One other person has complained that José Guilherme Merquior – who wrote a wonderful book called Foucault (2nd edn. 1991) that subjects the man’s theories to careful criticism – was a well known neoliberal. Well, yes, he was. But so what? This is a shoddy ad hominem fallacy: it is like the libertarian or conservative who attacks Keynes’ economics or implies that you can’t believe a word of Keynes because Keynes was a supporter of the British Eugenics Society (which he was).
Keynes’ support for eugenics is irrelevant to the question whether his economic arguments are sound, and José Guilherme Merquior’s neoliberalism is irrelevant to the question whether his critiques of Foucault are sound.
But now, to address the first complaint, I have just carefully read Foucault’s essay “What is an Author?” (Foucault 1984 ). This marks Foucault’s turn to the concerns and intellectual conceits of French Poststructuralism, of which modern Postmodernism – that idiotic academic pretension of our time – is an offshoot.
Quite frankly, there is not even anything of any particular originality in Foucault’s “What is an Author?” and it mostly follows Roland Barthes’ earlier essay the “Death of the Author” (Barthes 1967; 1977).
Foucault first of all raises the question of when and how Western civilisation started to be concerned with authorship of texts and the life of an author – as if this was some “modern” invention of civilisation. Anyone who has done any ancient history knows that already in the ancient Greek and Roman worlds our ancestors were very much concerned with who wrote texts and when. A statement of authorship at the beginning of a work was normal. In the earliest prose works in ancient Greek, authors already announced their names and identities in the first passages in their texts and why they wrote the work (e.g., just look at how the historians Thucydides and Herodotus introduced themselves as authors of their famous histories); there was intense scholarly interest in biographical data about the authors of texts, and even establishing who wrote texts where authorship was in doubt.
This, according to Monsieur Foucault, is the outstanding characteristic of modern writing:
“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.” (Foucault 1984 : 102–103).I don’t believe a word of it, nor should you.
We are even told that “the notion of writing seems to transpose the empirical characteristics of the author into a transcendental anonymity” (Foucault 1984 : 104) – which apparently means that writing itself makes the author disappear. If that sounds crazy to you, you are not alone.
We have overwhelming evidence that the vast majority of people who write things in the modern world do so to express opinions or tell stories and communicate ideas, not to destroy or cancel their “particular individuality.” Most people are very much concerned to put their name on the writing they write, and to announce to the world their identity and stamp their literary productions with their names. The fact some people prefer to wrote under pseudonyms or anonymously does not refute this. Nor does the fact that some works exist where there is an historical debate about who wrote them. For example, that scholars argue over whether Shakespeare really wrote some of the plays attributed to him, it does not follow that all authors can be utterly divorced from their texts and ignored.
What proof does Foucault offer to support his bizarre theory? Answer: virtually none.
He just makes a fallacious appeal to the invalid authority of unnamed philosophers and critics:
“None of this is recent; criticism and philosophy took note of the disappearance – or death – of the author some time ago. But the consequences of their discovery of it have not been sufficiently examined, nor has its import been accurately measured . A certain number of notions that are intended to replace the privileged position of the author actually seem to preserve that privilege and suppress the real meaning of his disappearance.” (Foucault 1984 : 102–103).When Foucault says that “criticism and philosophy took note of the disappearance – or death – of the author some time ago,” all he really means is that his fellow French Poststructuralist Roland Barthes argued this in the essay “Death of the Author” (Barthes 1967; 1977) and that other Poststructuralists took up his idea.
Foucault then proclaims that literary criticism is no longer concerned with analysing a “work’s relationships with the author” (Foucault 1984 : 103) – despite the fact that a great deal of literary criticism was at that time, and still is, absolutely concerned with exactly this.
Then we get some claptrap about how supposedly we have no “theory” about what should be taken as an author’s body of work, because sometimes authors leave irrelevant writings such as “laundry lists” (Foucault 1984 : 104). But anyone sensible can see that, if you want to collect Nietzsche’s philosophical writings, you don’t need irrelevant writings he may have written like his personal cheques, laundry lists or personal letters to friends complaining about the weather. Foucault’s argument is just daft.
Foucault proceeds to invoke the Structuralist nonsense that had become fashionable in France that holds that words cannot name or refer to objects (Foucault 1984 : 104). If you take this rubbish seriously, then it is but a short step over that chasm of idiocy that leads to the idea that we can utterly ignore the author of a work and his intentions in writing a particular work.
Even worse, we can sink to depths of social constructivist insanity, as Foucault does, and proclaim that “authors” of texts do not even exist:
“The author’s name manifests the appearance of a certain discursive set and indicates the status of this discourse within a society and a culture. It has no legal status, nor is it located in the fiction of the work; rather, it is located in the break that founds a certain discursive construct and its very particular mode of being. As a result, we could say that in a civilization like our own there are a certain number of discourses that are endowed with the ‘author function,’ while others are deprived of it . A private letter may well have a signer—it does not have an author; a contract may well have a guarantor—it does not have an author. An anonymous text posted on a wall probably has a writer—but not an author.” (Foucault 1984 : 107–108).So, according to Foucault, our culture just “constructs” authors by means of an “author function” (Foucault 1984 : 108).
But what is this socially constructed “function”? Foucault, supposedly one of the greatest thinkers of late 20th century, has an answer ready: the “social construction” of authors serves to punish those authors!
It is all a nasty plot to subject authors to punishment if their “discourses” become transgressive (Foucault 1984 : 108). In other words, it is on the level with any paranoid conspiracy theory.
In long and convoluted ramblings typical of his works (which I have just had to endure to write this post), Foucault finally reaches the conclusion that the ideological “author function” of modern civilisation is essentially repressive and should be done away with:
“ … the author is not an indefinite source of significations which fill a work; the author does not precede the works; he is a certain 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. In fact, if we are accustomed to presenting the author as a genius, as a perpetual surging of invention, it is because, in reality, we make him function in exactly the opposite fashion. One can say that the author is an ideological product, since we represent him as the opposite of his historically real function. (When a historically given function is represented in a figure that inverts it, one has an ideological production.) The author is therefore the ideological figure by which one marks the manner in which we fear the proliferation of meaning.This is of course nothing more than Foucault’s regurgitating of the nonsense that Roland Barthes had written in 1967 in his essay “Death of the Author”:
In saying this, I seem to call for a form of culture in which fiction would not be limited by the figure of the author.” (Foucault 1984 : 118–119).
“The author is a modern figure, a product of our society insofar as, emerging from the Middle Ages with English empiricism, French rationalism and the personal faith of the Reformation, it discovered the prestige of the individual, of, as it is more nobly put, the ‘human person’. It is thus logical that in literature it should be this positivism, the epitome and culmination of capitalist ideology, which has attached the greatest importance to the ‘person’ of the author.” (Barthes 1977: 142–143).In other words, let us engage in a shameful fantasy in which we ignore authors and pretend texts can mean anything. In the process, we can emancipate ourselves from “reason, science, [and] law.”
“Once the Author is removed, the claim to decipher a text becomes quite futile. To give a text an Author is to impose a limit on that text, to furnish it with a final signified, to close the writing. Such a conception suits criticism very well, the latter then allotting itself the important task of discovering the Author (or its hypostases: society, history, psyche, liberty) beneath the work: when the Author has been found, the text is ‘explained’ – victory to the critic. …. literature (it would be better from now on to say writing), by refusing to assign a ‘secret’, an ultimate meaning, to the text (and to the world as text), liberates what may be called an anti-theological activity, an activity that is truly revolutionary since to refuse to fix meaning is, in the end, to refuse God and his hypostases – reason, science, law” (Barthes 1977: 146).
Barthes was a former Marxist, and a lot of the original Poststructuralists were disillusioned communists, Stalinists and Maoists.
The project of proclaiming the “death of the author” was the infantile ranting, raving and posturing of frustrated revolutionaries and former Structuralist Marxists, and Foucault was firmly part of this ludicrous enterprise.
The idea entered into Postmodernism and has done very great damage indeed to literary criticism. I have seen its consequences myself in universities over the years.
It has allowed lazy and ignorant literary criticism in which critics do not properly focus on the historical and cultural context in which a text was written – or on the biography of the author and what he meant to say. Instead, Postmodernism has produced a type of bizarre “literary criticism” in which Postmodernists torture texts to death and extract any and whatever meaning they like – no matter how patently ludicrous or crazy.
Finally, Foucault makes a prediction:
“I think that, as our society changes, at the very moment when it is in the process of changing, the author function will disappear, and in such a manner that fiction and its polysemous texts will once again function according to another mode, but still with a system of constraint—one which will no longer be the author, but which will have to be determined or, perhaps, experienced.It has been about 31 years since Foucault’s death and I see no signs of this bizarre fantasy. Authorship, as far as I can see, is just as important a concept and practice as it ever was.
All discourses, whatever their status, form, value, and whatever the treatment to which they will be subjected, would then develop in the anonymity of a murmur.” (Foucault 1984 : 119).
The “author” is alive and well, and will continue to do fine, thank you very much.
Barthes, Roland. 1967. “Death of the Author,” Aspen 5/6.
Barthes, Roland. 1977. “Death of the Author,” Image Music Text (trans. Stephen Heath). Fontana, London. 142–148.
Foucault, Michel. 1984 . “What is an Author?,” in Paul Rabinow (ed.), The Foucault Reader. Pantheon, New York. 101–120.