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

Postmodern and Posthuman Definitions

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). Despite being a critical approach rife with debates, the postmodern movement disrupts traditional notions of authorship that reduce knowledge production to individual works and contributions. Roland Barthes challenged conventional literary criticism that prioritized the author in interpreting a text and argued for a redefinition of authorship that is reader-oriented. In The Death of the Author, Barthes (1977) reconstrued texts as multi-dimensional spaces in which a variety of writings, none of them original, blend and clash (p. 146). That is to say, as texts build on other texts, it is the reader who facilitates the intellectual exchange of the texts or sustains the dialogues in between. Nevertheless, Barthes' reader-oriented definition of authorship has been later complicated by Michel Foucault (1987), who in What is an Author? questioned the displacement between individuals and discourses in the aftermath of the death of the author. Instead, Foucault brought to the fore the significance of discourse in framing authorship. As he noted, the designation of the author points to the existence of certain groups of discourse and refers to the status of this discourse within a society and culture (Foucault, 1987, p. 123). In this sense, Foucault reminded us of the need to investigate the function of discourses, or social contexts and cultural forces underlying the prioritization of certain ideologies over others, in shaping our very understanding of what constitutes an author in creative works.

Given the postmodern critique of individual authorship, the longstanding tradition of engaging primarily with humans as rhetors in the linguistic and symbolic turns of rhetoric and composition awaits further disruption and complication. To this end, I follow a posthuman reading of rhetorical agency as distributed, dispersed, embodied, emergent, and enacted (Barnett & Boyle, 2016; Boyle, 2016; Cooper, 2011; Dobrin, 2015; Hawk, 2011; Sheridan et al., 2012; Shipka, 2011; Wysocki, 2004). Drawing heavily from Bruno Latour’s actor-network theory, David M. Sheridan, Jim Ridolfo, and Antony J. Michel extended agency beyond anthropocentric traditions that succumb to a romantic understanding of autonomous subjects. As they asserted, agency does not evaporate, but is distributed across a fragile and complex dance among multiple and ontologically dispersed actors (Sheridan et al., 2012, p. 107). The distributed conceptualization of agency can also be glimpsed in Anne Frances Wysocki’s (2004) definition, wherein agency is fostered through an increased attention to social forms (p. 13) and to historically-situated and contingent material structures (p. 4). That is, social and material structures provide opportunities for human agents to exercise their agency in rhetorical practices. Due to the complexity of social and material relations, what is at stake here is that agency is not a property or value that can be attributed to individual rhetors.

Furthermore, reconfiguring agency as exceeding the subject (Sheridan et al., 2012, p. 106) and as distributed across multiple actors and relations, both human and nonhuman, opens up the possibility for investigating authorship and copyright issues beyond the single axis of human rationality and intentionality. The posthuman turn in rhetoric and composition, thus, signals a shift away from manifesting conscious awareness and toward articulating serial encounters with a variety of different relations (Boyle, 2016, p. 551), heeding nonconscious processes in providing meaning (Cooper, 2011, p. 435), and recognizing fundamentally fluid, flexible, and changeable identities (Dobrin, 2015, p. 5). In other words, agency has been reframed as embedded and enacted in lived experiences and flexible relations that do not always result solely from human action and consciousness. For instance, if we reread the monkey selfie issue from a posthuman vantage point, it is manifest that the issue involves the rhetorical actions of multiple authors or agents—including the monkey who took the selfie, the photographer who claimed copyright to the selfie, the animal protection organization who brought up the issue of animal copyright, and the Vlogger who responded to the copyright issue—not to mention online platforms and digital apparatuses that further distributed the selfie. In this sense, the composition of the monkey selfie vivifies the posthuman manifesto that the multimodal and digital composing practices should rather be relocated at the confluence of multiple composers, audiences, and contexts.

More importantly, lying at the heart of the monkey selfie debate, or whether Naruto should be granted the copyright of his photographic work, is whether nonhuman rhetors, such as animals, are capable of assuming rhetorical agency just as humans do. This discussion signals rhetoricians' attempts to veer away from the view of rhetoric as solely a human act, since animals are also capable of performing rhetorical and symbolic action (Kennedy, 1998; Hawhee, 2017). The tendency to reframe animal agency in Western rhetorical history and composition practice continues to exert substantial influence on recent discussions in animal rhetoric. By way of bringing animal rhetors to the fore, these scholarly works reshape rhetorical history as co-created by humans and nonhumans. For instance, Debra Hawhee (2017) extended George A. Kennedy’s (1998) discussion on animal rhetoric, tracing the agential roles played by animal rhetors in co-constructing rhetorical canons such as Aristotle’s logos. The active presence of animals in Western rhetorical and political history, thus, calls into question whether language art is a purely human art and propels us to attend to nonhuman rhetors' authorship issues. The possibility of animals co-authoring with human beings (Bradshaw, 2010) and even surpassing human rationality (Massumi, 2014) further blurs the boundary between human and nonhuman creations. In What Animals Teach Us about Politics, the source of this webtext's title, Brian Massumi (2014) shed light on how animals' creativity and agency are displayed through and embedded within the nonverbal ludic plays of combat and game. Animal play—such as the use of nonverbal gestures manifested in the instantaneous back-and-forths between logical levels...and between domains of experience and the creative movements by which they [animals] surpass themselves (Massumi, 2014, p. 22)—not merely intertwines with but also exceeds reflexive and conscious acts.

The controversy over the monkey selfie, as a case in point, gestures towards alternative definitions of authorship beyond the anthropocentric view of rhetorical agency. The lawsuit invokes interdisciplinary debates and discussions surrounding animal and nonhuman copyright, contesting the current judicial construct of legal personhood. Even though legal personhood is not restricted to human individuals—since corporations, rivers, and sacred texts also possess legal personhood—animals are still passively perceived as things (Hutton, 2017, p. 100) by law, or properties owned by human beings. In this sense, despite the recent movements in nonhuman rights, the lawsuit further generates public conversations that query the questionable binary between animals as things vis-a-vis corporations as legal persons. Resonating with the posthuman view of animal agency, PETA claimed that Naruto’s copyright was violated, arguing that the selfie image resulted from the independent, autonomous action of Naruto in manipulating David Slater’s camera and in pressing the shutter button (Naruto et al. v Slater, 2015, p. 2). Nevertheless, granted that animals are capable of exercising agency in composing creative works, it remains disputable if the selfie image emerges solely from Naruto’s agential action. One counterargument is that Slater provided Naruto with the ambience and technological props (Pallante, 2016, p. 129) that are crafted to support the monkey’s selfie taking. The digital distribution of the selfie may likewise involve the interaction of human actors (such as Slater) and nonhuman agents (such as photo editing software) that contributed to the design and arrangement of the photograph as we now see it. As researchers and practitioners, we should, hence, be wary of confining the notion of agency to single authors, whether they be human or nonhuman, in the digital age. The next section of this webtext will focus on furthering the discussion of distributed agency in digital media spaces.

Authorship in Digital Media Spaces

Aside from nonhuman rhetorical agency, the monkey selfie issue also calls our attention to the circulation and distribution of original works in digital media spaces. Along with the advent of digital technology comes new ways of distributing and circulating creative works. Before we turn to the theoretical and pedagogical implications of authorship in multimodal and digital composition, it is necessary to review how new material circumstances and developments destabilize our pre-established conceptions about authorship and copyright in the academic community.

Underlying the perpetuation of singular authors and the penalization of plagiarized (i.e., non-cited) texts is the dominance of market values and economic ideologies in academic discourse communities. The recent decline in free access on the internet, not surprisingly, coincides with the birth of monetized texts, by which means textual content has become commodified, put into motion in the capitalist system, forced to earn its keep by moving incessantly (Johnson-Eilola, 2004, p. 203). Under this circumstance, teachers and practitioners continue to associate knowledge as a commodity to be sold to student consumers, thereby inadvertently entrenching an academic obsession with plagiarism, or as Andrea Lunsford and Susan West (1996) put it, endorsing a “false ownership” (p. 398) that emerges alongside the construction of autonomous subjects and singular authors. Singular authorship, however, has been demystified in digital composition studies (Losh, 2014; Porter, 2018; Seader, Markins, & Canzonetta, 2018) for failing to recognize language as a “shared resource” (Porter, 2018, p. 262) stemming from community rather than individual practices and for losing sight of the rapid distribution of copies resulting from new technologies and social networks. Articles published in Kairos since its 1998 special issue on Copywrite, Plagiarism, and Intellectual Property (Deluca, 2015; Digirhet, 2008; Howard, 1998) further delineate how the academic framing of copyright and plagiarism is subject to a hierarchical power relation between professionals and non-professionals in academia. For instance, Rebecca Howard (1998) problematized the academic convention of reducing authorship to full citations, which is differently evaluated for novice and experienced writers. As she argued, while plagiarism by student writers is penalized as a form of disobeying academic honesty, plagiarism by professional writers is celebrated as a way of foregrounding their own voices. Simply put, relegating the connotation of authorship to merely obeying citation rules is questionable, as the pedagogical obsession with citation becomes a pedagogical obsession with denying students the possibility of authorship (Howard, 1998, para. 5). Instead, the normalized and standardized ways of teaching copyright that focus on punishing and policing misuses of copyrighted materials should be replaced with a more complex understanding of plagiarism (Howard & Davies, 2009). Through this lens, Howard and Davies outlined the initiative to move beyond the conventional scare techniques in teaching and promote available means of preventing plagiarism—namely, engaging students in current discussions of intellectual property in new media spaces to unveil its complexity, and walking students through better practices of understanding and summarizing sources to achieve academic honesty.

Extending this more nuanced understanding of authorship may allow us to inhabit a critical space for bridging our cherished assumptions and new emergent possibilities. Equally important is the need to revise our conventional understanding and practices for addressing the changes brought about by digital media, as evidenced by the divergent voices championing or denouncing nonhuman authorship in the monkey selfie case. While nonhuman authorship would probably not have been a public concern decades ago, the issue has recently been propelled into the limelight, thanks to the advent of new media spaces. Digital hypertexts, remixes, and mashups incessantly pose a challenge to the traditional understanding of privacy as free from the public gaze, under which circumstance intellectual property laws that forbid people from copying and distributing a creator’s work also seem out of place (Jones & Hafner, 2011, p. 91). From this perspective, the postmodern and posthuman discussions surrounding authorship exert far-reaching impacts on issues such as intellectual property and academic honesty in composition studies and teaching practices. Conversations regarding the death of the author keep reverberating in new media spaces that have announced the death of the hypertext. Citing as a case in point Hypertext is Dead (Isn’t it?), a webtext published in Kairos, Collin Brooke (2009) foregrounded the multifaceted layers of mediation—the bringing together of multiple voices and contexts—through which process digital texts and hypertexts are rendered available. He noted that given their potential for creating a synergy of voices and positions, hypertexts are not bound by a single rhetorical purpose or focus but are rather assembled by multiple texts or artifacts.

Indeed, in everyday practices, it may be true that teachers still cling to the responsibility of warning students against the moral quagmire of recomposing beyond prescribed genres and conventions. However, remixing practice (Edwards, 2016; Johnson-Eilola & Selber, 2007; Ridolfo & DeVoss, 2008, 2017) or the “process of taking old pieces of text, images, sounds, video and stitching them together to form a new product” (Ridolfo & DeVoss, 2008, para. 9) is celebrated as a legitimate form of transformative work and creative composition. In this light, rhetoricians and practitioners need to consider the rhetorical objectives of recomposition in certain writing situations (Sheridan et al., 2012). By way of advancing a critical multimodal pedagogy that attends to remixing and recomposition, Sheridan et al. (2012) called upon researchers and practitioners to rethink canonical anthropocentric approaches in rhetorical education, such as prescriptive practices that rely solely on law governing notions of authorship and copyright. This critique, once again, finds parallels in the problematization of a single, uncontested author in composition studies (Lunsford & West, 1996) and the redefinition of authorship as dispersed across multiple material actors, structures, and practices. What is intriguing about the monkey selfie case, thus, is how multiple composers and audiences reshape the selfie photograph as a means of persuasion: while Slater profited from the image by maintaining that it was his creation, PETA alluded to the image for filing the copyright lawsuit against Slater, and McSwiggan circulated the image again in his Twitter post in defense of Slater. The question, thus, is not so much about whether individual rhetors should or should not exercise rhetorical agency but rather about how meanings undergo changes and remixes while being composed and recomposed by multiple rhetors, both human and nonhuman, to achieve divergent rhetorical purposes.

Essentially, the emergence of new technologies in digital ecologies, such as Twitter and YouTube, ushers in a shift of focus from human agents to nonhuman rhetors, including technological interfaces, for articulating and speculating about digital composing practices. With rhetorical agency being subject to complex systems of digital ecologies, the traditional assumptions of authorship as fixed and static will no longer suffice to keep up with the constant ecological shifts. Building on postmodern theories of authorship, researchers in rhetoric and composition seek to revise canonical ideologies of writing. Brooke (2009) wrote, new media will transform our understanding of rhetoric as thoroughly as our training and expertise in rhetoric can effect a similar impact in discussions of new media (p. 5). From this vantage point, technologies throughout history constantly change the dynamics and ecologies of authorship. The way we deploy writing as an extension of our physical memory is analogous to the means through which information technology further problematizes the dichotomy between the human and the nonhuman, the natural and the artificial. As such, it is paradoxical to adhere to a dichotomous nomenclature of technology contra nature: As our memories and technologies have become even more artificial, they have done so only in so far as they circle back and approach the appearance of the natural (Brooke, 2000, pp. 787-788). In other words, as human beings, we have been so used to setting the natural on a pedestal, since Plato’s time, to the extent of relegating technological usage to a mere simulacrum of our physical experience. Contrastively, recent works in digital rhetoric (Brooke, 2009; Eyman, 2015) reconfigure digital media as generating activities and spaces, in which technology not only interfaces with the embodied practices of writing but also transforms our understanding of rhetorical agency. The posthuman turn in rhetoric and composition, in this sense, puts a new spin on the means whereby we construe our existence as human beings in relation to technological inventions.

Resonating with this posthuman paradigm shift, the monkey selfie lawsuit triggered a spectrum of debates and repercussions regarding the legal construction of nonhuman authorship in digital media spaces. Conversations in legal and linguistic studies (Hutton, 2017; Kaminiski, 2017; Pallante, 2017), for instance, have extended the logic of animal authorship to digital algorithms, such as artificial intelligence (AI) and cyborg. Algorithmic authorship poses a challenge to the romantic framing of authorship as pertinent to human originality, since machines are also capable of producing creative works. Margot E. Kaminiski (2017) maintained that it is harder to romanticize free expression as an essential output of human autonomy when machines can spew out news, poems, and co-eds (p. 594). In today’s digital age, co-authorship, as manifested in the use of a paintbrush in digital painting, further blurs the boundary between human agents and nonhuman actors in creative works. In a similar vein, new social relations arising from technological usage call for making room for emergent laws, e.g., cyborg law. Aligning with the uptake of technology as an extension of our physical memory (Brooke, 2009), cyborg law rests on an “extended notion of the self” (Hutton, 2017, p. 101). From this perspective, instead of acting as a decorative add-on, technology augments our modes of existence, which can be exemplified in the integration of modern cell phones into creating augmented human experience. As nonhuman created works continue to disrupt the construction of authorship and copyright in judicial discourses, our pedagogical practices in digital rhetoric and composition await disruption and extension as well to keep up with such discursive and material changes. In the next section of this webtext, I will discuss ways to build pedagogical approaches that prepare ourselves and our students for the ever-changing landscape of digital media spaces.

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