A Reading of Michel Foucault’s “What is an Author?”

Notes on Michel Foucault’s “What is an Author?
By Morgan Reid

The challenge in presenting notes on “What is an Author?” is twofold: first, to present a concise, specific interpretation of the essay, and second, to provide a sense of the development of the piece and the connections and contexts and discursive relationships in which the article is situated.

First, I will venture to claim, for the purposes of inciting discussion, a direct interpretation of not just the essay, but of Foucault’s answer to his own question. It is my hope that this claim will be illustrative of the value of reading Foucault not for his answers but for his process and questions. What, does Foucault say, is an author? Without claiming to represent everything he says, he does say “The author—or what I have called the author-function—is undoubtedly only one of the possible specifications of the subject.” ((Foucault, 1977) p. 138. The author, characterized as author-function, is a methodological opportunity. More specifically, Foucault points to the prospect for future research toward a “typology of discourse.” (p. 137). In offering this possibility, Foucault notes that

a typology of this sort cannot be adequately understood in relation to the grammatical features, formal structures, and objects of discourse because there are undoubtedly discursive properties or relationships that are irreducible to the rules of grammar and logic and to the laws that govern objects. These properties require investigation if we hoipe to distinguish the larger categories of discourse. The different forms of relationships (or nonrelationships) that an author can assume are evidently one of those discursive properties. (p, 137)

So, in suggesting the need for further work on the ontology of discourses, Foucault offers “Perhaps the time has come to study not only the expressive value and formal transformations of discourse, but its mode of existence” and in this study, the “author-function could also reveal the manner in which discourse is articulated on the basis of social relationships.” (p. 137). The methodological point here is that different configurations of author-function could serve to characterize different types of discourse. As such the author is more than a physical actor or ideological position, more than a signifier, and of course more than an element of speech, but a location and configuration of characteristics whose particular discursive properties are indicators of a particular type of discourse. It is here that we are brought to an interesting set of questions, in which we move from an observation of Foucault’s mention of a methodological opportunity to a much more substantive interrogation of his position and discursive deployment of meaning in relation to other texts and authors and discourses.

As a beginning, and drawing from the previous section’s point that an author-function may indicate a type of discourse, we could ask “Does Foucault indicate that the author-function is constituted by the discourse in which it is situated?” To rephrase, how much of a structuralist is Foucault, or more precisely, how much structuralism is there in Foucault’s deployment of the idea of the author-function?

To consider these questions, let’s look at the essay in summary form.
While it is not expected we will gain any traction on Foucault’s position as structuralist or otherwise, the tracing of influences and ideas in the article is productive in itself, both constituting us as readers and allowing us to act in re-authoring the text in terms of our own priorities and interests. Each reading is anew.

Foucault opens his paper by referring to and clarifying some of the concerns and problems he admits arose from some of his previous writing (Foucault, 1989), and sets aside some of the issues that might be considered relevant to the study of “the author,” such as “ how the author was individualized;…the status we have given the author…” and so forth. (Foucault, 1977) p. 115.

Drawing on a question from Samuel Beckett “What matter who is speaking” (p. 115) Foucault indicates that the indifference in the question is actually an indicator that the identity of the author is a principle of concern embedded in “our way of speaking and writing….[as] an immanent rule” (p. 116). The author usually matters, yet “the writing of our day has freed itself from the necessity of ‘expression,’” it only refers to itself, yet it is not restricted to the confines of interiority.” (p. 116). The contemporary absence of the author is a characteristic of structuralist thought, wherein, and here Foucault is nodding to Roland Barthes and Jacques Derrida, among others, writing is transformed “into an interplay of signs, regulated les by the content it signifies than by the very nature of the signifier” (p. 116). While this is connected to structuralism, there is an indication of writing be an action that challenges order and rules, indicating a clear post-structuralist bent to Foucault’s conversation here.

Shortly Foucault moves to consider the changing role of the narrative in the relationship between writing and death, as manifest in mythical narrative in which the hero dies early but lives on as in immortality, or in the delaying of death in Arabic stories. A later reversal is observed where in the text can have the power to kill the author, or where the author is inconsistent or at odds with, and even a victim of the text (p. 117).

Foucault argues that the issue of the disappearance or death of the author has not been developed sufficiently, and needs further consideration, beginning with the clarification of what constitutes a “work.” Both the nature of the written product, and the identification of the/an author have bearing on whether a written piece of language is a “work” (p. 118-9).

Respectfully, Foucault deals with the limitations of écriture, drawn from Derrida (Derrida, 1983)to note the problem with écriture is that it transforms the absence of the author into a “transcendental anonymity” (p. 120), which does not serve to move beyond what are similar discursive patterns as to be found in religious tropes and nevertheless still serves to retain an author immortal.

It is here that Foucault begins analysis of the author as author-function, by interrogating the meanings and functions of the proper name of the author, in several forms and circumstances, such as when the identity of the author is not important, or when the accepted scope of the author’s works changes, or when the characteristics of the author as a unified or collective individual are changed. (p. 122-3). One key point Foucault draws attention to is that

unlike a proper name, which moves from the interior of a discourse to the real person outside who produced it, the name of the author remains at the contours of texts—separating one from the other, defining their form, and characterizing their mode of existence. It points to certain groups of discourse and refers to the status of this discourse within a society and culture (p, 123).

The key value in understanding this function is that an author’s name is “situated in the breach, among the discontinuities, which gives rise to new groups of discourse..” (p 123). Once again there is analytical potential for the author-function, particularly in identifying what type of discourse the author-mane-function is embedded.

In a wider context of society and, Foucault points to four features of discourses in which the author-function operates: first as a form of property, but also of identification and control, wherein the author’s name is associated with transgression, seemingly inevitably, since the fiorce of law regulating the acceptability of a publication could be applied to an author, but when authors become considered more legitimate in the modern period, the acts of transgression were placed within the text, thus “reviving the older bipolar field of discourse in a systematic practice of transgression and by restoring the danger of writing which on another side, had been conferred the benefits of property. Second, author-function has different meanings in difference disciplinary discourses, such as in natural sciences or in literature (pp. 125-7). Third, the author-function is not formed “spontaneously through the simple attribution of a discourse to an individual” but “results from a complex operation whose purpose is to construct the rational entity we call an author” (p. 127). As such this author-function is used and constructed for the purpose of understanding texts through analysis against what may be a real or fictional collection of ideas and characteristics, against which we can test for quality and consistency, and in fact for authenticity. Finally Foucault points to the author-function as a “source of expression” (p. 128-9), although this can be problematized readily by the existence of a “plurality of egos” within and around the text.” A summary of the author-functions is offered by Foucault restating these points. (p. 130.1)

The final section of the essay is devoted to the initiators of discursive practices, who “produced not only their own work, but the possibility and the rules of the formation of other texts” (p. 131). Initiators are the authors to whom the discourse refers and often returns for further insight. In returning to the texts of initiators of discursive practices, we find spaces, omissions, which can yield either clear explication or implicit intertextual enlightenment (p. 135).


Derrida, J. (1983). L’écriture et la différence. Paris: Université de la Sorbonne nouvelle.

Foucault, M. (1977). What is an author? Language, counter-memory, practice (pp. 113-138). Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press.

Foucault, M. (1989). The order of things: An archaeology of the human sciences [Mots et les choses.]. London; New York: Routledge.

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~ by morganreid on October 10, 2007.

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