Michel Foucault: “What is an Author?”

MICHEL FOUCAULT (1926 – 1984)


What is an Author? (1969)

To read Michel Foucault, is to feel the grounds of one’s belief systems shift underneath one’s feet. For Foucault, as for Roland Barthes (1916-1980), the notion of the author must come into question. Although Foucault was not a literary theorist, he, like Barthes, was a theorist of history, and “What is an Author?” echoed many of the thoughts of Barthes on the subject of authorship. Over a decade earlier, in Writing Degree Zero (1953), Barthes laid out how the “Author” came into being during a certain historical period and discussed how the term “author” was privileged due to the concept of what Foucault would call “individuation.” The notion of the author as a proper name produced “the author function” that became characteristic of certain kinds of discourses, such as fiction, and not others, such as letter writing. The system that produced the author function is a system of ownership and, by the end of the 18th century, the author was placed at the center of a system of property. Given at the Societé Francais de philosophie on 22 February 1969, this talk was published in 1969 in Bulletin de la Société française de Philosophie.

Foucault turned the concept of “author” inside out by examining the text points to the author and not, as is assumed, vice versa. He began by quoting Samuel Beckett, who wrote, “What matter who’s speaking, someone said, what matter who’s speaking?” The question connoted an “indifference,” Foucault noted, towards writing that had become an “immanent rule” that precluded expression. Like Barthes, Foucault was acting against Structuralism or a formal reading of a literary work and was opposed to the concept of expression, a holdover of Romantic thinking. Foucault understood writing to be “freed” from the need to “express” and was able to represent only itself. Writing was identified with its own unfolded exteriorly—an interplay of signs arranged to the nature of signifiers. As Foucault wrote,

Writing unfolds like a game (jeu) that invariably goes beyond its own rules and transgresses its limits. In writing, the point is not to manifest or exalt the act of writing, nor is it to pin a subject within language; it is, rather, a question of creating a space into which the writing subject constantly disappears.

Like Barthes, Foucault used drastic language to get his point across. Writing, he stated, is linked to sacrifice: Writing has become linked to sacrifice, even to the sacrifice of life: it is now a voluntary effacement that does not need to be represented in books, since it is brought about in the writer’s very existence. The work, which once had the duty of providing immortality, now possesses the right to kill, to be its author’s murderer.

“Writing” for Foucault was like “Text” for Barthes and thus, writing possesses the “right to kill” the author, to be the author’s murderer. Writing cancels out signs of particular individuality so that, ironically, the sign of the writer is the singularity of absence. The writer has the role of the dead person involved in a game of writing. But, as Foucault warned,

It is not enough, however, to repeat the empty affirmation that the author has disappeared. For the same reason, it is not enough to keep repeating that God and man have died a common death. Instead, we must locate the space left empty by the author’s disappearance, follow the distribution of gaps and breaches, and watch for the openings this disappearance uncovers.

Foucault pointed to exceptions to his assertion that the author is an ideological construct and made note of transdiscursive writers, such as Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud and Ann Radcliffe, all of whom established paradigms or what Foucault called “discursive instaurations.” These are rare figures in the field of writing who created a genre that spawned writing in their particular area. Like Ann Radcliffe, who created the Gothic Novel which inspired a genre that continues to this day, like Karl Marx whose followers created Marxist theory, these individuals started discourses and disappeared into the discourse. That being said, Foucault considered it dangerous to reduce either non-fiction or fiction to the notion of the “author.” Most authors are fictive and Foucault reverted to his familiar stance of defining the “author” in terms of what it was not:

The author allows a limitation of the cancerous and dangerous proliferation of significations within a world where one is thrifty not only with one’s sources and riches, but also with one’s discourses and their significations. The author is the principle of thrift in the proliferation of meaning. As a result we must entirely reverse the traditional idea of the author..the author is not an indefinite source of significations which fill a work; the author does not precede the works; he is 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.

“Literary” discourses were opposed to “truth” discourses, that is, discourses linked to a culturally affirmed “truth” in the sense that a literary discourse was a “fiction.” The distinction between truth and fiction necessitated an author to avoid the kind of appropriation that overtook the discourses of the sciences. In other words, the “author function” was obliterated in the sciences so that anonymity (disinterest) guaranteed “truth” but accelerated in fiction in order to guarantee sales. Foucault made his point, not to cement the idea of the “author” as an owner of ideas, but to destabilize the idea of establishing a bounded and constrained field, for in all of the cases set forward by Foucault, the discourse exceeded the writers–Marxism, Freudian thinking and Romanticism.

In separating the author from his or her body of work, Foucault shifted literature into discourse, so that individual works become part of a larger body of texts. As Foucault wrote,

Perhaps it is time to study discourses not only in terms of their expressive value or formal transformations but according to their modes of existence. The modes of circulation, valorization, attribution, and appropriation of discourses vary with each culture and are modified within each.The manner in which they are articulated according to social relationships can be more readily understood, I believe, in the activity of the author function and in its modifications than in the themes or concepts that discourses set in motion.

Foucault’s attack on the author is much more powerful than that of Barthes. Barthes kept within the boundaries of literary theory in his essay “The Death of the Author” and merely wanted to activate the reader. Foucault, however, seemed to view the author as being implicated in a system of thought that was mired in personification and personalization that got in the way of the preferred object of study: the discourse. Foucault wrote that the author was an “ideological” figure that is linked to a cult of personality:

The question then becomes: How can one reduce the great peril, the great danger with which fiction threatens our world? The answer is: One can reduce it with the author. The author allows a limitation of the cancerous and dangerous proliferation of significations within a world where one is thrifty not only with one’s resources and riches but also with one’s discourses and their significations. The author is the principle of thrift in the proliferation of meaning. As a result, we must entirely reverse the traditional idea of the author. We are accustomed, as we have seen earlier, to saying that the author is the genial creator of a work in which he deposits, with infinite wealth and generosity, an inexhaustible world of significations. We are used to thinking that the author is so different from all other men, and so transcendent with regard to all languages that, as soon as he speaks, meaning begins to proliferate, to proliferate indefinitely.

The question was why had the author become an “ideological figure?” Foucault answered that in conceiving of the author as the source of meaning, meaning is confined to the author’s intention. This artificial containment is why both Foucault and Barthes were both suspicious of the exercise of “close reading.” “Close reading” and the mystification of the author as a creator, closes off what “we fear,” something Foucault called “the proliferation of meaning.” The author has therefore the function as a regulator of meaning and this function as an element (not as someone) that controls meaning is closely linked to the control of distribution and profits. In the end Foucault imagined that in the future the author function and/or the author him or herself would disappear in a proliferating discourse. But as was usual in Foucault’s writings, the actual mechanisms of such a change are never explained. He merely ended his essay by stating,

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. We would no longer hear the questions that have been rehashed for so long: Who really spoke? Is it really he and not someone else? With what authenticity or originality? And what part of his deepest sell did he express in his discourse? Instead, there would be other questions, like these: What are the modes of existence of this discourse? Where has it been used, how can it circulate, and who can appropriate it for himself? What are the places in it where there is room for possible subjects? Who can assume these various subject functions? And behind all these questions, we would hear hardly anything but the stirring of an indifference: What difference does it make who is speaking?

To women and people of color, who have been denied the privilege of writing, “who” writes makes a difference. Foucault must be compared to his female counterparts who were asserting not only the possible uniqueness of écriture féminine but who were also attempting to subvert a male-made language. Although Foucault, like Barthes, was writing against the social constraints against meaning, his last sentence would be taken out of context and used to obliterate the writing of the Other and to elide the fact that the canon of writers and artists still consisted of the white male. Foucault, like most of the men of his era, did not spend much time considering women or emphasizing with people of color. In reading the text of the Other/Woman, Foucault would dispense with interpretation. Interpretation sets up a play against the original text and leads to infinite regression. For Foucault, it was always too late to recover an “original meaning” and a stable “context” for “everything is already interpretation.” However, it is important to know “who is writing” in order to interpret a statement in the context of gender and race. Without this contextual tool, critique becomes difficult and Foucault, as did his colleagues, carefully neutered critique and rendered social criticism mute, coincidentally or not, at the time of a struggle for the rights of women and people of color.

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