English 456: C20 Criticism and Theory

Supplement on Foucault:
"What is an Author?" and "Truth and Power"

Al Drake | Cyber Cafe | Thurs. 6-7 | 714-434-1612

Foucault's first statements in "What is an Author" are by now familiar ones since we have read Roland Barthes' "The Death of the Author": the writer is said to have disappeared into the writing. And indeed, it has long been understood that we have no direct way of learning what the author's interpretation of the text might be--a phrase like "the author's intentions" implies a convenient interpretive reconstruction, not access to the biographical author's mind. But Foucault is concerned to point out that even in the structuralist period, when the author has supposedly given way to the operations of language, terms such as "work" and "writing" still are used in a way that validates the author-function. To speak of a work, for example, involves one in a process of authentication on the basis of stylistic and thematic unity--a set of concerns not much different from those of the Church Fathers who set about deciding which texts would be part of the Bible and which would be deemed apocrypha. And as for the term "writing," argues Foucault, critics still use it as a kind of negative theology--just as the medieval schoolmen try sometimes to define God by what He is not, so the term "writing" is made to refer to an absence that calls forth interpretation reconstructive of an author-function, even if not the biographical, real-life author. So it seems that Foucault sees the often-declared "death of the author" as more of an Irish wake (a celebration and a keeping watch) than a dismissal of the author-function itself in favor of textuality.

What, then, is the reason for this persistence of the author-function? Foucault writes of the various uses to which the function has been put: it serves to transform texts into appropriated objects--things that can be copyrighted, sold, owned, and so forth. The author-function also serves different cultures differently at different times, so it is a kind of useful variable in the cultural matrix. Aside from that, it is a principle of interpretive unity and the attribution of authorship, as Foucault points out, is far from simple, as readers who try to maintain distinctions between the "I" of, say, a novel and the scriptor would readily attest. There is even a special kind of author-function, one that Foucault applies to writers such as Freud and Marx, whose texts are capable of generating a great variety of heterogeneous discourses that are not reducible to and do not subsume the first discourse--i.e. Marxism or Freudian psychoanalysis. Sociology, for example, does not simply swallow Marxism into itself, though many would say that Marx is the father of sociology.

Fundamentally, Foucault's interest in "What is an Author" is not to revalidate the author-function; it is instead to study the reasons for its persistence. What he wants to do is build up a typology of discourses and determine how they operate. Further, it is not so much what we say about our use of the author-function as what we actually do with it that Foucault wants to examine. According to Foucault, while we generally say that the author-function opens up the possibility of varied interpretation, we use the author-function to limit what can be thought and said about a particular text. So the real social and critical use of the author-function is inversely related to the narrative we spin about that use. In sum, Foucault's position hardly amounts to a Barthesian celebration of pure textuality or "intertextuality" (a term implying that texts are like fabrics with their threads interwoven, so that no text is really self-contained); it has rather an Orwellian dimension in that the author-function as Foucault analyzes it turns out to be an operation of what he will soon begin calling "power"--a term that leads us to examine the next assigned essay.

In "Truth and Power," Foucault identifies the point of contention between his work and structuralism as history. Structuralists study how structures work; they are interested in synchronous operation, not in diachronic questions like "how did this structure or system develop over time? We have seen Derrida identify the same difficulty in structuralist analysis--it has great trouble doing other than dismissing concepts like "the event." Foucault shares with Derrida at least this concern for diachronicity--for Foucault, an event must be seen as occurring on multiple levels; it is to be spoken of as a network of practices, institutions, exercises of power.

Foucault's view of the event has had a great deal of influence over the writing of history--his view differs markedly from more old-fashioned models based on simple cause-and-effect or biography (i.e. the "great man" theory of history). One event doesn't simply cause another--as, for example, when we argue that World War I began due to the assassination by a Serbian nationalist of Archduke Ferdinand. Rather, we must speak of "events" in terms of complex, interinvolved networks of practices, institutions, and power-tactics. Foucault is a Nietzsche-style genealogist in that regard: one doesn't explain history by referring it to conscious, autonomous subjects (people who go around saying "I did this" or "I thought such and such"). Personal agency in this naive sense does not interest him because he simply does not believe the self is outside of or anterior to what we call historical or political events. In fact, at some point in his career Foucault refers to "man" as a fold in history, and one that is bound someday to disappear at that! Neither is it the case, Foucault argues, that his genealogical method is out to demystify some "ideology." Even the term "ideology," if used in the sense he invokes, implies unfounded faith in some external, scientific standard of reality against which we may judge things true or false, i.e. mystified or distorted.

So far I have written of Foucault after the fashion of negative theology--I have been defining his modus operandi by what it is not. Is there a way to deal with his ideas in a more positive sense? That is a difficult thing to do because of the complexity associated with his term "power." Foucault is concerned to trace the distribution and exercise of power in human societies. The term is one he has borrowed in part from Nietzsche, who often wrote about "the Will to Power" as a kind of non-subjectivity-based explanation for why things happen the way they do. Power itself, Foucault explains, should not be written about as entirely negative in the exercising--the example he provides on 1139-40 has to do with childhood sexuality. Repressive operations of power turn out to re-energize the whole phenomenon of childhood sexuality, directing the behavior of parents toward emphasizing the very thing they are trying to forbid. But Foucault's broader point is that power does not only repress and deny, it opens up certain possibilities at the same that it shuts down others. In this sense, then, power's workings aren't merely negative--many people "get something" (whether in terms of social or economic rank, permission to do or say or think certain things, etc.) from the operations and distribution of power. Power, then, may at least partly accord with or work alongside of what most of us call "the pleasure principle": if we were all miserable all of the time, we would rebel against the political and social order that we believed responsible for such a state of affairs.

But again, we really cannot simply locate power itself: we cannot say, "Aha! there is power!" or "that is power!" We cannot do so for the same reason Nietzsche, as you will recall, says we can't naively repeat statements like "Lightning flashes." To do so is to fabricate a cause for an activity we don't fully understand. We cannot, similarly, say "Napoleon caused the great war that occurred after the French Revolution." The proper noun "Napoleon" here serves the same slick purpose as the common noun "Lightning" in Nietzsche's illustrative sentence. And so we cannot say "power is x" or "power is y." For Foucault, the explanatory value in the term "power" lies in just this unlocatability, this resistance to the essentialist sleight of tongue in language itself; like many recent philosophers or theorists (among them Nietzsche, de Saussure, Heidegger, de Man, and Derrida) he is fighting against the notion that words are directly or even indirectly connected with things themselves or that they are innately meaningful. Ultimately, Foucault's goal is perhaps best stated as consisting in the tracing of power's operations insofar as they can be traced in a society's beliefs, practices, and institutions. And since we may speak of "truth" as a function of power, it seems fair to say that Foucault's interest lies in a rather Nietzschean questioning of "truth"--how it is produced, appropriated, and deployed, among other things. Language is part of the network in the production of truth and the circulation of power, but it is not the whole story--thus another difference between Foucault and structuralism.

Finally, if one is looking for a specific, positive message from Foucault as regards actual practice in the world, I think it lies in his discussion of the "specific intellectual." What can the specific intellectual do? I am going to leave that to your own reading of "Truth and Power."