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Biliana Kourtasheva


At the end of his essay "What is an Author", Michel Foucault offers a hypothetic vision of the future of the written text. According to it, "as our society changes, at the very moment when it is in the process of changing, the author-function will disappear, and in such a manner that fiction and its polysemic texts will once again function according to another mode, but still with a system of constraint... All discourses, whatever their status, form, value, and whatever the treatment to which they will be subjected, would then develop in the anonymity of a murmur."1 Like every prediction, this sounds a little bit obscurely and ill-defined.

First of all, the kind of change that should be expected is unspecified and the attitude towards it remains rather ambiguous. Second, the prognosis begins with a claim about the future of fiction but then suddenly extends to cover all kinds of discourses. This substitution seems problematic against the background of the whole essay because it contradicts the already formulated concept of the author-function. According to it, the author-function is not characteristic of all discourses: "a private letter may well have a signer - it does not have an author; a contract may well have a guarantor - it does not have an author," says Foucault.2 Or may be the substitution he makes is deliberate, implying that with the change, whatever it is, fiction and all kinds of discourses will acquire an equal status, in other words, they will become equally (non)fictional, equally deprived of signature, of guarantor, and of author.

Foucault claims that the author is not the genial creator as we are accustomed to saying. The author "is the principle of thrift in the proliferation of meaning, (...) a certain functional principle by which, in our culture, one limits, excludes, and chooses; in short, by which one impedes the free circulation, the free manipulation, the free composition, decomposition, and recomposition of fiction."3 According to our own experience, a space already exists where that principle is invalid, delegitimated, where discources proliferate in all kinds of forms, without any restriction or censorship. This, of course, is Internet, the WWW. It is where Foucault's prognosis of the disapperence of the author-function begins to materialize, or, to be more precise, to virtualize.

From this point of view, the change mentioned by Foucault could be seen as similar to the widespread notion of the Western society turning into an information society or entering the so-called post-industrial phase of development. In the very beginning of “The Postmodern Situation," Lyotard considers this general transformation in relation to the growing number of information machines which changes the nature of knowledge - it could become operational only if converted into quantities of information. If the two notions of change - Foucault's and Lyotard's - at least partly coincide, then the new "system of constraint," with regard to all discourses, would be their translatability into an electronic language.

What, at present, resists the electronic language, or vice versa, the electronic language resists it, is an element marginal for the discourse - the signature. Undoubtedly, everyone has faced the imposibility of computer signing. Neihter mouse, nor keyboard can reproduce the unique gesture of a hand relating the name to its owner. Hence one of the major disadvantages of the e-mail: one cannot send an official, endorsed document trough it unless it is scanned. The act of signing involves exiting the virtual space and materializing the document on paper. A signature can be transferred, communicated, but not produced in an electronic way. Thus, the complicated question of where the borderline between the virtual and the real passes, might have a simple answer - along the line of signature.

In the so-called real world, the signature is one of the basic modes of self-identification, an instance of authority and responsibility that remains indispensable in most of the human spheres - from private correspondence to state administration. Signature, on one hand, attributes a text to a name, and on the other, collates a name with a person. The absence or the optional presence of the signature on the Web is a symptom of change in the status of the text and its author in the electronic environment.

Foucault derives the appearance of the author-function from "what one might call penal appropriation." He claims that historically "texts, books, and discourses really began to have authors (other than mythical, 'sacralized', and 'sacralizing' figures) to the extent that authors became subject to punishment."4 Then the absolute freedom on the Web, the absence of censorship, control and punishment might be an explanation of the indifference towards the author, and hence towards the signature.

This situation has also some negative consequences. There is no guarantee for the reliability of the information since most of the time its source is not indicated. In numerous anonymous sites the reader (the user) has to judge the trustworthiness of the information all by himself. Furthermore, the absence of the institution of signature limits the business opportunities of the Web. One can bye and sell through the Net (if he/she has a credit card number), but if two business partners decide to sign an on-line contract this contract will not be legitimate because of the absence of their signatures. It is not by chance that American experts have already brought forward the issue of enacting a law of electronic signature. Thus the problem turns into a juridical case.

It is obvious that here, due to the specificity of the subject, the author-signature relation has been deliberately simplified and accepted without further questioning. The signature has been understood as a metonymy of the author, and respectively, of the copyright, which might raise various objections. For example, Robert Griffin demonstrates that things are more complicated in their historical stratification and juridical dimension. In his criticism and elaboration of Foucault’s ideas, Griffin argues that "the author-function describes precisely a function, which may be fulfilled by a name but does not require one. It is first of all an empty function, a structural blank space, which may be signed or unsigned depending on circumstances."5 Observing the history of copyright legislation in England and many particular cases of publications, he shows that there is not necessarily a relation between the way the author's name is used or not used and the ownership of literary property. He comes to the conclusion that "naming and copyright protection operate on separate levels of discourse."6

And yet, how does the signature function in the electronic environment? What are, for the present, the practical solutions of this problem?

A signature may be scanned and saved on a disk. Then one can get it from there anytime. In that case there is no need to print, sign, and scan every single document. But we should note that this procedure contradicts the idea of signature itself because not only the signatures of different people are specific, but every single signature of a person is unique. In reproducing the same, a signature is always different; the result is always similar but not identical. A signature bears the characteristics of an individual’s handwriting and appears somewhere between disciplined writing and idiosyncratic scrawling, between the letters (of the name) and some frivolous quirks. Signatures are on the edge of legibility and iterability, hence on the edge of writing. As Derrida puts it, "the condition of possibility of these effects [of signatures] is simultaneously, once again, the condition of their impossibility."7 This paradox becomes entirely evident on the Web.

A signature scanned for frequent use turns into a seal, into a constant object that can easily be stolen. That would be a rather simple operation for a hacker.

There is another, slightly different approach to the problem.

The structure of the human hand had, naturally, determined the form of the means of writing. One cannot sign with a mouse because it does not have the appropriate form. Then if a software writing product is combined with one for drawing right on the screen, with a pen pen-like instrument, it could be used for putting one's signature there, too.

The point is that on the Internet, where the physical parameters and the real identity are irrelevant, legitimation trough signature becomes useless. Paraphs are substituted by various codes and passwords which, in a sense, are anti-signatures. Firstly, there is not necessarily a connection between them and the proper name of the user. A password for opening one’s e-mail could be any word or a meaningless combination of letters, digits, and other symbols, or a petname, for example. Secondly, the signature works through its visibility whereas the password - through its invisibility. One cannot see it while typing it on the screen so that no one else could see it. Nevertheless, this kind of "signing" on the Web is also insecure. Most of the personal passwords or codes can easily be misused. This, again, is a trivial hacker's operation like on-line shopping with someone else's credit card number.

The eventual solutions are aimed at reducing the moment of legitimation to a possible minimum so that the code could not be caught out. That brings us to another major distinction between manual and electronic signature. It is in their relation to time. In its uniqueness, every traditional act of signing gives written expression to one's concrete here-and-now volition resulting from a specific situation. According to Derrida, "this general maintenance [or nowness] is somehow inscribed, stapled to present punctuality, always evident and always singular, in the form of the signature. This is the enigmatic originality of every paraph."8 This is exactly what the electronic signature is deprived of in its absolute iterability and that is why on-line signatures must be instantaneous, non-durable. Traditional signatures, like everything written, make sense because of their endurance. They mark and preserve the volition and the presence of the signer in a "transcendental form of nowness"9, to cite Derrida for one last time.

The absolute, the ultimate web-signature is the missing hacker's signature. Hackers usually operate anonimously, signing themselves with the very act of destruction, of erasure. (Take for example the liquidation of the site of the U.S.A. Congress Library.) In this case signature and event completely coincide, eliminating the context.

In the end, one might say that the attempt to apply certain theories to Internet leads more to their literalization than to some kind of reinterpretation. It seems that virtuality turns all predictions and paradoxes into reality.



1. Michel Foucault, "What is an author" in Textual Strategies: Perspectives in Post-Structuralist Criticism, ed. Josue V. Harari (Ithaca, 1979), p. 160. [back]

2. Ibidem, p. 148. [back]

3. Ibidem, p. 159. [back]

4. Ibidem, p. 148. [back]

5. Robert J. Griffin, "Anonymity and Authorship" in New Literary History, 1999, Vol. 30, p. 882. [back]

6. Ibidem, p. 889. [back]

7. Jacques Derrida, "Signature Event Context" in Margins of Philosophy (University of Chicago, 1982), p. 328. [back]

8. Ibidem. [back]

9. Ibidem. [back]



© Biliana Kourtasheva, 2000
© E-publishing LiterNet, 03. 05. 2000