Johndon Johnson-Eilola’s article “The Database and the Essay” argues that postmodern definitions of writing have begun to be accepted and popularized by the general public. If we accept the general premise of postmodernism that ideas are formed in context and in social situations and don’t stem from individual genius, we are then faced with the issue of authorship and ownership. Johnson-Eilola points to intellectual property law and the erosion of fair use rights, arguing that language and text has become commodified within a capitalist system, “put into motion…forced to earn its keep by moving incessantly” (203). This idea of breaking texts into fragmented parts so that they will fit within the avenues of capitalist circulation has quite serious implications for original ownership. When texts are broken into smaller and smaller pieces, allowing for easier commodification, and then continually repurposed into new forms, how can we define authorship and originality? The deconstruction of meaning from a single textual object into an interconnected web of linkage and in-text citation has not created a “communal web of shared experiences,” as Johnson-Eilola claims was originally predicted (204). What has instead emerged is the commodification of intellect with the continual breaking down and reformulation of texts and ideas, each recombination generating profitable value.
This issue can be viewed in terms of the broader debate over what is writing and what is mere compilation. We generally define writing as involving a creative process that results in the formation of a unique text containing original thought. This is taught in academic settings and grounds most writing pedagogy. However new competing definitions of writing that lean toward postmodernism argue that language is a continual social construction, so is completely arbitrary and that this applies to texts as well. There is a marked shift from thinking of texts as discrete objects to now viewing them as unpredictable, fragmented elements that are constantly reconfigured and reconnected. Johnson-Eilola argues that this shift is important because it “opens a path away from thinking of intellectual property as a work– as a relatively extended, coherent whole– and toward thinking of it as marketable chunks” (209). By viewing any type of text within these financially geared terms, issues of ownership become problematic. If texts and ideas are continually reformulated, who holds proprietary rights?
Attempts at answering this question have become more urgent and relevant as blogs and linking further complicate the idea of ownership. Traditionally citation and reference within texts is considered necessary and socially valuable and has always been free, but now companies claim that linking within a website destroys their economic model of users moving “top-down” through the site viewing advertisements along the way. If users are linked to a page deep within the site, they miss relevant advertising and the company is not paid. The contrast between the academic argument that information should be free and the economic model claiming that information should circulate and thus earn money can be reduced to the rather difficult issue of information commodity. On one side we have academics arguing that knowledge and texts reside outside of the economic sphere while simultaneously constructing institutions that collect money in exchange for knowledge. And on the other side we have the postmodernists and corporations that fragment and circulate texts, profiting from this continual exchange of information. Though these sides claim to be in constant and bitter debate, their practices are incredibly similar. Does this then de-value the argument? Aren’t both institutions essentially attempting to control the same thing?