Authorship’s importance to Society

Posted by on July 11, 2011

In my paper on Plato and cosmology, I discuss Plato as representative of a genius that arises every few generations.  This very notion of the author as a genius or as a creative power is what Foucault challenges through his article “What is an Author?” The title provocatively challenges the reader as though any common sense understanding of “author” is insufficient.  Foucault evaluates the author in terms of the relationship between the author him/herself, the author’s work and society, which he refers to as the “author function.”  The article is Foucault’s deconstructionist project to introduce a “historical analysis of discourse” (ABQ 330), whereby he claims there will be the end of the author at a time when people will say “what difference does it make who is speaking?” (ABQ 332)  Through this paper I will explain the main ideas regarding the “author function” in Foucault’s article and illustrate how he cannot escape the inevitability and necessity of the question, “who is speaking?”, although he can conjure fantastic theories that desire to do so.   While I agree with Michael Foucault that the “author function” regulates discourse, I argue that because the “author function” provides meaning in various ways, monetary and social, to an author’s life in many cases of discourse, the “author function” can neither be eliminated in totality nor be separated from the author at any time.

Foucault states that there are four main characteristics of the author function that relate it to discourse, as follows:

(1) The author function is linked to the juridical and institutional system that encompasses, determines, and articulates the universe of discourses; (2) it does not affect all discourses in the same way at all times and in all types of civilization; (3) it is not defined by the spontaneous attribution of a discourse to its producer, but rather by a series of specific and complex operations; (4) it does not refer purely and simply to a real individual, since it can give rise simultaneously to several selves, to several subjects – positions that can be occupied by different classes of individuals. (ABQ 330)

The first characteristic of the “author function” is a means of punishing authors for publishing transgressive statements in their works. One of the reasons I speculate Foucault mentions this is to present a form of the “author function” that is limiting in terms of what can or cannot be said in regards to discourse.  The author and the law in this view become limiting factors.  Foucault mentions this limiting feature of the author toward the end of his article where he reveals his objective of “depriving the subject (or its substitute) of its role as originator, and of analyzing subject as a variable and complex function of discourse.”  (ABQ 331)  By subject he means author, and he claims that because the author in our civilization “is the principle of thrift in the proliferation of meaning”, the only way to allow the free creation, exchange, and manipulation of fiction in discourse would be to change the way in which we treat the author’s importance towards discourse.  This is where he asserts that in reality the author him/herself is not a source of originality or creativity, rather an ideological product of society. (ABQ 321)

Foucault believes that due to the historical changes taking place in the early to mid 20th century, the way the “author function” relates to the importance of the author, and how the “author function” functions will change. By mentioning the second characteristic of the author function as not affecting all discourses the same way at all times and in all civilizations, he allows for this change in the importance of the author function to occur. This also plays along with his mentioning of the third characteristic of the author function, which implies that there is a complex feature and limitation that governs the “author function’s” relationship to discourse.  His stating that a work is not spontaneously attributed to an author but that it goes through complex operations, allows him to later state that although the author function will disappear, discourse will “function according to another mode, but still with a system of constraint.”  (ABQ 332) The fourth characteristic of the author function then serves as an example of how the “author” can be replaced in its function within discourse, since the “I” in a work could refer to a narrator or several other types of selves and not just the author itself. Since the author functions as the system of constraint within the author function, the fourth characteristic of the author function allows the author function to be eventually replaced by another function that also has a different system of constraint than the author.   Foucault finally concludes that the author will be a dead subject by stating that all discourses would “develop in the anonymity of a murmur.” (ABQ 332)

We can see how the author function regulates discourse in our society through a few simple examples of the first three characteristics.  The first characteristic can be seen as being analogous to intellectual property rights, where laws allow certain individuals to profit from their creative works and punishes others who illegally copy without permission.  The second characteristic is evident in the way authorship’s importance is regarded differently in terms of art work and science.  Students of art study the development of art, artistic techniques and theories over time; importance is found in the change in discourse rather than the authors of the change themselves.  In terms of the value of art, appreciators and collectors of art lay emphasis on the artist along with the artist’s work.  If a work that was previously attributed to Picasso was found to actually be the creation of an unknown artist, the monetary value and the classification of that art would presumably change.  In terms of science, the value and intellectual importance of a work would not change, regardless of who the author is, as long as the discovered work is reproducible. Therefore, the author function truly changes according to the type of discourse. Lastly, the third characteristic of the author function is evident in how it intertwines with the example of Picasso and the classification and value of art.  If today someone were to find a work that stated its author was Foucault, one would go through a process of finding out if the work is consistent with the previous known writings of Foucault and whether or not there are contradictions in the work that arouse suspicion of authenticity, etc.  If the works were found to be consistent, they would gain a certain level of value that other works of Foucault share.  In these ways, the author function continues to be significant in regulating discourse today, and I will further argue that the author cannot practically be removed from its importance to the author function.

The philosophical outlook that the author should/will be a dead subject regarding discourse inherently contains significant problems such that it is neither pragmatic with our world today, nor can it be practically applicable in any future time.  Let’s suppose the case that it does not matter who is speaking.  Then, I am also entitled to say that “What is an Author?” is not the work of Foucault, and I may arbitrarily assign the authorship to Barthes, Derrida, or Homer Simpson.  Considering that Barthes and Derrida had already written on matters of the death of the author prior to Foucault, one can justifiably assume the reason Foucault writes is to gain legitimacy for his views and himself in the academia.  This can only be done if his views are originally and creatively distinct from those of Barthes and Derrida’s.  Foucault’s desire to distinguish himself in the academia and his opinion that it does not matter who speaks cannot both hold logically.  Furthermore, if the authorship is attributed to Homer Simpson, the seriousness behind the content of Foucault’s work would be disregarded completely. This is the same as Wikipedia not being considered a legitimate source for academic works, although in many cases the information contained is perfectly fine.  In fact, if there is a place where we could say discourse is being produced and manipulated to a great level of freedom in the way Foucault desires, Wikipedia would be that place. Yet, Wikipedia just like Homer Simpson or a John Doe does not possess the legitimate backing in the real world for the work being produced to be considered seriously.  Authorship, then, is continuing to be a critical flag point of what validates a work and what does not in our society.

In addition to establishing the validity of a work by the credentials of the author, with one’s name is the attribution of one’s ideas and creativity, and with that attribution come fame, income, and livelihood. While the attribution of a work to an author may have originated from a need to punish transgressive statements, the primary purpose of attribution today is as a source of reward monetarily and socially for authors whose works are considered important to society.  Foucault would not have lived the life that he did unless he had been rewarded in various ways such as professorships or awards for the works that he produced.  In our society the originality or creativity evident in a work must still be attributed to the author of the work.  Therefore, at least some feature of the third characteristic of the author function, where a work is attributed to an author according to certain standards, remains pertinent to our society.

The idea of monetary rewards for one’s creative work brings me to my second point.  No longer is the predominant method of earning a living in the West through the direct use of one’s hands to do hard labor such as farming, blacksmithing, or carpentering.  Locke’s labor theory of property is directly applicable to those methods of living, but what about when the entire means of livelihood are not dependent upon laboring with natural resources but primarily with one’s mind?  Software engineers, teachers, managers in factories, corporate jobs, etc. all in some way depend on originality and creativity being attributed to the individual.  The difference can determine our ability to get a job, earn a promotion, or become unemployed.  Considering the rise of technology and the decline of labor jobs over time, individuals being rewarded for creativity that is attributed to them will continue to play an important role in society.  This will be the case whether we consider academic discourse or all other practical aspects of life where authorship and author function are applicable.

While the author function regulates discourse and may continue to do so in various ways according to time and the type of discourse, there is an indefinite importance attached to who is the author of an idea in the real world that cannot be eliminated.  Authorship is invaluable to a society that rewards creativity.  The simple fact that this paper I am writing and the grade that I will receive depends on my creativity and originality, illustrates the importance of creativity and originality being attributed to an author.  If the professor grading this paper was unaware of the author, to whom would they assign a grade? Moreover, graduate schools granting me admission based on my grades and the value that admissions committees place in my writing sample demonstrates how much discourse is intrinsically bound to the importance of authorship.  After all, my value to the school in terms of my potential in manipulating the ideas I learn to produce original works is what is being judged, not just my work itself.  “Who speaks” practically cannot and will not be a trivial matter regardless of how far in time human beings progress.

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