Michel Foucault and "What is an Author?"

In his legendary essay "What is an Author" titanic 20th century French philosopher Michel Foucault lays out a theory which culminates in his envisioning an apparently preferable culture where authorial identification no longer plays a prominent role in reader criticism of a literary text, but the power of his vision is decidedly compromised by his sacrificing the role of messiah for this brave new world; this essay does not come to us anonymously; rather the author is listed as Michel Foucault.

Foucault's criticisms of the authorial function are myriad and oftenconfusing, though ultimately they do make sense in a strictly theoretical way that may or may not actually be capable of application. Foucault states that only certain texts qualify as having an author, the rest have only writers. The result of this murky concept lies in his theory of what exactly constitutes the function of an author and for Foucault there is a very definite function, which is, again somewhat murkily stated, to characterize societal discourse. If Michel Foucault is being sincere in an attempt to apply authorial function only to certain texts, then one of the unfortunate aspects of this essay is that he is guilty of exactly that which he is criticizing.

If Michel Foucault is being ironic by arbitrarily assigning a function to the author, then he has weakened his overall argument by stating that readers are capable of finding meaning only in certain kinds of texts while other texts can never be subject to the question of theirmodes of existence of discourse. A more disturbing problem for a nominal text that ends with the author posting the question of what does it matter who is doing the speaking concerns the hypothetical impact of a newly discovered text by Sigmund Freud and how it would transform historical knowledge as well as the field of psychoanalytic theory. For good or bad, the most important factor of that book would not be the knowledge contained within, but the very fact that it was the name Sigmund Freud that appeared on the cover. That alone would seem to be enough to confirm the importance of why it matters who is speaking but that fact is actually eclipsed by the realization that the critic who is asking why it should matter who is speaking isn't some anonymous ahistorical Pierre Dupont, but is rather the very specific author named Michel Foucault who uses no less than five first person singular pronouns in the first paragraph of his essay.

Published by Timothy Sexton

Timothy Sexton was honored by being named the very first Writer of the Year of Associated Content, now known as Yahoo! Contributor Network. Timothy has published two novels and contributed chapters to S...  View profile