Authorship in What is an Author

Authorship in What is an Author

What is an Author
Notes and Quotes Part 01

Authorship and the Author
What is an Author?

Read What is an Author

What is an Author is a text created from a Lecture that Foucault gave in 1969. He repeated a version of this lecture in 1970 in the United States of America. The version of this text is translated into English by Josué V.Harari and has been slightly modified. Importantly, Foucault had multiple texts that held the title “What is.”
This version of notes and quotes is designed to follow “The Death of the Author” by Roland Barthes. Read notes and quotes on The Death of the Author.


Teaser Quote

In a superb move of inside-outside thinking [Foucault] engages in the Shakespeare conspiracy as a moment in the proper name problem. However, rather than ask: Was it Bacon who was the true writer of the sonnets, the tragedies and comedies; he instead asks: “What would it mean if Shakespeare was the author of Bacon’s Oeuvre?”



What is an Author? The person who composes the text of course! Really? Well, the context in which this question is asked is crucial. If a young child was to ask “(mum or dad) what is an author?” that is one thing. It is though, an entirely different situation when one asks this question in response to Barthes’ axiom: The Author is dead so that the reader may live! The situation is suddenly far more complex, and requires a level of intellectual sophisticati

What does this term really mean?

on to recognize it as a question of epistemology. Foucault, is one such autéur, to address the epistemology at play in Barthes axiom.  He demands we return to first principles with his question. In fact, Foucault had a series of “What” questions which remind us how dangerous it is to take nouns, especially proper nouns, for granted; the most important of these being “What is Enlightenment.”


So we have looked at Barthes on the Tangent General website, and sought to derive as much value from this masterwork as possible. Yet it is not without fault.  In fact it emphasizes the reader heavily and doesn’t sufficiently define “What” is the author is. In order to fill this gap, we turn now to a lengthy lecture delivered by Foucault, and with skepticism – rinse and repeat for another edition of notes and quotes.

What Constitutes  An Author?

Foucault beings his lecture by demonstrating that there is a “sociohistoric” context in which the author concept has emerged. He is going to pry open the concepts of authorship throughout this lecture in order to reexamine the precepts from which they have been formed. Thus, he begins with the basic seeming a priori statement of authorship, which is that the author is a unit of measurement when examining a literary field. He writes:

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I shall not offer here a sociohistorical analysis of the authors persona. Certainly, it would be worth examining how the author became individualized in a culture like ours, what status he has been given, at what moment studies of authenticity and attribution began, in what kind of system of valorization the

author was involved, at what point we began to recount the lives of authors rather than of hero, and how this fundamental category of “the-man-and-his-work-criticism” began. For the moment, however, I want to deal solely with the relationship between text and author and with the manner in which the text points to this figure that, at least in appearance, is outside it and antecedes it (p.205).



He Who Speaks vs What has been Said

Foucault is, in this formulation highlighting how unusual the desire is – to know who is speaking, as opposed to concentrating on what is said. Being fully immersed in the cult of the Author which may be more aptly described as the cult of personality. Why for example, is the issue “Who is Donald Trump (or Hilary Clinton for matter)” rather than “What does the POTUS do?” We take for granted its unique place in cultural history. Barthes who wanted to kill off the author, may have been reacting directly to this, so it is in this paradigm that Foucault is examining the significance of Authorship within a discursive culture.

Color Theory (as metaphor for inside-outside thinking)

Foucault is the preeminent progenitor of what I like to call “inside-outside” thinking. One way to easily conceptualize this is to consider what colour the sun is. Here we borrow from Color Theory, color theory exposes that the sun is not yellow (or Gold or White) but yellow (or Gold or White) against blue. That is, the sun cannot be (directly) perceived except through the context of the sky. Similarly, Foucault here is outlining that the author cannot be perceived outside of the act of authorship. Thus we have our first precept to examine: the act of authorship as a body of distinguishable from the act of writing. Now, as soon as we recognize this precept, we immediately uncover the second. If the author is the act of authorship and authorship is distinguishable from the act of writing, then we must isolate and understand what the act of writing is.

Author as the act of Authorship

Foucault offers two themes in the act of writing: 1) writing is a game; and 2) writing is a process to keep death at bay. Foucault explains:

Our culture has metamorphosed this idea of narrative, or writing, as something designed to ward off death. Writing has become linked to sacrifice, even to sacrifice of life: it is now a voluntary effacement that does not need to be represented in books, since it is brought about in the writer’s very existence. The work, which once had the duty of providing immortality, now possesses the right to kill, to be its author’s murderer, as in the case of Flaubert, Proust, and Kafka.

That is not all, however: this relationship between writing and death is also manifested in the effacement of the writing subject’s individual characteristics. Using all the contrivances that he sets up between himself and what he writes, the writing subject cancels out the signs of his particular individuality. As a result, the mark of the writer is reduced to nothing more than the singularity of his absence; he must assume the role of the dead man in the game of writing (pp. 206-07).

Authorship as opposed to Writing

Writing is an act of First Principles. Think about a resume, it is written as opposed to being authored. The implication then follows quite clearly, the act of authoring is a derivative function of the act of writing. In other words, authorship has a very particular set of attributes which form a subset from the act of writing. Set

Set Theory
A set of all subsets, within which the subsets of the subsets also exist. Author emerges from writer.

relationships is a metaphor taken from Set Theory. Nonetheless, set theory is a valuable metaphor as it highlights the distinction of attributes that form authorship which exist (only?) within the set of writing. Here though, it may prove useful to abandon writing and replace it with “acts of self expression”.

Foucault will, later acknowledge that his observation can be scaled up beyond text to include, for instance, image and music as well. Image, Music, Text – a deliberate reference back to Barthes on my part. Foucault  though, wants to delve deeper in to his distinction between writing and authorship. Where are the boundaries of authorship? Foucault argues they are contained in the accepted body of work, the oeuvre.

When is it an act of Authorship and when is it just writing?

Yet, what constitutes the oeuvre is not immediately apparent and Foucault deals with this directly:

Even when an individual has been accepted as an author, we must still ask whether everything that he wrote, said, or left behind is part of his work. The problem is both theoretical and technical. When undertaking the publication of Nietzsche’s works, for example, where should one stop? Surely everything must be published, but what is “everything?” Everything that Nietzsche himself published, certainly. And what about rough drafts of his work? Obviously. The plans for his aphorisms? Yes. The deleted passages and the notes at the bottom of the page? Yes. What if, within a work book filled with aphorisms, one find a reference, the notation of a meeting or an address, or a laundry list: is it a work or not? Why not?

… How can one define a work amid the millions of traces left by someone after his death? A theory of the work does not exist, and the empirical task of those who naively undertake the editing of works often suffer in the absence of such a theory (pp. 207-08).

Again, the metaphor of the author’s death raised by Barthes in 1967, is prominent in this passage. I draw special attention to Foucault’s use of the verb “undertaking” and the cessation of a theory of work once the individual would-be author has died.

Authorship as a unified body of writing?

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Already Foucault has highlighted the complexities existent at the boundaries  of Authorship and writing. He has also introduced a relationship that can be formulated between empiricism and a theory of work. This then necessitates the question: does the author exist in the absence of an empirical theory of work? The answer is a paradox: yes, we need the author to have an empirical theory of work, but we need the epirical theory of a body of work to produce the author. In this sense Foucault suggests “we try, with great effort, to imagine the general condition of each text, the condition of both the space in which it is dispersed and the time in which it unfolds” (p.208). In other words, a text without a context is an indecipherable piece of writing.

Writing as Religious and Creative

However, there is more to this assertion. Anticipating the author as penal figure, the notion of time unfolding is significant. Why does Madame Bovary shift from an illicit and blasphemous text in the 19th Century to a classic piece of literature in the 21st? Is it because the text can be the author’s killer? Foucault argues that it is because writing contains within itself an inherent transcendental quality. He says:

In current usage, however, the notion of writing seems to transpose the empirical characteristics of the author into a transcendental anonymity. We are content to efface the more visible marks of the author’s [empirical essence] by playing off, one against the other, two ways of characterizing writing, namely the critical and the religious approaches. Giving writing a primal status seems to be a way of re-translating, in transcendental terms, both the

Authorship as religious
The original critique may have been a method to interpret the biblical texts.

theological affirmation of its scared character and the critical affirmation of its creative character. To admit that writing is, because of the very history that made it possible, subject to the test of oblivion and repression, seems to represent in transcendental terms, the religious principle of hidden meanings (which requires interpretation) and the critical principles of implicit significances, silent determinations, and obscured commentaries (which give rise to commentaries).

To imagine writing as absence seems to be a simple repetition, in transcendental terms of both the religious principle of in-alterable and yet never fulfilled tradition, and the aesthetic principle of the work’s survival, its perpetuation beyond the author’s death, and its enigmatic excess in relation to him (p. 208).

Author through Critique

I will now take a lot of the above passage apart. The vector of the transcendental as Foucault has introduced, is a crucial element of the emergence of the figure of the author. Empiricism alone, in one sense, in ill-equipped to fully identify the authorship of a body of work. The theory of work then exists outside of the authorship in and of  itself. Already it is very clear how connected  authorship is to the specter of death. In light of this, Foucault invites into our reading, the theological approach. Religion and death go hand in had culturally speaking. This is an inappropriate time to examine religion’s cultural role beyond understanding death, but have faith that religion also contains the capacity to teach us how to live.

Nonetheless Foucault elucidates here the role religion plays  in determining the meaning of a text. Thus, by extension, its role in developing a theory of work. It crucially seeks to reveal and expose the hidden meaning beneath the surface. So too, Foucault explains does the critic. Religion is exchanged for the implicit, yet the function remains the same. Therefore, the transcendental nature inherent in the text as Foucault reveals, is the need for an interpretation. In other words, the text cannot exist  without it’s commentary.

Critique as Mid Wife

The critique then, the commentary, brings the author to life. Or at the very least, the critique extrudes the authorship beyond the text. So, if Derrida

Post-Structuralist Author
This is not a pipe, it’s a text describing a pipe.

says there is only the text, because language requires language to enunciate itself, then Foucault resist this. He does so by espousing the transcendental nature inherent within. However, Foucault’s move here is greater than reaffirming the importance of structuralism in a post-structuralist world, he is also continuing to highlight how context “creates” text. Put succinctly, the author is formed through the authorship determined in the critique. In other words,: The author’s birth is delivered by the critique.

This is not simple semantics. At play is a situational understanding of how the Truth is perpetuated. Foucault points out a symbiotic relationship between author and

critic. Here foreshadowing how the function of an identified author can stand for much more than a text in itself. Later Foucault will introduce discursivities and elaborate on the transcendental implications. For now though, he continues to work on nailing down the definition of author. If an author is the act of authorship identified through the critic then, Foucault asks, what constitutes the Author’s proper name.

Author as constituted Author’s Proper name

Did Homer really write the Iliad? If not Homer, then who? More significantly, did it matter in the Hellenistic Golden Age? Foucault shifts the interrogation now to the very instance of the Author: their proper name. The Author’s proper name is for Foucault, already problematic. Rather than solve this issue, he  instead seeks to further complicate it. In a superb move of inside-outside thinking he engages in the Shakespeare conspiracy as a moment in the proper name problem. However, rather than ask: was it Bacon who wrote the sonnets, tragedies and comedies; he asks: “What would it mean if Shakespeare was the true author of Bacon’s oeuvre? This exposition of the proper name dialectic is central to the question of what is the Author. Foucault demands that we engage deeply and contemplatively with this issue:

The proper name and the author’s name are situated  between the two poles of description and designation: they must have a certain link with what they name, but one that is neither entirely in the mode of designation nor in that of description; it must be a specific link. However – and it is here that the particular difficulties of the author’s name arise – the links between the proper name and the individual named and between the author’s name and what it names are not isomorphic and do not function in the same way. There are  several differences (pp. 209-10).

Author Function

The Author is, and is not just, a designated proper name. Foucault in making this argument is drawing our attention to the functionality of such a proper name. How does the functional proper name fit with in the paradigm of text in critically produced context? If Shakespeare didn’t actually live in Stafford-upon-Avon, then that has little bearing on Hamlet. However, if Hamlet and the Organon originated from the same pen, the function of the proper name is shattered. Therefore, Foucault asks that we examine in some detail, the “Author Function.”

End of Part 01

If this close reading is set against the  previous reading on Tangent General of Barthes The Death of the Author, then quickly we have moved out of the Post-structural

Roland Barthes Michel Foucault
What is an Author if the Author is Dead?

ist abyss through Foucault. Foucault in the above is searching for Truth in the concept of Authorship. Truth that is transcendental and ineffable, only perceptible  via signification and implication. What has happened rapidly in this discussion of authorship is the functionality of authorship in the context of the author’s death. Foucault rejects pure empiricism in developing such a determination. He strives to retain and maintain the transcendental aspect of the text, which transcends the image of the author. Therefore, in the examination of the precepts which form our concepts, the author is an emergent property. At root of this emergence is the author function.

In Part 02 of a close reading of Foucault’s What is an Author we will examine the Author Function in some detail before moving on to examining the historical moves Foucault identifies from this observation. As foreshadowed above, having an Author means a work can be considered profane or sacred. Further to this, Foucault will demonstrate how authority is a fundamental embedded attribute of authorship. This will open up the specter of discourse and eventually discursive narratives which sit ephemerally above the author in and of themselves. Freud birthed the Freudians and Marx did the Marxists. So click back soon for the further unfoldment of these arguments in part 02.

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