Monday, September 26, 2005

Foucault

They say a good place to start is the beginning. I am going to begin at a bad place because I am not quite sure I understood the beginning of Foucault's 'What Is an Author?' (The reasons why he found this an important question to answer, as well as the background for when and how the concept of 'the death of the author' first came up, are sketchily dealt with in the article. I think these should be things we discuss in class this week.)

The concept of an 'author function' as defined in the essay is what seemed its most relevant part in the context of the classes we have had so far. Foucault makes the point that the author function does not refer only or completely to 'the person who wrote that book.' Of the 4 characteristic traits of author functions that he lays out, the first three, at least, are strongly tied in to our discussions in class so far, albeit in a slightly altered context.

The first trait he describes originates from the observation that discourses are 'objects of appropriation' and that, in fact, the author function is connected to, and shaped by, several institutions. The form of ownership of a discourse is still largely shaped by institutions, despite claims to the contrary, and this is something we have been discussing in class as well, though more in the context of the web.

The second trait is that the effect of the author function on the discourse depends on the times, circumstances and culture that it is introduced into. The example of how different genres required an author name at different periods of time, I thought, tied in to the discussions we had on when we require the stamp of an institution (including journals , newspapers, banks) to take work seriously and what circumstances prompted us to feel that way.

The third trait described by the article is that author functions are constructed through a series of operations. Assignment 2 comes to mind! Foucault talks of the four criteria used historically to make sure that a 'work' is attributed to the correct individual. Using something similar, we relied on a whole range of cues to decide if we liked/believed a source.

Overall, I think, the article tries to point out that an author, his/her work and the context within which s/he operates are all intimately connected. It is important to make these connections to understand that we all carry the conception of an author when we read a work. It is unlikely that this will change completely in the future or that there will be a time when a work will carry meaning meaning/authenticity by itself and with no links to individuals/institutions we call its author function. This is what I conclude. Unfortunately I did not understand the end of the article any more than I did the beginning. So I don't know if I am in agreement with Foucault. What do you think?

3 Comments:

Blogger Paul Duguid said...

Janaki gets to the heart of Foucault's article--his claims about the author function--and I suggest that others follow her as a reliable reader's guide to a difficult article. It's worth asking both do his claims seem reasonable and do they seem significant.

As to 'why he found this an important question to answer,' Foucault doesn't give much guidance (and neither did I; apologies). He's responding in part to an article by Roland Barthes that came out the year before. (Foucault's article was originally published in 1969, Barthes in 1968, a heady time in French intellectual life.) I didn't think you would appreciate having to read the Barthes as well--though for the adventurous, it is available online.) The opening paragraph gives the flavour, but it also points to themes that Foucault is going to take up without directly citing Barthes:

"In his story Sarrasine Balzac, describing a castrato disguised as a woman, writes the following sentence: ‘This was woman herself, with her sudden fears, her irrational whims, her instinctive worries, her impetuous boldness, her fussings, and her delicious sensibility.’ Who is speaking thus? Is it the hero of the story bent on remaining ignorant of the castrato hidden beneath the woman? Is it Balzac the individual, furnished by his personal experience with a philosophy of Woman? Is it Balzac the author professing ‘literary’ ideas on femininity? Is it universal wisdom? Romantic psychology? We shall never know, for the good reason that 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."

Then, a couple of quotations from later in the article get to central points Barthes is pursuing:

"The image of literature to be found in ordinary culture is tyrannically centred on the author ... ."

"The removal of the Author ... utterly transforms the modern text."

and then in conclusion

"[W]e know that to give writing its future, it is necessary to overthrow the myth: the birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the Author."

6:04 AM  
Blogger Helen Kim said...

I’m not sure I understood this reading, but I’ll try to write about what I *think* I understood...

Janaki made some good points about how Foucault’s discussion of the author-function ties into the themes from the course. Foucault’s deconstruction of the concept of the author and its functions is a good way of looking at questions of authority and quality of information, especially online information.

Foucault deconstructs the concept of the author by pointing out the social and cultural underpinnings in order to show that it is something that should not be taken for granted, and indeed limits public discourse. I think he is trying to move the focus away from author or even an author’s work (which implies ownership) and back to the content or discourse itself. It seems to me that he wants to free up discourse so that it would no longer “be limited by the figure of the author…” and open it up to be commented on and modified by others. Perhaps, he's also implying that certain related concepts of the author-function, i.e. copyright, actually “impedes the free circulation, the free manipulation, the free composition, decomposition, and recomposition of fiction.”

Another related point that I found interesting was that it seems like he is alluding to blogs when he throws out the following idea:

“It would be pure romanticism, however, to imagine a culture in which the fictive would operate in an absolutely free state, in which fiction would be put at the disposal of everyone and would develop without passing through something like a necessary or constraining figure…I think that, as our society changes, at the very moment when it is in the process of changing, the author-function will disappear, and in such a manner that fiction and its polysemic texts will once again function according to another mode, but still with a system of constraint- one which will no longer be the author, but which will have to be determined or, perhaps, experienced.”

Blog technology has lowered the social and economic barriers for publishing and has increased access to everyone (as long as you have access to the internet). You don’t always know who the “real” author of the blog is, and the technology makes it harder to focus on who is actually doing the writing. Of course, this doesn’t necessarily mean that the “author is dead”, but perhaps the concept of the author been transformed somehow?

Instead of having to deal with a formal, institutional process of publishing a work, bloggers can freely posts their ideas and offer up the content to their online readers for direct comment. The author is no longer as constrained by institutional pressures, as with printed texts, but is subject to more democratic pressures by their peers. I’m not sure if I’m making any sense, or if I understood this reading correctly, but it would be nice to see what others think about it!

1:27 AM  
Blogger Sarai Mitnick said...

My interpretation of Foucault's main argument is that the "author" does not exist apart from the text. Rather than always refer back to the question of "what is the individual author's intent?", we should examine a text within the wider context of the discourse, which exists within a still wider frame of institutions.

I think Foucault is suggesting we take a much more complex and nuanced view of a text than traditional literary criticism. He is suggesting that we neither reduce the criticism to the relationship between "text" and "author," nor that we ignore the author-function. Instead, I think the (constructed) author is one part of the discourse surrounding a work, and that he suggests that we look both within the text and outside of it to position the text in a more meaningful way.

9:23 AM  

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