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November 10, 2005

What Is An Author?

Foucault, Michel. “What Is An Author?” The Foucault Reader. ed. Paul Rabinow. New York: Pantheon Books, 1984. 101-120.

In this brief, canonical essay, Foucault suggests that the Author exists not as a person or “real writer” (112) but rather as a discursive function, “a certain . . . principle in which . . . one limits, excludes, and chooses and impedes the free circulation of fiction” (Horrocks 99). This essay situates the author relative to the text, beginning with the assumption that “the text points to this ‘figure’ [the Author] that, at least in appearance, is outside it and antecedes it” (Foucault 101). In other words, the concept of authorship is a fiction that has been constructed by society and yet remains separate from the text itself. This “immanent rule” of Author and text as intertwined has become so accepted that society no longer views it as a fiction but as an irrefutable fact.
Foucault lists four traits of the Author function (113) :


  1. The Author function is linked to the juridical and institutional system that encompasses, determines, and articulates the universe of discourses.
    One might link this to the hegemonic notion of the autonomous, ingenious Author as a recent invention -- very much a result of the Statute of Anne (juridical discourse) as well as a shift in religious views on the source of knowledge (institutional system). Foucault suggests that changes within these hegemonic power structures drove changes within societal conceptualizations of authorship.

  2. It does not affect all discourses in the same way at all times and in all types of civilization. One example of this is the American view of copying as a moral failure contrasted with the Chinese view of copying as a tribute paid by the student to the master.

  3. It is not defined by the spontaneous attribution of a discourse to its producer, but rather by a series of specific and complex operations.
    This also has implications for authorship in blogging. While the central blog may be written by (an) identifiable individual(s), other authors contribute to the text through trackbacks, links, and comments. Thus, it is impossible to attribute blog discourse to its producer — its operations are too complex to do so. Wikis present an even more dynamic environment, where it is virtually impossible to trace individual authorship at all.

  4. 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.
    This last factor is perhaps the best known, as it removes individuality from the Author, a point Foucault had briefly stated earlier in the essay: “Using all the contrivances that he sets up between himself and what he writes, the writing subject cancels out the signs of his particular individuality” (102).

Foucault’s notions concerning societal constructios of authorship provide a larger framework that suggests that an Author — or a peculularly Greek construction of one — could well have existed in antiquity. It might not look exactly like our construction, since each construct is unique to the time and place of its development, but it would have been just as valid as our contemporary ideas.

Posted by at November 10, 2005 10:41 AM | Articles | Constructs | PoMo/PostStructuralist

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