[Bibliography] [Relevant Link] [Other Theories] Cultural Studies Postmodernism Foucault

Sophia Hsu
19 November 2002

Michel Foucault's "What Is an Author?"

An Outline

I. Why Foucault feels the need to ask such a question, "What is an author?"

A. Preliminary thinking of "author"

1. Roland Barthes' "death of the author"

2. Samuel Beckett's "What matter who's speaking, someone said, what matter who's speaking."

B. Originated from The Order of Things

1. Two related objections arise from Foucault's failure to realize the functions of author in his book.

a. Foucault fails to describe properly Buffon or his work; his mentioning of Marx is also inadequate in terms of the totality of his thought.

b. Foucault brings seemingly irrelevant names together and creates "monstrous families" (1622).

2. Foucault's original purposes/defense:

a. He wants to locate the rules that formed a certain number of concepts and theoretical relationships in Buffon's and Marx's works, instead of merely describing them and their thoughts.

b. He tends to determine the functional conditions of specific discursive practices.

II. The purpose of this paper: to set aside a socio-historical analysis of the author as an individual and the numerous questions that deserve attention in this context.

A. How the author was individualized in a culture such as ours.

B. The state we have given the author.

C. The systems of valorization in which the author was included.

D. The moment when the stories of heroes gave way to an author's biography

E. The conditions that fostered the formulation of the fundamental critical category of "the man and his work."

III. The ethical principle of contemporary writing: it dominates writing as an ongoing practice and slights our customary attention to the finished product.

A. The writing of our day has freed itself from the necessity of "expression"; it only refers to itself, yet it is not restricted to the confines of interiority. On the contrary, we recognize it in its exterior deployment.

1. Writing as an interplay of signs.

2. Writing is concerned with creating an opening where the writing subject endlessly disappears.

B. It is the kinship between writing and death.

1. The concept of a spoken or written narrative as a protection against death.

2. Where a work had the duty of creating immortality, it now attains the right to kill, to become the murderer of its author.

3. The author is transformed into a victim of his own writing.

IV. Two theses that have detained us from taking full measure of the author's disappearance:

A. How can an author's works be defined? What should be included in his work?

B. The notion of écriture

1. It should allow us not only to circumvent references to an author, but to situate his recent absence.

2. It stands for a remarkably profound attempt to elaborate the conditions of any text, both the conditions of its spatial dispersion and its temporal deployment.

3. The conception of écriture sustains the privileges of the author through the safeguard of the a priori.

V. Difficulties and problems related to "what is the name of an author?" and "how does it function?"

A. It is more than a gesture; it is, to a certain extent, the equivalent of a description.

B. A proper name has other functions than that of signification: they alter between the poles of description and designation.

C. The link between a proper name and the individual being named and the link between an author's name and that which it names are not isomorphous and so not function in the same way.

D. The presence of an author's name is functional in that it serves as a means of classification.

E. The author's name characterizes a particular manner of existence of discourse. Its status and its manner of reception are regulated by the culture in which it circulates

F. The name of the author remains at the contours of texts, pointing to the existence of certain groups of discourse and refers to the status of this discourse within a society and culture.

G. The function of an author is to characterize the existence, circulation, and operation of certain discourses within a society.

VI. Four different features of "author-function" in discourse:

A. Discourses are objects of appropriation; the form of property they have become is of a particular type whose legal codification was accomplished some years ago.

1. Penal code

2. Ownership, copyright

B. The "author-function" is not universal or constant in all discourse.

1. Authentification no longer required reference to the individual who had produced them.

2. The role of the author seems to be transformed into an index.

C. This "author-function" is not formed spontaneously through the simple attribution of a discourse to an individual. It results from a complex operation whose purpose is to construct the rational entity we call an author.

1. Four criteria according to Saint Jerome about textual study

a. The texts that must be eliminated from the list of works attributed to a single author are those inferior to the others.

b. Those whose ideas conflict with the doctrine expressed in the others.

c. Those written in a different style and containing words and phrases not ordinarily found in the other works.

d. Those referring to events or historical figures subsequent to the death of the author.

2. Modern criticism on textual study:

a. The author explains the presence of certain events within a text, as well as their transformations, distortions, and their various modifications.

b. The author also constitutes a principle of unity in writing where any unevenness of production is ascribed to changes caused by evolution, maturation, or outside influence.

c. The author serves to neutralize the contradictions that are found in a series of texts.

d. The author is a particular source of expression who is manifested equally well, and with similar validity, in a text, in letters, fragments, drafts, and so forth.

D. The "author-function" is tied to the legal and institutional systems that circumscribe, determine, and articulate the realm of discourses; it does not operate in a uniform manner in all discourses, at all times, an in any given culture; it is not defined by the spontaneous attribution of a text to its creator, but through a series of precise and complex procedures; it does not refer, purely and simply, to an actual individual insofar as it simultaneously gives rise to a variety of egos and to a series of subjective positions that individuals of any class may come to occupy.

VII. Initiators of discursive practices:

A. These authors produced not only their work, but the possibility and the rules of formation of other texts.

1. Freud vs. The Interpretation of Dreams

2. Marx vs. Capital

3. Ann Radcliffe vs. Gothic romance

B. The initiation of discursive practices appears similar to the founding of any scientific endeavor.

C. The initiation of a discursive practice is heterogeneous to its future transformations.

D. The initiation of a discursive practice, unlike the founding of science, overshadows and is necessarily detached from its later developments and transformations.

E. Discourses "returning to the origin"

1.Different from scientific "rediscoveries" and "reactivations"

a. Rediscoveries: the effects of analogy or isomorphism with current forms of knowledge that allow the perception of forgotten or obscured figures.

b. Reactivations: the insertion of discourse into totally new domains of generalization, practice, and transformation.

2. Features of "return to"

a. Designates a movement with its proper specificity, which characterizes the initiation of discursive practices.

b. They tend to reinforce the enigmatic link between an author and his works.

c. Form a relationship between "fundamental" and mediate authors, which is not identical to that which links an ordinary text to its immediate author.

VIII. Conclusion: Partially at the expense of themes and concepts that an author places in his work, the "author-function" could also reveal the manner in which discourse is articulated on the basis of social relationships. The subject (and its substitutes) must be stripped of its creative role and analyzed as a complex and variable function of discourse.