What Is the Future of the Editor?


In his classic essay “What Is an Author?” Michel Foucault offered an analysis of authorship that questioned received ideas about authorial authenticity and originality.

His essay describes authors not as persons but as a “function of discourse,” whether historical, social, or technological (124). Really, his essay ought to be called “What was an Author?” since he ends by saying that “We can easily imagine a culture where discourse would circulate without any need for an author” (138). You can’t help but suspect he’d prefer to live in such a culture.

This is an alienating way to think of authorship, partly because the figure of the author turns out to be not someone who writes but rather someone who is, in a sense, written by circulating social discourses. Your former illusions of writerly mastery turn out to be an effect of your context. A lot of working writers might not find imagining such a world as “easy” as Foucault does.

This way of talking may be less jarring if you realize that you, as an aspiring author or working author-function, are always also contributing to those circulating discourses. So it might be more accurate to say that the author doesn’t disappear in Foucault’s account, but in some sense gets smeared across a variety of locations, persons and institutions, joining a good old-fashioned cybernetic circuit.

Which brings me to the question of my title. The first step in figuring out the future of the editor is to ask a prior, more important question. What is an editor? The editor, like the author, is also a function of discourse. But the editor also has a function. The editor’s job is to be a switching station, a resistant medium through which the writer’s message travels en route to readers (where we understand that reader and writer refer not to persons but to functions).

Without the medium of transmission, communication isn’t possible. Without editorial friction or resistance, writers and readers instantly disappear. Writing wouldn’t be communication but instead be a sort of telepathy or merging of minds. So editing is an ineradicable part of what any author tries to do. It’s not only a good thing that editors exist, but logically necessary that they do.

So the real question of the future of editing is the question of who will edit (not whether someone will edit). Online, writers get to be self-editors, and readers, via various channels (comments, click statistics) also act as various types of editor. The writer’s fantasy of escaping editors is just that: a fantasy. You are always being edited, always self-editing. The question isn’t whether you’ll be edited, but by whom and how. What future platforms will editing happen on? What forms of editing will these platforms encourage and discourage? How will editing be visualized, communicated, and incorporated into new drafts?

We might be able to imagine a culture without authors – though I admit I find it hard too – but in any culture with authors we’ll never eliminate editors. Which is a good thing. We should, instead, celebrate them. And pay them, while we’re at it.