What is an author?
Citation: Michel Foucault (1979) What is an author?. Textual Strategies: Perspective in Post-Structuralist Criticism (RSS)
Foucault’s "What Is an Author?" was originally delivered as a lecture in 1969, two years after the first English publication of Barthes’ famous essay "Death of the Author, 1967)". Although never explicitly stated, it’s quite obvious Foucault is directly responding to and criticizing Barthes’ thesis as evidenced by the following statement early in the essay: “A certain number of notions that are intended to replace the privileged position of the author actually seem to preserve that privilege and suppress the real meaning of his disappearance.”
Both Barthes and Foucault agree the "Author” is an unnatural, historical phenomenon that has unfortunately obtained mythological, heroic status. And both aim to contradict and complicate this status. However, their methods are drastically different.
If "Death of the Author" actively attempts to kill the Author from the position of full-frontal attack, then "What is an Author?" casually submits to the inevitability of this death and opts instead to further problematize the foundational definitions underlying author and text.
“[I]t is not enough to declare that we should do without the writer (the author) and study the work itself,” Foucault writes. “The word work and the unity that it designates are probably as problematic as the status of the author's individuality.”
Here, Foucault poses a series of ontological questions regarding a text. Questions like, Where does one draw a line in an author's oeuvre? What constitutes a work? Should everything an author writes, including notes, scribbles and shopping lists, be considered part of a work?
He then goes on to question and complicate the author in a similar vein. “'First, we need to clarify briefly the problems arising from the use of the author's name. What is an author's name? How does it function? Far from offering a solution, I shall only indicate some of the difficulties that it presents.”
After positing the classificatory problems associated with an author’s proper name, Foucault introduces the concept of the “author function” and describes its primary characteristics:
1. The "author function" is connected to the legal system. The law insists on holding individuals accountable for subversive or transgressive communications, hence the need for an “author.”
2. The "author function" varies according to field and discipline. Anonymity in scientific discourses, for example, is more acceptable than in literary discourses where an author is always demanded in order to situation meaning within the text.
3. The "author function" is carried out through "complex operations" and "is not defined by the spontaneous attribution of a discourse to its producer".
4. An "author" doesn't necessarily connote a specific individual; several narrators, selves and subjects confuse and complicate the designation between author and individual.
Foucault then makes a distinction of an "author function" and how it relates to an individual work versus an entire discourse. Authors who operate in the latter category are what he calls "founders of discursivity" and operate in the unique position of the "transdiscursive". These are authors like Freud and Marx who "...are unique in that they are not just the authors of their own works. They have produced something else: the possibilities and the rules for the formation of other texts."
By the end of "What is an Author?" it becomes clear that Foucault is interested in exhaustively complicating the notion of what it means to be an author through the articulation of “author” alongside its many historical and discursive formations rather than, like Barthes, singling out a generic “Author” to attack.
Theoretical and practical relevance:
See also Wikipedia article