Each Reader is an Author, A Maker of Meaning

The pace of change in our world is pretty rough on the nostalgicists among us. On the other hand, you might also say that the nostalgicists are living in boom times, because there is more and more to regret the passing of. This paradox came to mind as I read Sven Birkerts’s essay today in the Los Angeles Review of Books. He wrote it in response to “Wikipedia and the Death of the Expert,” which I published here in mid-May.

It’s really an honor to be read so closely by so distinguished a critic, I must say. Gives one a rather Eliza Doolittle-like feeling, like being invited to dance by the prince of Transylvania. But Birkerts made the same error a number of readers did with the piece, which was in assuming that its purpose was to call for a wake, and toast the wonders of the digital age over the casket of the hapless Expert. Not so.

The new models of understanding evident in crowdsourced projects like Wikipedia simply refocus our appreciation on the expertise, rather than on the expert.

There’s a particular reason why this is a valuable development, a reason that Birkerts already understands far better than I do.

…I see that Bustillos believes that the traditional place of the author is being superseded. In the world according to 2.0, these are deemed to be some of the big changes of our moment. Expertise, authorship, individual creativity: out. Team collaborations, Wikipedia: in. Inevitably: “Knowledge is growing more broadly and immediately participatory and collaborative by the moment.”

Here’s my question: didn’t Barthes prefigure all this back in 1968, when he explained that “it is really critical readers who decide and thus determine what a piece of writing means” (to borrow Wallace’s decoction)? Barthes wrote The Death of the Author not in an attempt to stop anybody from writing books, but in order to improve our understanding of the real workings of literature. My observations regarding the Expert have the same intentions.

The value of individual creativity in itself, authorship in itself, is not affected a bit by how we share the proceeds afterward. The “making” or “originating” role of Tolstoy is the same whether we read him as New Critics or as poststructuralists. The difference is in ascribing ownership to authorship.

By this reckoning, in the case of crowdsourced knowledge, each advance, each made thing, each insight, is a new point of departure; each reader is an author, a maker of meaning who can contribute something new. And now, perhaps even something permanent. Barthes had no way of knowing that fifty years on, it would be possible for every text to become a palimpsest of ideas and information, as Wikipedia is now. I wonder what he would have made of it all.

Prof. Birkerts doesn’t approve of flippancy with respect to cultural matters. He was particularly upset that I referred to Walter Pater as a “guy”, for example.

Here I am far less interested in Bustillos’ reasoning, which is mainly that of the leap-frogging enthusiast, than I am in the assumptive tone, the manner, the confidence. It is a tone we often hear in the voices of those who believe their historical moment has come. It dares a mocking intonation, a casual dismissiveness: Pater is a “guy” and Lanier, standing up for individuality and authorship, well, he too is a “guy.”

I would not fasten so readily on Bustillos’ breezily casual mode if it did not seem to be, beyond a baiting tactic, a harbinger of new attitudes. How better to get after any stance or idea than by first de-dignifying its proponents? Tolstoy — who cyber-agitator Clay Shirkey [sic] dismissed as unreadable two years ago — becomes the guy who wrote all those long battle scenes, Michelangelo the guy who painted all those great abs on people….

This is pretty much exactly how I would describe Michelangelo and Tolstoy, it’s true. Does it “de-dignify” the achievements of either man, no no no. Do I have reverence for the man, no, no more for one man than another; for his achievements — that is another matter. (Just to clarify, I love and admire the works of Tolstoy. Rilke’s too.)

(One little error, Birkerts cites a remark I quoted from Canadian theologian David Lochhead, but ascribed it to McLuhan.)

Bustillos’ real agenda, which she gets at by way of issues of said expertise and of collaboration, is to lay out two diametrically opposed conceptions of the human and then, in effect, to cast her vote. Here we have the split, the road-fork issuing in two paths that would with every step take the pilgrim on one further from his counterpart on the other. There is no eventual convergence. The one is the path — the ideal — of the individualized self, the other is the path of the socially and neurally collectivized self, along which, at some undetermined point, the idea of “self” itself must blur away, become a term no longer applicable.

I just can’t see these things in terms of “diametrically opposed conceptions of the human.” And I really do not see a fork, there, but a million paths; a network that we can travel on freely and in all directions.

Finally, I would say that the “self” will blur away much as the idea of the “reader” as a single passive recipient of literary meaning has blurred away, viz., not at all. If anything, the role of readers was clarified and amplified by the poststructuralist movement. That is to say, readers had been reading and understanding books the whole time and in much the same way; after Barthes and Derrida, we have come to understand better how this process works. (And we still have all the tools of not only the New Critics but the Romantics to use in understanding literature, if we like. I tend to prefer the old-fashioned tools myself, which is why reading Birkerts can be a real pleasure; he’s unabashedly old-fashioned in a way that is warm and comforting.)

If we extrapolate all this to the arena of knowledge-making rather than just literature-making, we get past “the ownership of an idea” the same way the late 20th c. got past the Author.

Maria Bustillos is the author of Dorkismo and Act Like A Gentleman, Think Like A Woman.