Today, it is more apparent than ever that the author as an individual is an outdated concept. Creative works are everywhere, but they are not necessarily original, rather, they are referential. Jonathan Lethem voices this point in his essay published by Harper’s magazine in 2007 called “The Ecstasy of Influence.” With the vast amount of media we have at our fingertips, the idea of authorship is even more muddled. Art, music, film, literature are constantly combined and cross referenced. Nearly everything “new” we see today has been rewritten, remixed and remade, and it is largely in part due to technology. It is clear that the author has disappeared, even if we don’t like to admit it. In Western civilization, and especially in the United States, many people are obsessed with individualism and being recognized for their work. For many, a work might represent an author’s innermost thoughts and feelings. However, like Barthes and Foucault warn, to interpret the work looking only at the motivations of the author is to limit the work. What we have now is a collective mass ownership of all media. Lethem states that “most artists are converted to art by art itself…invention…does not consist in creating out of void but out of chaos” (5). Lethem’s essay itself is cut and pasted from a variety of sources, further proving his point that nearly everything is referential. This often goes against everything an artist strives to stand for, as “plagiarism and piracy, after all, are the monsters we working artists are taught to dread” (8). Copyright is supposed to prevent these things, but Lethem argues that copyright “is an ongoing social negotiation, tenuously forged, endlessly revised, and imperfect in it every incarnation” (9). Technology is the main driving force of both the enforcement of copyright laws and the break away from them. Lethem believes that we are limiting ourselves with such stringent laws, that it is “to the detriment of the public good” (16) as “any text that has infiltrated the common mind…inexorably joins the language of culture” (17).
It is not a bad thing, then, that the “author” is a combination of culture past and present, a work ultimately created from the ideas of the world around it. As long as the work brings something new, even if it is not original, it creates discourse and a generation of new ideas that will continue to be referenced. We are obsessed with determining what defines a work and what the author’s individual characteristics say about it. I hope that this essay helps to give a varied but similar perspective on this complicated and fascinating issue.
Thank you for reading.