Precarious Labour: Authorshop, Authenticity, and Digital Reproduction

As paper-centric modes of production become digitized, authorship becomes an important consideration for the future of academic production. What is the future of the scholarly identity? And how does identity impact the production of scholarship?

There is a push-pull relationship between print and digital culture: on the one hand, open access supporters see the benefits of a multifaceted means of reproducing and disseminating research, where readers have a “richer context for reading” (Willinsky, Altering the Material, 132) by enabling them “to check their reading of a piece, with a click or two, against what is being said in related work, to gather background on the author, as well as view other works, and to trace the ideas presented through other forms, whether among media databases, government policies or historical archives” (Willinsky , Altering the Material, 129). On the other hand, although the medium inherently dislocates the author, in order to maintain academic identity, conditions, authenticity, and institutional control over works, archives, databases, and search engines the link to print culture reifies what otherwise might be a more rhizomatic method of production.

Gary Hall writes, “The very web-like structure of the Web often makes it difficult to determine where text ends – or begin, for that matter,” (16) thereby the beginning or end of authorship faces similar difficulties; in order to achieve the collaborative trend that open access aims to fulfill, will authorship be compromised? Yes, the work itself disseminated and openly accessed by all is a revolutionary and relevant goal, but does this mean, as Michel Foucault would assert, the disappearance of the author? What conditions are imposed on work? What cannot be exercised (such as the author’s functions) that engender limitations and conditions on a work? As the system of publication becomes progressively more difficult for authors to be involved in, labour precartity around ‘Web 2.0’ features (blogging, collaborative wikis, etc.) relates to the form of content and the material conditions of their production.

The Author
The first distinction between work and the work: the author comes into this privileged moment in history where the work is valorized by a system of property and a market that prefers rarity. Because of this system there is disconnect from the materiality of the work itself. The benefits of ownership are inextricably linked to authorship and most likely why we have difficulty thinking outside this paradigm of money and meaning makers. It is difficult to conceive of legitimate structural change for the means of producing academic work if open access (OA) models are rooted in this system of hegemony, which involves not only the publishers, but the university.

What disturbs the identity of the author and the work as object is the material conditions of work itself. Foucault articulates how the author is not just the proper name of a text, but actually of discourse. He uses the example of Karl Marx, stating he is not only the author of Capital, but is the founder of discursivity (110). In other words, the author does not claim jurisdiction over her own texts but also over the ideas, which his texts carried in them.

Roland Barthes and Julia Kristeva present similar critiques. “We know now that a text consists not of a line of words, releasing a single ‘theological’ meaning (the ‘message’ of the Author-God), but of a multi-dimensional space in which are married and contested several writings, none of which is original: the text is a fabric of quotations, resulting from a thousand sources of culture” (Barthes 52-53). Barthes refers not to literal castoffs or compilations drawing together pieces of many texts, but to all writing (52-53) whether its author is conscious of such borrowings or not. Kristeva contests the “ostensibly original texts” because a text is always in reference to other texts, and it is impossible for the reader to approach a text without reference to everything she has previously read or seen (39). The meaning of the text does not reside in the hero (scholar) or in the text, but in the complex rhizome of texts invoked by reading and writing.

Foucault summarizes the author’s functionality, which we can see as a precursor to OA theory, as follows:

(1) The author function is linked to the juridical 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. (113)

Rather than valorizing the author as a sole originator of a text (Foucault 118), it is the intertextual roots that meet, traverse, depart, contract, and thereby refers back to the work. We should not lose sight of the implicit connection the author has to the hero, to God, and to capital–in other words, a complex system of constraint and power.

In the digital realm we see Western-centric models, namely the tools of ‘Web 2.0’ (social networking and even institutional repositories), trying to have their cake and eat it too, where everyone is an author and everyone is a collaborator. The reliance on identity and individuality promulgated by Western neoliberal democracy deprives discourse from weaving through texts, through culture, without circumspection by ownership and claims for originality. Discourse, in this sense, is the production of material labour and functionality in work (in writing), and contextualizes the author as integrated in the rest of society rather than isolated from it.

By analyzing the construction of the author, we can see its internal relationship to history, not outside as the meaning-maker of historical content. Foucault uses the example of the Marquis de Sade, who was never considered an author, let alone a scholar, but now holds a privileged title as the meaning-maker of human sexuality and relations (110). In this case, de Sade laboured, yet the method of writing has been extricated and more attention has been given to the hero, the author, the scholar. How does this relate to the OA discussion? One is the deliberation on pre and post prints. Although pre print (pre peer review editions of a work) are still contentious objects (readers expect finished products over works-in-progress) it traces the material and domestic production (the narrative) of the work (or the translation of the work). Indeed, if the work is traced back to its method then we can see OA connecting the reader to formation and away from a “privileged moment of individualization in the history of ideas, knowledge, literature, philosophy, and the sciences” (Foucault 101).

In the digital sphere there is potential for the reader to not only explore the absent space left by the author, but the effacement of work itself. If work and a work are subject to speed, precarious online labouring, and ownership of digital space (by all corporations, including the university) then the struggle for effective access to information rages (Willinksy, The Access Principle).

OA is far from being considered in vogue, and this is mainly to do with debates around tenure and authenticity. If an article is published on a blog is this considered a work? And an even further question into the future: if all works (whatever they are deemed to be) and traces are digitized and offered through an institutional repository how much control will the community have over the parameters of its design, infrastructure, and acquisition? The university, the publisher, the scholar? The scholar having now been conditioned, formed, and trained through these institutions and their corresponding discourses.

What difference does it make who is speaking? At the very end, Foucault returns to Barthes and agrees that the “author function” may soon “disappear” (108). He does not suggest, however, that the limiting and restrictive “author function,” we will have some kind of absolute freedom. One set of restrictions and limits will give way to another set, Foucault insists, since there must and will always be some “system of constraint” working upon us (119).

Open Access and Authorship

Gary Hall asks a necessary and telling question: “Here, again, is there not something rather contradictory and paradoxical about the open access community’s continued maintenance of the romantic idea of the clearly identifiable and nameable (human) individual to whom the creation of texts can be attributed (not least through the provision and searching of interoperable metadata) (13-14)? To promote a clearly identifiable author is intrinsically connected to OA’s place in the university and reifies the hegemonic positioning the institution takes. Not only is it a paradox that the open access movement romanticizes the idea of the author, but also has a profound nostalgia for the university. Hall writes, “It is a means of making sure the digital reproduction of scholarship and research does not present too much of a challenge to academic authority and professional legitimacy” (14) thereby the push towards a rhizomatic, revolutionary, and autonomous OA movement “is too tied up with discourses intrinsic to modernity, liberal democracy and to late capitalism – those concerning the subject, the individual, the human and so forth – for me to be confident it is going to be dramatically effaced anytime soon” (15). That is the question and the proverbial white elephant in OA discussions: how can we not close in on ourselves and bypass distracting phases configured by technophilia, post-modern consumer capital, neoliberalism, and neocolonialism?

We are seeing two synchronized arguments that eventually lead to anxiety around academic production: (1) OA puts the academic author at risk, because scholar’s and researcher’s careers are established through their relationship to fixed objects that “guarantee permanence” and is rendered precarious in the electronic medium (Hall 15); and (2) OA follows suit with the right to speak and to resist unconditionally “everything that concerns the question and the history of truth, in its relation to the question of man, of what is proper to man, of human rights, of crimes against humanity and so forth… above all in the Humanities” (Derrida 234). Out of the depths of this dilemma, we can see how “the right to speak” forms the primary questions of the movement, yet a whole host of other questions and issues can not be asserted that concern the author function (going back to Foucault who mentions that the author can have several subjects-positions occupied by different classes of individuals) because the university is not unconditional but conditioned upon profit (Hall 14).

The Institution

There are a number of factors that have impeded OA activities yet have encouraged them. John Willinksy mentions three in relationship to scholarly potential: (1) the development of a new journal system correlated with the pressures of the economic crisis, which reduced access to “knowledge for a growing number of faculty and students, especially those who work outside of the privileged sphere of well-endowed research libraries”(Willinksy, Altering the Material, 2); (2) some of the best research libraries have had to cut five percent of their journal titles and for those in developing countries[1] the numbers are insurmountable, having “decimated their already minimal serial collections (with some reversal of this through special free e-journal programs), and virtually eliminated book purchases” (Willinksy, Altering the Material, 2); finally, (3) the overall commercialization within scholarly publishing, which began after the Second World War where commercial publishers stepped in to fulfill the growing demand for published studies on the Cold War (Willinksy, Altering the Material, 2). Willinksy writes, “The growth of this corporate involvement, especially in science, technology and medicine, has led to some sort of corporate concentration that has taken place in rest of the media. In scholarly publishing, the result has been often exorbitant price increases for scientific journals which affects, in turn, access to journals in all disciplinary areas” (Willinksy, Altering the Material, 2-3).

What impedes “free”[2] dissemination of knowledge and information renders the desire for a new public space that is “transformed by new techniques of communication, information, and archivization and knowledge production” (Derrida 234). The parameters we have to work with are rather small–the more ideas and information are privatized the more we face a “limitation of space” (Longino) which has an affective relationship to an authors methodology (discourse). If we are writing according to what the market prefers then material production is compromised.

If “unconditional freedom to question and assert, or even the right to say publicly all that is required by research, knowledge, and thought concerning the truth,” then access to that questioning and saying, and access to the scholarly apparatus that determines what is asserted publicly, is a critical first step. Willinksy articulates that the only way to do this is to push the limits of what is economically possible, if OA is supported by publicly spirited institutions, in order to “test the new economics of electronic journal publishing to see what it could make of a greater access to this particular knowledge work that goes on in universities” (Altering the Material, 6).

To have the courage to use our own understanding (or to write) is only possible on the conditions of our freedom to speak. In order to train students in critical vigilance within the parameters of the university (in other words the training of future authors and scholars), momentum is skewed when put in a position of placing a price tag on her work. Some of the finer, radical, dangerous, and necessary criticisms are happening outside of the university in autonomous spaces, thereby delocalizing the teaching body and developing an estuary for autodidactism (self-teaching). The pro-active role of the library could be a segment of new public spaces. Willinksy writes that libraries are “setting up institutional repositories for faculty to self-archive their work, wherever it is published, and they are helping existing independent journals to move online or for new ones to form. […] Nothing has come yet of my idea of libraries coming together to form a publishing cooperative in conjunction with a scholarly society” (The Access Principle). Lest we forget, the library, like the university, is also subject to post-modern consumer capitalism: the role of the librarian has been simplified by corporate and retail appropriations, emphasizing management and customer service. In this regard, the librarian must pander to consumer desire in order to stay a float in the market (D’Angelo 119).

With a considerable corporate concentration among the major publishers, with Elsevier, Springer, Wiley-Blackwell, Taylor & Francis, and Sage dominating STM publishing (The Access Principle) it sounds like what is happening is a push towards the capitalist market, rather than the desire for what OA activists want and what writers want. Again Willinksy waxes nostalgia for the university as a progressive agent in the movement. He writes “The universities would simply move their library budgets from paying publishers’ subscription fees to paying the equivalent of what is now the publishers’ article processing fees that pays for open access” (The Access Principle).

Recently, Simon Fraser University moved into the Woodward’s building, highlighting “the increasingly complex relationship between the neoliberal state, real-estate developers, and the university” (Tucker-Abramson 61). The push towards a life-style aesthetic, where the university taps into what is sexy, modern, and hip, is where I see a danger between the university and the OA movement. How much money was funneled into new infrastructure that aligns the university with corporate payoffs and affinities and how much money was leveraged and taken away from post-secondary education[3]? In connection to the OA debate, yes dissemination of knowledge will advance the historical role of the university in its ability to mobilize student and faculty’s academic production, but if it dips its toes too steadfast in the pool it will become even more of a dominating corporate presence–such like Elsevier, Springer, Wiley-Blackwell, Taylor & Franci, and Sage. Only those who are enrolled in university or have access can be a part of this type of knowledge production.

If it sounds like authors and OA activists want a rhizomatic sharing of ideas and information, then the relationship to institutions that perpetuate capitalist survival has to be a part of the discussion.

Linguistic Labour

We are not only deliberating around the role of the author as a founder of discourse or producer of economic capital, but of cultural capital to which the digital realm now constitutes. “Unlike printed text, digitality transforms the textual instance from a typographic object into an event in the electronic environment (Carassai 8), so we must think of the digital realm as encompassing language activity, a veritable “language-game” that constitutes relational phenomena (such as intertextuality). The crux that the author faces now is wrapped up in changes. As Kathleen Fitzpatrick writes “Some of our publishing practices are economically unsustainable, some of our employment practices are out of step with our actual intellectual values, and some of our writing practices are more productive of anxiety than they are of good work” (4). Digital reproductions cannot be the sole means of attaining emancipation from this state of anxiety–this psychology embeds values in the circuit of digital reproduction and linguistic labour (Lessig).

I mentioned earlier that it not only the disappearance of the author OA is contending with, but also the effacement of accountable labour time within the digital realm. Mediating the scholar’s mode of communication complicates this (much needed) paradigm shift towards accessible information. Knowledge is power, but knowledge can also be commodified by the engagement of digital technologies and financial economics. This is what Franco “Bifo” Berardi means by semiocapitalism[4]. Now that labour time, from the cognitive labour of open access journals to the “upwardly mobile cyber coolies” (Spivak) created through the outsourcing of U.S. call centres, has traversed from materiality to semiotics, where self-reference and authorial construction are bound by knowledge production in the way of technological innovations, writing practices are ridden with anxiety.

We must be in a position to not only rethink our authorship, but also look at creating space to facet multiple subjectivities and assume various subject functions. Fitzpatrick asserts that we must work at finding new “ways of imaging ourselves as we work” (3) thereby actualizing the material and linguistic activities that take place in the production of a work. In order to deconstruct a work it cannot revolve around placing ownership on the text from the get-go, but find new trajectories and methodologies that can actually be reified in the narrative of writing. Fitzpatrick writes “However critically aware we may be of the historical linkages among the rise of capitalism, the dominance of individualism, and the conventionally understood figure of the author, our own authorship practices have remained subsumed within those institutional and ideological frameworks” (3).

Currently, there is discussion around loosening the closed boundaries of academic production. Hall writes that we should “experiment with ideas of the academic author as individual genius; to loosen them so that they become less fixed and rigid, and may be performed differently” (15). Some activities have looked at remixing or mash-ups of texts, appropriating such styles from rap/hip hop and electronic music, for example, Jay-Z’s “Black Album” taking a racial hit on the Beatles “White Album” and Girl Talk’s digital sampling. As Hall writes remix culture “suggests that [the] analysis might itself take the form of video, producing a response to a cultural object in the same form as the object itself. It’s not too much of a stretch, after all, to argue that if authorship practices have changed, the very nature of writing itself has changed as well—not just our practices, but the result of those practices” (21)

Although Hall and Fitzpatrick bring the tools of ‘Web 2.0’ into the mix, it is not outside or emancipated from late capitalism. “It amounts to a rising up, or at least a growing expectation among the public that open and free access to knowledge is the new standard of what it means to make things public” (Hall 15); however, ‘Web 2.0′ does not constitute structural change, but reproduces bureaucratic apparatus’ for the production, distribution, and consumption of knowledge. Wikipedia, for example, is the most popular example of egalitarian web development of Web 2.0. The user can edit an entry as she so wishes, and works collaboratively with other users. What we can question is the success of its undertakings considering how the bulk of the well-formulated entries are for video gaming industries and movies, cataloging popular culture and there is no material incentive to broaden its appeal. The critique of ‘Web 2.0’ is that it “intentionally produces systems that depend on involvement of people using them. It assumes that people add value to systems,” (Keen) the operative word being assumes, when really editing Wikipedia entries mimics hegemonic ideology, rather than subverting it or destroying it. Wikipedia is sensitive to broader critiques, but does not ask for structural changes—it accepts and is regulated by the people who are situated in a particular economic, political landscape. The authoritarian figure may be absent from Wikipedia, but the real issue is that people are more likely to reproduce systems of capital given these tools.


Thinking outside of Western metaphysics, where the author is not the end all or originator of text (Fitzpatrick 14), and beyond the implications of collaboration, where individuality is accelerated by neoliberal dogma (, Myspace, Facebook!), is a positioning for future OA discussions and implementations. As Fitzpatrick writes “Repurposing of published material that extends beyond mere reprinting. The ability of an author to return to previously published work, to re- work it, to think through it anew, is one of the gifts of digital text’s malleability – but our ability to accept and make good use of such a gift will require us to shake many of the preconceptions that we carry over from print” (2). If we cannot depend on the university then what can we do? I think a start is deliberating on the parameters and boundaries, meaning coding and programmer speak, of the space digital text occupies.

The OA movement is calling for autonomy and a general paradigm shift from authorial agency over a work to hermeneutical models of reading (Bloch & Hesse 8); however, interrogating the links the author has to capital and ownership will present the questions needed to call the university into question as well. New questions could include: What are the modes of communication for open access? How do these modes intersect, circumlocute, and who can place their subjectivity within these trajectories? Where can they not move and why? Who can assume the subject-functions and what hinders this capability? As OA appropriates elements of the anarcho-sphere, particularly the discussion surrounding autonomous space, what is missing from this conversation is the push towards structural change and what that means.

Works Cited

D’Angelo, Edward. Barbarians at the Gates of the Public Library: How Postmodern             Consumer Capitalism Threatens Democracy, Civil Education and the Public Good. Duluth, MN: Library Juice, 2006. Print.

Derrida, Jacques. Right to Philosophy. Stanford, CA: Stanford UP, 2002. Print.

Barthes, Roland. “The Death of the Author.” Scribd. Web. 23 May 2011.             <;.

Bloch, RH and Hesse, C. “Introduction”, Future Libraries. Eds. R Howard Bloch and             Carla Hesse. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995. 1-12.

Carassai, Mauro. “E-Lit Works as ‘Forms of Culture’: Envisioning Digital Literary             Subjectivity.” The Digital Humanities: Beyond Computing 12 (2011). Web. 23 May 2011. <;.

Fitzpatrick, Kathleen. “The Digital Future of Authorship: Rethinking Originality.” The             Digital Humanities: Beyond Computing 12 (2011). Culture Machine. 2011. Web. 23 May 2011. <;.

Foucault, Michel. “What Is an Author?” The Foucault Reader. Harmondsworth: Penguin,             1984. Print.

Hall, Gary. “Pirate Philosophy (Version 1.0): Open Access, Open Editing, Free Content,             Free/Libre/Open Media.” Culture Machine 10 (2010): 1-39. Print.

Keen, Andrew. The Cult of the Amateur: How Today’s Internet Is Killing Our Culture.             New York: Doubleday/Currency, 2007. Web. 26 Mar. 2010   ”.

Kristeva, Julia. “Word, Dialogue and Novel.” The Kristeva Reader. Ed. Toril Moi. New             York: Columbia UP, 1986. 34-61. Print.

Lessig, Lawrence. Code: Version 2.0. New York: Basic, 2006. Print.

Longino, Helen E. The Fate of Knowledge. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 2002. Print.

Spivak, Gayatri. “Comparative Literature/World Literature.” ACLA 2011. Fairmont,             British Ballroom, Vancouver. 2 Apr. 2011. Lecture.

Tucker-Abramson, Myka. “Spectacle Capitalism: Expo 86, the Olympics, and Public             Education.” Ed. Bik Van Der Pol, Alissa Firth-Eagland, and Urban Subjects.             Momentarily: Learning from Mega-Events (2011): 58-63. Print.

Willinsky, John. “Altering the Material Conditions of Access to the Humanities.” Ed.             Peter Pericles Trifonas and Michael Peters. Deconstructing Derrida: Tasks for the             New Humanities. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005. Print.

Willinsky, John. The Access Principle: the Case for Open Access to Research and             Scholarship. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 2006. Print.

[1] We cannot think of these advances in technology as prior to colonization. The ‘digital divide’ is nothing new. The role of the author in holistic societies has always been precarious even in lieu of digital representations. Again, it is not Western progression that regards the author as lesser than her knowledge production in a digital realm, but that Western progression has made it so only the Western author is accredited. Only those who can act globally can be a part of globalization. Only those who are enrolled in a university or have access can be a part of knowledge production

[2] Willinksy writes: “To reiterate, this move to open access does not mean that the work is free. The reader still has to find her way through considerable machinery to the Internet. It does not mean that the author goes unpaid. This act of making a research article public is precisely what the author is paid for, in part, as a scholar employed by a university or research institute” (“Open Access”) Here I pose a few  questions: what does it mean to be a part of the university? How much leverage does the university pull on our academic careers and how does the dependency on the institution curtail our values?

[3] Myka Tucker-Abramson writes “Once the Woodward’s development began, the first non-housing groups to agree to participate in redevelopment were London Drugs and my school, Simon Fraser University, with the help of a $50.3 million grant from BC’s Provincial Government and London Drugs. At the time, the Chancellor of SFU was also the CEO of London Drugs and a major donor to the provincial government. Yet, while the BC government gave $50.3 million to the redevelopment of Woodward’s, it was continuing to withdraw core funding to post-secondary education, slashing $70.9 million in one year” (61-62).

[4] Berardi defines semiocapitalism: [W]hen informational technologies make possible a full integration of linguistic labor with capital valorization. The integration of language in the valorization process obviously involves important consequences both in the economic field and in the linguistic sphere. In fact it is possible to calculate the working time that is necessary to carry out a mechanical operation, but it is not possible to calculate the average working time socially needed to elaborate signs and create new forms in a precise way. Therefore linguistic labor is hardly reducible to the Marxian law of value, and consequently the economy incorporates new factors of instability and indefiniteness once the valorization becomes dependent on language. In turn language incorporates economic rules of competition, shortage, and overproduction. That is how an excess of signs (supply) is generated that cannot be consumed and elaborated in the time of social attention (demand). The consequences of semiotic overproduction are not only economic, but also psychical, since language acts directly on the psycho-sphere. (Precarious Rhapsody 150-151)

What semiocapitalism does is instrumentalize creativity and knowledge, (otherwise abstractions and intangibles) the same way it did raw materials, factory labour and capital played in industrial capitalism. We see marketing initiatives saturating the university, particularly seeping its way into the arts, if not completely engulfing it. Some say it is positive for the arts to incorporate a business model into the discourse, otherwise how will artists and scholars subsist in the job market? In Spring 2011 at SFU Surrey there is a cross-Faculty initiative between the Faculty of Business Administration and Faculty of Arts & Social Science, offering a business course to lure art students. And SSHRC has redirected the application process so as to weigh proposals on business-related research. What do these new models mean for culture knowledge and ideas? As the university transforms itself more and more into a site for job training and funding demands renders legitimacy, ideas are turned into information based on their marketability.

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