In his essay What is an Author, Michel Foucault is not discussing authors and their works, rather, he is talking about the concept of work and the functional role of an author, that is, 'author function'.
He says that when people study concerns of a particular concept, more importance is given to the solid and fundamental role of the author, rather than the concept. Foucault lists the possible conditions under which the author was individualised in the western tradition. Did it happen because of the status given to the author when authenticity and attribution of texts were researched, or by inclusion of the author in systems of valorisation, or did it happen when the traditional stories about heroes gave way to different kinds of writing like an author's biography? However, this traditional notion of individualisation of the author has shifted.
To understand this shift, Foucault uses Samuel Beckett's notion of an author – "What matter who is speaking, someone said, what matter who is speaking." Foucault says that this shift has occurred because of two major themes that emerged:
First, writing freed itself from the necessity of expression, that is, writing was not merely a result of the author's need to express. The meaning of the text was no longer confined within the writing of the text, but in it's exterior deployment. As a result, writing became an interplay of signs, regulated not by the author (the signified) but by the nature of work or text itself (signifier). Thus, the essential basis of writing was not the emotions under which it was composed or the subject inserted into language, but the creation of an opening where the writing subject disappears.
Second, the relationship between writing and death. Traditionally, death was a guarantee to immortality (e.g. the Greek narratives where by death, the hero gains immortality. Contemporarily, this notion has been altered, and writing is now linked to sacrifice. The narrator is used to forestall death. Where work had the duty of creating immortality, it now had the right to kill its author. After writing, the author is dead, but through the text, the author lives. The author becomes a victim of his own writing, and through his absence, his presence is guaranteed.
Foucault questions the concept of work. He says, if we consider that an individual is not an author (when no individual has authority over the work), what do we make of the things written, said or communicated by an individual? Also, if we are dealing with an author, will his work include everything that he has ever written or said (like notes on someone's address or an appointment). He says we lack a theory to encompass the questions generated by a work and the empirical activity involved in publishing an author's complete works (which is questionable). If there is no understanding of what a work is, there can be unified meaning designated by a work. He argues that the thesis of ecriture makes it possible to continue the presence of an author, as it is not concerned with the act of writing or the authorial intentions and meanings within a text, but it elaborates the conditions of spatial dispersion and temporal deployment of any text. But ecriture has merely transposed the empirical characteristics of an author to a transcendental anonymity. Next, he problematises the use of an author's name. He says that an author's name is not just a proper name, but functional. It has functions other than signification (which a proper name is designated for). An author's name is functional in relation to his or her works as it can be used to classify a set of works and also establish homogeneity, filiation, reciprocal explanation, authentification, or of common utilisation. An author's name also characterises a particular manner of existence, circulation and operations of a discourse.
Foucault defines the four major characteristics of author function as follows:
Author function is tied to the legal and institutional systems that circumscribe, determine and articulate discourses – an author needs to take responsibility while writing, hence, a particular text is attributed to an author.
Author function does not operate uniformly in all discourses, at all times, and in any given culture – it is difficult to define an author function uniform across various discourses.
Author function is not defined by the spontaneous attribution of a text to its creator, but through a series of precise and complex procedures.
Foucault uses Saint Jerome's argument to define author function. St. Jerome says that a text can be attributed to an author if it meets the standard level of quality of other works written by that author; has a coherent idea represented as in other works by the author; has a uniform style of writing and choice of words particular to the author; and those that do not include historical events and figures subsequent to the author's death. Foucault says that St. Jerome's characterisation might not be appropriate for modern critics to attribute authorship of a text, but it helps in defining the author function.
It does not just refer to an actual individual but gives rise to multiple egos (multiple selves) and a series of subjective positions the individuals of any class may occupy – this arises out of the scission between, and the division and distance of the actual writer from the fictional narrator.
(Discussion on St. Jerome and his role: He is important not just because he translated the Bible to Latin, but because he throws a light on how texts transform demography of the people and what a particular text does to a civilisation. He translated Bible from Hebrew and Greek (Greek was powerful earlier) to Latin (the language spoken at Rome, which ruled Europe when St. Jerome translated Bible to Latin). Similarly, Martin Luther King said that an interpreter is not required and that people need self-interpretation. When he translated Bible from Latin to German (Germany was then powerful in Europe), Latin was overthrown by German, English and other European languages. Religious descent begins the rise of languages. The role of a translator is also functional.
Link to Foucault's essay: While we discuss what is an author and our changing relationship with text, we look at the shift in views over a period of time and how these texts (economic, political, religious texts) shape our society).
Two types of positions of an author:
Transdiscursive position – Foucault says that even within the realm of a discourse, "a person can be the author of not only a book, but of a theory, tradition or a discipline within which new books and authors can proliferate" Such authors occupy a transdiscursive position (e.g. Homer, Aristotle, church fathers). These kind of authors are as old as our civilisation.
Initiators of discursive practices – 19th century Europe produced a singular kind of author, different from transdiscursive authors. They not only produced their own work, but they laid down the possibility and rules of forming other texts. They provided ground not only for analogies to be adopted by future texts, but also made possible differences – they created a space for differing views within the field of discourse they initiated. This, he says, is different from founding of any scientific endeavor.
Foucault however says that the distinction between initiation of discursive practices and founding of sciences is not readily identifiable, and there is no proof that these two procedures are mutually exclusive. His purpose behind bringing out this distinction was to show that "author-function" might be complex when we analyse each book or even a series of texts bearing a definite signature, but when we consider larger entities like groups of works or entire disciplines, author-function can be understood.
Author-function, according to Foucault, is one possible specifications of the subject and, it appears that the form, the complexity and even the existence of author-function is not permanent. The author as a centre was constructed to establish a unified meaning from the text, but now, text itself becomes meaning. The author does not have the authority over meaning – author or the unified subject is displaced from the centre, but not removed entirely. A text needs to be related through larger groups of texts or discourse.
Pinto, Anil and Vijayaganesh A.. "Michel Foucault's What is an Author – summary". Christ university. Bangalore. 10 January 2014. Lecture.
Foucault, Michel. "What is an Author.