The Logic of Foucault’s “Author Function”

Periodically I post something on my course blog, Interaction Culture Class, that might be of broader interest than just the class. In such situations, I repost them on my personal blog. This is one such example, and its original post can be found here.

Currently, our class is reading a philosophical genealogy of theories of authorship, as we seek to explicate the nature of the creative agency in interaction design. The piece is a book chapter called “Authors” by philosopher Peter Lamarque, as part of his The Philosophy of Literature (Cambridge). One of my students asked me to explain Foucault’s notion of the author-function, and this post is my attempt at an answer.

Underlying Lamarque’s summary of Foucault’s idea here is a heavy reliance on a logical distinction between intensional and extensional reference. (Note that intensional here has nothing to do with the word intentional, as in author intention). Lamarque is saying that Foucault’s author-function can be described as having intensional but not extensional reference. Let me begin by explaining these two terms (see also: the Wikipedia article on the distinction between sense and reference).

Now, words (and other signifiers) can refer to concepts in the mind or things in the world.

  • Intensional reference is when we refer to a concept in the mind.
  • Extensional reference is when we refer to a thing in the world.

Oftentimes, we can refer simultaneously both intensionally and extensionally. When I say, “[Name] is a student in Interaction Culture” there is a concept of both the class and of being a student in the class, and an assignment of an individual, [Name], to that role. This is intensional reference. But there is also the physical person out there in the world, [Name] herself, and that is extensional reference.

Now imagine this: “the present king of France.” You can understand the sense of this phrase, if you know what the present means, what a king is, and what France is. However, France is not presently a monarchy and therefore has no king. Therefore, “the present king of France” refers intensionally (we can form a concept of the king in our mind) but not extensionally (there is no person in the world who is the present king of France). We can say that “Louis XIV was a king of France,” and this sentence has both intensional and extensional reference.

So Lamarque is saying that Foucault’s author-function is like the present king of France: there is a meaningful concept there, but it does not refer to any actual thing in the world (such as an author in the usual sense of the word).

What’s really going on is Foucault wants to logically separate a certain concept of authorship from actual flesh-and-blood authors. Why does he want to do this? Because he has identified a role for this concept (i.e., this concept does something in the world) that has no logical relationship with any individual flesh-and-blood person.

At the bottom of p.110, Lamarque develops an example using Shakespeare. I will try to build on that. Lamarque notes that by saying something is “by Shakespeare” we add two additional meanings to the work: (1) we add an honorific; (2) we situate the work alongside HamletKing LearMacbeth, etc. Let us start with the notion of an honorific. In Shakespeare’s time, his work was certainly popular, but it didn’t have the cultural capital it has now (literary critic Harold Bloom, for example, recently wrote that Shakespeare is the paradigmatic canonical author, basically saying that Shakespeare is the best user of the English language–ever). There is nothing about biographical Shakespeare–his experiences, psychological attitudes, intentions–that has relevance to his celebrated status as The Best Ever. The judgment that he is The Best Ever did not even occur in his lifetime but is something that slowly built up through the reading and use of his works over the centuries.

Let’s do a thought experiment. Imagine that tomorrow someone in London finds a handwritten play that looks like it dates to about 1600. They read this play and see that it is a tragedy, it has certain formal qualities (e.g., it is written in iambic pentameter), certain themes (e.g., it uses classical mythology and is set in Renaissance Italy), and so forth. Just from that information alone, this person could form judgments about whether this is a good play, is typical of early 17th century London, etc.

Now let us imagine that handwriting and other experts have authenticated that this document indeed is the foul papers of an unknown Shakespeare play. Suddenly, a host of new meanings appear. The discovery and authentication of this manuscript would become a major event, making headlines all over the world, for example. Literature scholars would scramble to deal with this. Scholarship of Shakespeare’s other plays would be changed to reflect this. I’m not exactly sure how copyright would work in this situation, but suffice it to say that millions and millions of dollars would change hands (through publishing agreements, film rights, etc.). Note that nothing in this paragraph is attributable to Shakespeare the man. Rather, all of it is contingent on the name “Shakespeare” functioning a certain way–in telling us how to read this text (to honor it, to sell it, to write about it, to read it in terms of certain specific other plays, etc.), in how to read other texts now that it suddenly exists, in telling us how to update Shakespeare anthologies and Renaissance literature courses, and so on.

Now I will add one final twist. Recent scholarship has cast doubt on whether Shakespeare’s works were really written by William Shakespeare. Evidence suggests that it is improbable that a man of his class background could have had the knowledge of the classics that he was clearly fluent in, for example. There are other reasons, but let us imagine for now that they are all correct, and in fact, William Shakespeare did not write the works that are now attributed to William Shakespeare. Let us suppose that else, say, Francis Bacon, actually wrote the works of Shakespeare.

Even if this were the case, that Bacon really wrote Shakespeare, none of what I just wrote about the social functioning of Shakespeare changes at all. Still, publishers will publish this hypothetical new play and there will be a movie (probably by Peter Jackson in IMAX 3D HD with 90 frames per second). Still, scholars will revisit all of the other Shakespeare plays, especially those just before and just after this one. Still it will make front page news. All of this happens entirely independently of which actual person (==extensional reference) actually wrote Shakespeare’s works, because the simple fact of something’s being “Shakespearean” (==intensional reference) is sufficient to justify it is read, interpreted, performed, and sold in a certain way.

In short, Foucault sees authorship (at least sometimes) as a form of what Carroll would call classification (a Hitchcock film, a Shakespearean tragedy, a Steve Jobs design), almost as a generic category (that is, a category of genre) into which certain things can be grouped. It also suggests that if we call a film “Hitchcockian” even if it wasn’t made by Hitchcock that the use of such a term has a practical function in terms of what we should look for or how we should read it.

You’re not tired of reading yet, I hope.

In a completely unrelated post, [another student, from Information Science] raised the issue of scholarly texts. Here is what Foucault himself has to say about them, vis-à-vis the author-function.

One might object that this is a characteristic peculiar to novelistic or poetic discourse, a game which only “quasi discourses” participate. In fact, however, all discourses endowed with the author function possess this plurality of the self. The self that speaks in the preface to a treatise on mathematics–and that indicates the circumstances of the treatise’s composition–is identical neither in its position nor in its functioning to the self that speaks in the course of a demonstration, and that appears in the form of “I conclude” or “I suppose.” In the first case, the “I” refers to an individual without an equivalent who, in a determined place and time, completed a certain task [Jeff note: he means the extensional author who actually wrote a given book]; in the second, the “I” indicates an instance and a level of demonstration which any individual could perform provided that he accepted the same system of symbols, play of axioms, and set of previous demonstrations [Jeff note: basically, the second “I” refers to any competent mathematician]. [Foucault, “What is an Author?” in Michel Foucault: Essential Works of Foucault 1954-1984: Volume 2 Aesthetics, J. Faubion, ed., pp. 215-16]

This passage continues and Foucault identifies other “I”s that speak in a scientific text. The point he is making is that the speaking agent of a given text is multiplicitous (not unified) and in many ways an analyzable property of the text as it is read within a given community (e.g., literary critics reading Shakespeare, mathematicians reading math papers)–and logically disconnected from a single historical person.

Near the conclusion of his essay, Foucault writes of the creative subject (by subject he means “agent of a given action”)

In short, it is a matter of depriving the subject … of its role as originator, and of analyzing the subject as a variable and complex function of discourse…. [T]he author is not an indefinite source of significations that fill a work; the author does not precede the works; he is a certain functional principle by which, in our culture, one limits, excludes, and chooses; in short, by which one impedes the free circulation, the free manipulation, the free composition, decomposition, and recomposition of fiction. [ibid, p.221]

In plain English, Foucault is saying that instead of seeing the author as (a) a unified individual person who existed in the world in a given time and place and (b) as the cause of which the work is a subsequent effect, we should instead view authorship as a function of the text/work/discourse, that is, not prior to the text, but rather subsequent to and dependent on the text (as “Shakespearean” in the modern sense is logically subsequent to the actual life of the person who composed the works attributed to Shakespeare). Only then can we understand the role that author plays in constraining and contributing to our understanding of a work.

1 Comment

  1. Melissa

    Thank you so much for this post!


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