Those literary critics and conventionally minded readers who seek to critically engage the many texts which shape the canon of Western knowledge too often ask the same, misguided questions. Their discourse is, according to Michel Foucault, trapped within parameters established by a dominant mode of thinking with grants the “author” absolute primacy. Even the recognition of this paradigm too often produces a similarly misguided interrogation: “Who really spoke? Is it really he and not someone else? With what authenticity or originality?” (Foucault 230). These well-intentioned questioners tragically miss the point. They incessantly fret over the qualities and character of signifier which has no meaningful impact on a text’s meaning, but which rather serves to limit our ability to receive or disseminate knowledge. Instead of either denying the relevancy of the “author” or entirely ceding to its reign, we ought to interrogate what precisely is meant and entailed by the existence of the “author-function” at all.
This paper will explore three primary areas of analysis related to this pursuit. First, we must investigate what is meant by the naming of an author-- its origins and immediate distinction from the mere naming of a human being. Second, we shall analyze the implications of the author-function’s widespread acceptance and deployment. Finally, we will synthesize these lines of questioning in an attempt to discover the importance of uncovering the ideological nature of the author, and what this uncovering entails for the reception and interpretation of texts.
Foucault quickly advances his discussion of authorship to the implications of his discoveries, admittedly foregoing the vital question of origin. While Foucault would argue that the author-function’s primacy is self-perpetuating because of the power over knowledge produced by its employment, it is likewise important to uncover the initial genesis of “authorship,” in addition to making clear the reasons for its quick rise to power and subsequent persistence. Previously, the narrative or essay was an entity whose value existed independent of its teller. Beginning with the Early Modern Period, and solidified by the individualism of later eras, the locus of our search for meaning within a text became centered on the mostly artificial persona of the “author.” “The author is a modern figure, a product of our society in so far 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...” (Barthes 1). The more individualism came to be emphasized, the more our social focus shifted, and the more glorified and corrosive the power of the author-function or author-god became.
The author’s name is now a unique signifier which refers to a set of qualities and relationships rathe than to a body, and in doing so categorizes and delimits textual knowledge. Foucault’s analysis begins with the...