The Author Function (1969), ex­cerpt

— Foucault, Michel The Author Function.” Excerpt from What is an Au­thor?” Translation D.F. Bouchard and S. Simon, In Language, Counter-Memory, Practice, 124-127. Cornell University Press, 1977.

In deal­ing with the author” as a func­tion of dis­course, we must con­sider the char­ac­ter­is­tics of a dis­course that sup­port this use and de­ter­mine its dif­fer­ences from other dis­courses. If we limit our re­marks only to those books or texts with au­thors, we can iso­late four dif­fer­ent fea­tures.

First, they are ob­jects of ap­pro­pri­a­tion; the form of prop­erty they have be­come is of a par­tic­u­lar type whose le­gal cod­i­fi­ca­tion was ac­com­plished some years ago. It is im­por­tant to no­tice, as well, that its sta­tus as prop­erty is his­tor­i­cally sec­ondary to the pe­nal code con­trol­ling its ap­pro­pri­a­tion. Speeches and books were as­signed real au­thors, other than myth­i­cal or im­por­tant re­li­gious fig­ures, only when the au­thor be­came sub­ject to pun­ish­ment and to the ex­tent that his dis­course was con­sid­ered trans­gres­sive. In our cul­ture and un­doubtably in oth­ers as well dis­course was not orig­i­nally a thing, a prod­uct, or a pos­ses­sion, but an ac­tion sit­u­ated in a bipo­lar field of sa­cred and pro­fane, law­ful and un­law­ful, re­li­gious and blas­phe­mous. It was a ges­ture charged with risks be­fore it be­came a pos­ses­sion caught in a cir­cuit of prop­erty val­ues. But it was at the mo­ment when a sys­tem of own­er­ship and strict copy­right rules were es­tab­lished (toward the end of the eigh­teenth and be­gin­ning of the nine­teenth cen­tury) that the trans­gres­sive prop­er­ties al­ways in­trin­sic to the act of writ­ing be­came the force­ful im­per­a­tive of lit­er­a­ture. It is as if the au­thor, at the mo­ment he was ac­cepted into the so­cial or­der of prop­erty which gov­erns our cul­ture, was com­pen­sat­ing for his new sta­tus by 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.

Secondly, the author-function” is not uni­ver­sal or con­stant in all dis­course. Even within our civ­i­liza­tion, the same types of texts have not al­ways re­quired au­thors; there was a time when those texts which we now call literary” (stories, folk tales, epics and tragedies) were ac­cepted, cir­cu­lated and val­orized with­out any ques­tions about the iden­tity of their au­thor. Their anonymity was ig­nored be­cause their real or sup­posed age was a suf­fi­cient guar­an­tee of their au­then­tic­ity. Text, how­ever, that we now call scientific” (dealing with cos­mol­ogy and the heav­ens, med­i­cine or ill­ness, the nat­ural sci­ences or ge­og­ra­phy) were only con­sid­ered truth­ful dur­ing the Middle Ages if the name of the au­thor was in­di­cated. Statements on the or­der of Hippocrates said…” or Pliny tells us that…” were not merely for­mu­las for an ar­gu­ment based on au­thor­ity; they marked a proven dis­course. In the sev­en­teenth and eigh­teenth cen­turies, a to­tally new con­cep­tion was de­vel­oped when sci­en­tific texts were ac­cepted on their own mer­its and po­si­tioned within an anony­mous and co­her­ent con­cep­tual sys­tem of es­tab­lished truths and meth­ods of ver­i­fi­ca­tion. Authentication no longer re­quired ref­er­ence to the in­di­vid­ual who had pro­duced them; the role of the au­thor dis­ap­peared as an in­dex of truth­ful­ness and, where it re­mained as an in­ven­tor’s name, it was merely to de­note a spe­cific the­o­rem or propo­si­tion, a strange ef­fect, a prop­erty, a body, a group of el­e­ments, or a patho­log­i­cal syn­drome.

At the same time, how­ever, literary” dis­course was ac­cept­able only if it car­ried an au­thor’s name; every text of po­etry or fic­tion was obliged to state its au­thor and the date, place, and cir­cum­stance of its writ­ing. The mean­ing and value at­trib­uted to the text de­pended upon this in­for­ma­tion. If by ac­ci­dent or de­sign a text was pre­sented anony­mously, every ef­fort was made to lo­cate its au­thor. Literary anonymity was of in­ter­est only as a puz­zle to be solved as, in our day, lit­er­ary works are to­tally dom­i­nated by the sov­er­eignty of the au­thor. (Undoubtedly, these re­marks are far too cat­e­gor­i­cal. Criticism has been con­cerned for some time now with as­pects of a text not fully de­pen­dent upon the no­tion of an in­di­vid­ual cre­ator; stud­ies of genre or the analy­sis of re­cur­ring tex­tual mo­tifs and their vari­a­tions from a norm ther than au­thor. Furthermore, where in math­e­mat­ics the au­thor has be­come lit­tle more than a handy ref­er­ence for a par­tic­u­lar the­o­rem or group of propo­si­tions, the ref­er­ence to an au­thor in bi­ol­ogy or med­i­cine, or to the date of his re­search has a sub­stan­tially dif­fer­ent bear­ing. This lat­ter ref­er­ence, more than sim­ply in­di­cat­ing the source of in­for­ma­tion, at­tests to the reliability” of the ev­i­dence, since it en­tails an ap­pre­ci­a­tion of the tech­niques and ex­per­i­men­tal ma­te­ri­als avail­able at a given time and in a par­tic­u­lar lab­o­ra­tory).

The third point con­cern­ing this author-function” is that it is not formed spon­ta­neously through the sim­ple at­tri­bu­tion of a dis­course to an in­di­vid­ual. It re­sults from a com­plex op­er­a­tion whose pur­pose is to con­struct the ra­tio­nal en­tity we call an au­thor. Undoubtedly, this con­struc­tion is as­signed a realistic” di­men­sion as we speak of an in­di­vid­u­al’s profundity” or creative” power, his in­ten­tions or the orig­i­nal in­spi­ra­tion man­i­fested in writ­ing. Nevertheless, these as­pect of an in­di­vid­ual, which we des­ig­nate as an au­thor (or which com­prise an in­di­vid­ual as an au­thor), are pro­jec­tions, in terms al­ways more or less psy­cho­log­i­cal, of our way of han­dling texts: in the com­par­isons we make, the traits we ex­tract as per­ti­nent, the con­ti­nu­ities we as­sign, or the ex­clu­sions we prac­tice. In ad­di­tion, all these op­er­a­tions vary ac­cord­ing to the pe­riod and the form of dis­course con­cerned. A philosopher” and a poet” are not con­structed in the same man­ner; and the au­thor of an eigh­teenth-cen­tury novel was formed dif­fer­ently from the mod­ern nov­el­ist.
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