Michel Foucault

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

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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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According to Foucault's "What Is an Author?", what is the function of an author?

Foucault spends about the first half of "What Is an Author?" explaining (or really, working up to) his own explanation of what the function of an author is. He begins by explaining that an author is separate from what he writes, even though he created it. We should be analyzing texts on their own merit, he asserts, and not constantly paying attention to the text's relationship with who wrote it--which makes us wonder why the author is even useful at all, beyond that old idea of bringing himself immortality through the written word.

So, toward the middle of the piece, Foucault argues that the author's function is to stand as a symbol, or a persona, so that we can gather up all of the works of that author and think of them as one cohesive body of texts.

The author plays a "classificatory function," as Foucault explains, so that we can assign a meaningful category to a group of texts (for example, all the plays and poems written by Shakespeare). This is useful because we need a way to meaningfully compare one author's body of work with another author's. It's also useful because we can "receive" an author's works in "a certain mode" and give it "a certain status" in our culture.

To put that another way, Foucault wants us to think of authors as a tool for organizing and directing our thinking and judgments about individual pieces of text and about groups of texts. The author (or rather, the author's name) gives us a method for categorizing and comparing groups of written texts.

Foucault spends the rest of the essay describing the implications and problems that arise from this designation of the author's function as a means of classifying texts.

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