READER'S GUIDE TO FOUCAULT'S "WHAT IS AN AUTHOR"?
Even with his title, Foucault is being provocative, taking a given and turning it into a problem. His question ("What is an Author?") might even seem pointless at first, so accustomed have we all become to thinking about authors and authorship.
Section 1: 101-5
In the first few paragraphs, Foucault responds to some of our most basic assumptions about authorship. In the first paragraph, for example, Foucault reminds us that although we regard the concept of authorship as "solid and fundamental," that concept hasn't always existed. It "came into being," Foucault explains, at a particular moment in history, and it may pass out of being at some future moment.
In addition to touching on our tendency to view the concept of authorship as "solid," Foucault also seems to take up our habit of thinking about authors as individuals, heroic figures who somehow transcend or step outside history. Why, he wonders, are we so strongly inclined to view authors in that way? Why are we often so resistant to the notion that authors are products of their times? (As I make these points, incidentally, I'm not by any means trying to imply that you should be picking up on them as you read Foucault. He is moving very quickly here, leaving much unsaid.)
On pages 103-5, Foucault does some jousting. First, he mixes it up with Roland Barthes, a very famous literary critic, who had recently proclaimed the "death of the author." According to Foucault, Barthes had urged other critics to realize that they could "do without [the author] and study the work itself" (104). This urging, Foucault implies, sounds a lot more radical than it really is. (If you'd like to see for yourself, there's a copy of "Death of the Author" on reserve.)
Next, on 104-5, Foucault turns his attention to Derrida-- without ever mentioning his rival by name. Foucault claims that although Derrida (like Barthes) presents his views as radical, they are in truth quite conventional. Indeed, Foucault suggests, Derrida never really gets rid of the author, but instead merely reassigns the author's powers and privileges to "writing" or to "language itself."
Now, why does he bother to do all this? Well, partly because he enjoys a fight, and partly because he doesn't want his readers to assume that authorship is a "dead issue," a problem that's already been solved by Barthes and Derrida. His aim here is to show that, despite all of their bombast, neither Barthes nor Derrida has broken away from the question of the author--much less solved it.
Section 2: 105-8
In this section, Foucault asks us to think about the ways in which an author's name "functions" in our society. After raising questions about the functions of proper names, he goes on to say that the names of authors often serve a "classifactory" function.
To get a sense of what he means, just think about how the average bookstore is laid out. If you were to go to the fiction section at Conkey's, looking for a copy of Oliver Twist, chances are that you wouldn't search for books about workhouses, or books written in 1837, or books that are 489 pages long. You'd search for books written by Charles Dickens. It probably wouldn't even occur to you to make your search in any other way.
Now, Foucault asks, why do you--why do most of us--assume that it's "natural" for Conkey's to classify books according to the names of their authors? While you're mulling over that one, think about this: What would happen to Oliver Twist if scholars were to discover that it hadn't been written by Charles Dickens? Wouldn't most bookstores, and wouldn't most of us, feel that the novel would have to be reclassified in light of that discovery? Why should we feel that way? After all, the words of the novel wouldn't have changed, would they?
Foucault closes this section by introducing his concept of the "author function." Note that the "author function" is not a person and is not to be confused with either the "author" or the "writer." The "author function" is more like a set of beliefs or assumptions governing the production, circulation, classification and consumption of texts. (Put another way, it's the thing that makes us want to know about the author of a poem--and never think of asking about the author of a commercial or a contract.)
Section 3: 108-13
Here, Foucault identifies and describes four characteristics of the "author function." The characteristics are, briefly:
1. The "author function" is linked to the legal system and arises as a result of the need to punish those responsible for transgressive statements.
2. The "author function" does not affect all texts in the same way. For example, it doesn't seem to affect scientific texts as much as it affects literary texts. If a chemistry teacher is talking about the periodic table, you probably wouldn't stop her and say, "Wait a minute--who's the author of this table?" If I'm talking about a poem, however, you might very well stop me and ask me about its author.
3. The "author function" is more complex than it seems to be. This is one of the most difficult points in the essay, and in thinking about it, you might want to consider what Foucault says about the editorial problem of attribution-- the problem of deciding whether or not a given text should be attributed to a particular author.
This problem may seem rather trivial, since most of the literary texts that we study have already been reliably attributed to an author. Imagine, however, a case in which a scholar discovered a long-forgotten poem whose author was completely unknown. Imagine, furthermore, that the scholar had a hunch that the author of the poem was William Shakespeare. What would the scholar have to do, what rules would she have to observe, what standards would she have to meet, in order to convince everyone else that she was right?
A few years ago, this imaginary situation became a reality, when a scholar named Gary Taylor suddenly announced that he had rediscovered a long-long Shakespeare poem. Many, many people viewed Taylor's announcement with skepticism, and in arguing against Taylor, they did resort (without realizing it, of course) to the "criteria of authenticity" proposed by St. Jerome and listed by Foucault on page 111. They argued, for instance, that the poem wasn't good enough to have been authored by Shakespeare--on the assumption, I gather, that Shakespeare was somehow incapable of sinking below a certain level of literary excellence. It may help to keep this sort of situation in mind, as you try to make sense of this third characteristic of the "author function."
4. The term "author" doesn't refer purely and simply to a real individual. The "author" is much like the "narrator," Foucault suggests, in that he or she can be an "alter ego" for the actual flesh-and-blood "writer."
If you're unsure of what Foucault means by any of this, check out his own summary on page 113. And if you're unclear about a little point here or there, don't worry. The main thing is that you understand his main goal for this section--which is to describe four main characteristics of the "author function."
Section 4: 113-7
Here, Foucault takes off in a different direction, and his aim now is to show that the "author function" applies not just to individual works, but also to larger discourses. This, then, is the famous section on "founders of discursivity"--guys like Marx or Freud who produce their own texts, plus "the possibilities or the rules for the formation of other texts." I don't think that this issue is particularly difficult, so I won't belabor it.
I do want to comment, however, on what Foucault has to say about science. According to Foucault, scientists can't really be "founders of discursivity." In making that statement, Foucault seems to be distinguishing scientific discourses (in which there are, he suggests, a limited number of possible statements) from discourses like that of psychoanalysis (in which the number of possible statements is not and cannot be limited). I'm not sure that I understand everything he has to say about this issue, but I do feel pretty sure of that much.
Section 5: 117-20
In this section, Foucault wraps things up and points out a few reasons why he's bothered with this particular subject in the first place. He raises the possibility of doing a "historical analysis of discourse," and he notes that the "author function" has operated differently in different places and at different times.
His comments about the "subject" are hard to decipher, and I'm not sure that they need to be decoded in full. Just remember that he began this essay by questioning our tendency to imagine "authors" as individuals isolated from the rest of society. He's raising the same sort of question here--and also taking a further step, suggesting that if we stop thinking of authors as isolated individuals, we may also be able to stop thinking of other people and kinds of people in that way. (Here, one might hear a faint echo of Marxism, which often tends to see individual preferences and tastes as products of larger social forces.)
Near the end of the essay, Foucault argues that the author is not a source of infinite meaning, as we often like to imagine, but rather part of a larger system of beliefs that serve to limit and restrict meaning. In pondering this idea, think about how we might appeal to ideas of "authorial intention" in order to limit what someone might say about a text, or mark some interpretations and commentaries as illegitimate.
At the very end, Foucault returns to Barthes and agrees that the "author function" may soon "disappear." He does not suggest, however, that the limiting and restrictive "author function," we will have some kind of absolute freedom. One set of restrictions and limits will give way to another set, Foucault insists, since there must and will always be some "system of constraint" working upon us.