The Author Function

When Michel Foucault addresses the question of the author, his horizon is already that of the systems of ideological controls of modern society. In 1969, Foucault presented a lecture entitled “What is an Author?” echoing the postmodern considerations of Barthes’ “Death of the Author”, published two years before. Foucault’s lecture remains a landmark in his thought, a clear presentation of his reflection on the notion of author and of its relevance in today’s society. In December 1970, he would give a lecture entitled “L’ordre du discours” at the Collège de France (later added as appendix to new editions of Archaeology of Knowledge), in which Foucault confirms the larger frame in which he understands ‘the author’, that of the control of discourse, which also includes the concepts of commentary and of disciplines. In the present essay, we shall simply attempt to present Foucault’s original arguments in his lecture “What is an Author?”

Barthes’ understanding of the disappearance of a strong and unquestioned view of authorship is indeed the starting point of Foucault’s analysis. This disappearance is found through two themes. First, the liberation of writing from the dimension of expression (Foucault 1991:102). An author does not simply attempt to express something, but rather builds a game (jeu) of language, proper to its text, which he will perpetually attempt to break and transgress. Second, “the effacement of the writing subject’s individual characteristics” (102) through its relation to death. In Flaubert, Proust or Kafka, the very event of the written describes the progressive withdrawal of the author, leaving only his paradoxical absence as presence. As a reaction to this disappearance, Foucault continues, it has been argued by some that certain notions have replaced that of the “author” to determine discourse: the work (l’œuvre) and writing (écriture). (The latter may be a hint at Jacques Derrida, previously a student of Foucault, who wrote a critique of his work in 1963-1964: “Cogito and the History of Madness”.) In both cases, the new notion pretends to be a replacement of the concept of “author” while actually dissimulating its reinforced presence. It is in this context that Foucault attempts a more comprehensive analysis: one that focuses on “the space left empty by the author’s disappearance” (105) and what it entails.

What is an Author? An author’s name, first, is a proper name (105). But this proper name is not just indicative of a particular person, it is also “equivalent of a description” (105): the name “Aristotle” does not only denote a particular individual but describes the relevance of a work in the wider recognition of that name. One cannot deal with Shakespeare’s name like with that of Pierre Dupont (the French version of John Doe): saying that Shakespeare is the name of the author of (Bacon’s) Organon, or further, saying “Shakespeare did not exist” are statements that carry tremendous implications in our cultural understanding of an author. An author’s name “performs a certain role with regard to narrative discourse, assuring a classificatory function. Such a name permits one to group together a certain number of texts …” (107). The very existence of the label of “author” allows for author’s writings to be considered as more than “ordinary everyday speech” (107), more than someone’s letter to a friend or than an anonymous message on a wall (108): as something which is valued and seen as having a certain status. For Foucault, the label of the “author” is given to certain discourses accepted by the dominant ideology (or ideologies): “there are a certain number of discourses that are endowed with the “author function,” while others are deprived of it” (107).

Foucault offers a thick(er) description of his understanding of the author function, under four characteristics, which we can attempt to summarize as: (1) institutional authorship, (2) historical variations, (3) external attribution and (4) multiple individualities.

  1. The author function is first to be observed in a judicial, penal and institutional context. Before the author, there was the act of discourse. It is when this act could become as such transgressive, illicit, that the notion of author became a convenient way to control and condemn these subversive acts.
  2. The author is also a notion that concerns various agents and groups across time and societies, and not always the same. Literary works were accepted for a long time in virtue of their anonymity, while Middle Ages sciences were only validated if having the signature of a recognized authority. The 17th-18th centuries witnessed a reversal: one’s name became almost trivial in the plethora of scientific experiments, while anonymity became intolerable in the literary world (109).
  3. The author function is also not attributed by a writer to himself but by a set of complex and external operations. Christian tradition praised texts in function of the saintliness of their author.
  4. In addition, calling a particular historical individual an author faced the problem of the variations of quality in his work. To remedy it, Saint Jerome, for instance, found reasonable to reject parts of an author’s writing so that he would retain (a) a constant level of value, (b) a certain theoretical coherence, (c) a stylistic unity and (d) a historical consistency (111).

Foucault argues that these criteria have survived and are still there today, even in our modern criticism. Nonetheless, this attempt at unification is always a lost cause, as any work contains contradictory and multiple accounts of the voice of the one who is writing it: “the author function… 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” (113).

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The author function 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.

– Michel Foucault

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On the margin – or rather, perhaps, at the root – of the notion of author, Foucault describes what he perceives as “founders of discursivity” (114). These, like Freud or Marx (Foucault gives only these two examples), are not just authors, not just initiators of new scientific disciplines, but the origins of “an endless possibility of discourse” (114). Unlike the initiators of a new literary genre, these ‘founders of discursivity’ have opened fields, which themselves allow for a certain fluctuation or divergence, even to the point of criticizing their own foundational thoughts. Unlike with revolutionary scientists like Galileo, Cuvier or Saussure, “the initiation of a discursive practice is heterogeneous to its subsequent transformations” (115), that is to say, the founder’s discourse can be reversed by latter writers within the limits of that discourse. Furthermore, “the work of initiators of discursivity is not situated in the space that science defines; rather, it is the science or the discursivity which refers back to their work as primary coordinates” (116). These founders are not yet another view on scientific questions: they set the possibility of a new kind of discourse of science or knowledge in general.

Foucault closes his lecture by contextualizing the objectives of his study. First, it is important for particular theoretical aims: the construction of a typology of discourse, the possibility of a historical analysis of discourse focusing on the modes of existence of these discourses (117), and a re-examination of the privileges of the subject through the conditions of its becoming as an author (118). Second, Foucault’s attempt is also to deal with “the “ideological” status of the author” (118). Through the author function, society organizes and controls discourse, at the expense, occasionally, of the particular author, but always, of certain groups and communities: “the author is therefore the ideological figure by which one marks the manner in which we fear the proliferation of meaning” (119). If the author is bound to disappear, as it is happily claimed, a new system of constraint “will have to be determined, or perhaps, experienced” (119). Such is the final call of Foucault: to motivate the single individual to partake in this experience, instead of leaving its destiny to the all-encompassing power of hegemonic institutions.


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