality of authorship and legal claims to financial proceeds. Many of the legal approaches are influenced by Foucault, who identified authorship as an eighteenth century instrument of surveillance: the ability to locate an individual to blame for a transgressive text.  Mark Rose traces the construction of the individual author as a part of a long political struggle to establish the autonomous political subject in a parliamentary system.  It was also a claim to power: the result of a long financial struggle between authors and booksellers. The “valorization of original genius”, he demonstrates, coincided with both a mass market for books and the possessive individualism articulated by John Locke.  However, Pamela Long argues for a longer history, not only suggesting antecedents to intellectual property in antiquity but also claiming that individual authorship and its connection to intellectual property is evident in the fifteenth century.   She specifies that the concept of authorship extends to making, designing and inventing material things: but by modernity, each is considered the work of an individual, rather than the product of collaboration. 

All this was collapsing by the end of the twentieth century.  The heroic ideal of the hermit-like humanities scholar scribbling in her sandstone garret had been largely superseded by collaborative teams of scientists agonising over findings in laboratories.  In 1967 Roland Barthes had disputed the Romantic pre-eminence of authorship in the construction of knowledge:
The Author, when believed in, is always conceived of as the past of his own book: book and author stand automatically on a single line divided into a before and an after. The Author is thought to nourish the book, which is to say that he exists before it, thinks, suffers, lives for it, is in the same relation of antecedence to his work as a father is to his child.
The ascendancy of science, especially since the Second World War, changed the dominant research culture in universities so that discovery towards the end of the century was rarely a truly individual endeavour. Changes in pedagogies and epistemologies that had their roots in 1960s and 1970s student protest movements also transformed dominant scholarly practices. Knowledge acquisition became knowledge construction.  Individual achievement became collaborative problem solving.  The individual mind was transformed into a participant in a network.  Indeed, knowledge was inseparable, some educational theorists claimed, from its environment.  If originators were to own intellectual property themselves, exactly who that meant was becoming very difficult to identify.

This is how the transformation of the research environment internationally impacted university intellectual property policies. In a Mode 2 environment it was not (at least not initially) complications out of questions of ownership, but rather questions about the individuality of knowledge production. Knowledge was collaborative: indeed the existence of the community of scholars affirmed it. Just as the community – and thus the university – could not exist without academic members, nor could the scholar be truly scholarly without the community.

The new policy framework, however, indicates a subtle, unspoken restructure. The community of scholars, as the last chapter showed, was on the verge of collapse as the gift economy was supplanted by an exchange-based system. But Romantic constructions of individual genius were also disintegrating: the author, inventor and scholar were increasingly difficult to locate. The Australian Vice-Chancellors’ Committee claimed that this complexity bolstered the universities’ claims over the ownership of intellectual property. Institutional ownership placed the control of property in the hands of a single entity, cleaning up the mess of trying to locate originality. The Vice-Chancellors suggested that institutional ownership of intellectual property meant it would be managed in “the best interests of all concerned”. The university’s role was now paternal: it was the antecedent, the father. Rather than embodying the community of scholars, the institution assumed the role of the author.

[footnotes have been removed for the purposes of this posting.  they are available on request]


M-H said...

But, I would argue, one place where the Romantic ideal of the autonomous scholar has persisted - possibly not to a useful end - is in PhD candidature - even up to today. See The PhD and the autonomous self: Gender, rationality and postgraduate pedagogy
Lesley Johnson; Alison Lee; Bill Green
Studies in Higher Education; Jun 2000; 25, 2 for more.

Hannah Forsyth said...

Oh yes, it still persists, for better and worse. I'm sure you and those other authors are right about the PhD.

Few academic traditions are ever left entirely behind.