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Dead But Still Functioning

Despite confusion around the ideas of the “dead author” or the displacement of the author with the “author function,” neither Barthes or Foucault deny that actual people sit down to write things which are later potentially distributed and contribute to the construction of discourse. Rather, in both Foucault and Barthes there is the idea that the ideology underlying the privileging of the author as the arbiter of production and meaning are past, thus the author might be seen as “dead” or as serving within the role of the “author function” that is not peculiar to one’s particular subjectivity so much as to one’s position and function within a larger system.

Barthes, Not Dead

In “The Death of the Author” Barthes critiques the role of the author in conventional (New) criticism, claiming that “the author still reigns, in histories of literature, biographies of writers, interview, magazines, as in the very consciousness of men of letters anxious to unite their person and their work through diaries and memoires… [where]… the explanation of a work is always sought in the man or woman who produced it.” Though Barthes wrote this piece in 1968, and though we have moved through a wave of post-structuralist criticism that interrogated the centrality of the role of author in producing (especially literary) texts, the privileging of the author is still alive and well in many conventional conceptions of textuality today, despite this pronouncement by Barthes. However, this piece signals a moving away from this privileging in literary circles, a move that has already largely occurred in other disciplines (e.g. the sciences) and allowed for new possibilities of theorizing texts in post-structuralist thought. For Barthes, “a text’s unity lies not in its origin but in its destination …[thus]… the birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the Author.” As we appropriate and assemble meanings of text via other texts and multiple theoretical lens, so we decenter the role of the author as the originator of meaning or the “final word” in interpretation, allowing for a multiplicity of new readings of texts that may be re/uncovered to more fully suit the needs of ever-changing audiences. This allows for a “rhetorical reading” of texts depending upon audience contribution to that meaning-making, allowing for a more reciprocal and recursive epistemic stance, even in so-called static texts.

In “What Is An Author?” Foucault takes this discussion further, noting that there is

Foucault, Functioning

more implied in this death pronouncement than a shifting of attention from production to reception. Rather, it is the subject position of those who (happen to) write that is of importance. The way that the function of “author” is created within a society is contingent upon its needs, ideologies, and regulatory functions of power within discursive regimes. When subjectivity is formed by discourse – and not the other way around – Foucault echoes Becket’s question: What does it matter who is speaking? How can we define a subjectivity under the heading of a “proper name” and from that derive particular assumptions about the text as originating from a source congruent with that name? Foucault points out the necessary absence of the author from a text, noting that “the mark of the writer is reduced to nothing more than the singularity of his absence; he must assume the role of the dead man in the game of writing,” thus, as the text is produced, so the writer disappears – to have the text as a product of that act is to pronounce the author dead.

Foucault further complicates the notion of “author” by asking questions about what should and should not be included amongst his or her “works.” Is it everything that he or she has ever written? Or is this list reduced to that which has been edited and published? These deferrals of inclusion and exclusion could go on ad infinitum, thus complicating the idea of what is meant by an author’s “work.” The name, likewise, is a more problematic concept that typically taken on the surface and primarily “establishes a relationship among texts” in the model where the author’s works are taken as a whole (107). Thus, even in this model, the author becomes a means of providing intertextual dialog or meaning-making, rather than standing in for a transcendental, trans-textual, a priori presence prior to discourse. Rather, for Foucault, the author is an actor, or enactor, of discourse, and is not, (the Western lens of ownership and authority not withstanding) the originator of the text, so much as he or she enacts the text. Conceptions of “author” are socially and historically constructed, depending upon the ways in which power is legitimized in particular temporal/spatial locations and these criteria are subject to change. (For example, it used to “matter” who made so and such scientific discovery, as authorship was a marker of truth, whereas now scientific discovery is legitimized not so much by authorship as by method.)

Foucault also distinguishes “founders of discursivity,” such as Marx and Freud, who established entire realms of discourse via their own. I am not entirely certain that I have ever fully understood the criteria for why particular “authors” receive this standing – it is not that I don’t understand the criteria, per say, but rather than I do not understand the boundaries and limits of that criteria. I could argue, ostensibly, that Foucault himself is a “founder of discursivity,” in that he “established an endless possibility of discourse” by putting forth the models of history, epistemology, and power that he did, as well as offering terms with which to describe these ways of conceptualizing. He may or may not agree, yet (by his own theory) he is not the authority of his own authorship and thus his opinion on the matter is largely irrelevant.

Both Barthes and Foucault mark a shift in ways of thinking about the origination of discourse and the role of the individual subject in its production that led, at least in my opinion, toward more dynamic and multifaceted ways of conceiving the larger structures within which discourse is produced, received, reproduced, and appropriated. The author may be dead, but he or she is still functioning.

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2 comments on “Dead But Still Functioning

  1. The rumors spread about the author’s death are greatly exaggerated as you point out. And given the time period in which these pieces are written I have to agree with them. But the digital rhetor side of me wants to argue with the notion of the dead author. It seems like time (mostly production time) is what separates life from death for Barthes. In the digital age, the gap is lessened as the material side is reduced. And I have to wonder in a Monty Python way as I write this, “Am I dead yet?” “not yet.” “I feel much better…”
    But then I’m troubled because certainly at some point the author dies in the digital text just as in the print text. How do we know when that point is?

  2. I think this moment in your blog post is key to understanding authorship and written works today: “Conceptions of ‘author’ are socially and historically constructed, depending upon the ways in which power is legitimized in particular temporal/spatial locations and these criteria are subject to change.” It seems that with everything we are reading from the current few topics, context is EVERYTHING; who writes, what their background is, where they write, what they write about, who they write to, what who they write to thinks about them/the world/writing, and so on and so on. Sometimes I feel like it gets a little mind-boggling and that I never know how to feel or think about anything when I see it because I know that I have to consider the context in which something was created; but then I know that we experience everything through a certain context (state of mind being a part of that) and then I wonder why I feel like I have to consciously think about the context all the time…

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