GUIDE TO FOUCAULT'S "WHAT IS AN AUTHOR"?
Even with his title, Foucault is being provocative, taking a given and turning it into a problem. His
question ("What is an Author?") might even seem pointless at first, so accustomed have we all become
to thinking about authors and authorship.
Section 1: 101-5
In the first few paragraphs, Foucault responds to some of our most basic assumptions about authorship.
In the first paragraph, for example, Foucault reminds us that although we regard the concept of
authorship as "solid and fundamental," that concept hasn't always existed. It "came into being,"
Foucault explains, at a particular moment in history, and it may pass out of being at some future
In addition to touching on our tendency to view the concept of authorship as "solid," Foucault also
seems to take up our habit of thinking about authors as individuals, heroic figures who somehow
transcend or step outside history. Why, he wonders, are we so strongly inclined to view authors in that
way? Why are we often so resistant to the notion that authors are products of their times? (As I make
these points, incidentally, I'm not by any means trying to imply that you should be picking up on them
as you read Foucault. He is moving very quickly here, leaving much unsaid.)
On pages 103-5, Foucault does some jousting. First, he mixes it up with Roland Barthes, a very famous
literary critic, who had recently proclaimed the "death of the author." According to Foucault, Barthes
had urged other critics to realize that they could "do without [the author] and study the work itself"
(104). This urging, Foucault implies, sounds a lot more radical than it really is. (If you'd like to see for
yourself, there's a copy of "Death of the Author" on reserve.)
Next, on 104-5, Foucault turns his attention to Derrida-- without ever mentioning his rival by name.
Foucault claims that although Derrida (like Barthes) presents his views as radical, they are in truth
quite conventional. Indeed, Foucault suggests, Derrida never really gets rid of the author, but instead
merely reassigns the author's powers and privileges to "writing" or to "language itself."
Now, why does he bother to do all this? Well, partly because he enjoys a fight, and partly because he
doesn't want his readers to assume that authorship is a "dead issue," a problem that's already been
solved by Barthes and Derrida. His aim here is to show that, despite all of their bombast, neither
Barthes nor Derrida has broken away from the question of the author--much less solved it.