What does Foucault mean by "the author-function" in his essay "What Is an Author" ?

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James Kelley | College Teacher | (Level 1) Educator

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Foucault’s essay “What is an Author?” might be seen as an example of (post)structuralism, if not of the post-human. Foucault is not interested in the author as a person. That view of the author as a person would be, generally speaking, the view of pre-critical humanism, in which the author is credited as being “real” and as being in complete control of the text that the author produces. (Most readers today, despite Foucault, continue to view the author as in this pre-critical humanist way. They care about the life of the author, for example, and believe that the author is the ultimate authority when it comes to determining meaning in a given literary work.)

Instead of seeing the author simply as a person who writes, Foucault sees authorship as a function of the writing itself. Foucault identifies multiple functions of the author:

1. Author as a legal construction, connected to questions of heresy, slander, and libel. Today, we might focus on the importance of the author to copyright laws and charges of plagiarism.

2. Author as a literary construction, connected to questions of literary merit. A poem bearing my name, for example, simply won’t receive the same attention as a poem bearing Wordsworth’s name, even if my poem is better. Wordsworth’s poems have literary merit and mine don’t.

3. Author as a unifying construction, allowing seemingly very different texts to be unified under a single concept and allowing new texts to be evaluated against old texts for consistency of quality. Naming Homer as the author of both the Iliad and the Odyssey, for example, allows us to overlook the obvious differences between those two works and to read them as closely related texts that express deeply held values of the ancient Greeks. Simply put, this function shows our belief that authors are internally consistent: they write about the same themes over and over, for example, and they’re either always good or always bad at what they do.

I’ve always tried to read this essay alongside the New Critical statements on the intentional fallacy and Roland Barthes’ essay “The Death of the Author.”

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