Saturday, March 7, 2015

Foucault’s “What is an Author?”: A Critique

People have brought up complaints about my criticisms of Foucault. For example, “why don’t you engage with his writings directly?,” they say. As a matter of fact I do, but I also find using summaries of Foucault’s work by people who appear to have read it properly is a good way to approach it.

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 [1969]). 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 [1969]: 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 [1969]: 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 [1969]: 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 [1969]: 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 [1969]: 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 [1969]: 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 [1969]: 107–108).
So, according to Foucault, our culture just “constructs” authors by means of an “author function” (Foucault 1984 [1969]: 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 [1969]: 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.

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 [1969]: 118–119).
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”:
“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).

“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).
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.”

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.

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 [1969]: 119).
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.

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 [1969]. “What is an Author?,” in Paul Rabinow (ed.), The Foucault Reader. Pantheon, New York. 101–120.


  1. Ver, very splendid post, indeed. I'm fifty fifty Spaniard & French, and I hate all this epitomes of frenchs Marxists that search the individual "glories" refuting it.

  2. This is not the work that Foucault is known for. Try to engage with his major lasting legacy -- like the ideas about biopower -- rather than a minor text.

    And yes, Merquoir's criticisms were of the red-baiting variety and very much so tied up with his neoliberalism. He was a student of Levi-Strauss and seems tied to the nouveaux philosophes. His criticisms are pretty shallow too. Foucault makes generalisations -- as do many historians of thought -- and then he complains that there are particulars that do not fit in with Foucault's generalisations. You can do this to pretty much anyone's work. It's generally known as "reading an author in bad faith".

    1. I have read Merquior's book and am now rereading it, and I see no red-baiting in it: it is a clear exposition of Foucault's theories and a critique.

      Also, Merquior's criticism go well beyond minor complaints or "particulars that do not fit in with Foucault's generalisations".

      Once again, this is an unfortunate attempt at poisoning the well as part of an ad hominem fallacy.


  4. > LK
    Have you noticed that you are indulging in the commentary of a commentary of a commentary . A commentary separated from the subject by three degrees of separation as identified by Umberto Eco.

    1. "Have you noticed that you are indulging in the commentary of a commentary of a commentary


      I am doing no such thing: I am directly criticising a text by Foucault and its assertions and theories -- and finding them wanting.

  5. This is a topic that was covered to death in the 60s. Piero Manzoni's work is the most insightful on this subject. The primary purpose of authorship in the capitalist context is authentication of genuine work to support the value of property rights. Manzoni's work addresses the mystification of this purpose. This was clearly not the purpose in ancient Greece. Language is not a transparent medium of communication. To suggest this would be extreme naivety but this appears to be what you are suggesting. Language is the logical association of symbols and the concept of author cannot be separated from this.

    The concept of authorship has changed and this is what Foucault is discussing. Barthes wrote about this subject in the 60s; so what? People are still writing about it. It was a contentious issue in modernism from the early part of the 20th century. I personally think that Foucault adds to the discussion.

    1. "The primary purpose of authorship in the capitalist context is authentication of genuine work to support the value of property rights"

      Really? So when people write personal letters to one another or emails it is all a "authentication of genuine work to support the value of property rights"??

      "Language is not a transparent medium of communication. To suggest this would be extreme naivety "

      The only naivety here is displayed by those fooled by the charlatanry of Marxist and Poststructuralist cultism.

      Just because some language may not be clear, it doesn't follow that "language is not a transparent medium of communication."

  6. The language is imperfect. But is the only vehicle to communicate our ideas. Not only with the others, but mainly with ourselves. We talk with each other and with ourselves with the language inherited from our society. We have the task of ameliorating it, constantly, creating new names and metaphors and new ideas.

    Mathematics is more precise, but because mathematicians reduce the area of ideas only to the ones that fit their abstract language.

    In Economics they is a huge distance between truth versus precision.

  7. Interesting post, LK.

    A couple of points of disagreement:

    1) Authory anonymity (or unimportance) had been, as far as I know, frequent (I would perhaps say typical) from the Middle Ages trough the beginning of the modern era.

    Note that the whole concept of "originality" as something positive, for instance, is - at least according to some historians - a post-medieval phenomenon, roughly related to the idea of progress. (I guess at the fourth Lateran Council in the early 1200s the Western Church agreed that there wasn't much new to discover since the world was as it was and would always be, so by definition there was not much new to say).
    When writing chronicles or tracts, medieval authors would regularly present their own ideas as something they heard from somebody else. Also, real and mythical authors - a very modern disctinction, too - would be conflated and so on.
    And so on. (There is a lot of literature on the role of the "individual" in the Middle Ages and a lot of dispute, of course. The origins of European individualism by Gurevich is one interesting take)
    2) "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."
    Says the author of an excellent blog writing under a pseudonyme :-). Also note this: LK can get quoted as respectable literature along paper books or articles authored by winners of the Rijskbank prize. I don't think you had this twenty years ago... This is more like the Middle Ages (see my previsous point)

    3) "words cannot name or refer to objects (Foucault 1984 [1969]: 104). If you take this rubbish seriously..."
    That there is no direct relationship between words and objects should, by now, be concensus in philosophy in my view. If you don't like it the French way, I suggest you have a look at Quine, Sellars, Kuhn, etc. (you have done that already I guess). It is always language (a system of beliefs) that relates to the world as a whole. And there is no way we can bypass our own prejudices to see how the world is in "Reality". Building some system of one-to-one correspondences at lower leves (facts-sentences) in the way of the early Wittgenstein did not quite turn out to be sucessful.

    4) Last but not least: Foucault is not the type of philospoher who would be arguing for relativism of the sort that you seem to dislike so much. In fact, Les mots et les choses is all about how subjectivism is just one particular paradigm that replaced the transparent relationship to truth prevailing during the period of Enligthment, by a much more messy link. The whole point of Foucault, at least in Les mots et les choses, in my view, is to show how by thinking of authors as functions of the discourse you can bypass the trouble possed by subjectivism and arrive at a fairly straightforward relationship with the truth. Perhpas not with a capital T and with a lot of caveats regarding power but still very far from "to each his own morals".

    Best and thanks for your blog, a great source of inspiration

  8. (1) clear authored writing and authorship have existed since Europeans started writing in ancient Greece.
    Anonymous writings hardly prove Foucault's theories.

    (2) "LK can get quoted as respectable literature along paper books or articles authored by winners of the Rijskbank prize"

    Um, with respect, my blog is not "quoted as respectable literature along paper books or articles authored by winners of the Rijskbank prize". I have never seen any such thing.

    (3) "That there is no direct relationship between words and objects should, by now, be concensus in philosophy in my view."

    It is not the consensus, and not even remotely convincing.

    If words cannot refer to objects, then you could never teach children language. In fact, our language would be chaotic and we could never make any sense of the world or objects in it.


    1. (1) Yes, but the existence of clearly authored writing (I think the concept as such is a little bit of an exaggeration given what most of the actual physical documents in which these works have been preserved look like) does not disprove his theory, either. I don't think the point is to prove or disprove. The point is to understand the historicity of most concepts that we take for granted. History is always messy, so it is always easy to find counterexamples.

      (2) Well, I thought I have, but I have now noticed that the nobelist's works are indicated in the literature for another of their seminars. Still, you are there with respectable non-anonymous PK economists as a reference for students...

      Plus, I also think Krugman once referenced you on his blog, again something that would not be possible two decades ago.

      (3) I think Quine is (or I should say was) perhaps the most respected analytic philosopher who worked hard to show that a proposition such as "there is a direct relation between words and objects" begs the question (cf. his famous gavagai example). You can certainly find some very interesting arguments in his articles and books.
      There are, of course, other analytic philosophers who have developped themes discussed in continental post-structuralism, but I just refer to Quine as he is well know for his opposition to Cambridge, UK awarding a honorary doctor title to Derrida, so he seems very anti post-modernism. Also, most analytic philosophers I know of do track the development of their ideas back to Quine and I don't think they would argue against his opinions on the matter.

      Anyway, keep up the good work!

    2. Here's an amusing example. Forged epistles or gospels from apostles. That shows a lively concern for authorship.

  9. As for not engaging his writings directly ... I find that criticism amusing. Pardon my French, but this is the same bullshit I see from Callahan about Aquinas. In a real subject, with real knowledge, you don't need to engage and writing or author (sic!) directly. You engage theory or the proof. You needn't read Darwin or Clerk Maxwell. I can refute preformationism without reading a preformationist text. I can refute the ontological argument with reading Anselm in Latin.
    I am reminded of the claim you can only understand the Koran properly in Arabic.