M. Foucault, "What is an Author?"
Michel Foucault (1926 1984) dealt with many aspects of social philosophy during his career, but it is his philosophy surrounding the role and dominance of the author in modern literature that this essay aims to deal with. From the 19th century onwards, Foucault notices that through social and political frameworks, the presence of an author vastly dominates the content and categorisation of any publication of that author. He also throws into question the idea of when an author becomes an author and what writings that he produces should become known as his work. The example he gives refers to items such as letters of correspondence or even simple lists that although might have been constructed by the same author of a canonical text, are not recognised as works of literature. What makes works of literature stand out is the content. Indeed, if one can recognise some basic principles of an authors works that may be used to relate previously anonymously published work, does that not disprove the existence of an original author. Foucault argues that when these common principles are identified (he himself recognises four in this essay) another could simply produce identically styled work according to these, thus rendering the author obsolete. When considering Marx or Freud who both claim in their work that an individual is only a component of the unconsciousness or political agenda, how can an author as an individual even exist? He recognises the author as a fleeting figure, only known through the "singularity of his absence and his link to death" (p.1624) and thereby questions further the role of the individual. Firstly, one must consider the rise of the author and how the idea of the figure's importance came to be. Foucault considers Greek mythology when debating this claming that once it was the hero in such plays that was granted his immortality and the author remained largely anonymous. In the middle ages, this assumption changed as names of those who were involved in scientific discoveries were used to verify their truthfulness. Foucault states that in arguments, statements were in the order of "Hippocrates says
or Pliny tell us that
.." (p.1629). This changed in the seventeenth and eighteenth century during the boom of scientific discoveries as that which was held true in scientific spheres was simply part of a greater truth. There was no need to verify the author as the facts were self evident through their existence. It was towards the end of this time however that the author's role became important once more. Literature was assigned real authors, not for the sake of vanity but in the case of those who "became subject to punishment and to the extent that his discourse was considered transgressive"(p1628). At this point it would be wise to identity what Foucault means by discourse' as it is a word that he uses a lot in this essay. In its simplest terms, it refers to language in relation to publications that went outside the assumptions society held true in any social or political sense. It is seeing outside the framework, if you will, of any major aspect of a society. It was only by stepping outside this did an author draw sufficient attention to himself to require identification. Ironically enough, this system of negative identification became the normality for published literature towards the end of the nineteenth century with "the emergence of ownership and strict copyright rules" (p.1628). Foucault recognises that "the transgressive properties always intrinsic to the act of writing became the forceful imperative of literature" (p.1628). The fundamental problem with this is the inability to define what should be classed as literature. One cannot place so much emphasis on the creator over the creation. Do we class all the published works by Shakespeare as literature? If tomorrow, an unpublished work of his was discovered, would that automatically become classed as worthwhile by...
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