Neva’s post about Foucault’s “What is an Author” raises an interesting question. She notes that Foucault writes that “an anonymous text posted on a wall probably has a writer – but not an author”. How does that fit with remix and collaborative art, Neva asks. Most artists in projects she has explored so far use nicknames or are completely anonymous. Neva asks: “Does that mean we should be sceptical about anonymous pieces of art? Can we trust their ‘makers’? And, can we even call this ‘art’?”

This will be our main topic today. We’ll discuss Barthes’ declaration that the author is dead, look at Chatman’s communication model and think about whether this divorces the author from the text/work or not, and use Foucault to think about possible alternatives to the author function – ways that a work/the text/fiction/remixes can be “limited”.

[there’ll be an image of Chatman’s communication model here later; for now I’ll use the one in my PhD thesis]

I also want to talk a little about hoaxes/fictions online – when a pseudonymous video, blog or similar gets really popular, people always figure out who’s really behind it – i.e. who is the author. Some examples: Karen26, lonelygirl15 (see also my post on why this upset people so much), the Vote Different ad by ParkRidge47.

Can we identify author functions in remix works?

We’ll split up in groups to discuss this:

Choose one of the works youíve looked at this semester ñ a remix video or website or image.

  • Can you identify an ìauthorî?
  • Who is speaking? (in Barthesí senseÖ)
  • Are there other functions that ìlimit meaningî or that let us understand this in one clear way, apart from an author function?


I think the end of Foucault’s essay summarises the most important aspects of this essay in terms of today’s culture:

How can one reduce the great peril, the great danger with which fiction threatens our world? The answer is: one can reduce it with the author. The author allows a limitation of the cancerous and dangerous proliferation of significations within a world where one is thrifty not only with one’s resources and riches, but also with one’s discourses and their significations. The author is the principle of thrift in the proliferation of meaning.

— and —

[T]he author is not an indefinite source of significations which 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 re-composition of fiction.

Then the question is whether the author function will disappear – or is in the process of disappearing. Foucault clearly sees it as a historical function that did not always exist as it does today, and so at some point it will no longer exist. The author is “characteristic of our era of industrial and bourgeois society, of individualism and private property”. Are we moving beyond such a society? Or will that take another century or more? Foucault writes:

I think that, as our society changes, at the very moment when it is in the process of changing, the author function will disappear, and in such a manner that fiction and its polysemous texts will once again function according to another mode, but still with a system of constraint -one which will no longer be the author, but which will have to be determined or, perhaps, experienced.

When the author function disappears, what will we do?

All discourses, whatever their status, form, value, and whatever the treatment to which they will be subjected, would then develop in the anonymity of a murmur. We would no longer hear the questions that have been rehashed for so long: Who really spoke? Is it really he and not someone else? With what authenticity or originality? And what part of his deepest self did he express in his discourse? Instead, there would be other questions, like these: What are the modes of existence this discourse? Where has it been used, how can it circulate, and who can appropriate it for himself? What are the places in it where there is room for possible subjects? Who can assume these various subject functions? And behind all these questions, we would hear hardly anything but the stirring of an indifference: What difference does it make who is speaking?

Obviously, much of the internet is very far from discarding the author function. But perhaps some discourses are on their way? Is remix culture one of them?

3 thoughts on “authorship, Foucault, Barthes and remix culture

  1. Mathias Klang

    At a first glance I like the Foucault quote, its the perfect arrogant snappy witty and pseudo-deep. But then I try to connect this to my interest in street art (or graffiti) it just fails. Then I realize that the anonymous artist (or other creator) is not uncommon, neither is the unknown creator (who is not anonymous but just not known by the observer). It’s always annoying when a great quote dies. It’s kind of like when an attractive theory is proved wrong by empirical data. Sad maybe but inevitable you have to let go.

  2. Jill Walker Rettberg

    Oh dear. I do think Foucault’s authorship function is limited to certain KINDS of work. It doesn’t work for jokes, for instance. It doesn’t apply to lots of street art, but it certainly applies to Banksy’s works, wouldn’t you say? I think perhaps we’re in a transitional time, as Foucault suggests. Authorship certainly isn’t dead, but it’s fading from certain forms of work. PEhraps there are other ways of legitimising and limiting the meanings of anonymous street art?

  3. William Patrick Wend

    In graduate school I applied Barthes/Foucault to authorship to my work with great results on my end, but a lot of concern and complaint from others. All of this that you are discussing with your students, Jill, seems so clear to me; I wish I could’ve been there! How are your students dealing with Foucault and Barthes?

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