01 July 2011

foucault and twitter: analyzing the author function

Or, How Twitter Inspired Me to Change My Life. Except, not in an earth-shattering way. More like in an “oh, well this is an interesting way to think about a social networking site” sort of way. Come on. It’s Twitter.

In today’s society, fame can be achieved in a multitude of ways. There are still the tried-and-true methods of attaining this sort of status, such as possessing a talent or acting toward the betterment of humankind, yet with the “advancements” in modern times, these traditional methods are no longer the only manner with which to gain fame, or at the very least, infamy. With the rise of social media like Twitter, it has become more and more difficult for celebrities today to maintain a superhuman image because they do not adhere to Foucault’s “author function.”

In “What is an Author?” Michel Foucault emphasizes the inextricable link between the author and his or her work. Foucault first distinguishes a “writer” from an “author,” in that “[a]n anonymous text posted on a wall probably has a writer—but not an author.” In other words, the author is one who not only produces a work, but also takes ownership for that work.

Following this logic, in taking ownership of the work, the author and the work are forever associated with the other in what Foucault refers to as the “author function.” The author becomes the creator of a genre unique to his or her name; by attributing a work to a specific author, there are certain expectations about the work that are formed simply because of the use of a name. As Foucault writes, “the name seems always to be present, marking off the edges of the text, revealing, or at least characterizing, its mode of being.” The work and the author are therefore eternally tied.

Forming this link is important in acquiring cultural capital for the name. Cultural capital is, according to Pierre Bourdieu in his essay entitled “The Forms of Capital,” the intangible set of skills or knowledge an individual possess. Cultural capital may consist of education as well. In this case, the cultural capital comes in the form of reputation. If an author has been established as esteemed in his or her genre, his or her subsequent works will be preceded by that reputation. Readers familiar with the author’s previous works will buy the book based on the name, and will read with a set of expectations.

While this link is often made unconsciously in the reader’s mind, there have been deliberate efforts to maintain the cohesion between author and work as long as written works have been in existence. As previously mentioned, the author’s name becomes a form of cultural capital when associated with its works, and the relationship between work and author forms, ideally, a cohesive entity. Unfortunately for those who enjoy the definitive categorization of work and author, such is not the case.

The challenge, however, emerges when an incongruity within this entity becomes apparent. In writing history, pieces of information (like letters with contrary ideas, for instance) are simply ignored if they do not adhere to the already established image of the author. It has been pointed out multiple times that written history cannot be taken as absolute because of what has been omitted. In trying to keep the singular image of author and work united, historians have oversimplified the author as a person. There is a split, then, between the authors as persona and the author as person that cannot be reconciled.

This problem is not antiquated; it still exists in the form described, but there are also new ways in which this problem appears. A modern manifestation of this problem is visible in celebrities today. Like authors, movie stars create a genre for themselves that associates them with certain types of productions. Katherine Heigl has been branded as a romantic comedy actress, while Vin Diesel is automatically associated with action movies. Like the author, a movie star’s genre is not associated with his or her true self, but rather with the sum of the movie star’s work. If the aforementioned stars were to trade genres, the results would not be quite as well received because of the strangeness that comes with defying the established order.

This problem becomes more complex with advances in technology. In the past, it was much easier to suppress information that does not support the author’s image. If a historian encounters a letter from a branded “progressive” that contains explicitly racist sentiments, the historian could simply omit the letter, or frame the statements in such a way that would absolve the author within his or her historical context, thus maintaining the projected ideal. However, with more and more celebrity Twitters, there are fewer chances for someone to censor the author (or celebrity, in this case) as a person. There are some merits to the ability that technology has afforded for people to express themselves without censors. For example, talent that ordinarily would not be revealed to the world could have a worldwide audience in a matter of hours. But, as is more commonly the case, ignorance can be spread with the same, if not greater, velocity. The carefully constructed persona can be shattered almost instantaneously with something as extreme as a racial slur or as simple as a poor understanding of basic grammar. Once the author is able to interact directly with his or her audience, he or she is no longer a genre or sum of works.

The author is a person.

Is being a person necessarily a bad thing? As a person myself, I am inclined to believe that humanity is not a treacherous thing. And, while it is refreshing to be reminded that the shiny people onscreen are human, part of me still wishes to uphold the sense of mystery once associated with the stars. Call me idealistic, but I like to believe that the people who are in the public eye and making fortunes deserve to be there.

Yet, despite knowing that my youthful delusions can be dashed with one tweet about rapid bowel movements, I recently joined Twitter. From an outsider’s perspective, I saw Twitter as something frivolous. People vomit up mundane tidbits about their boring lives as they happen and other people eat that shit up. Even though nothing seems super important, there is this sense of urgency behind each insipid tweet. Everyone must know that I am eating a sandwich right now. It is necessary that everyone know that my poop is taking forever.

Since joining the dark side, I’ve been able to see things a little differently, especially as a writer. Having a character limit, not even a word limit, forces me to think about what it is I want to say, and how to convey that message most efficiently. Conversely, since each tweet only consists of 140 characters or less, it’s okay if what I say isn’t profound or earth shattering. Above all, Twitter has inspired me to simplify.

I’m not sure if this is a coincidence or not, but after joining Twitter, I began to simplify my life in other respects. I stopped wearing as much makeup. I cleaned out multiple boxes’ worth of clothing from my closet and gave them away. I even thinned out my Facebook page (which is a big deal). I think I realized, subconsciously, that I am in no way qualified to make grand, sweeping statements about the meaning of life. Painting my face a certain way or draping fabric around my body isn’t going to tell people who I am, but instead will offer a projection of how I want others to perceive me. And no one page is able to tell someone about every facet of my being.

So what can I do? I can offer little snippets of myself, and hopefully someone will be able to arrange those snippets into a more complete picture. I know that I’m going to have to shit out thousands of terrible pieces before I write something truly brilliant. This piece is probably one of those shit-thousands. But it’s better that I write little things, inconsequential as they may be, than nothing at all. Unless you think that this was a total waste of time. And maybe it was. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that I’m a waste of time. Does it?


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