Foucault: "What is an author?"

Foucault, M. (1984). What is an author? The Foucault reader (1st ed., pp. 101-120). New York: Pantheon Books.



Argues that concept of author signifies moment of individualization in history of ideas, sci, etc. (101). 


Will focus on relationship between text and author.


"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" (102). 


Writing has relationship with death--a way to have "immortality." 


But argues metamorphosis: the author is dead. 


Asks, "what is a work?" (203). What constitutes it; the status of the author (is it an author) also complicates. 


Notion of writing (104). What is it, if the writer has disappeared?


What''s in a name? How does the (author''s) name affect concept of authorship? -- the name permits classification, definition, differentiation of texts (107). Establishes relationship among texts. 


"The author function is therefore characteristic of the mode of existence, circulation, and functioning of certain discourses within a society" (108). 


Discourses = objects of appropriattion. Ownership of texts came into being. But not all texts affected in same way-- literary was acceptable as anonymous, scientific required authorship. This reversed in 17th or 18th C.


Argues that the author function does not "develop spontaneouslY" but "is the result of a complex question which constructs a certain rational being that we call ''author''" (110). E.g., construct philosophical author as different from poet. 


Refers to Jerome''s criteria for author:


  1. if one of author''s book inferior to others, withdrawn from works
  2. if certain texts contradict doctrine of author''s other books, withdrawn
  3. exclude works in diff style
  4. exclude quotes/statements after author''s death (interpolation)


Modern lit crit defines author same way.


"But the author function is not a pure and simple reconstruction made secondhand from a text given as passive material" (111). 


Notes how the text is a construct--e.g., the "I" of a text ≠ author. Not just ''literary''-- "all discourses endowed with the author function do possess this plurality of self" (112). 


Identifies traits of the author function:


  • "the author function is linked to the juridical and institutional system that encompasses, determines, and articulates the universe of discourses
  • it does not affect all discourses in the same way at all times and in all types of civilization
  • it is not defined by the spontaneous attribution of a discourse to its producer, but rather by a series of specific and complex operations
  • it does not refer purely and simply to a real individual, since it can give rise simultaneously to several selves, to several subjects-- positions that can be occupied by different classes of individuals." (113)


"transdiscursive"--one can be author of more than book, but theory, tradition, or discipline in which other authors create. (113)


"Founders of discursivity"-- not just authors of their own works (e.g., Freud, Marx created more than individual texts) (114).


Why is this important? 


theoretical reasons:


  • may provide an approach to a "typology of discourse" (117)
  • introduction to historical analysis of discourse: "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" (117)
  • "one could also, beginning with analyses of this type, reexamine the privileges of the subject" (117)


"ideological" status of the author:


  • seems to feel that fiction threatens the world; threat can be reduced with 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" (118)
  • stop making authors rock stars.


Wants to change focus to the text and its potentialities.