Sunday, January 6, 2008

Thinking About Authorship with Barthes and Foucault

I'd like once again to thank everyone who has written with their support and good wishes; it means a lot to me. I just finished my second round of chemotherapy, and this time the fatigue has just flattened me. But I did want to post something.

This is a piece that I wrote some time ago. I’m not sure that I agree with all of it (and if I were to write it today, I would definitely go easier on the theory-speak), but as literary critic Peter Heller once said, ideas can be divided into the interesting, the useful, and the true (the ascending order is mine). Even if they don't all rise to the heights of the true, I find the ideas this piece explores both interesting and useful. They are, in anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss's phrase, good to think, and serve as a useful counterpoint to the still-prevalent criteria of authenticity, sincerity, and personal expression by which literary works are understood and judged, both by writers and by readers.


“..writing is the destruction of every voice, of every point of origin. Writing is that neutral, composite, oblique space where our subject slips away, the negative where all identity is lost, starting with the very identity of the body writing.”

Roland Barthes, “The Death of the Author,” The Rustle of Language


“The problem may be put in the following ways: To what extent is a text itself not something passively attributable, as effect is to cause, to a person? To what extent is a text so discontinuous a series of subtexts or pre-texts or paratexts or surtexts as to beggar the idea of an author as simple producer? If the text as unitary document is more properly judged as a transindividual field of dispersion, and if—as Darwin, Marx, and Freud respectively read natural history, economic history, and psychological history as textual fields of dispersion—this field stands as the locus princeps of research, where does it begin if not in a ‘creative’ or ‘producing’ individuality?”

Edward W. Said, Beginnings: Intention and Method


As Donald F. Bouchard, editor of Language, Counter-Memory, Practice, a book of "selected essays and interviews" by “Foucault” but not by Foucault (it does not exist in French, he neither compiled it nor proposed it: this “work” by “Foucault” is by a reader), writes, Foucault's essay “‘What Is an Author?’ concerns the curious fact of a text without an author; it reverses the ordinary priority of author over text through the argument that the role of the author is the product of a particular discursive function, that the author (like the concepts of sexuality, death, and madness) is not a constant through [human history], that [the concept and definition of] the ‘author’ has known countless invasions [of] its domain” (“Introduction,” Language, Counter-Memory, Practice, p. 21).

For us, the idea of the text and the idea of the author are inseparable. This has not always been the case, nor need it continue to be: the author is only one possible specification of the subject. “The author-function is not universal or constant through all discourse” (“What Is an Author?,” LCP, p. 125). Not only has the importance of the attribution of a given text to a specific subject varied widely from one historical period and/or discursive field to another, but in many discursive fields (the oral tradition of ballad and folk-tale, for instance) there can be no attribution of a particular text to an individual author. We think of a discrete text as invariably produced by a discrete author, but many texts are what might be called negotiated texts, the products of far more numerous and disparate determinations than are taken into account in the blanket application of the author concept as causal or explanatory.

To quote Roland Barthes for the first of several times, “As soon as a fact is narrated no longer with a view to acting directly on reality but intransitively, that is to say, finally outside of any function other than that of the very practice of the symbol itself, this disconnection occurs, the voice loses its origin, the author enters into his own death, writing begins. The sense of this [ever-present] phenomenon, however, has varied; in ethnographic societies the responsibility for a narrative is never assumed by a person but by a mediator, shaman, or relator whose ‘performance’—the mastery of the narrative code—may possibly be admired but never his ‘genius’. 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’. [If one considers the importance of the concept of auctoritas in Classical culture, it isn’t exactly true that the author is a modern product. RS] 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” (“The Death of the Author,” The Rustle of Language). The idea of genius, a personalized version of the theory of inspiration proposed in Plato’s Ion, reveals the complicity of Romanticism in the ideologies of rationalism and (implicitly) private property it ostensibly opposed. The “authority” to which one looks in a text is not the personal authority of the writing subject, but derives from Nature; yet authority still inheres in the person of the author, even if only as privileged vehicle or vessel.

The author is not the origin of a text, except in the most immediate sense, but an element of a discursive formation out of which both the text and the author-function are produced. In Aristotelian terms, the author, as Paul Bové notes, is a necessary but not a sufficient cause. The individual auctorial subject is a location within an already constituted discourse, concretized in the form of the text. The text is not the product of “the author,” a particular unitary and discrete subject, but emerges from a particular and unrepeatable nexus within a discursive formation. The author is the point of convergence of cultural and discursive codes.

The author is a speaker, in the mechanical sense of a device for articulation; the text is the manifestation of the play of the rules of utterance which converge at and emerge from that locus we call, for example, “Michel Foucault.” The author is not a person but a function; his body is the text, his voice the phrases of each text. “Michel Foucault” is he who comes into being when the essay “What Is an Author?” is written: or rather, he who comes into being when the text designated “What Is an Author?” is read. He comes to exist in the performance of the author-function, existing at no point other than that of the act of utterance, which is repeated each time the text is read. Thus the subject Michel Foucault, like the subject Lewis Carroll, may be proven non-existent without in any way negating the existence of the author “Michel Foucault.” The author lives as language rather than as human body. “Linguistically, the author is never more than the instance writing, just as I is nothing other than the instance saying I: language knows a ‘subject’, not a ‘person’, and this subject, empty outside of the very enunciation which defines it, suffices to make language ‘hold together’, suffices, that is to say, to exhaust it” (Barthes, “The Death of the Author”).

“The function of an author is to characterize the existence, circulation, and operation of certain discourses within a society [as mapped onto and by a field of discourse]” (LCP, p. 124), and the name of the author, as sign of the author’s existence as a particular discourse, refers not to a person but to a text or a body of texts. It designates a person only insofar as she is an identifying factor joining texts through origin or linking a text to other texts designated as of the same origin. “Michel Foucault” is not a person born in Poitiers in 1926, dying “of complications relating to AIDS” in Paris in 1984, with much biographical data in between, but the organizing principle of several texts designated as belonging to “the history of systems of thought,” including the text nominated “What Is an Author?.” The name of an author is descriptive of a text, the nominative of what Foucault (or rather, “Foucault”) calls a “subjecting function.”

The concept of the author is thus closely linked to that of the work, for the author’s name can be descriptive only if it is attached to more than one text. If each possible text were ascribed to a different author and no author had more than one text attributed to him, the effect would be equivalent to that of the complete lack of attribution of texts, of a practical anonymity of discourses: the author, rather than serving to link texts, would function as one more element of the text’s particularity. Both the idea of the author and the idea of the work (the corpus of texts, the body of a particular author) serve to mediate between the reader and a given text. Too often, the work becomes a pattern into which may be fitted any given text, by means of which that text’s meaning is constructed. Shakespeare’s sonnets, for example, mean differently if they are taken to be productions of the author of The New Atlantis and the Novum Organum. As “Hugh Kenner” writes, “…when Shakespeare replaced the very shaky classics as the moral oracle of Anglo-Saxonry, Shakespeare the lecherous actor [himself a literary-historical construction] had in turn to be replaced by some weightier person, to underwrite those insights; and high-mindedness was soothed by a newly-invented Francis Bacon, playwright, whose principal invention in turn was a playwright named William Shakespeare” (The Counterfeiters: An Historical Comedy, p. 21).

The text, no longer a discrete entity, is now merely a component of an oeuvre. The work protects the reader against the text at hand. “Once writing-as-text is thought of as energy on the one hand, or as a monument belonging to a specific series of like monuments on the other, authority cannot reside simply in the speaker’s anterior privilege. Either authority is, as Foucault has been trying tirelessly to demonstrate, a property of discourse and not of writing (that is, writing conforms to the rules of discursive formation), or authority is an analytic concept and not an actual, available object. In either case authority is nomadic: it is never in the same place, it is never always at the center, nor is it a sort of ontological capacity for originating every instance of sense. What all this discussion of authority means is that we do not possess a manageable. . . category for writing--whether that of an ‘author’, a ‘mind’, or a ‘zeitgeist’—strong enough on the basis of what happened or existed before the present writing to explain what is happening in the present writing or where it begins” (Said, Beginnings, p. 23). The work is such an attempt to explain the present happening of the reading of the text, by means of origin, “where it begins.” This quotation from Said may be taken as a gesture toward acknowledging that the philosophical question of authorship is implicated in the political question of authorship: a gesture that, in this essay, shall remain incomplete.

The concept of an “author” cannot be taken as the transcendental signified of a group of texts described through the same proper name, as in “the works of Aristotle,” nor may it be used to subsume a text into the mythic totality of “the work.” As Barthes writes, “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” (“The Death of the Author”). The author is the condition of the coming into being of an entity unbound by any determinate origin: “a text can neither be effectively read as commentary nor described by commentary. A text has no central point [toward which it moves] or central trajectory: it imitates no spatial or temporal object.... A text, then, seems especially just itself--a text, with its own highly specialized problematics—[rather] than a representation of anything else” (Said, op. cit., pp. 10-11).

Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu, to take a perhaps too-famous example, absorbs all extratextual reference into itself, literalizing Derrida’s notorious maxim: there is indeed no outside to this text. It is a book including and equivalent to the world, a discourse that converts its belatedness (the scandal of representation) into the condition of existence of the world it constitutes by representing it: “no longer a commentary on life or reality, but containing life and reality in a system of verbal relationships” (Northrop Frye, Anatomy of Criticism, p. 122). Not only is there is no world beyond the text, there is no world before the text, whose representation is the only trace of an impossible (here, “lost”) original presence. To quote Barthes once more: “Proust himself, despite the apparently psychological nature of what he called his analyses, was visibly concerned with the task of inexorably blurring, by an extreme subtilisation, the relation between the writer and his characters; by making of the narrator not he who has seen and felt nor even he who is writing, but he who is going to write (the young man in the novel—but, in fact, how old is he and who is he?—wants to write but cannot; the novel ends when writing at last becomes possible), Proust gave modern writing its epic. By a radical reversal, instead of putting his life into his novel, as is so often maintained, he made of his very life a work for which his own book was the model; so that it is clear to us that Charlus does not imitate Montesquiou but that Montesquiou—in his anecdotal, historical reality—is no more than a secondary fragment, derived from Charlus” (“The Death of the Author”).

In the negative of the same image, Flaubert’s texts deny the possibility of their being products of a particular subject, claiming an absolute and uncreated acceity. Flaubert’s perfectionism is comparable to that of the Deist God: the aim of both is to eliminate the need for the author. Whether or not God is dead, the world remains; whether or not the author is dead, the text remains. As “Northrop Frye” writes, “creation, whether of God, man, or nature, seems to be an activity whose only intention is to abolish intention, to eliminate final dependence on or relation to something else, to destroy the shadow that falls between itself and its conception” (op. cit., pp. 88-89).

If Derrida is correct in asserting that there is nothing (not even Nothing, notably more “present” to the French than to the Anglo-American intellectual tradition) outside the text; if de Man is correct in similarly asserting that all experience is in fact the experience of reading, while reading is the condition of the commonly-imagined-to-be-primary realm called “experience,” then Barthes’ epigraph to Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes—“It is all to be taken as if spoken in a novel”—is merely a piece of accurate advice. That is, it is all to be taken literally (as how else could one take a text, read it?): the author is a character in and of his text, produced by and within the text.

I am reminded of Borges’s infinite library of Babel, “The universe (which others call the library),” or the hypothetical book of all Jesus’ deeds mentioned at the conclusion of the Gospel According to John that could not be contained by the world. The text contains the world.

Returning to Proust, the writer’s withdrawal from “life” is simply a representation of his performance of a particular function associated with (but neither caused by nor causing) a particular point on the grid of specification: the author’s function within the grid is to utter discourse, nor is he, as author-function, anything but this uttering function. The writer as subject is effaced, diffused into the text: “I am writing a text and I call it [Roland Barthes]” (Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes). A text, unlike a statue, can have no inside nor outside (what is the author but the “outside” of the text that serves paradoxically to guarantee its interiority?): all that there is, is on the surface, on the lines not between them; all that there is are the lines themselves.

As “Borges” writes, in the voice of Borges, “The other one, the one called Borges, is the one things happen to....he has achieved some valid pages…but what is good belongs to no one, not even to him, but rather to the language and to tradition” (“Borges and I,” Labyrinths: Selected Stories and Other Writings, p. 246).

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