4/16/21 — This Week’s Reading Review

Michael Ducker
11 min readApr 16, 2021

Roland Barthes’ essay “The Death of the Author” has attained a status seldom accorded to literary criticism: popularity. Sadly, its popularity rests less on the content of the essay and more on the spontaneous idea of the essay’s content generated in the mind by the essay’s title. One disadvantage of this disfigured reputation is that it contradicts the essay itself, which does not posit its text as a bold, interventionist argument meant to change the course of criticism, but as a summation of trends in criticism and writing that had been unfolding for nearly a century. No sooner has Barthes made the radical assertion that “writing is the destruction of every voice, of every point of origin” than he seeks to ground his claim historically: “The author is a modern figure” (142). The offspring of empiricism, rationalism, positivism, and capitalism, the Author has dominated the popular and critical imagination surrounding literary production.

The Author is seen as a source of meaning back to which the wild flow of signifiers must be traced. Despite the Author’s continued popularity as structure in literature, “writers have long since attempted to loosen it” (143). Mallarmé, Valéry, Proust, Surrealism — among others — have attempted to deprivilege the Author. They have tried to center writing around language and exteriority rather than personality and interiority. This “desacralization of the image of the Author,” ultimately resulting in “the removal of the Author […] utterly transforms the modern text” (144–5).

When the Author is “believed in,” he is always seen as temporally prior to the book, as one who “exists before it, thinks, suffers, lives for it, is in the same […] relationship to it as a father to his child” (145). This priority of the Author grants him both priority and nearly theological authority. The book is taken to possess a single meaning, “a final signified” that can be grasped by the Critic who most impressively discovers “the Author (or its hypostases: society, history, psyche, liberty) beneath the work: when the Author been found, the text is explained” (147). This simple 1:1 coordination, this hierarchical criticism, is what Barthes hopes to replace with “the multiplicity of writing” (147). Instead of meaning that results from a genetic hierarchy — AuthoràBookàCritic — it is the reader (who is also likely a writer in his own way) who holds together the multiplicity of writing, bringing into “a single field all the traces by which the written text is constituted” (148).

This process can occur because the scriptor has replaced the Author. “The modern scriptor is born with the text” and “traces a field” with “no other origin than language itself” (146). This scriptor cannot be seen as the origin of the text because his writing is always an imitation of “a gesture that is always anterior, never original. His power is to mix writing, to counter the ones with the others.” And if indeed, he did “wish to express himself [rather than prior language and textuality], he ought at least to know that the inner ‘thing’ he thinks to ‘translate’ is itself only” a virtual text as the subject owes its structure to language (146).

The texts that this scriptor produces can only be, Barthes tells us, “disentangled […] the structure can be followed, ‘run’ […] at every point and at every level, but there is nothing beneath.” There is not “a ‘secret’, an ultimate meaning, to the text,” but rather the constant displacement of an absent absolute meaning through writing (147). The text and its scriptor inaugurate a new community of reading and writing liberated from the theological structure of the Author. As Barthes’ famous closing line puts it: “we 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” (148).

Michel Foucault’s lecture “What is an Author?” may be seen as something of a response to Barthes essay “The Death of the Author,” though it never invokes him by name and its concerns fly off in more historical directions. Whereas Barthes’ essay is an instance of philosophical belles-lettres, Foucault’s lecture is an instance of belles-lettristic philosophy. Foucault’s main critique of the Barthian, Derridean erasure of the author is the claim that it “has merely transposed the empirical characteristics of an author to a transcendental anonymity” (120). While Foucault does not deny that the death of the author has taken place, he denies that this death has been so sudden. A historical change in what he calls the “author-function” has taken place, and the discursive impact of this change ought to be seen historically rather than just phenomenologically. If two important themes — that “the writing of our day has freed itself from the necessity of ‘expression’” and that it is “now linked to sacrifice and to the sacrifice of life itself” — then these themes ought to be understood as events in the history of the author-function (116–7).

Having laid out his criticism of existing narratives concerning the death of the author, Foucault begins by asking two basic questions: “What is the name of an author? How does it function” (121). The function of the name of an author goes beyond that of a proper name as such. It is rather a functional notion that “serves as a means of classification” in tripartite manner: (1) “A name can group together a number of texts and thus differentiate them from others” (2) “A name also establishes different forms of relationships among texts” (3) “the author’s name characterizes a particular manner of existence in discourse.” In short, Foucault says, the name of an author “gives rise to new groups of discourse and their singular mode of existence” (123).

The author-function, moreover, has four different discursive features (the numbering is my own):

“[T]he ‘author-function’ (1) is tied to legal and institutional systems that circumscribe, determine, and articulate the realm of discourses; (2) it does not operate in a uniform manner in all discourses, at all times, and in any given culture; (3) it is not defined by the spontaneous attribution of a text to its creator, but through a series of precise and complex procedures; (4) it does not refer, purely and simply, to an actual individual insofar as it simultaneously gives rise to a variety of egos and to a series of subjective positions that individuals of any class may come to occupy” (130–1).

Allow me to expand upon these numbered points:

(1) Foucault makes this point by noting that, historically speaking, authorial attribution occurred only in societies that were in the habit of punishing transgressive texts. Authorial celebrity was, in a sense, secondary to this notion. The rise of the author alongside copyright in the 18th and 19th centuries coincided with a rise in the notion that transgression is the imperative of literature. I admit I am a bit skeptical of the story Foucault tells here, but as I have not interpedently researched it, I shall refute it no further.

(2) This point is straightforward. The identity of the author has not always mattered in the history of literature, certainly not as greatly as it matters now. The author of works of a scientific nature is not of importance to scientific discourse insofar as that discourse it made of truth-claims concerning scientific validity — the laws of gravity are adjudicated independent of the personage of Newton.

(3) This is the lengthiest part of Foucault’s observation concerning the author-function. The author-function is constructed according to different discursive protocols depending on the given historical juncture. Literary criticism, for instance, “employs devices strongly reminiscent of Christian exegesis” (127). Thus, the author of a text is established by noting, across and within texts, a standard level of quality, a field of conceptual or theoretical coherence, stylistic uniformity, and historical reality. The author-function hereby established, the critic can now use it to explain the presence of events in a text, establish the structure of (dis)unity within and among texts, and numerous other tasks (128).

(4) This is also a rather complex point. Foucault argues that the author-function “effects the simultaneous dispersion of the three egos” within a discourse. Thus, in literary texts the ego of the real writer of the text, the ego of the writer insofar as he is author consciously without the text, and narrator as he is author given dispersed shape with the text — all these egos stand in a complex, ever-shifting relation depending on the text. Foucault believes that the author-function “arises of [the] scission” of real writer and narrator (129). A similar event occurs in mathematical treatises, where there is a dispersion of the real writer of the formula, the narrator of the formula within treatise, and the narrator of the nature of the treatise.

The important thing here is that Foucault does not theologize the author-function as Barthes does. While Barthes theologizing is intended to make space for less limited reading practices, he ultimately obscures the complex social reality of the author. Rather than demystify the myth, he accepts it on its own terms and reinscribes it within a — admittedly more expansive — counter-practice.

At this point, Foucault turns his attention beyond the mere author a literary or mathematical text, and focuses on a particular type of author — the “initiator of discursive practices” (131). Foucault distinguishes the initiator of a discursive practice from the influential author of a literary text on the grounds that while the latter may “put into circulation […] resemblances and analogies patterned on her work,” the former also make possible differences with their work without violating their status as initiator of a discursive field that has its own identity (132). This strikes me as an insufficient argument. While there is no doubt a difference between the influence — to use Foucault’s examples — of Anne Radcliff and Freud or Marx, it is a hasty generalization to assume that literary influence never takes the form of difference without violating the field of discourse initiated by the anterior writer. Edward Said’s book Beginnings is an extremely detailed, complex exploration of this question in its way. It may be that the cause of difference between literary texts is overdetermined — i.e., the difference between Joyce and Beckett may be validly ascribed to numerous causes — but this does not seem unique to literature; indeed, the history of Marxist thought shows how dependent on local conditions is the development of difference within Marxism.

I find the argument Foucault makes to distinguish initiators of discursive practices from founders and innovators in science more convincing. He argues that while both founders in science and initiators of discursive fields both make possible the discovery of insights fundamentally different from their own, in the case of science “the founding act is on an equal footing with its future modifications” (133). There is no need to return to Galileo for insight as there is to return to Freud for insight. Errors and omissions in the former are just errors and omissions, their subsequent correction equally as meaningful as would have been Galileo’s avoidance of error. We return to the texts of the initiator of a discursive practice to observe “nonaccidental omissions” (135). Actually, I am not so sure I find this convincing. Foucault’s argument that the omissions are settled within the discursive field does not strike me as essentially different from saying “theoretical formulation do not advance the complete set of their potential applications with the initial formulation, it may be necessary over time and space to return to the theoretical formulation and reformulate it with more precision.” And this statement seems to me to be as true of Freud or Marx as it is of physics. Again, I think Foucault is right that there is some difference between Freud or Marx and, say, Heisenberg, but I do not think he has here discovered the content of that difference. Perhaps in the case of physics the return to the text is not undertaken with anywhere close to the frequency that is in the case of psychoanalysis or Marxism, but that may be more of a reflection of discursive speeds and methods than any constitutive difference in author-function.

Foucault concludes by gesturing towards future researches into the author-function: “Partially at the expense of theme and concepts that an author places in his work, the ‘author-function’ could also reveal the manner in which discourse is articulated on the basis of social relationships” (137). What this amounts to is a call to understand the death of the author in a non-mythical, historical basis. Rather than seeing the author-function, as Barthes does, as a mythical limit on the text, we should see it as a partialized discursive function in the larger discourse of a literary text and its culture. Rather than asking how the theological author-god determines the absolute meaning of a text, we should ask about the emergence and function of the author within literary discourse. The essay closes out memorably with a passage that seems to echo the celebrated line “one can certainly wager that man would be erased, like a face drawn in sand at the edge of the sea” that closes out The Order of Things. If the author is, at some point or another, to disappear,

“New questions will be heard:

‘What are the modes of existence of this discourse?’

‘Where does it come from; how is it circulated; who controls it?’

‘What placements are determined for possible subjects?’

‘Who can fulfill these diverse functions of the subject?’

Behind all these questions we would hear little more than the murmur of indifference:

‘What matter who’s speaking?’” (138).

Edward Said’s Beginnings: Intention & Method, for its part, may be seen as an attempt to realize Foucault’s proposed investigations into the author-function. Beginnings: Intention & Method is the first major book by Palestinian-American literary critic Edward Said. He had, in 1966, published a monograph on Joseph Conrad, but it was with Beginnings in 1975 that he really came to prominence; and, of course, in 1977, he became an epoch-defining writer and thinker with Orientalism.

I start off by admitting my own weakness: Beginnings is a dense, challenging book. Said, in his preface to the second edition, classifies Beginnings as belonging to the genre of criticism termed “uncanny criticism” by J. Hillis Miller. He also lays out what he believes to be a few essential points from the book. First, there is the distinction between beginnings and origins, “the latter divine, mythical, and privileged, the former secular, humanly produced, ceaselessly re-examined” (xii-iii). Second, there is a “a theory of authority linking authorship, paternal property and power to each other” (xiii). This theory is partially based on Said’s distinction between filiation — “linear, biologically grounded process, that which ties children to their parents” and linked to the pre-modern, traditionalist world — and affiliation, which is “those creeds, philosophies, and vision re-assembling the world in new, non-familial ways” and becomes a major problem with the rise of Western modernism (xiii).

The understanding of writing as an imitation of nature is filial in form, assuming that words copy world in a pattern of patrilinear descent. The modern form of writing, however, understands “language as an intentional structure signifying a series of displacements” (66). Writing is not imitation of nature or previous, it is repetition with difference with language. The difference may be roughly summarized as follows:

FILLIATION: biological succession, language as mimesis, traditionalism, sources and origins, imitation; “father and son, the image, the process of genesis, a story” (66); text: original object, static laws, materiality is genetic, fixes meaning; “imitates what is” (67);

AFFILITATION: Oedipus complex, language as displacement, modernism, beginnings, substitution, “the brother, discontinuous concepts, paragenesis, construction” (66), text: produced and producing structure, dynamic laws, materiality is textual, multiplies meaning; “new structure of meaning” (67).

We will resume our discussion next week by trying to capture the argument of Said’s book in a linear fashion.

Until next week,

Michael Ducker