The Author['s] Remains: Foucault and the Demise of the "Author-Function"

By Hendricks, Christina | Philosophy Today, Summer 2002 | Go to article overview

The Author['s] Remains: Foucault and the Demise of the "Author-Function"


Hendricks, Christina, Philosophy Today


FOUCAULT AND THE DEMISE OF THE "AUTHOR-FUNCTION"

In "What is an Author," Michel Foucault quotes Samuel Beckett: "What matter who's speaking, someone said, what matter who's speaking?" (Foucault 1977b, 115). Foucault cites this statement in reference to an "indifference" that characterizes contemporary writing, an indifference that reveals "an opening where the writing subject endlessly disappears" (116). Yet this "indifference" is introduced in a decidedly non-indifferent way: though the statement proclaims itself as anonymous-"what matter who's speaking, someone said . . ."-its source is explicitly identified in Foucault's text as Beckett.1 Why does Foucault name his source for the indifference that "someone" has expressed, when this indifference signals the death of the author? Why not attempt to preserve the potential anonymity implied by the purposeful identification of the original author as unknown, lost, or intentionally hidden behind the word "someone"? Perhaps because, despite Foucault's own indications to the contrary, it does (still) matter who is speaking; because if it was simply "someone," few might be willing to listen in the way they would to Beckett, or to Foucault himself.2

There may also be another dimension to Foucault's name-dropping, to his citation of Beckett as an author: in tracing to an anonymous source Beckett's (and his own) statement of the author's demise, Foucault points to a lack at what is supposed to be the origin of the idea. Someone has said it, though "the signs of [the author's] particular individuality" have been cancelled out (Foucault 1977b, 117). The author's particular individuality has been sacrificed in the murderous process of writing itself, his identity is "a victim of his own writing." Foucault's repetition of Beckett's repetition of the anonymity of the above-cited question works to enact the point that at the origin of the cited quote is no author in particular-there is only an empty place-holder, the authorial role with an anonymous "someone" playing it.3

Yet this place-holder, the space where the author is expected and looked for, is still significant. If there is no proper name to fill this space, it is labeled merely as "someone"-signaling, in Foucault's terms, the continued existence of the "author-function." The author-function remains alive and well, though Foucault seems to hope for its demise along with the author, for the disappearance of the place-holder still indicated by the insistence that "someone has said, what matter who's speaking?" We may be witnessing the death of the author as a specific individual into the movements of the text, but the author-function remains to the degree that we speak of the author at all, even as only an anonymous "someone." That Foucault looks towards a day when even that last vestige of the author-function disappears is expressed in the last line of "What is an Author?", where "someone" is now silent, replaced by "little more than the murmur of indifference: `What matter who's speaking?"' (Foucault 1977b, 138). This time, there is a murmur without an author, without even the expectation of one that would result in an insistence that "someone" had uttered it.

But working to bring about the demise of the author-function is not an easy task, and it is not clear how it might best be brought about. Foucault seems at times to suggest a strategy of anonymity on the part of the author, a succumbing to one's own death as an author at the hands of the text. To accept and further the effacement of his or her identity, the author might refuse to be named as an author at all. Though such gestures seem to be indicated at times throughout Foucault's writings, in this essay I argue that they may not produce the desired change in the institutions and individuals calling for an author for texts. Further, how might we reconcile Foucault's occasional calls for authorial anonymity with his tendency to reiterate in interviews what his concerns are and what he is trying to say-thereby indicating "who he is" as an author?

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