The author is dead! Long live the citizen army of readers.

As a way of linking up my previous life as an analogue academic of French literature and theory with my current foray into the muddy waters of digital arts and humanities, I became interested in looking at the changing notions on authorship and the role of the reader in the digital age. To do this I wanted to look at Roland Barthes ‘Death of the Author‘ as a starting off point for examining the relationship between authorship and readership and seek to assess whether the emergence of digital writing challenges or reinforces these ideas. Mainly inspired by Katharine Viner’s excellent ‘The rise of the reader: journalism in the age of the open web’ I’m starting to conclude that perhaps the theory is starting to become reality through the emergence of web 2.0 and the medium of the digital.

When Roland Barthes famously declared the death of the author in 1967 it was hard to imagine the future of digital writing and the open web would later come to once again destabilise the position and very notion of authorship. What was started by the post-structuralists in the 60’s is being augmented by the re-engagement of the reader in the post-print, open source digital age. Barthes deconstruction of the author has thus far been mainly theoretical and therefore didn’t really have much material impact on the status of author and reader or the flow of meaning between them. Digital writing and the open web have given the reader the tools to reassert themselves in relation to the text and even influence it directly. Being aware of your audience increases in importance when they have a platform to answer back.

In ‘intertextuality’ Graham Allen draws parallels between Barthes theory and the action now being witnessed around online texts or hypertexts. He states that ‘whilst theorists such as Barthes, Kristeva and Derrida attack the traditionally dominant idea of the work’s isolation, individuality and authority, the new computer-based systems seem to embody such critiques. For those who write on this new form of textuality, poststructuralist and postmodern theory seems to be merely that, a theory directed towards an object, books, which appear to resist notions of relationality, difference and intertextuality. What to many might seem counterintuitive in Barthes’s treatment of literary books becomes obvious, inevitable and even ‘natural’ when dealing with hypertext systems’.

As Barthes argued that giving the text an author imposes limits on the text and by extension the reader then perhaps the fluidity of writing on the open web could offer a way to further decenter the author and empower the reader. Authorship as a single, definitive voice doesn’t allow for intertextuality and the text as being situated within a cultural and historical framework. Similarly Viner argues that open web journalism triumphs over the fixed rigidity of the print media by embracing the reader even if it is at the cost of the ‘all-seeing, all-knowing’ status of the journalist.

The hierarchy of author over text and the reader which Barthes’s ‘Death of the Author’ sought to deconstruct is now being digitally undermined in a tangible way through the open web. In relation to the authority of the journalist and their previously passive readers, Viner explains how ‘Digital has wrecked those hierarchies almost overnight, creating a more levelled world, where responses can be instant, where some readers will almost certainly know more about a particular subject than the journalist, where the reader might be better placed to uncover a story’.

The text derives meaning from the reader not the creator so that every act of writing is in itself an act of re-writing as all readers are the authors of their own subjectivity. There is a reciprocal relationship between reader and writer that serves to blur the lines between the two, neither can exist independently. If agency flows from the author to the reader almost instantaneously through the immediacy of the digital it is just a speeding up of the cyclical relationship rather than a radical redefinition. This accelerated reciprocal relationship between author and reader in digital news holds the potential to be beneficial to both parties as it can allow for what Viner describes as ‘a multi-layered encounter which helps readers and writers alike refine their points of view, hone perspectives, acquire useful new information’.

The digital has allowed for the breaking down of hierarchical structures which place the author and text in a position of unquestioned authority and the reader as passive consumers and enabled a freer flowing engaged agency for readers. The text no longer contains the finality of the full stop and is open for debate and re-interpretation. Certainly in relation in open web journalism often the so-called below the line comments are where the text really comes to life. Reader’s comments give an article a life beyond the dead end of the full stop. If giving writing an author imposes a stop clause on the life of the text, giving it to a reader can allow it infinite scope for further iterations.
Digital news is not fixed, it is according to Viner ‘living, evolving, limitless, relentless’. It offers a return to a more discussion orientated culture that existed before print media became widespread. Viner explains that ‘many believe that this move from fixed to fluid is not exactly new, and instead a return to the oral cultures of much earlier eras. Danish academic Thomas Pettitt’s theory is that the whole period after Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press – of moveable type, the text, the 500 years of print-dominated information, between the 15th and the 20th centuries – was just a pause; it was just an interruption in the usual flow of human communication. He calls this the Gutenberg Parenthesis. The web, says Pettitt, is returning us to a pre-Gutenberg state in which we are defined by oral traditions: flowing and ephemeral’. Much like Barthes sought to distance literature from the individual author, the digital news movement seeks to redefine the relationship between journalists and their readers, to offer a certain amount of authority back to the reader.

All of which is not to negate the fact that allowing absolute open access where everyone is allowed a voice can lead to anger, frustration and even online bullying or harassment. The reader having renewed authority and greater power is mainly a positive thing but as the old cliché goes ‘with great power comes great responsibility’. The onus is now on each individual reader to behave in a respectful and responsible way online and perhaps key to this would be simply knowing when to walk away from an internet argument.

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