The Inquiring Reader
Discussing interesting writing and ideas

What is an Author? by Michel Foucault

Reviewed by Jon Duelfer


“What is a work?…Of what elements is it composed? Is it not what an author has written?”

Michel Foucault writes that notable works of literature generate a form of discourse in which we may understand the world. In other words, specific pieces of writing open a space where we can discuss concepts under a common lens, with similar terminology and understanding. The form of discourse can only be understood by referring to the initial work from which the discourse originated.

Unlike the founding of a science, the initiation of a discursive practice does not participate in its later transformations.

Science, on the other hand, takes an initial work and builds upon it over time, refining a set of rules that come from a stable principle that restricts the scope of its descendants. At any moment in the history of a science, we can understand and evaluate the state of the field based on “its intrinsic structure and normativity.” A physicist will not typically read through Newton’s Mathematic Principles of Natural Philosophy to evaluate his or her work, but will have it evaluated by peers based upon their current understanding of physics.

Foucault believes that literature does not contain absolutes like in the sciences. The state of literature exists within a discourse, generated from an initial work in the past, that defines how we think about specific concepts. Instead of refining our understanding into a more specific set of rules, literature creates a space for an emerging set of ideas.

To expand a type of discursivity, such as psychoanalysis as founded by Freud, is not to give it a formal generality that it would not have permitted at the outset, but rather to open in up to a certain number of possible applications.

Authors

If the creation of a mode of discourse is a fundamental building block of literature, the author who generated the form of discourse is crucial to our understanding of it. Foucault, however, does not agree with our traditional view of an author:

Since the eighteenth century, the author has played the role of the regulator of the fictive, a role quite characteristic of our era of industrial and bourgeois society, of individualism and private property.

Reducing the creator of literature to an author implies that there was a singular genius, who claimed their work as his or her property. We have traditionally viewed this author to have created their works with intrinsic and objective value based upon the techniques employed in their writing:

We are accustomed to presenting the author as a genius, as a perpetual surging of invention, it is because, in reality, we make him function in exactly the opposite fashion. One can say that the author is an ideological product, since we represent him as the opposite of his historically real function…The author is therefore the ideological figure by which one marks the manner in which we fear the proliferation of meaning.

Authors essentially become gatekeepers of literature, as we see them as authoritative figures and flock to read their works. Our projections of who they are, rooting deeply in our misunderstanding of them, produce an ideological figure very distant from the real meaning of their works. Their claimed authority restricts the proliferation of real understanding.

The Author-function

Due to the understanding of the term author being so convoluted, and yet Foucault must somehow define the creator of a mode of discourse, he invents a new term: the author-function. In the case of great “founders of discursivity,” such as Marx or Freud, how could they be significant and positive contributors to understanding without constraining the very same forms of discourse that they created? In an answer to this question, Foucault believes that they instigated ways of thinking, rather than policing over them authoritatively.

Foucault goes on to say that as society evolves, the “author-function” will disappear as we move away from the capitalist mentality that creates ideological figures. Instead, literature will be produced more freely, unregulated by authors that used to control the narrative or discourse.

Counterarguments

I am a Latina woman.

One could make the argument that underrepresented groups in society might actually be exercising more freedom by clearly establishing their identity as an author. As an example, Latina women may have been traditionally denied the role of authoritative figures in American society. Imagine that a Latina woman is therefore writing under a pseudonym and has amassed a large number of readers. If she were to identify herself as the real author of her works, she might consider herself to have exercised a greater degree of freedom, and consequently more freedom for the underrepresented group of which she identifies, by assuming the authoritative role of an author.

With this in mind, the role of the author as an authoritative figure may not be as negative as Foucault supposes. It could very well be that we don’t cringe in fear of the authoritative author, but rather appeal in homage to somebody who has succeeded in expressing our circumstances.

Final Thoughts

Foucault’s historical analysis of the author-function as a “creator of discourse” is compelling. His reasoning is strongly backed by historical scrutiny of the rise authors from anonymity to challengers of the Catholic Church’s authority.

There was a time when the texts that we today call “literary” were accepted, put into circulation, and valorized without any question about the identity of their author; their anonymity caused no difficulties since their ancientness, whether real or imagined, was regarded as a sufficient guarantee of their status.

His historical analysis culminates at the end of the essay to convey his negativity towards authors as bourgeois, capitalist policers of literature. It is a bold proposition, well articulated and analyzed, but with a number of good counterarguments. Regardless, What is an Author? will certainly make you reconsider how you think about the proliferation of literature.