Foucault's "What is an Author?"

Foucault, Michel. “What Is an Author?” Language, Counter-Memory, Practice: Selected Essays and Interviews by Michel Foucault. Translated by Donald Bouchard and Sherry Simon. Edited by Donald Bouchard. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1977, pp. 113-138. 

In this essay, Foucault distinguishes between authors and the actual individuals who write. He begins by addressing criticisms of his previous work, and notes that his goal had been to find "the functional conditions of specific discursive practices," or the circumstances at work in different texts (114). Since "discursive practices" is rather vague, he may be leaning toward the concept of genre here.

Foucault notes that he had aimed to uncover boundaries and explanations for concepts such as "'natural history' or 'political economy'" in a genealogical way, but found that these concepts were subordinated to the idea of their authors, in the sense that texts suggest the external author that existed before the text itself (115).  Foucault supports this idea of subordinating the text to the author with two points (116-117). First, he states that writing no longer needs "'expression'"--meaning that content (what is signified, or meant), is less powerful than the signifiers, the words themselves (116); second, Foucault explores the connection "between writing and death" and how it changed from the ancient immortalization-through-writing idea into the more recent idea that "writing is now linked to sacrifice and to the sacrifice of life itself; it is a voluntary obliteration of the self" (117). Foucault explains that writing now kills the author through erasing the individual who writes the text (117). 

So how is the author vacated from the text?  To explain, Foucault first asks, "What is a work?", noting that the boundaries of what is or is not part of an author's opus is an editorial decision, not an objective fact; that certain notes and texts a writer uses in life (e.g., "a laundry bill") is not considered part of the author's entirety of work, which evacuates elements of the author's nature as an individual, complicating the idea of what being an "author" means (118-119).

Second, Foucault cites "écriture" as a way of understanding the idea of the author (119). Foucault notes that écriture typically means a way of explaining "the conditions of any text," and this gives it a "transcendental" quality that necessitates further analysis of a text (119-120). This idea of écriture "sustains the privileges of the author through the safeguard of the a priori," disappearing the author from the text and holding him/her just outside it (120). 

In the next section, Foucault elaborates on the challenges of calling an author by name, noting that the name of an author functions more like a "description" than an individual, citing Shakespeare as an example, to note that one or several people may have contributed to the work, and that a shifting understanding of the individual may not affect our understanding of Shakespeare as author (121-122).  Foucault also uses an idea similar to genre to note that the name "serves as a means of classification. A name can group together a number of text and thus differentiate them from others" (123). Because an author name can serve to group texts, only certain genres get to have authors; Foucault notes that letters, contracts, and posters were written, but don't have authors (124).  Foucault's final point in this section is that "the function of an author is to characterize the existence, circulation, and operation of certain discourses within society"; in other words, the designation of what has an author is a method of privileging some discourses over others (124). 

In the next section, Foucault discusses how texts came to have authors when they became a "form of property," as a means to police discourses that could subvert social values, "when the author became subject to punishment and to the extent that his discourse was considered transgressive" (124). In order to counter the "benefits of property," the author became more unconventional, as sort of backlash (125). As further evidence that an author has become and important concept only within our cultural situation, Foucault cites that anonymous folk tales were not problematic for being anonymous--they were appreciated anyway (125). Then when scientific/philosophical writers gained prominence, their names invoked an authority that empowered and vouched for a work's legitimacy  and value (126).  Foucault also notes that authors of different genres are seen differently, e.g., the philosopher and the poet have different roles as authors--but authors still function to unify their set of texts and resolve discontinuities under the umbrellas of their names (127-128). Foucault reinforces the idea of the author function again by stating that the author of a novel is not its writer--that the preface and the main body of text have different voices, and this "plurality of egos" is evidence of the author function (130). This point is really important--the author function is about how power structures value and perpetuate certain forms of discourse without concern for individual writers, but rather, to empower numerous egos in "a series of subjective positions" (130-131).

In the next section, Foucault expands the field of the concept "author-function" by noting that a theory or foundation of a discipline have authors with a "'transdiscursive' position," citing ancient figures such as Homer who acted as "'initiators of discursive practices,'" creating rules for future texts (131).  I'd call this genre. Another way the author functions beyond the individual writer is in the way an author's texts influence other authors; Foucault here cites Freud, Marx, and Ann Radcliffe (who launched the genre of Gothic romance) as authors whose works were generative in this way (132). Foucault describes how subsequent writers in a discourse community transform and "reactive" the earliest writers in an interdependent system, where they modify each other (133-134): "the act of initiation is such, in its essence, that it is inevitably subjected to its own distortions; that which displays this act and derives from it is, at the same time, the root of its divergences and travesties" (135).  Later authors "return . . . to a primary and unadorned text" and "its gaps and absences" which call for further discourse because of the authority of the author (135).

In the last section, Foucault states his purpose as suggesting further work on the question of "a typology of discourse," noting that the role of the author function can be helpful in classifying discourses, and even that it could shed light on how "discourse is articulated on the basis of social relationships" (137). Finally, Foucault returns to questions of the subject, such as "what functions does it exhibit, and what rules does it follow in each type of discourse?" (138).

Katie Ancheta