What Monkeys Teach Us about Authorship:
Toward a Distributed Agency
in Digital Composing Practices


As a composition teacher endeavoring to spark controversial yet interesting discussions in class, I have been drawn to the recent monkey selfie lawsuit (Slotkin, 2017), which productively adds to the theoretical framing of nonhuman authorship in digital media spaces. It started in an Indonesian forest, when a macaque monkey named Naruto took a series of photograph selfies with a camera belonging to British photographer David Slater. The selfie image ended up being uploaded on Wikipedia Commons as a public domain photograph. Citing copyright, Slater asked Wikipedia to remove the image, but was later sued by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), an animal protection organization, for violating the copyright of the monkey. The lawsuit soon swept through social media, culminating in Twitter posts with thousands of retweets by a Vlogger named Calum McSwiggan, who condemned PETA for ruining the photographer in the monkey selfie case (Gladwell, 2017; McSwiggan, 2017). Even though the case has been settled with Naruto being denied his copyright, the lawsuit has drawn public attention to the issue of animal authorship and copyright. When I first introduced this news story to the students in my composition classes, their reaction was a mixture of surprise and amusement, as if they were trying to say What? Are you serious? The story may earn a similar reception from teachers and scholars, too. In the academic sphere, there has not been a shared understanding among postmodern and poststructural theorists of who assumes authorship for a text, i.e., whether the authorship is at the hands of the putative author, the reader, or the text itself (Barthes, 1977; Derrida, 1981; Foucault, 1987). Regardless of the disparate takes on the issue, the philosophical debate surrounding authorship has to be extended to nonhumans.

Different from the longstanding tradition of engaging primarily with humans as rhetors in the linguistic and symbolic turns of rhetoric and composition, recent years have witnessed a growing interest in animal and posthuman rhetoric. Animal and posthuman rhetoric brings to the fore the influence of nonhuman agents in composing practices (Barnett & Boyle, 2016; Boyle, 2016; Cooper, 2011), the presence of animals in Western rhetorical and political history (Hawhee, 2017; Kennedy, 1998; Massumi, 2014), and the ability of animals to co-author with humans (Bradshaw, 2010). Extending the posthuman discussion, the very definition of authorship awaits further disruption and problematization. Researchers in digital rhetoric and composition (Brooke, 2000; Howard & Davies, 2009; Lunsford & West, 1996), for instance, delve into the complexity of authorship issues in digital spaces, complicating laws governing notions of authorship and challenging the conventional scare techniques in teaching. Crucial to the debate and discussion is how the very definition of authorship in digital spaces awaits further disruption and complication. In the past 20 years, a myriad of articles published in Kairos (DeLuca, 2015; Digirhet, 2008; Howard, 1998) have expanded the scholarly discussion of authorship to incorporate digital citizenship, activism, and engagement. It is thus incumbent on us to become attuned to the changes brought about by the everchanging landscape of digital ecologies. Technologies surfacing in digital ecologies and pedagogies, such as Twitter and YouTube, call for a shift of focus from human engagement to nonhuman rhetors, including animals, in addition to human agents. Following and expanding the current scholarly framing of digital authorship, this webtext further explores the pedagogical possibilities of teaching with and through monkey selfies. Specifically, I argue that the issue of animal authorship and copyright opens up new pedagogical avenues for challenging the static and fixed views of authorship in composing practices. Moving from a conventional pedagogy prioritizing human agents to a distributed agency among humans and nonhumans, new affordances and circumstances in digital ecologies provoke our colleagues and students to rethink and reconstruct the very notion of authorship in flux.

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Theorizing authorship

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