Author Functions

casual Foucault

“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.”

-Foucault, What is an Author?

It’s been a long time since I added a new post, and much has happened in the meantime: I passed my comprehensive exams, got married, spent a brief period being far too overworked in non-academic jobs to reasonably carry on the writing and research required of someone who eventually hopes to graduate with a PhD–if you’re reading this you presumably already know that higher education in the United States is staffed largely by an underpaid, undervalued, and frankly exploited population of graduate students and adjuncts. If you didn’t already know that, check out Lee Hall’s account of the situation over at The Guardian.

But that’s not what I want to write about today. I began this blog in part to prepare for the aforementioned comprehensive exams, and now I’d like to use it to reflect on some texts and topics informing my dissertation, beginning with Michel Foucault and his concept of the “author function,” not least because, given my long absence, something like a “death of the author” joke seems entirely appropriate. So, while I can’t promise laughs, I will give a brief summary of what Foucault has to say about the author function in this text, which is actually a lecture delivered before the Societé Francais de philosophie on February, 22, 1969. You can see the translation I’m using here.

Let me foreground this with a little bit about my interest in this topic, aside from having always found Michel Foucault a mind-altering and copacetic read. Part of my dissertation involves examining the institutional histories of composition and rhetoric, on one hand, and, on the other, creative writing, asking why there’s not more cross-pollination between these flowers of the academy, and wondering how each might benefit from the other. The institutional separation of these two is a bit odd, especially since the emergence of “creative writing” as a distinct area of study, branch of knowledge, and institutional department is a fairly recent event. If we go back a little ways, say, to the Renaissance, we don’t find young Shakespeare or young Spenser in anything like a creative writing workshop; the great English poets and playwrights of the time got the same type of rhetorical education that every other male child whose family could afford it got: a fat dose of Latin, and Cicero in particular, lots of practice translating Latin into English and vice-versa, and an education in rhetoric that prioritized amplification, the generation of matter for themes by the use of figures and tropes.

Another feature also makes this period interesting for thinking about authorship and creative education: the “author” as we know him hadn’t yet entered the stage, although he was beginning to peak around the curtain. This is because what Foucault calls the “author function” wasn’t yet established. An easy way to roughly illustrate what Foucault is getting at when he talks about the author function is to point out that while biographies of Shakespeare proliferated in the twentieth century and after, none were written during his lifetime. And while Foucault is careful to distinguish between the author as a writing subject and the author function that he describes, the impulse to write biographies of such subjects is one concomitant feature of this function. And while no one was writing biographies of the bard just yet, the Renaissance makes for an interesting historical juncture for thinking about the author function because, while it isn’t quite established, we can see it beginning to emerge in the recognition on the part of publishers that names like “Shakespeare” and “Spenser” could serve to designate a particular sort of goods, and this is another feature of the author function. We can also recognize the author function emerging in the work of Montaigne, the first blogger, but that’s a story for another time.

Here’s how Foucault describes the “author function” as it relates to the author’s proper name:

. . . an author’s name is not simply an element in a discourse (capable of being either subject or object, of being replaced by a pronoun, and the like); it performs a certain role with regard to narrative discourse, assuring [I suspect that this is an error in transcription, and that “assuming” is intended] a classificatory function. Such a name permits one to group together a certain number of texts, define them, differentiate them from and contrast them to others. In addition, it establishes a relationship among the texts. Hermes Trismegistus did not exist, nor did Hippocrates – in the sense that Balzac existed – but the fact that several texts have been placed under the same name indicates that there has been established among them a relationship of homogeneity, filiation, authentication of some texts by the use of others, reciprocal explication, or concomitant utilization. The author’s name serves to characterize a certain mode of being of discourse: the fact that the discourse has an author’s name, that one can say “this was written by so-and-so” or “so-and-so is its author,” shows that this discourse is not ordinary everyday speech that merely comes and goes, not something that is immediately consumable.  On the contrary, it is a speech that must be received in a certain mode and that, in a given culture, must receive a certain status.

Foucault goes on to delineate other features of the author function–my overview is not remotely representative–but it’s the function of the author’s proper name that I want to focus on.  In short, the name of the author is a classificatory device that indicates how a group of texts (those associated with the author’s name) are to be received. A game you can play that helps illustrate this function is to imagine that familiar works were written by different authors: how would we read Pride and Prejudice if it were the work of Friedrich Neitzsche, or Don Quixote if it were the work of Franz Kafka (Borges asks a version of this question in his “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote“)?

Now, one might reasonably object that even if no one was particularly interested in Shakespeare, the writing subject or his peers as subjects for biography, there’s still evidence of something  like an author function at work in the authority attributed to classical figures like Cicero. Foucault, however, covers this objection in a passage that nicely illustrates what I want to highlight about emerging author function in the Renaissance:

There was a time when the texts we today call “literary” (narratives, stories, epics, tragedies, comedies) were accepted, put into circulation, and valorized without any question about the identity of the author, their anonymity caused no difficulties since their ancientness, whether real or imagined, was regarded as a sufficient guarantee of their status. On the other hand, those texts we would now call “scientific” – those dealing with cosmology and the heavens, medicine and illnesses, natural sciences and geography – were accepted in the Middle Ages, and accepted as “true,” only when marked with the name of their author. “Hippocrates said,” “Pliny recounts,” were not really formulas of an argument based on authority; they were the markers inserted in discourses that were supposed to be received as statements of demonstrated truth.

Foucault goes on to point out that in time the relationships that these realms of discourse have with the author will reverse, with the author’s name becoming an important sign in literary and “creative” writing and becoming significantly less important in the realm of the sciences, where replicability of results outweighs the weight of a given proper name.

Interestingly, elsewhere in this same lecture, Foucault notes that writing has a long history of association with the delay, stalling, and cheating of death (as examples he points to the Greek epics with their concern for prolonging the memory of the hero and The Thousand and One Nights, in which Scheherazade spins her tales to forestall death, and, I would add, the Renaissance sonnets with their promises of immortality). However, Foucault says,

Our culture has metamorphosed this idea of narrative, or writing, as something designed to ward off death. Writing has become linked to sacrifice, even to the sacrifice of life: it is now a voluntary effacement that does not need to be represented in books, since it is brought about in the writer’s very existence. The work, which once had the duty of providing immortality, now possesses the right to kill, to be its author’s murderer, as in the cases of Flaubert, Proust, and Kafka. That is not all, however: this relationship between writing and death is also manifested in the effacement of the writing subject’s individual characteristics. 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. As a result, the mark of the writer is reduced to nothing more than the singularity of his absence; he must assume the role of the dead man in the game of writing.

Much of this I take as Foucault’s comment on what other theorists and developments of writing made clear before him–the death of the author, etc.– but I am very interested in the way that Foucault presents writing as an opportunity for disappearance and self-erasure on the part of the writer (something he also touches on in the introduction to the Archaeology of Knowledge). In this regard, the “death of the author,” so-to-speak (and Foucault I think complicates this idea by highlighting the ways in which the author function continues to operate in our culture) is actually an opening of possibility for the writing subject, specifically the possibility of disappearing within the labyrinth of discourse.


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