A.I. : In the Age of the Absence of the Author

Back in high school, one of my English teachers introduced the idea of “The Death of the Author.” It’s a type of literary critique where the work is analyzed entirely independently of its creator. The idea behind it is that the work exists as its own entity and as such, the merits and demerits of the work should be extracted by what the reader is able to glean from it. The theory argues that if you account for the author, you are potentially closing yourself from a “pure” interpretation of the text and thus limit its meaning.

It’s a noble concept in some respects, the idea of separating the art from the artists. The acknowledgement that the work exists outside of its tangible connection to the creator. However, time and time again, we see that who the author is is a constant influence on the work’s existence. H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos is deeply seated within his extreme racism. Orson Scott Card’s homophobia infiltrates any potential reading of the Ender’s Game series. And we don’t nearly have time to dissect all of the things going on with a particular wizard related franchise.

The contrapositive is also true. The Matrix franchise is a trans allegory for the Wachowski sisters. The Boy and The Heron as a pseudo-autobiographical tale of Hayao Miyazaki’s life. The creation of Superman was deeply informed by Jerry Seigal and Joe Shuster’s personal life. In order to truly understand and appreciate the work, knowing who the author is and what their intentions were is a prerequisite to truly analyze anything going on.

The long and short of this reduces down to a simple sentiment: context matters. Context defines everything. To examine something in a vacuum is recklessly reductive and while it can be useful like frictionless airtight physics questions, in media critique, you have to look at things holistically.

However, as we close out 2023, while keeping the author in mind remains a relevant exercise, we have been faced with a different sort of problem. This is a year that has unfortunately been defined by “the absence of the author” in a plethora of ways.

The most emblematic example is one that I’ve been rallying against for a while and one that I will have to continue to rally against as it has proven to be so much more insidious and pervasive than I could have ever imagined. I’m of course talking about the uptick in the use of “artificial intelligence” (in quotes, because in its current practice, there’s a significant amount of machine learning involved and it’s important to make these distinctions if for no other reason than to hold out hope that the future actual A.I. overlords will be appreciative of the distinctive) pretty much everywhere. The uptick of online generators such as DALL-E, Midjourney, ChatGPT, InfoGPT, and now… Grok puts the technology at the forefront of the cultural zeitgeist, but the use of AI as a means of artistic bypass is nothing new in the slightest. The tipping point, at least in my eyes, continues to be the digital resurrection of James Dean for a movie (feel free to browse through our podcast This Week in Nerd News for more of me and my friends lamenting this weird reality) something facilitated by a CMG Worldwide which manages the digital likeliness of several notable figures, a fact that we’ll get back to in a bit.

But for now, let’s stick with generative A.I. for a moment. A wide range of “tools” have been used to create everything from comics, paintings, and movies. As the technology has evolved (stolen more data), the quality has improved but there remains a soullessness. If we take a look at some of the examples from yesteryear, we have the A.I. assisted comic that lost copyright protection (because unsurprisingly, using a celebrity’s likeness without permission is illegal).

And the recurring thought in my head is that there is definitely a space for A.I. assistance. There is something to be said about the automation of the monotonous. We can see the reasonable use of A.I. in Spider-Man: Across the Spider-verse, where machine learning helps reduce the amount of repetitive work that the animators need to and then verify the output personally. The combination of using self-sourced work of not relying on the A.I. generated content as gospel is what distinguishes what the populous perception of A.I. art with, you know, actual art. Deliberate choice, cognizant decision making, an actual example of A.I. as being a tool.

If we look at say, “Théâtre D’opéra Spatial” generated by Midjourney as instructed by Jason M. Allen which made waves after it won a state fair last, it definitely looks nice but outside of that, it’s as thinly veiled as the generic Space Opera Theater text that seeded it. This of course was made during the relative infancy of the technology, and the generated art is getting better each and every day, but there’s something off putting about a piece of work that you can’t truly interrogate, something saddening about the lack of any true human intervention, something maddening about the pastiche of images fashioning itself into something supposedly bespoke without acknowledging the source.

And in these examples and any other example, it comes back to the same central point that keeps me up at night. There is no deliberate choice being made. There is no context. A string of words that gets converted to pixels vis a vis a machine does not produce work that can be analyzed. There is no artistry to be found. There are no meaningful decisions made. Any work produced by A.I. inherently is absent of an author by definition.

However, all of the above talks of A.I. directly intersect with another example of 2023 absent authors: the 2023 Writers/Actors Strikes. In addition to wanting a fair wage from the streaming revenue, several of the biggest debate points for WGA and SAG-AFTRA was the use of A.I. in their respective fields, whether it was ChatGPT making scripts or curating the digital likeliness of big names and background actors (I told you the digital resurrection of James Dean was going to come back up). And thankfully, some preventive measures were put into place, but this has also led to the fact that after a year of exception content, we are likely going to feel the absence of these creators in 2024 and 2025 since they weren’t making art because they were busy fighting for their basic livelihood. The idea of the noble artist doing art for art’s sake is perhaps one of the most frustrating antiquated notions perpetuated because at its base, art is fundamental to espousing cultural concepts. Art is important as preserving time periods and ideologies. Art is a fundamental part of our society, and we feel the absence of authors every time they are not able to make work.

So, as we go into the New Year, be mindful of the content droughts induced by corporate greed, that denied writers and actors fair terms to work, and that laid off massive numbers of video games developers. Be mindful of the A.I. work unethically stealing from far too numerous a source to lay down. Be mindful that there are ways to use new technology in a way that doesn’t foster works that are completely absent of authors. Because, and this is worth emphasizing again, we feel it when authors are absent.

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  • Mikkel Snyder is a technical writer by day and pop culture curator and critic all other times.

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