Episode 85: Foucault and Authorship

In 1968, Barthes wrote his seminal “Death of the Author”. One year later, Michel Foucault publishes his essay “What Is an Author?” Coincidence? I think not! *draws pipe, blows bubbles from it* The latter is pretty much an answer to the former, even if Barthes is not directly mentioned/insulted along the way. Part of my research is that these dueling essays helped redefine authorship for the ages and as such, work as my starting point for contemporary serialized texts. This would bring about the idea of a comparison and having to analyze all authorship before them, which is so beyond the scopes of my dissertation so I need to find a more appropriate way of wording this or be stuck with a never ending cycle of writing and revising. And as the meme so clearly states, “ain’t nobody got time for that”. To the close reading!

Foucault has this very interesting form of being able to explain things in a way that you never thought of before. I don’t mean the overly analytical dictionary methodology of Aristotle defining terms. It’s more like when you and your friends decide to have an actual serious conversation about something and you really get into it. There is a certain elegance in Foucault’s rhetoric that makes me read his sentences and immediately know that whatever he said is right but with a complexity that makes you have to reread the whole thing all over again to understand it. When he limits as to what he isn’t talking about when working on authors, I almost felt as if there was nothing left to talk about. Then he says: “I wish to restrict myself to the singular relationship that holds between an author and a text, the manner in which a text apparently points to this figure who is outside and precedes it.” Now that’s just classy.

Foucault makes a point as to how writing is now going in two directions. The first is very New Criticism and Barthes friendly in that “it only refers to itself, yet it is not restricted to the confines of interiority”. The second is all about exteriority and looking outside the text, almost with a certain jouissance as a proper interplay is developed. The second road is one where the death of the author is challenged. Narrative was a way to immortalize characters, even though they would die, as is the case with protagonists of just about every early epic and tragedy but “the narrative redeemed his acceptance of death.” Then Foucault goes and mentions the cradle of serialization for me, The Arabian Nights. I definitely need to write a whole post on them, but that comes later. Foucault explains how the overarching them of the entire collection of stories is the deferment of death in a strategy to conquer it, “to delay the inevitable moment when everyone must fall silent.” But that was then and now the idea of an author keeping the story alive is long gone (again, serialization is an exception, or so I keep telling myself). “Where a work had the duty of creating immortality, it now attains the right to kill, to become the murderer of its author.” Think about that line for a second and its amazingness. Think of every single book you were ever forced to read in school and how most of those authors have now become the indecipherable amalgamation of “that guy/girl who wrote that thing”. This response to Barthes is not just an affirmation of the Death of the Author but rather that by becoming an author one is creating the tools of one’s own demise.

Foucault starts talking about the work much in the same way that Tanselle does, so no unnecessary confusion in terminology for me. Critical theory has this weird dichotomy of wanting to find the links between author and work and just analyzing the different parts of the work itself. I guess I would fall into both camps, though for dissertation purposes the former is closer to my focus. The very idea of “a work” is pretty confusing and Foucault wants to raise more questions on that subject. “What in short is the strange unit designated by the term, work? What is necessary to its composition, if a work is not something written by a person called an ‘author’?” If the work is indeed like the definition I am using (which is mostly Tanselle’s idea), then what exactly counts as part of it if we want to find the ever elusive claim of authorial intention. Foucault gives the example of Nietzsche’s laundry bill and whether or not it should count towards a compendium of his “work”. It’s a pretty silly idea if you just blurt it out but Foucault has a way of making you really consider it. I’m pretty sure Nietzsche scholars have gone over everything that can be accredited to his name and already made such decisions as to what separates the man from the author. With things like blogs, forums, and twitter feeds, webcomic cartoonists and other contemporary authors have a lot more material available out there through which me and other would be digital academics will have to sift over and find the more pertinent pieces of information. Then again, I’m pretty sure you can get that effect by crowdsourcing through the current readership (it’s like cloud computing but with people).

Foucault continues his idea of author identity trouble thanks to an overall change in scholarly methodology. The shift from analyzing process to final output is one that “has merely transposed the empirical characteristics of an author to a transcendental anonymity.” Biography and context go out the window as authorship is not so much an origin to the work but rather a classification by which to slightly distinguish it from other works. Foucault has another cool line when he posits a very long question that includes whether the writing is part of becoming transcendental “or the aesthetic principle that proclaims the survival of the work as a kind of enigmatic supplement of the author beyond his death?” I wonder if when Barthes and Foucault discuss the death of the author do they stick only to the classics of those who are already long dead or those that are retired. I doubt anyone would claim that the author was not important as he/she was still writing, especially within the context of serialization.

Foucault then goes for another of his over analysis of the obvious and actually raises some good questions. When considering what is exactly is an author you ultimately get to the point of an identity represented by a name. “How does it function?” To quote the Bard, “What’s in a name?” It is a category by which to group a number of texts that have been written by that person. By placing that name, we put that reputation to center stage. With my above quote from Shakespeare, I not only attribute that particular sentence, which comes from his legendary Romeo and Juliette, but the fact that I place its origin in the person, rather than the text where it can be found and where it was first publicly uttered. A lot of other people have said that particular phrase afterwards, but we maintain a primacy of the first to say it. By placing my writing if only for a moment within the relationship of Shakespeare I try and syphon some of his authority into my own writing to legitimize it, which is what we do when quoting in an academic sense all the time. Not to mention the sense of recognizable celebrity that even people that aren’t English majors are familiar with. The interesting thing is that using Shakespeare is cliché, so there is this weird hipster counter culture that prefers obscurity within the selection of authorship. It means that one goes beyond the standard curriculum of regular readership. The name of the author demarks a particular style, which is odd considering that people decide how to write with every particular work and can try to do something completely different, sometimes to purposely go outside a particular mold. One of the reasons why I love studying serialization is that no matter how much the author can change as a person, the text remains a static point of reference that even through Cerebus Syndromes and reboots maintains a form of stability.

As Foucault goes on to say, “these differences indicate that an author’s name is not simply an element of speech (as a subject, a complement, or an element that could be replaced by a pronoun or other parts of speech). Its presence is functional in that it serves as a means of classification.” That last part is pretty important as we look at literature of the past, especially the classics, where authorship is just one of many ways we can classify texts, the same way we do it through genre, style, or century. When we look at the classification of a particular author, we see only the works that have endured the tests of time and fame. Using the above example of Shakespeare, we regularly find his “Best of” rather than everything he has ever written unless you find a very detailed tome. A college level course, due to time constraints, cannot go over each and every one of his plays, much less his sonnets. This doesn’t include the potential for the lost plays or even the problematics that come from the possibility of Shakespeare not being the actual author of any or even all of his works (long story, I’ll let the Shakespearean scholars debate that one). Foucault explains that as a culture we value certain works over others when we use the classification of the author and he makes a lot of sense. “Consequently, we can say that in our culture, the name of an author is a variable that accompanies only certain texts to the exclusion of others: a private letter may have a signatory, but it does not have an author; a contract can have an underwriter, but not an author; and, similarly, an anonymous poster attached to a wall may have a writer, but he cannot be an author. In this sense, the function of an author is to characterize the existence, circulation, and operation of certain discourses within a society.” If culture is the indicator of what gets preferred under something worthy of being “authored”. However, if society changes then what we place under that category changes. Banksy is famous for his graffiti, private letters often get quoted when analyzing authors; Hell, anything that TMZ and other rumor mongering puts the spotlight on from divorce agreements to autopsy reports can be worthy of being placed under a particular author. Our culture of celebrity and information overflow is one that places an importance on just about any piece of personal information from someone “worthy” and thus there is very little distinction between the person and their identity as an author. Best example of this is JK Rowling, author of the Harry Potter series. There is a group of people that are actually compiling a database of anything and everything she has ever said in public. Why? I assume they have their reasons, whether or not I or anyone can consider them as valid, is another question.

Foucault goes on to explain not just the author but what he calls the “author-function”. He gives some long explanations to which I will now attempt to form a bullet point style summary/paraphrase. Disclaimer: this is not even close to the quality or thoroughness of the original, please it for yourselves if you are interested in this topic.

1: author as appropriation. Texts are considered property, thus their is a sense of ownership and property which is further developed thanks to copyright laws. This was due to financial issues but also a sense of responsibility, if someone wrote something transgressive then they had to be punished for doing so.

2: author is not universal or static. It has changed across cultures and centuries. In ye olde times, you could have people spreading around folk stories and legends across the countryside that never has to answer what the original source was. Authorship then became synonymous with veracity while anonymity meant that something could not be proven as true, especially with pieces of “scientific” discourse. Authentification through identity was later forgotten as a solid enough idea did not need a specific someone to back it up. Literature however still needs someone by which to ascribe its importance. “Every text of poetry or fiction was obliged to state its author and the date, place, and circumstance of its writing. The meaning and value attributed to the text depended on this information.” However, you could assert the author function without a complete/ personal identity, as through the use of nom de plumes.

3: The author function “is not formed spontaneously through the simple attribution of a discourse to an individual. It results from a complex operation whose purpose is to construct the rational entity we call an author.” Damn that last line is pretty. Foucault takes his time here and goes on to explain how the process of confirming authorship throughout the ages is a complex and tedious one. The big example he uses how Christianity had to check whether or not certain books were/should be considered sacred and how St. Jerome’s four criteria for this still make sense within other contexts. The super simple version of this by me:
a: That it not suck when compared to the other books currently under that person (author as standard of quality).
b: That it not contradict previous things written.
c: That it keep the same overall style.
d: That it not contain references to things that did not exist at the time of its writing.

Obviously, we can think up a few holes and exceptions to this list pretty quickly, but the basics are pretty good at delineating authorship. Foucault goes on to complicate things even further by establishing a plurality of egos that exist within the author; all of which I honestly didn’t understand very well so I’m just going to skip that part and hope no one in my dissertation defense brings it up. There is one cool moment when Foucault acknowledges that you can be the author of something more than just a text: music, paintings, science, etc. (Tanselle says that all things can be read as texts so it makes for a very interesting point). One of the more interesting things is the title of someone who is the author of something like a theory which spans even more texts and ideas by others. “Such authors occupy a ‘transdiscursive’ position.” The word sounds a little odd but makes sense when you consider cases like Darwin who is the author of the book Origin of Species but who is more widely acclaimed as the father/transdiscursive author of evolution. Foucault uses Saussure and Freud as other famous examples.

Okay, last couple of pages left, let’s finish this thing. Foucault expounds on the whole transdiscursive author concept but makes a point as to say that these ideas aren’t entirely original because they are based on previous work. It’s especially weird when most readers have no idea just how long the chain goes beforehand before we get to the link that we see as the origin. Authors in one way or another outline a return to those previous ideas. “In effect, the act of initiation is such, in its essence, that it is inevitably subjected to its own distortions; that which displays this act and derives from it is, at the same time, the root of its divergences and travesties.” This connects for me with the whole idea of canonicity in serialized works, especially in the cases of backstories and retcons, for long running texts and even more importantly to works that have been continued by multiple authors/artists over the years.

Foucault now focuses on types of discourse and how the author function allows for one to backtrace discourse over years and cultures. “The author function could also reveal the manner in which discourse is articulated on the basis of social relationships.” At this point you get to that moment in your conclusion where you talk about the things that you don’t have the time or the resources to do right now but you officially place your flag on it just so that future researchers can’t claim it as a completely original idea. Then it becomes a mini rant as to how we shouldn’t look as the author as a person so much as the person performing the author function (I did a double take on that one too). “In short, the subject must be stripped of its creative role and analyzed as a complex and variable function of discourse.” From here it just becomes esoteric and lofty idealizing as to how discourse would be more comprehensive to study in a theoretical culture that did not value authorship, that way we focus on the message, rather than who said it. Three pages or so before this my academic hero worship of Foucault had faded but this ending put my feelings into a more subjective mode of analysis.

There are a lot of good points that he makes that I need to include, especially the distinction of author versus author-function which will be interesting to tease out once I start discussing collaborative and multiple forms of authorship. Thanks for the overanalytical perspective Monsieur Foucault but man am I glad that I am not including any of your other works. Pretty sure my eyes would go on strike if I’d try to incorporate Discipline and Punishment, which might somehow relate to those poor bastards that do Abridging parodies and fandubs on YouTube. Just in case, flag has been placed, I have officially declared dibs on this project which will probably never happen.

Coming up next time, gendanken time. Let’s think about a webcomic with an anonymous author. Spooky, huh?

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