I’m sifting through essays for the compendium for this autumn’s course on contagious media and networked culture, and rereading with joy in the process. I’d almost forgotten Foucault’s “What is an Author?”, though my copy (from Lodge’s Modern Criticism and Theory) is so densely pencilled I’ll have to use the library’s copy for the photocopying. Foucault wrote in 1969 that the idea of an author is merely a function of discourse, a necessary construction to keep fiction at bay. As an undergrad I thought of that as kind of fascinating but rather abstract, after all, there are living authors, ya know? Today it sounds a little different. Think of this in relation to the web, to blogs, to today’s confusion of reality and fiction:

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. (..) [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 manipulations, the free composition, decomposition, and recomposition of fiction. (209)

Perhaps what delights and confuses us about the hoaxes, spams, pervasive narratives, unfictions and blog fictions of our decade is, in part, their unbounded authorlessness. Foucault, writing in 1969, doubted that an authorless society could develop:

It would be pure romanticism, however, to imagine a culture in which the fictive would be put at the disposal of everyone and would develop without passing through something like a necessary or constraining figure. (209)

5 thoughts on “what is an author?

  1. J. Nathan Matias

    (A day of Foucault. He popped up in my blog today too)

    I agree. In the print world, this is still true, but on the web, unless you’re on a site organized around a single person (or the author is very famous), the author becomes very insignificant.

    Would Foucault have thought hoaxes, spams, etc to be fiction?

    I like your point about an authorless society though :-). Very very good.

    Even if it’s not necessary, the author function is very powerful and useful on the Web. This is why honest blogs make sense. For example, why do you have your face and mention of your PhD on the left of this page? Partly because the idea of a PhD as an author gives your blog some authority.

    Why do I enjoy your comments about f¯rste mai or read Torrill’s blog and like her writing? Why do I follow links you post? Why would someone read your Amazon book list? Because we know that you as an author are knowledgeable in areas we are interested in. Because we know you have read and studied and thought very thoroughly on the topics you write about, etc.

    Last week, I randomly came across an Amazon review you wrote. I believed it. In fact, I believed it more than the others. I wanted to buy it. You gave it a so-so review. I put away the credit card.

    As Foucault notes, my construct of you as a person is completely based on your writings. If I were at a conference, and I saw you, and I also saw a random person, I would probably go to talk to you, since I think I know something about you from your writings. And I think I know that you are an interesting person with an interesting mind.

    You could be ten different people posting, but Foucault would still apply, since there seems to be one author. This is why Foucault describes authorship as a function.

    But you’re right. The web doesn’t require the author function, which is a nice thing.

  2. Jill

    Yeah. And yes, definitely, my blog piles on the author function, and we kind of pine for authorship, indeed, one side of blogging is this strange idea that a blog gives direct access to its author.


  3. Francois Lachance

    Interesting Weez’s May 8, 2004 musings led to a consideration of the hero versus the storyteller. http://weez.oyzon.com/archives/000940.html Might be intersting to consider the hero side of the author versus the storyteller. Some of the discussion about epic mode and heroic mesures for continued blogging was in part inspired by http://www.liliputianlilith.com/archives/000054.html where Liliputian Lilith inscribed the following sentence in an entry: “I won’t write today.” All sorts of fun with diectics and the first person narrative as read by identifiers and non-identifiers — the reader occupies more or less the subject position offered by the “I” which is a placeholder. Very very interesting is the piece by Foucault from The Archeology of Knowlege where he moves through a defining of “statements” in contrast to propositions, sentences, speech acts, to arrive at the notion of the enunciative function. Starting with the text by Foucault avoids the narratives of loss induced by beginning the the death of the
    death of the author text. For example, Foucault writes towards the end of the chapter on The Enunciative Function: “the statement, as it emerges in its materiality, appears with a status, enteres various networks and various fields of use, is subjected to transferences or modifications, in integrated inot operations and strategies in which its identity is maintained or effaced. thuse the statement circulates, is used, disappears, allows or prevents the realization of a desire, serves or resists various interests, participates in challenge and struggle, and becomes a theme of appropriation or rivalry.” trans. A.M. Sheridan Smith.

    Three examples where the writer and the person are not collapsed (which is what I believe happened in 19th century takes on the “author”) by the readers and audience :
    Jill Walker — jill/txt
    Elouise Oyzon — Weez Blog
    Elizabeth Lane Lawley — Mamamusings

    The words do not give access to the person who is of course a being who continues to evolve (or not). In a world populated by authors, the words stick to define persons and limit both the encounter with words and persons.

  4. Doug

    Very nifty. Had quite forgotten the author-function.

    Have been coming back to the big F though in my discipline as his notion of power (diffuse and competing networks of power and resistence) is such a better model for understanding government behaviour and then the behaviour of governments international community than most.

    Still, his concepts of competing networks of power and resistance would also apply to opinion formation about authors in the blogosphere wouldn’t it?

    Easy to see in political blogs, but also in this whole Justin Hall thing.

  5. hideki

    Hello Jill,

    I just read your paper titled “Links and Power: The Political Economy of Linking on the Web.” It is an impressive idea for me that links can be a currency through PageRank system and will have political economic power. I wanted to say hello to come to your blof site.

    I just wrote some blog articles in Japanese. Let me translate some titles into English.

    Comment on “An Analysis of Virtual Currencies in Online Games” by H. Yamaguchi
    “Who is You?” – anonymous personalities on the net and the credibility attribution problem –
    US Troops as the last men – Francis Fukuyama’s prediction –
    Will net be a flat space or a graceful valley?
    Recognition on the net as a currency -inflation or deflation-

    It is vexing that I wrote them in Japanese and you do not read Japanese…
    Oh, it is better to introduce myself a little.
    I am writing this comment in Japan. I am a Japanese male person… It is honor for me that I could put comment here on jill/txt . Thanks.

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