Foucault: “What is an Author?”

In his essay “What is an an author?” Michel Foucault calls into question the meaning of authorship and its relation to a text and argues, through his idea of the “author-function,” that the author exists as part of a text’s structure and therefore affects our interpretation of a work.

Foucault’s argument begins by questioning our basic understanding of the words “author” and “work” as well as our interpretation of the connection between two. Foucault asserts that while an author is a writer, a writer is not necessarily an author. Even when a writer has been accepted as an author, however, the problem arises about what writings are his “works.” In speaking about which of Nietzsche’s belongings to publish, Foucault muses, “What if, within a work filled with aphorisms, one finds a reference, the notation of a meeting of an address, or a laundry list: is it a work, or not?” (176).  In questioning are basic understandings of these words and their relation to one another, Foucault forces the reader to think critically about what makes an author, and what constitutes a work. In doing so, Foucault also raises the question of what an author’s name means to a work. In speaking of the relation of discourse and writer, Foucault says, “Historically, it was a gesture fraught with risks before becoming goods caught up in a circuit of ownership” (179). This “circuit of ownership” applies to the function of an author’s name in relation to a work, “It is  a speech that must be received in a certain mode and that, in a given culture, must receive a certain status” (178). This idea of ownership and “branding” applies to Foucault’s author-function, the relationship between author and text that plays an important role in our view of literary works today. Foucault goes on to say that “The author is therefore the ideological figure by which one marks the manner in which we fear the proliferation of meaning.” In conclusion, Foucault states that as time goes on the “author-function” may disappear and discourse will function by itself, rather than as a production of its author.

In Foucault’s essay “What is an author?” I found the questioning of the basic meanings of the words “author” and “work” to be very interesting. Foucault makes the distinction between writers and authors, and that writers are not all necessarily authors. I am still curious as to how one makes the change from writer to author, is it in publishing a work? Or is gaining recognition and acceptance from a published work? In addition, I found Foucault’s questioning of the meaning of the word “work” especially intriguing, and how, once one is determined to be an author, what are we to consider his or her works? This is also relevant to our discussion in class a few days ago as to whether or not a shopping list or recipe could be considered a poem. If an author wrote a shopping list, could that be considered a work of his? This questioning of our basic understanding of these words helped me to better see Focault’s argument of the connection between the words “author” and “work.” In reading this essay, I also found Foucault’s “author-function” particularly interesting and relevant to today’s society. In almost all of my classes we have looked at works not only in the meaning contained in the writing, but also in viewing the author it was penned by. Professors have questioned if a text was actually somewhat autobiographical, and that perhaps at some points the author’s true voice is emerging through the character, in addition to analyzing time period the author lived in and wrote the work in and the major relevant events of the author’s life. In today’s society, a text is looked at as the product of someone, the author. “i think that, as our society changes, at the very moment when it is in the process of changing, the author-function will disappear” (186). I was very surprised by Foucault’s assertion that this author-function that is so relevant and significant today may one day change, reversing itself so that the text itself is valued while the author recedes to anonymity. Today’s society places such significance on ownership and property, especially of products of the mind like literary works, that I do not forsee it drastically changing in the near future. It is tree that some texts have anonymous or absent authors, but such recognition and significance is placed on an author’s name and ownership of a work that not many are encouraged to do so.

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