Revolution Lullabye

February 22, 2009

Foucault, What Is an Author

Foucault, Michel. From “What Is an Author?” In Authorship: From Plato to the Postmodern. Ed. Sean Burke. Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP,  2000. 233-246.

 

Foucault shifts attention from the individual author to examining the features of texts that have authors, prioritizing discourse, language itself, instead of authors or even readers. He explains that the role of the author isn’t merely descriptive; it performs an act, an authoring act in society. Four features of the author-function are as follows: it is connected to institutional and societal issues of legal property and appropriation; it is not the same for all discourses and in all cultures and time periods; it is defined through a complex process of assigning and constructing an author by searching for coherence in style, argument, and quality over many texts; and it allows for the plurality of egos, a separation of the author, narrator, and other subjects in the text. Foucault then moves to describe a particular kind of author who arose in the nineteenth century, citing Marx and Freud as examples. They are authors of entire discourses, who produced not only their own texts but a possibility for the production of others, texts that always return to the founding discourse, never debunking it. He distinguishes between a founding act of science and a founding act of discourse. Foucault then suggests what work must be done next: creating a typology of discourse through analyzing the relationships of between an author and a text and investigating the role of subjects and authors as functions of discourse, not existing outside of it.

 

Quotable Quotes

 

Marx, Freud:  “They cleared a space for the introduction of elements other than their own, which, nevertheless, remain within the field of discourse they initiated” (241).

 

“The initiation of a discourse practice is heterogeneous to its ulterior transformations” It “overshadows and is necessarily detached from its later developments and transformations” (242).

 

“The subject (and its substitutes) must be stripped of its creative role  and analysed as a complex and variable function of discourse.” (245)

 

“We can say in our culture, the name of an author is a variable that accompanies only certain texts to the exclusion of others: a private letter may have a signatory, but it does not have an author; a contract can have an underwriter, but not an author; and, similarily,  an anonymous poster attached to a wall may have a writer, but he cannot be an author. In this sense, the function of an author is to characterize the existence, circulation, and operation of certain discourses in society” (235).

 

Notable Notes

 

Shifts the focus from author to text, from discourse and its functions.

 

Labor-intensive process of assigning an author to a body of work. We believe that the work of an author must be homogenous: there must be unity in its quality, arguments, style, historical place and context. Contradictions must be solved – there can’t be any inherent complications unless they can be explained away.

 

The name of an author functions as a classification, creates relationships between texts and gives text and discourse a sort of permanence in society  (235)

 

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