Michel Foucault: "What is an Author?"

Michel Foucault is not a Freudian, a Marxist, a structuralist, a phenomenologist, a sociologist, or a historian, but his work draws on ideas and assumptions and methods from all of these areas or disciplines. Rather, think of Foucault, like Derrida and like Freud, as the founder of his own "school" of thought. He is a poststructuralist thinker, with affinities to most all the other theorists we've read so far, but he is enough unlike them that we should think of him in a category all his own.

Foucault starts off this essay, "What is an Author?," by discussing criticisms of a previous book, The Order of Things In this book Foucault had started an investigation into the conditions of possibility under which human beings become the objects of knowledge in certain disciplines (what we might call the "human sciences" or the "social sciences"). He was working to discover and explain the rules and laws of formation of systems of thought in the human sciences which emerge in the nineteenth century. His main method for looking at these disciplines, and how they constitute the objects of their study, was through examining "discourses," or "discursive practices."

For Foucault, a "discourse" is a body of thought and writing that is united by having a common object of study, a common methodology, and/or a set of common terms and ideas; the idea of discourse thus allows Foucault to talk about a wide variety of texts, from different countries and different historical periods and different disciplines and different genres. For example, the "discourse" on blindness would include writings by schools for the blind, writings by doctors who work with vision and blindness, novels with blind characters, and autobiographies of blind people, as well as writing about blindness from other disciplines.

In The Order of Things, Foucault discussed several naturalists, including Buffon, a French 18th century writer, and Charles Darwin, a British 19th century writer, as belonging to the same "discourse," or discursive family. Critics questioned this association, asking Foucault how he could put two authors who were so different, in time and place, together in one grouping. Foucault responds, in this essay, by asking why we are concerned with the idea of authors at all, rather than seeing "discourse" as the groupings of texts and ideas. Why, Foucault asks, do we always want to trace ideas back to specific authors? Why do we insist that ideas or concepts, or even literary works, are the creation of a single individual?

Foucault makes a list (on p. 139a) of some questions about authorship which he will not address directly. Rather, he wants to discuss the relationship between an author and a text, and the manner in which the text points to the author as a figure who is outside the text, and who precedes the text (and creates it). Eventually, Foucault will talk about the author as a Derridean "center" of the text, the place which originates the text yet remains outside it. (Then, of course, he will "deconstruct" that center/author).

But before he does that, Foucault talks about Samuel Beckett (the modernist novelist and playwright), and particularly about a line from Beckett, "what matter who's speaking?" Foucault sees this sentence as an expression of some of the major principles of contemporary writing, or what Foucault calls ecriture. (This ecriture is related to the French feminist idea of "l'ecriture feminine," but Foucault doesn't choose to give it a gender). One of the hallmarks of ecriture is the interplay of signifiers; language in this kind of writing is not about reference to a signified, but rather it's about the play among signifiers. The ecriture that Foucault is discussing tends toward the monologic, rather than the dialogic, in Bakhtin's terms; it is writing that is self-referential, writing about writing, or about language itself, rather than writing for/about social communication. As such, this writing is always working against the grammatical rules and structures within which meaning (or sense) is made. Because of this, Foucault concludes, such ecriture is not about "the exalted emotions related to the act of composition." Writing is not the vehicle for the author's expression of his/her emotions or ideas, since writing isn't meant to communicate from author to reader, but rather writing is the circulation of language itself, regardless of the individual existence of author or reader: "it is primarily concerned with creating an opening where the writing subject endlessly disappears" (p. 139b).

Another major theme or principle of ecriture that Foucault sees expressed in the Beckett quote is the idea of a connection between writing and death. Throughout most of Western cultural history, writing has been a means of staving off death, of becoming "immortal;" Foucault points to the Greek epic, where the hero can die young because his epic feats have guaranteed his immortality, and also to a non-Western text, The Arabian Nights, where Scheherazade's storytelling night after night kept her from being killed. In modern times, however, writing (ecriture) reverses the equation; rather than guaranteeing immortality, or keeping death away, writing "kills" the author.

Why? Foucault says that a writer's particular individuality is canceled out by the text, by writing, because we now see "writer," or "author," as the function of language itself. In the humanist model, the categories of author, text, and reader seemed self-evident and separate: an author is someone who produces a text, which is then read by a reader; the author was the source and origin of some creative power, which was unique to him or her, and out of which s/he created something entirely new. In the poststructuralist view, however, relations between author, text, and reader are replaced by an understanding of the relations between language (as a structure) and subjects (positions we inhabit within the structure of language). Althusser showed us how we are interpellated as subjects into ideological structures, and we discussed how that applies to literature: as readers, each of us becomes an interpellated subject within one or more textual ideologies. Foucault uses the same premises to conclude that "author," like "reader," is the name of a subject position within language, or, more specifically, within a text (or textual ideology).

So why does Foucault say the author is "dead"? It's his way of saying that the author is decentered, shown to be only a part of the structure, a subject position, and not the center. In the humanist view, remember, authors were the source and origin of texts (and perhaps of language itself, like Derrida's engineer), and were also thus beyond texts--hence authors were "centers." In declaring the author dead, Foucault follows Nietzsche's declaration (at the end of the nineteenth century) that "God is dead," a statement which Derrida then reads as meaning that God is no longer the center of the system of philosophy which Nietzsche is rejecting. By declaring the death of the author, Foucault is "deconstructing" the idea that the author is the origin of something original, and replacing it with the idea that the "author" is the product or function of writing, of the text. (Foucault also borrows the idea of "the death of the author" from poststructuralist literary critic Roland Barthes; his essay "The Death of the Author" appears in a collection of Barthes' essays entitled Image-Music-Text.)

An "author" only exists as the product of a text, or of writing. That is primarily what Foucault's article explores. What an author produces, according to Foucault, is a "work." The task of (humanist) criticism used to be to trace the ties between an author and the work s/he created, by reading the work as an illustration of the author's individual life history, of his or her particular concerns, thematics, etc. Foucault says that, once we throw the idea of "author" as individual creator into question, what do we mean by "work"?

Another way of putting this is to ask, once we have an author, does everything s/he wrote belong to the idea of her/his "work"? For example, think of that writing we discussed with Bakhtin: "Two pounds ground beef/seedless grapes/loaf bread." If we knew that this was written by T.S. Eliot, would it count as one of his "works"? Would it matter whether we thought it was a poem or a grocery list? Why or why not? Foucault says that we need to have some sort of theory to explain or analyze questions about what counts as an author's "work." A related question is whether anonymous writings can be considered "works," even though they have no specific author.

Foucault then takes a bit of a digression (pp. 140b-141a) to discuss how ecriture, in emphasizing the play of signification over any fixed or stable meaning, doesn't really get rid of the idea of authorship completely, but rather makes authors "transcendental" rather than historically real. Don't worry about this part.

On 141b, Foucault takes up the question of "author" as product of "work" again, asking how "the name of the author" serves a function within literary-social relations. The name of the author (not to be confused with Lacan's "Name-of-the-Father") is, first of all, a proper name, a signifier that designates a specific and discrete historical individual (just as your name designates you as a specific historical individual). But an "author's" name does more than that: when we say "Aristotle," or "Shakespeare," or even "Foucault," we mean more than just the guy who lived--we also mean the thoughts he is attributed with, the mode of thinking, the objects of contemplation, the methodology, and/or the writings (or forms of discourse) associated with that name.

The proper name of an author oscillates between two poles: between designation, which refers to the person, and description, which refers to the ideas, the work, associated with the name. Designation and description are not the same, not isomorphous. The proper name, as a signifier, can have either the signified of the actual person (the designation) or the signified of the work/ideas. In each case, the relation between signifier and signified--between proper name and what it either designates or describes--is arbitrary and separable.

For example: "Shakespeare" can refer to the guy who lived in Stratford-on-Avon in the seventeenth century, or it can refer to the numerous plays and poems linked under the name "Shakespeare." The idea of the separability of designation and description becomes clear when someone argues that "Shakespeare did not write the plays of Shakespeare"--meaning that the historical figure is not actually the guy responsible for the body of works called "the plays of Shakespeare." Such a sentence makes sense only if "Shakespeare" signifies two separate things.

This shows that the author's name serves as a means of identification, not simply as an element of speech. The name "Shakespeare" groups together a number of texts and differentiates them from others: Shakespeare marks what is not G. Eliot and what is not T.S. Eliot, etc. The author's name, according to Foucault, characterizes a particular manner of existence of discourse; the texts attributed to an author are given more status, more attention, and more cultural value than texts which have no author. We would read the grocery list we talked about last week differently if we knew it was written by T.S. Eliot. The author's name thus remains at the contours of texts, Foucault says, separating one from another, and characterizing their mode of existence. The name of the author is thus a variable, a signifier, which accompanies only certain texts to the exclusion of others.

There are four features of texts or books which have authors--or, in Foucault's terms, texts which create the author function.

1. Such texts are objects of appropriation, forms of property. Speeches and books were assigned to real authors, Foucault argues, only when the authors became subjected to punishments for what the speech or book said. When the writing/speech said something transgressive, something that broke rules, then systems of authority (like Althusser's RSAs) had to find some locus from which the transgressive speech came; the cops and courts had to find someone to punish. Foucault's example is that of heresy: when heresy was uttered, there had to be a heretic behind the utterance, since you can't punish words or ideas, but only the people who "author" those words or ideas. From this idea of locating authorship in someone held responsible for writing or speech came also the idea of ownership of works, and the idea of copyright rules associated with ownership.

2. The "author function" is not a universal or constant feature of every text. Some texts don't require, or create, an "author:" myths, fairy tales, folk stories, legends, jokes, etc. It used to be that literary texts could be anonymous, whereas scientific texts had to be attached to a name, to an "author function," because the credibility of the scientific text came from the name of the author associated with it: Pliny says, Aristotle says, Hippocrates says, etc. In the 17th and 18th centuries, Foucault says, this situation was reversed; scientific texts began to speak for themselves, to be objective, and thus to be judged on the basis of the arguments presented (and the reproducibility of results), and not on the authority of an individual author's name. Literary works, in this era, began to be evaluated on the basis of the notion of the author--hence the emergence of the idea of "Shakespeare" as "author function," not just as some guy who hung out in London theaters in the Elizabethan era. In contemporary society, we see this illustrated in the idea of an anonymous literary work, like Primary Colors, where the goal is to find out who REALLY wrote it--to be able to associate the text with an "author function."

3. The author function is not formed spontaneously, through some simple attribution of a discourse to an individual. Rather, it results from various cultural constructions, in which we choose certain attributes of an individual as "authorial" attributes, and dismiss others. Thus, in creating "Melville" as an author function, it is important to his status as "author" that he actually did go on a whaling voyage; it is irrelevant to his status as author that he worked in a bowling alley in Hawaii (although both are historically true).

Foucault says that philosophers and poets are not constructed as authors in the same way, but that there are some transhistorical constants in how authors are culturally constructed. He looks to St. Jerome as "author function" for these constants, examining how several texts are attributed to a single author:

a. Texts are eliminated from the list of belonging to a particular author if they are markedly superior or inferior to other texts on the list; hence the "author function" is a label of a certain standard level of quality. (This would keep the grocery list from being part of T.S. Eliot's "work," i.e. a text which generates an "author function," because the grocery list is not as good as "The Wasteland.")

b. A text is eliminated from the list of belonging to a particular author when the ideas in that text contradict or conflict with the ideas presented in other texts; thus the "author function" denotes a field of conceptual or theoretical coherence.

c. A text is eliminated from belonging to a particular author when the style is different from that of other texts belonging to that author, when it uses words and phrases not found in other texts. Hence "author function" requires a stylistic uniformity.

d. Texts are eliminated which refer to events after the death of the author. Hence "author function" means a definite historical figure in which a series of events converge.

Foucault reiterates these ideas (on p. 144a) and modifies them only slightly. The author's biography explains the presence of certain events in the text; the author is a principle of unity; the author neutralizes contradictions; the author is a particular source of expression manifested equally well in texts, letters, fragments, grocery lists, etc.

4. The text always bears signs that refer to the author, or create the "author function." The most easily recognizable of these signs is a pronoun, "I," though we know better than to assume that the "I" of a narrator is identical to the "I" of an author. Foucault suggests that the author function arises out of the difference, and separation, between the "author function" and the writer signified in the text. This is most easily seen in narrative fiction, but is true of any form of discourse, according to Foucault.

At the end of the article, Foucault talks about the idea of a transdiscursive position, people who are initiators of discursive practices, not just individual texts. Such figures as Marx and Freud (and Foucault) radically shift an entire mode of thinking; the discourses they initiate make them more than just "authors" or "author functions" in the ways we've been talking about. I won't go into the details of Foucault's argument about this here; it takes us further into Foucault's own position as the initiator of analysis of discourses.

He ends his essay with some questions about the relations of subjects to discourse, so we can end by looking at how Foucault transforms the question of any subject's relation to language via Bakhtin's notion of discourse, i.e. the idea that language(s) are social-historical formations, rather than ahistorical structures (as in Saussure's view). In this sense, look over the questions Foucault poses on p. 148, where he asks first about the relation of subject to discourse, and then rewrites humanist questions about authors into discursive questions about "author functions."

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