Breaking down the Foucauldian Author

September 23, 2019

Foucault, Michel. “What is an Author?” In Language Counter-Memory Practice, tr. Donald Bouchard, 113-137. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1978.

 

Abstract: Modern constructions of the author and authorship are part of a larger system of ideas and beliefs intended to control knowledge and meaning. When these larger cultural paradigms shift, so does our understanding of authorship.

 

Quick Bio: Foucault (1926-1983) was born, raised, and educated in France in the 20th century. Coming from a post-structuralist lens, his writings deal primarily with the politics of knowledge and power in their many iterations throughout history. “What is an Author?” was originally a lecture given on literary theory 2 years following the publication of Barthes’ “Death of the Author.” In the context of this particular lecture, it is interesting to note that Foucault left instructions that there were to be no posthumous publications of any of his writings that were not published during his lifetime. (https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/foucault/#BiogSket).

 

Key Ideas

The integrity of texts does not rely on being expressions of an individual in order to exist and have meaning

An author’s name is not inherently a marker of the individual responsible for the text, but also functions as a means of classification and categorization of texts

Author’s name as both descriptor and designator

Author as unifying characteristic of a series of texts, so that even when these texts vary or change, they are still classified together under the name of the author

Author-function

The author is not synonymous with an individual, but a marker to contextualize and think about texts and discourses

Characterized by a plurality of egos

Linked to the legal system in which discourses take place

Not universally applied to all texts, and operates differently across time and culture

Applies to discourses as well as singular texts (e.g. Marx / Marxism, Freud / psychoanalysis)

Écriture

Both the act of writing and the nature of writing as an entity in itself

Writing as the interplay between presence and absence

 

Questions

Foucault begins and ends his discussion with the question: “What matter who’s speaking?”

How can we think about the author-function as it operates in our current institutions? In particular, what implications does Foucault’s deconstruction of modern authorship have in regards to contemporary intellectual property laws?

Thinking beyond the scope of an author’s (or artist’s) lifetime, to what extent does the individual author actually matter when considering a text or discourse, particularly outside of the author’s lifetime? (For example, you could argue that it isn’t necessary to know about Marx as an individual to understand his writing, but that it is more important to understand the historical context in which he developed his texts & discourses.)