According to Michel Foucault, what is an author?

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Michel Foucault, an influential French philosopher of the last half of the 20th century whose work dealt primarily with the relationship between knowledge and power, opens his essay , "What is an Author?" with a quote from Samuel Beckett which at once, asserts and summarizes it's point: "What matters...

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Michel Foucault, an influential French philosopher of the last half of the 20th century whose work dealt primarily with the relationship between knowledge and power, opens his essay, "What is an Author?" with a quote from Samuel Beckett which at once, asserts and summarizes it's point: "What matters who's speaking?"

Appearing during the now-venerable era of the "death of the author," it posits the role of the author as an "author-function". This status originally arises from the legal codification of books and speeches as property, "only when the author became subject to punishment" due to the nature of the text. As Foucault describes this first author-function, the author's name stands for a specific manner of discourse and the manner in which it is regulated in the culture in which it circulates.

The second feature of the author-function is that it is not universal in all discourse. He offers as examples the folk tales and epics which circulated widely despite anonymous authorship.

The third aspect of the author-function is that it isn't formed spontaneously through the attribution of a discourse to a known individual. Rather, it results from a collective effort to construct the entity we call the "author" when we speak of an "original individual's 'profundity' or 'creative power'...."

The fourth quality is that it doesn't apply to any person, except insofar as it generates a series of subjective positions that any individual could come to occupy.

There is one final type of author, who Foucault places in a separate category unlike other canonical names, designating them as "initiators of discursive practices". He cites Marx and Freud as the first two such "initiators" and describes as their distinctive contribution, that their works created the possibility and the rules of formation for other texts, establishing the potential for endless discourse.

In conclusion, Foucault envisions a culture in which discourses "...would unfold in pervasive anonymity." And the only relevant question would be, "What matters who's speaking?"

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Foucault argues that the word "author" does not refer to a person but to a set of social forces that make up what Foucault calls the "author function." That is, what we mean by "author" has less to do with the actual person doing the writing than it does with how literary works are defined and how society makes use of them. Foucault sketches out four elements of the author function:

  1. The notion of establishing "ownership" or of attaching the name of an individual to a particular work arose out of the desire to punish authors for "transgressive" works.
  2. Beginning in the seventeenth or eighteenth century, literary works became understood in relationship to an author; the author function in this case determines the origin of the work.
  3. Meaning in a literary text is derived through the collective task of critical interpretation. In this case the author is not the writer at all but a set of readers that constructs meaning within the text.
  4. The author is a concept used to impose a sense of order on a body fo work, either as a way of identifying a certain style or literary standard of excellence, or of denoting a coherent set of ideas.

In this sense, the author function is a set of socially determined rules that identify and enforce particular literary values.

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In 1969, Michel Foucault gave a lecture titled "What is an Author?" in which he laid out his theory on the definition of the relationship of "author" and text and reader. His main argument is that the author has been removed from critical theory by Barthes and Derrida, who declare the author "dead," because critical theory of their era analyzed text only, with no reference to the originator of the text:

criticism and philosophy took note of the disappearance – or death - of the author some time ago ... [because] the task of criticism is not to bring out the work's relationships with the author, nor to reconstruct through the text a thought or experience, but rather to analyze the work through its structure, its architecture, its intrinsic form,... (Foucault, "What is an Author," generation-online.org)

Literary critical opinion changes with time and this extreme exclusion of the originator of a text is not so adamantly held as is witnessed by Wayne Booths'e ethical criticism ("The Company We Keep").

Foucault posited an "author function" that related to society, exclusivity to literary works (as opposed to scientific works that are strictly limited by the factuality of the text), the question of attribution of origination of a text, and the "persona" that replaces the originator and is similarly vaguely defined as the "narrator persona" is vaguely defined.

...the author does not precede the works; he is a certain [author] functional principle by which, in our culture, one limits, excludes, and chooses; in short, by which one impedes the free circulation, the free manipulation, the free composition, decomposition, and recomposition of fiction. (Foucault)

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