English 456: C20 Criticism and Theory

Questions on Michel Foucault's
"What is an Author?" History of Sexuality, "Truth and Power"

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"What is an Author?" (1969)

1. Foucault initially restates ideas about writing familiar to us by now: the writer disappears into the writing, characterized by the French postmodern term écriture. But what ideas, according to Foucault, nonetheless preserve the older concept of authorship? How do they do that?

2. Foucault initially says that the author's name allows us to group texts and to mark off or delimit those texts from ordinary speech. It seems that cultures will receive and value them in different ways at different times. What four characteristics does Foucault go on to attribute to the author-function? See.

3. What new kind of author-function is uncovered when Foucault broadens his discussion from literary texts to "discourses" such as Marxism and psychoanalysis? What is special or new about this kind of author-function?

4. Foucault's conclusion: what research undertakings and insights does he say that his analysis of the author-function will open up? How is the author an "ideological product"?

5. How does Foucault's vision of what might follow upon the demise of old-fashioned notions about authorship differ from Roland Barthes' claims in "Death of the Author"?

The History of Sexuality (1976)

Introduction, Part II: The Repressive Hypothesis, Chapter 1: "The Incitement to Discourse."

1. How does Foucault write history--how, for example, does his analysis of the emergence of the concept of "the population" help him explain the proliferation of discourses about sexuality?

2. Another question on historical/sociological method: what do you make of Foucault's habit of interpreting developments in the history of sexuality in a manner that is strikingly different, even opposite, to commonly received notions?

3. Why is the usual "repressive hypothesis" about sex inadequate as an explanation for what happened to social and institutional treatment of sexuality in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries?

4. What differentiates Foucault's way of writing about sexuality from structuralist analysis? For example, why is it important that Foucault does not describe "a discourse" about sex but rather a number of them operating in a very complex network of power relations?

5. What are some of the "centers" that emerged in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and what discourses about sex emerged with their development?

Introduction, Part II: The Repressive Hypothesis, Ch. 2: "The Perverse Implantation."

1. How does Foucault counter the objection that the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries' proliferating discourses about sex simply served the need of an economy centered on reproduction--i.e. that Europe needed more people to expand its economy at home and abroad?

2. What two modifications occurred in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries concerning the discursive treatment of legitimate marriage? (1660)

3. In what sense was the seeming relaxation in the nineteenth century regarding punishment of sexual misconduct actually a "ruse" of severity? (1661)

4. What operations of power attached to practices determined to be outside "legitimate" sexual relations? (1662-64) Why, regarding one such operation, does it matter that homosexuality went from being considered an incidental act subjecting its practitioner to legal punishment to something that attached to a person's very being and identity?

5. What relationship between power and pleasure does Foucault concern himself with? How is his focus here different from his focus in the previous chapter?

6. Do you find Foucault's notion of power sufficient to explain the proliferation and operation of discourses about sexuality? In what sense is Foucault's analysis of sexuality indebted to Nietzsche's way of analyzing concepts and events?

7. How has Foucault, in both chapters, handled what we generally call "literature"? He is not a literary critic, but what model or insights does he offer to those interested in literature? How does his handling of literary works and examples differ from the kind of procedure we saw in Derrida's deconstruction of Plato's Phaedrus?

"Truth and Power" (1977)

*Some questions deal with an earlier part of the essay, but the last several relate to our selection.

1. Early in the essay, Foucault differentiates between his own thinking and that of structuralists. What significance does the concept of the "event" play in his differentiation? Similarly, why is history better spoken of in terms of war than of language?

2. Foucault responds to his interviewer's question by defining his "genealogical approach." How does he characterize this approach? Why doesn't it make sense to describe the task of the genealogist as simply to unmask or demystify "ideology"?

3. Foucault offers some commentary on power, a term that came to be of great importance to him. Why isn't it right to speak of power as simply repressive and negative? What example of power does he offer to show that power isn't merely negative and repressive?

4. Throughout the essay Foucault is critical of the French Communist Party and of Marxist ideas in general (base/superstructure, etc.). Why? One way to construe his opposition is to refer to his comments about the role of intellectuals since World War II--what promise does Foucault see in the advent of the "specific intellectual"?

5. Compare what Foucault says about the relation between truth and power to Nietzsche's analysis of truth in "Truth and Falsity in an Ultramoral Sense." How is Foucault indebted to Nietzsche?

6. What five key traits characterize the "political economy" of truth, according to Foucault?

7. Foucault seems to be optimistic about the role of intellectuals in relation to power. He says at the end of our selection that the problem is to change "the political, economic, institutional regime of the production of truth" and that intellectuals should make their goal "detaching the power of truth from the forms of [present-day] hegemony." But what is the value of doing that if one cannot be freed from the operations of power?

Edition: The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Ed. Vincent B. Leitch. New York: Norton, 2001. ISBN: 0393974294.