Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Considering authorship: music, identity and authors

“What is an author”, asks French Poststructuralist Michel Foucault rhetorically. Writing in the late 1960s amidst a philosophical interrogation concerning the relationship between subjectivity and language, Foucault’s own concerns were mirrored by a host of other French intellectuals including Derrida, Lacan and Barthes, just to name a few. Indeed by the mid 20th century, the very notion of authorship was seen to be under radical revision, if not crisis. From the symbolist poetry of Stéphane Mallarmé, the assembled collages of the Dadaists and the epistemological teasers of Marcel Duchamp’s readymades, the “traditional” aura of authority, anthropocentricity and originality of classical authorship was thrown into relief by these counter-practices that seemed to challenge the very epistemological structures – structures enabling fields of discourse upon which the ideological seeds of “authorship” were first sown.

If the “auratic” quality of a work for Walter Benjamin denoted a “tissue” of ritual time and space that constituted the author-ity of authorship, Foucault’s steely analysis of the operations of author-ity further deconstructs Benjamin’s mystical quasi-religious universalizing category, preferring to view the construction of the modern author as a specific epistemic product, beholden to the contingencies of culture, history and institutions. For Foucault, simply aligning the title of an author to a specific individual all-too-easily misses the deeper structures that validate and legitimize the author, providing the subject with a discursive position of enunciation and author-ial voice. Rather than penetrating into the deep psyche of a supposed authorial subject and attributing the material (or intellectual) products to him/her, Foucault suggests that we take a step back and reconsider the certain “excess” that escapes the author, as well as the contingencies that produce the locutionary space in which the author resides. Such an approach, no doubt, takes Heidegger under its wing in the sense that a certain cultural validation of “truth” operates by “clearing” a rational visible “opening” by which the speaking (or living) subject becomes visible or legible to a participating community. The author, then, is not simply an imagined transcendental category into which literary criticism invests its analytical sweat in order to explain “the presence of certain events in a work, [...] their transformations, distortions, and diverse modifications”, but, more importantly, a discursive function – a site that “knits” together disparate discursive fields. Indeed for Foucault, the notion of an “author” is explicitly performative, serving to “characterize a certain mode of being of discourse”. Foucault enumerates:

“(1) [The] author-function is linked to the juridicial and institutional system that encompasses, determines, and articulates the universe of discourses; (2) it does not affect all discourses in the same way at all times and in all types of civilization; (3) it is not defined by the spontaneous attribution of a discourse to its producer, but rather by a series of specific and complex operations; (4) it does not refer purely and simply to a real individual, since it can give rise simultaneously to several selves, to several subjects – positions that can be occupied by different classes of individuals.”

What is important for Foucault, then, is the way in which institutions and their collective ideologies participate to produce a stratagem of power that structures the author-function. The very conceptualization of the author as a “function” testifies to its active mode of participation in discursive fields, although it also identifies the degree to which the subject who “fills” that particular role is responsible and beholden to those fields, institutions, and their corresponding laws and modes of regulation. What may serve to problematize the monolithic notion of authorship is the trans-performativity of the subject mistaken as monolithic. The very heterogeneous composition of the enunciating (or writing) subject taken for author does not answer to one source of power nor performs under the roof of a single identity. Like Lacan’s Symbolically saturated body “overladen with signifiers”, the performing subject under the purview of “author” is necessarily what Foucault calls a “transdiscursive” subject that answers to the call of different classification paradigms. The author-function thus performs the (Lacanian) operation as a point de capiton (the “quilting point” or the upholstery button) for these various discursive networks in an ultimate moment of méconaissance, in that it both serves as a fulcrum for understanding selfhood as well as a surface for the attribution of the objective world.

More than simply a linguistic signifier that organizes various discursive practices in a Symbolic web, notions of authorship similarly affects the way in which “works” of music are created, perceived and distributed. Perhaps one could go so far as to claim that the very concept of “work” as a historical trace of 19th Century ideology continues to sustain its scaffold of power through the use of the author-function. Composerly authority, agency and work-fidelity are but manifestations of institutional ideology coalescing around the notion of author-ity, in turn re-defining contemporary uses of the author-function. If we liken the composer to Foucault’s “author-function”, what becomes apparent is the ways in which the composer-function gestures towards “a certain discursive construct and its very particular mode of being”. Analysing the “discursive construct” which symbiotically relies on the “author-function” would mean parsing out the various institutions, industries, forms and media which “music” as a broad category encompasses, a heterogeneous background upon which “authorship” itself is foregrounded. However, as implied by the instable nature of the “author-function”, one cannot merely assume that “music” as a unifying category remains monolithic and unchanged. The rise of technologies that inform, distribute and enable “music”, too, constitute a decisive factor which continues to challenge received notions of authorship and composerly autonomy, perhaps even throwing light upon the constructedness of these functions. It is, as Deleuze and Guattari claim, when the system breaks down, that one locates the source of power and mode of functionality of machinic assemblages.

By examining the role of technology in buttressing the “author-function”, one is immediately reminded of the ways in which music is never its single, autonomous product, but, as Nicholas Cook reminds us, always a “co-product” which requires “mediation” – be it through live performance, media-storage devices or technologies of re-presentation. Instead of consenting too easily to Benjamin’s decay of “aura”, a more useful view of music’s renewed ontological possibilities reside in what Jeremy Stolow terms “liquid aura”, denoting the transmogrified (albeit mobile) nature of ritual’s original reliance on territorialization. “Liquid aura” for Stolow describes the creative ways and means in which the artistic object (or religious encounter) is experienced in a plurality of forms through the intercession of technologies of re-presentation. Indeed these technologies do more than innocently re-present: the relationship between various devices (such as CDs to CD players and mp3 files to decoding softwares) importantly dictate the temporalities and spaces in which these musics may be heard or accessed, thereby articulating new sonic possibilities of being and new modes through which music may participate in individual (or shared) subjective experiences. Similarly, the role of the “author” or “composer” is challenged by these disseminative (and) transformative technologies by their modes of presentation by problematising the idea of originality in music, and revealing the messy interstices where power, institutionalisation and agencies collide.

Indeed for David Horn, Benjaminesque auraticism has returned, though not without undergoing strict epistemological reformulations. In Horn’s exploration of the “work concept” with regard to popular music, he notes that the “work” in an age of (digital!) reproducibility has recruited a new objective status as “a piece of property”. “Reproducibility” thus loses its innocent techno-utopian sheen when realised as a highly contested intellectual and material product, highly regulated by laws and companies that erect barriers in order to “signal both its authorship and its individuality”. The field of popular music is particularly problematic in terms of individuality and authorship since exhibits a “complex relationship within that discourse between the activity of production, especially its performative aspects, and the end product”. In the case of Jazz, for example, what constitutes an “original” work (which then conforms to a rightful originator/composer), given the pervasiveness of “cover” tracks – popular songs which are recorded and performed by different artists? Citing Duke Ellington’s version of “Mood Indigo”, Horn notes the ways in which “individuality” as a substitute for composerly authorship asserts itself as a form of “liquid aura”, the arrangement inhabiting “its own time and its territory above the hurly-burly, preserving its own quality of presence”. The sonic qualities of the song rise above the song itself as an indicator of “originality” and “individuality” by partially “closing down” the space between “text and interpretation”. Thus, for Horn:

“[The] reason that the sound obtained by those voicings become so central to the identity of this Mood Indigo and set it apart from all others lay in the circulation and influence of the first recordings – within the very world of mechanical reproduction.”

However, while reserving much praise for the determining agencies of disseminative technologies, Horn seems to complicate his argument by reviewing the ways in which “invisible” powers that lie beneath mere re-presentation also work to reconfigure authenticity, originality and authorship. The rise of Afro-American music before the 1940s, for example, reveals a terse relationship between musicians (often seen as an originating site) and record producers. During this period, copyrights to these arrangements and songs were held by Record Companies instead of performing groups by declaring the producer as author, and citing the piece performed as being “traditional” – that is, belonging to the public sphere. In order to assert their claims of authorship, early Beebop musicians and songwriters created a new epistemological category of “versions” in order to legitimate their products and claim intellectual rights for themselves. If anything, Horn’s account of the tensions that conglomerate about music as a piece of intellectual property indicates the multiplicity of performing roles that exist behind a single recording. More importantly, the diffracted “performing body” assumed to “produce” or “author” a piece of music is itself “transdiscursive”, owing much to recording engineers, marketing personnel and producers that partake in the formulation of the final “product”. As Susan Horning points out, the birth of new technologies demands certain “tacit knowledge” in order to operate these technologies (such as the studio engineer), which configures the ontology of the final musical product. “Who authored the music” as a primer to inquiry reveals the multiplicity of “authors” that lurk beneath the shadows of an assumed artist, band, or composer. Perhaps Stolow’s “liquid aura” also indicates the phenomenon of “liquid authorship” in ascertaining the autonomy of a single “work”.

Though useful analytically, Foucault’s notion of the “author-function” risks slipping into a posthuman narrative that accords far too much agency upon the economy of technology and its related institutions. Indeed as a linguistic trope, a crucial factor is missing from this display of power and legitimacy. For Roland Barthes, that specific factor is the receptive receptacle which these “works” are intended for – the “audience” or the “reader”. Though Barthes’ radical proclamation of the “death of the author” sidesteps Foucault’s understanding of epistemological categories that lacerate the reading (listening) subject and produces spaces of entrainment for them, Barthes’ warning against “reading” too deeply into compserly/authorial intention focuses on the way in which a text is always necessarily “excessive” in that its performative function is determined largely by reading subjects who participate in the creation of meaning. For Barthes,

“[The] modern scriptor is born simultaneously with the text, is in no way equipped with a being preceding or exceeding the writing, is not the subject with the book as predicate; there is no other time than that of the enunciation and every text is eternally written here and now.”

“Meaning”, for Barthes, resides in the encounter between the written text and the reader. Given that the latter is never stable and located in the shifting tectonics of linguistic signification, every act of reading and re-reading will result in different hues of interpretation, since “the book itself is only a tissue of signs, an imitation that is lost, infinitely deferred.” Likewise, once a sonic product leaves the ink-drenched plume of its originating scribe, the author is “dead” in the sense that the work acquires an extra-scribal dimension in the eyes (and ears) of its recipients. Indeed whole audiences may “make” or “break” a performing nexus by rejecting the interpellation of sonic products. But more interestingly, the performative platforms afforded by new technologies may also point to a shifting site of authorial power akin to Benjamin’s notion of the “author as producer”. Here, Benjamin pays tribute to the idea of a “liquid composer/author” where the source of power (the platforms that give voice) between producers and the public become blurred. For Benjamin:

“The reader is indeed always ready to become a writer, that is to say, someone who describes or even who prescribes. As an expert—even if not a professional, but only a job-occupant—he gains entrance to authorship. Labour itself speaks out for writing it out in words constitutes part of the knowledge necessary to becoming an author. Literary competence is no longer based on specialized training in academic schools, but on technical and commercial training in trade schools and thus becomes common property. In a word, it is the literarization of the relationships of life which overcomes otherwise insoluble antinomies and it is the showplace of the unrestrained degradation of the word—that is, the newspaper—which prepares its salvation.”

The homogenization of vocabulary, for Benjamin, constitutes the revolutionary potential of readers-as-authors, providing common semantic sites for the exchange of information and the deliberation over knowledge and power. Such a homogenization or “flattening” of the playing field is precisely what Friedrich Kittler anticipates in Gramophone, Film, Typewriter, in which the process of “alphabetalization” was but the first in a series of informational commensurability that finds its end in information bytes and binary operations. New technologies that ensure the parity between different presentational windows (such as peer-to-peer networks or the internet) equally constitute that field, transforming the instrumental potentiality of, for example, an “uploaded” musical work. Indeed, as Catherine Moore notes, “once music becomes digital information, it can be manipulated at will” with digitization facilitating musical “construction and its remaking”. When music can be so easily manipulated and shared at will, listeners-as-authors are given the possibility of flexing their own autonomy in creating and broadcasting self-created works (even if based on existing ones) through online channels (such as or catered for the dissemination of self-produced works. Furthermore, with the availability of online payment systems (the digitization of cash), the dividing line virtually vanishes; individuals may be highly “transdiscursive”, occupying the position of engineer, recorder, publicist, composer, performer, marketer and producer altogether.

Emerging technologies do problematise existing ideologies of authorship and composerly authority, although their intercession in a network of discursive practices perhaps does no more than to reveal the structural contingencies informing “classical” formulas of authorship already existent in these networks. What mutates is the “author-function” under the signifier of “author”, continually negotiating between its various sources of power between discursive sites. Perhaps, as Foucault and Barthes suggest, the point of “origin” for authorship is an illusory one – each subject is an individual “author”, even of a work not created by him/her. On the other hand, the subject is delimited by institutional and cultural ideologies that place epistemological boundaries on representations of the self, disciplined, as it were to maintain heuristic divisions between levels of participation in order to validate or recognize the existence of other discursive spheres that constitute the “work”.

1 comment:

Laura said...

Intereseting post. I ran into your blog while googling about music and authorship, which also was the subject of my PhD thesis. In case your interested in having a look, it's found online at: