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What is an Author?

What’s in a name? Marnie Binder asks if it matters who’s writing, and other questions of authorship.

“By certain manners of the spirit even great spirits betray that they come from the mob or semi-mob; it is above all the gait and stride of their thoughts that betray them; they cannot walk. There is something laughable about the sight of authors who enjoy the rustling folds of long and involved sentences: they are trying to cover up their feet.”
Friedrich Nietzsche The Gay Science

Perhaps Michel Foucault (1926-1984), twentieth century‘specialist in the history of systems of thought’ as he titled himself, was right when he said that the author remains an open question. He was likely influenced by the above aphorism, entitled ‘Gait’. Hence my question: What truly is an author?

In an essay called ‘What is an Author?’ (in Language, Counter-Memory, Practice: Selected Essays and Interviews, ed by Donald Bouchard), Foucault doesn’t quite answer this question; rather he makes appropriate inquiries about the significance of a name. Certainly he begins with the assumption that a name is everything.

One name which towers over European philosophy is Friedrich Nietzsche. Our knowledge of Nietzsche’s striking appearance, personality and life story colours our perception of his books. But what would happen for example if we learned that our Nietzsche never existed, and that his name was a pseudonym used by a working-class German miner from the same period, who had scribbled his philosophical notes with leftover coal? How would that change our conception and our understanding, not only of Nietzsche’s philosophy; of his oeuvre in its entirety; but of all the philosophical trends which have developed since? (In fact, Nietzsche’s intellectual legacy has already had to be reinterpreted at least once: at one time he was widely seen as an anti-Semite and of having been an influence on Nazism; it was later realised that this reputation was due to some astonishingly biased editing by his sister Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche, as she compiled his randomly-collected notes for publication over the decades after his death.) Or, as Foucault suggests, what if we were to include Nietzsche’s laundry lists, reminders of appointments etc in his books – how would this change our perception of this illustrious figure? But why shouldn’t we? After all, a name is everything, is it not – encapsulating everything about that eminent person’s life? Foucault tersely notes that a name “is to a certain extent, the equivalent of a description.” This description all too often becomes generalized and less individualized, resulting in the ‘death’ of the author. As Foucault concludes, this happens because “the function of an author is to characterize the existence, circulation, and operation of certain discourses within society.” (I’ll say more about this ‘author-function’ soon.)

The Death of the Author

In French, the term écriture, often inadequately translated simply as ‘writing’, really has a double reference: it is both the act of writing and the existence of writing as an art form. Foucault asserts that the way the term is used today lowers writing to a ‘primordial status’, through our tendency to classify writing by writer (as ‘the work of’), and by history (through trends and movements). But such classification results in the disappearance of the actual writer him or herself. Hence, authors inadvertently become victims of their own writing.

Foucault’s is, in fact, a Nietzschean type of argument, arguably influenced by Nietzsche’s theory of eternal recurrence. This was a very important idea for Foucault, an influence he admits to regardless of it being somewhat contrary to his preferred course of philosophical interpretation. From this perspective, maturing involves ‘becoming who we already are’, because we eternally repeat the same life over and over again. Hence, as Nietzsche suggests in Human, All Too Human, an artist’s ambition “demands above all that their work should preserve the highest excellence in their own eyes, as they understand excellence.” Nietzsche also remarks in the same book that as a writer becomes more and more extolled, he begins to detach himself from himself and obtain an additional identity, a persona, as ‘the writer’ for the public, not as an individual. He takes on the role of ‘teacher’ through his work, resulting in the cessation of being “serious with regard to himself.” Perhaps this is partly because acclaimed writing outlives the author. In fact, not only is the writing the posthumous representation of the ‘life’ of that author, but in the end the writing simultaneously (and paradoxically) takes on a life of its own. One’s writing acquires a separate identity, which only kills the author even more. In Ferdinand de Saussure’s terms, writing becomes more an interaction of signs, the union of the signified, the referent and the signifier, moderated by the nature of the signifier – in this case the author’s name – rather than by the writing’s actual content. As Foucault elaborates, this leaves a wide-open space, into which the author vanishes. The writing subject irrefutably disappears. Writing becomes a sacrifice of life.

I assume that most will agree that a piece of writing should be judged on its own merits, and not for instance on its relationship to other works by the same author, or to that of other authors. However, as Foucault succinctly claims, the name of an author is “functional in that it serves as a means for classification.” This creates what Foucault terms the ‘author-function’, which contrasts with our idea of the author as a real individual. Our way of reading texts is often to project ourselves into the words. The author-function arises out of the schism between this ‘projection’ and the actual writer; that is, between the actual writer and the way we understand the ‘fictional narrator’. One example of this is how we interpret the word ‘I’ in a text. We might mistakenly attribute the ‘I’ to the author, especially if he or she wrote anonymously. Or when there is an author’s name, we might falsely assign the ‘I’ to a specific character.

Foucault’s idea of the ‘author-function’ was again possibly inspired by Nietzsche, who once spoke of ‘author’s paradoxes’ like this: “The so-called paradoxes of an author to which a reader takes exception very often stand not at all in the author’s book but in the reader’s hand.” (Human, All Too Human.)

We see again and again how dangerous and destructive our seemingly innate penchant to categorize can be. I certainly wouldn’t want someone to falsely unify ‘my work’ after analyzing my biographical, psychological, cultural and historical backgrounds. I wouldn’t want to be recognized primarily as ‘the woman and her work’. I’d prefer for each piece I write to be read and evaluated independently.

As we flip through the pages of the history books of our lives, most of us reflect on how much we have changed. This is especially true for any kind of artist. Do we not chuckle, perhaps even become slightly embarrassed, when we look back and find work from the past that seems so, so very old? Every so often, when I make a trip home to see my family, I browse through my old things, often stumbling upon all sorts of writing and musings. When I read them, I think about how far everyone inevitably improves throughout their life’s journeys, in whatever is their art. I broodingly ponder how pathetically badly I used to write. This makes me realize how strongly I would disapprove of someone coming along and grouping everything I have ever written together as my oeuvre.

It isn’t just about learning and progressing; it’s also about maturing. There has to be a time when an individual artist decides for him or herself when it is alright to begin to consider their works as ‘art’; as their art. Thus, as Foucault elaborates in ‘What is an Author?’ the repercussions of the argument about what’s significant extend beyond the discipline of literature to whichever other form of art one may be discussing.

Books and Biopolitics

Foucault extends his philosophy beyond Nietzsche’s concept of ‘the reader’s hand’ into the realm of what he calls biopolitics. Briefly, this is about how modern political power-relations have turned human beings into biological subjects. Foucault classifies this as a major change in the general concept of sovereignty, which began in the seventeenth century, developed in the eighteenth, and expanded in the nineteenth century. A new kind of sovereign power over life evolved, which Foucault defines in terms of the biopolitics of sexuality. He compares the old kind of society with the new:

“A society of blood ... where power spoke through blood: the honor of war, the fear of famine, the triumph of death, the sovereign with his sword, executioners, and tortures; the blood was a reality with a symbolic function. We, on the other hand, are in a society of ‘sex’, or rather a society ‘with a sexuality’: the mechanisms of power are addressed to the body, to life, to what causes it to proliferate, to what reinforces the species, its stamina, its ability to dominate, or its capacity for being used.”
(Michel Foucault, A History of Sexuality, Vol. 1)

Sexuality became the point where the political and the body meet. Thus the biological came under state control and became political. A ‘normalizing society’ was formed where the use of power was directly connected to the body.

Foucault contends that this form of politics founded in biology and sexuality was the result of two poles, or novel definitions of the body. The first pole was “centered on the body as a machine.” This involved an emphasis on discipline, when the idea of the population as the source of production became more crucial with the progression and advancement of industrialization and capitalism. The second pole, as Foucault says, “formed somewhat later, focused on the species body, the body imbued with the mechanics of life and serving as the basis of the biological processes.” In other words, power became concerned with the generation of life in order to further production, therefore requiring regulation of the biological processes of the population. To summarize, Foucault concludes: “The disciplines of the body and the regulation of the population constituted the two poles around which the organization of power over life was deployed – there was an explosion of numerous and diverse techniques for achieving the subjugation of bodies and the control of populations, marking the beginning of an era of biopower.” (History.) Speaking generally, this led to new technologies based on discipline and the regulation of sexuality in order to maintain the most optimally productive citizenry. For Foucault this is how the population has insidiously been controlled ever since.

This general theory penetrates into the ‘writing industry’ in that, starting in the nineteenth century, there was what Foucault calls the ‘biopolitical’ rise of a system of ownership and strict copyright rules, which turned writing more into a commodity and into property than ever before. This was a direct result of the body being seen increasingly as a ‘machine for production’ and the population as a source of output – in this case, for the capital of writing. Hence the added value and intensified significance of the writer’s name. This is how Foucault defines the problematic and polemical nature of the ‘modern author’. Moreover, as Foucault contends, the author and his or her writing became controlled in accordance with what also began in the nineteenth century, the sovereign power to “foster life or disallow it to the point of death” – or to foster or disallow what some lives produce: the capital of writing. The author’s name therefore acquired a more conspicuous economic value, which superseded even its textual value. The name and the product became inseparable, as they were unified into a single identity based on literary capital. Accordingly, today, in Foucault’s words, “literary works are totally dominated by the sovereignty of the author” and further: “Where a work had the duty of creating immortality, it now attains the right to kill, to become the murderer of its author.” (‘Author’) This is perhaps another reason why the French term écriture has been so improperly applied, resultantly lowering writing to its primordial status.

But perhaps we should not try to change or abolish this ‘significance of the name’: we probably cannot anyway. After all, any text inevitably contains various Sausurrian signs which refer to the author, as Foucault reminds us. It seems safe to assume that even if we eradicated the ‘system of names’ by which we abbreviate the concepts we have about their work, something similar would emerge. Inevitably there will always be some sort of structure imposed to classify and organize knowledge. Moreover, the ‘sovereignty of the author’ is certainly true for literary works and the arts in general. As Foucault argues, literary discourse requires the recording of the author’s name, and the date, place and circumstances under which the text was written. This is not necessarily the case for other fields, such as the sciences. There are some fundamental differences here, which Foucault outlines. He invites us to compare Shakespeare and Galileo. If we learn something new about Galileo, such as the discovery of an unknown text, or in the extreme, learning that he never wrote anything attributed to him, this would only change our understanding of history and of Galileo, but it would probably not alter the discipline of science itself. Moreover, true and valid scientific theory can more easily be accepted anonymously. New knowledge of Shakespeare, on the other hand, such as learning that he never wrote the sonnets, would drastically change the function of his name in literature. It would consequently modify our organization and knowledge of the literary arts quite a bit, and perhaps even touch upon our beliefs concerning psychology. Foucault also cites Marx and Freud (appropriately both born in the nineteenth century), as the most important of what he labels ‘initiators of discursive practices’ – those who are given the privilege of being classified as starting ‘literary movements’. Profound new erudition about Freud would dramatically alter not just his historical role, but also the entire discipline of psychoanalysis, and probably much of the psychological theory developed thereafter. The same can be said of Marx, not just for Marxism, but also for much of the political theory subsequently elaborated. Because new knowledge of either of these ‘initiators’ would also modify our general concept of human nature, the effects could even extend to change the overall dynamics of society.

However, my suggestion here isn’t necessarily that we should not use ‘the name’ as we do. Rather, as Foucault proposes, we should “reexamine the empty space left by the author’s disappearance.” In other words, we need to further analyze this kind of void, the death of the author, in order to better understand the importance of a famous name. So: what truly is the name of an author? What is the author’s role? Who controls the circulation of texts? How does a text exist? Etcetera. Analyzing these questions will help us better understand the distribution and diffusion of texts as well as their authors. In turn, this will also add to our overall understanding, not just about society in general, but also about human nature. Categorization in general is certainly essential for survival, but this is sticky territory, as the tendency to categorize has led to deep faults such as racism. We must make sure that we at least ask every relevant question here.

The Ghost of the Author

What place does the ghostwriter have in all this? I must say I was a bit shocked when I first learned what sort of career this is. As we become locked into our personal favorite writers, and as the names on the covers of their books become larger in size than the titles, we become almost blinded, to the point that, unbelievably considering how much we like this author, sometimes we may never know who actually wrote what we are reading. An author who has acquired enough credibility to hire a ghostwriter may be one of the types Foucault refers to when he adduces that “The author of a novel may be responsible for more than his own text; if he acquires some ‘importance’ in the literary world, his influence can have significant ramifications.” At least one of those possible ramifications has already been noted in this paragraph: names can hold so much importance that they can even become somewhat ‘counterfeit’, in the sense of being false and manipulative.

‘Initiators of discursive practices’ are especially poignant examples of the magical significance of names. For Foucault, the main reason for the basically superficial worth we place on a name is that “A text has an inaugurative value precisely because it is the work of a particular author, and our returns are conditioned by this knowledge.” But if the name of the author is so important, then clearly the concept of the ghostwriter is paradoxical. Nietzsche once defined the ‘best author’ as “he who is ashamed to become a writer.” In other words,for Nietzsche, the best authors are those who work for themselves and do not think of the capital ‘A’ in ‘Author’. This indirectly reminds us that even if a certain author is highly regarded, his or her texts should still be read and treated individually. Each text is first and foremost a particular set of words, not by an Author, but by an author.

Another reason why Nietzsche is so polemical here is because of the effect fame can have on the author. It is very difficult for the successful author to successfully avoid getting wrapped up in ‘reputation’. One consequence, as hinted in Nietzsche’s opening quote, is the need to live up to that notoriety. Sometimes the applause overwhelms the author to the point of overpowering their ability to produce. When this happens, a need is created to conceal the fact that, as Nietzsche allegorizes, “they cannot walk” as well as they are reputed to do. Hence, they “cover up their feet” with elaborate sentences. This also contributes to the need for ghostwriters, besides the excuse that the famous authors are too busy. A ghostwriter may help hide their faltering steps. More often perhaps than most people realize, ghostwriters help authors to continue to live up to their renown. Considering that the actual text should be the most important part of the writing process, the most important conclusion in all of this is that ghostwriting inevitably changes the product.

It has been estimated that up to fifty percent of all books published are ghostwritten. Of course, many of those books are dictated by someone who wants to share their knowledge but does not like to write, or cannot write well. Memoirs and scientific books are common examples of this. Is the use of a ghostwriter only problematic when writing is one’s primary career? Either way, perhaps one of the first thoughts which arises when contemplating ghostwriting is the ghostwriter’s somewhat depressing need to forego their ego for their immediate exigency to earn a living. So, following Foucault in his essay, perhaps our next step should be to ask why ghostwriters exist in the first place. What does this say about the significance of a name? How does it add to our understanding of the circulation of texts? We should extend our questions and analysis beyond the obvious, into every possible realm.

How now do we talk about ‘the evolution of the artist’? This is complicated precisely because the repercussions of this discussion extend beyond the artist, to every aspect of society, including politics, culture and history. In the case of a writer, as Foucault explains, “The name of an author remains at the contours of texts – separating one from the other, defining their form, and characterizing their mode of existence. It points to the existence of certain groups of discourse and refers to the status of this discourse within a society and culture.” (in ‘Author’.)

This, therefore, is the Foucauldian style of textual criticism: one that does not ignore this significance of the name, but rather questions every factor that is at play. Nonetheless, we can counter Foucault’s literary theories by reminding ourselves that he developed them simultaneously with a general trend in the Sixties, which made popular the idea of disregarding biographical factors in literary interpretation. Or, if you prefer, we can ask, was Foucault the primary initiator of this form of discourse analysis? What’s more, Foucault claims that we can’t always discover what an author is like through reading their text. Even though we often try, we repeatedly fall into the trap of projecting ourselves into the text. However, it seems unlikely that he would have been able to authoritatively arrive at this conclusion without first having somewhat contradictorily sketched out the biographies of several authors. This does not mean that Foucault’s analysis and interpretation should not be used; rather maybe it should be used with less authority.

Either way, it’s obvious that the questions regarding the significance of a name are unremitting. Hence, there are perhaps several definitions of an author. Which is the best? Is this simply a matter of personal opinion? Which understandings do we want to change, even if we can? After all, as Foucault claims of writing, “its status and its manner of reception are regulated by the culture in which it circulates.” As Nietzsche reminded us in the opening aphorism, the significance of a name can also have a powerful effect on the author him/herself, when they become so caught up in their reputation that they cannot walk/write as well as advertised.

Perhaps it is best to end as I began: What truly is an author? Should it really matter who’s writing? Paraphrasing Foucault: I beg you, please do not ask me who I am, and please do not ask me to remain the same.

© Marnie Binder 2007

Marnie Binder claims to have written this piece and that she is also a teacher who holds a Master’s Degree in Humanities and Social Thought.

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