The Distributed Author: Creativity In the Age of Computer Networks

Christiane Heibach
University of Erfurt, Germany
[Home Page]

Abstract: The Death of the Author has first been claimed by poststructuralist philosophy. When language is seen as an open system undergoing constant changes, it loses its power of forming the subject's consciousness. Author and reader become object to the open différance-movement of the signs. Hypertext theorists like George Landow and Michael Joyce transferred this core thesis of poststructuralist thinking to the literary application of hypertext. Hyperfiction, seen as a "garden of forking paths," seems to semantically represent the looseness of the signifier-signified-relation as the multiple narrative lines subvert any control by the reader and undermine the author's power to fix all contexts and therefore all meanings of the text sequences. Although Landow sees this hypertextual dimension as a fulfillment of the poststructuralist claim, that meaning is only constituted by the reader and not determined by the author, in hyperfiction this remains an illusion. As the reader has to move within an unknown narrative universe, her freedom is strongly reduced when she tries to figure out the coherence and connections between the lexias. It is still the author who determines the text by designing the possible ways the reader can take, and by writing and therefore fixing the text sequences.

Nevertheless we experience a change of the author concept deriving from new writing practices in computer networks. The internet as the most complex networked platform is the sphere where the single creator is substituted by a collective and communicative creativity. Literary internet-projects meanwhile have developed a wide range of different cooperative forms that can be structured in "weak" and "strong" ways of collaboration. Under "weak" cooperation I subsume collaborations of authors and designers (the technical basis of internet literature and the development towards multimedia effects requires a wide range of qualifications that very rarely can be performed by one person) or multiple authors as e.g. realized in the literary project "Aliento" where three authors work together to create a narrative network of stories related to significant places of a fictional city. "Strong" ways of collaboration are those where any internet user can participate, as in cooperative writing projects like "*snowfields*" by Josephine Berry and Micz Flor <>, where - based on the concept of soap operas - different stories related to various topographical parts of Eastern Berlin shall be developed. Also "frame"-projects represent this way of cooperation - projects where the initiator sets the frame, and the participators are free to realize their interpretation as for example performed in "noon quilt" where people from all parts of the world are asked to describe what they see when they look out of their window at noon. Thus an intercultural network of different views expressing the different individual and cultural conditions is woven.

Apart from these ways of collaboration a second form, basically communicative, appears. It is realized in Virtual Worlds where people meet to interact by text and tell each other their (true or fictional) story. "Conversation with Angels" is such a literary project where avatars talk to visitors, visitors to other real life visitors or avatars and no-one knows who the other is. The avatars have their own biography, and in communication with the visitors they develop narratives that only exist as long as the conversation goes on. These projects are fundamentally ephemeral and only alive as long as there are participants.

These forms of cooperation and communication deeply change the notion of the author - they cause a shift from one creator-personality to multiple creators and thus a shift from the completed work to an ever-changing, never finished procedural project, where the act of communicating with others substitutes the desire to create an eternal and fixed work. The action is more important than the result. The consequences of this change shall be further developed in my contribution.

About the Presenter: Christiane Heibach is assistant professor at the department of communication sciences of the University of Erfurt (Germany). She studied German literature, philosophy and history at the University of Bamberg, at the Sorbonne (Paris/France) and at the University of Heidelberg, where she completed her PhD-degree with a thesis on internet literature.