Thursday, July 01, 2010

Michel Foucault and the Authorship Question.

July 11, 2010 at 5:45 P.M. The following essay was subjected to numerous attacks when I first posted it at MSN and blogger:

New "errors" inserted into a number of essays, together with obstructions and problems accessing this site, have made it difficult to write today. I will continue to struggle to do so.

July 20, 2007 at 10:05 A.M. I am blocking: (NJ) (NJ)

I have not replaced the image accompanying this essay, which has been blocked by hackers. Sometimes, blocked images are restored -- after a security search or restarting my computer, only to be deleted again. I believe that these hackers are affiliated with the disgraced legal system of New Jersey.

It is a federal crime to violate (or conspire to violate) civil rights, including free speech rights. The persons engaging in such violations -- in response to legitimate and legal criticisms -- are entrusted with enforcing the law, including civil rights laws. The persons engaging in this unethical and criminal conduct, publicly, will then judge the ethics of others. Please see "New Jersey's Feces-Covered Supreme Court."

This continuing and very public horror is made possible by political bosses providing protection for such criminality.

Is a nation engaging in secret psychological tortures of its own citizens losing the authority to comment on the human rights records of other countries? Ethics? ("Is Senator Bob 'For' Human Rights?" and "Does Senator Menendez Have Mafia Friends?")

"What is an author?"

Michel Foucault once asked the question: "What is an author?" In seeking to answer this question, Foucault said: "I want to deal solely with the relationship between text and author and with the manner in which the text points to this figure that, at least in appearance, is outside it and antecedes it." (p. 101.)

All of my citations are to Foucault's essay "What is an Author?," in Paul Rabinow, ed., The Michel Foucault Reader (New York: Pantheon, 1984), p. 101.

Prior to modernity there were simply stories. Story-tellers were the inheritors of an oral tradition of narration. The adventures and religious dreams of a people were sung or repeated from memory and taught to the young for centuries without much concern for attribution. Even after the arrival of writing there was little worry about attribution or identification of the teller of the tale.

The emergence of the author as an even more central figure than the hero of the story had to do with such material and concrete considerations as the development of copyright laws and the explosion in the earning power of authors resulting from the spread of literacy to the middle class after the industrial revolution.

Accounts of the arrival of Charles Dickens in New York to offer "dramatic" readings from his works in a sold-out Broadway theater suggest a level of celebrity for authors by the middle of the nineteenth century well in excess of anything cinema or rock stars can experience today.

The still young Foucault -- under the fading spell of structuralism and using terms like "signifier" and "signified" at the drop of Magritte's hat -- is fascinated by Beckett's riddle for the contemporary reader: "What does it matter who is speaking?"

It does not matter "who" speaks, Foucault suggests, because "writing unfolds like a game [or "playing"] (jeu) that invariably goes beyond its own rules and transgresses its limits. In writing the point is not to manifest or exalt the act of writing, nor is it to pin a subject within language; it is, rather, a question of creating a space into which the writing subject constantly disappears." (p. 102.)

Perhaps the "real" Dickens -- for us -- is not the nineteenth century man arriving in New York with a lingering backache, but a voice or presence found in (or created by) sentences strung together in a text, black marks on white paper, words appearing before the eyes of the reader.

Today, in fact, words may just as well appear on a computer screen. The essential literary gesture is an invitation to the reader to share in the author's consciousness. It is a request to be seen and heard. ("Beauty and the Beast" then "John Banville's 'The Newton Letter.'")

Shakespeare promised to make his lover immortal with a Sonnet. He may well have succeeded in doing so despite the mysteries that gather around his own name. Yet the living person inspiring those passions is now long gone.

With the creation of a text -- say, a novel -- separated lovers can be reunited in a narrative and the "wounds of the spirit may heal," while also allowing for a final defeat not only of life's most cruel injustices and painful separations, but also of that "villain" time.

One excellent reason to write is to get even.

Is an author merely a name? The arrival of the author and the new prominence of texts in modernity is not unrelated to the crafty strategies by which writers seek to outwit death. Foucault says:

"Our culture has metamorphosed this idea of narrative, or writing, as something designed to ward off death. Writing has become linked to sacrifice, even to the sacrifice of life: It is now a voluntary effacement which does not need to be represented in books, since it is brought about in the writer's very existence. The work, which once had the duty of providing immortality, now possesses the right to kill, to be its author's murderer, as in the cases of Flaubert, Proust, and Kafka." (p. 102.)

Is this true of Shakespeare?

Foucault is saving Shakespeare for later in his essay; it seems only fair that I do the same.

Comparisons abound at this point, everything from Julian Barnes' novel Flaubert's Parrot to George Perec's writings come to mind to illustrate Foucault's point. In the Michael Frayn novel The Trick of It, a puzzled academic follows "his" author to discern the magic that the unlikely figure conjures in order to perform this elusive trick of becoming an "author" by producing a narrative, only to find himself more bewildered in the end; worse, this puzzled academic finds himself pinned -- like a rare butterfly -- to the page of the very book the reader holds in his or her hands that is ostensibly written by someone named "Michael Frayn."

Nabokov's fascination with butterflies is understandable because these beautiful creatures are symbols both of the human soul and linguistic meaning, freedom and self-becoming. ("Lolita, Light of my life.")

I will set aside Nicholson Baker's exercise in Updike fascination entitled U and I since I have written a long essay on Updike myself. I am planning an even longer one about Gore Vidal to be called V and Me. Vidal anticipated all of this fancy Left Bank theory in his essay "French Letters: Theories of the New Novel" and in Myra Breckinridge, but even more by Vidal's reinvention of the Gospel narrative in Messiah, then again in Live From Golgotha. Here is a hint: Read the final paragraph of Messiah before you read the first. Colin McGinn, "Nabokov's Formula," in Ethics, Evil and Fiction (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997), pp. 108-113.

This disappearance of the author has led to a concern on the part of critics with several other notions meant to supplant the author in our investigations. One such notion is the idea of the "work."

What is the extent of the writerly "corpus" (interesting word!) of the author? How much is to be included in the writer's literary or written "works"? A grocery list? Jacques Derrida famously wonders about the inclusion in the Nietzsche Nachlass of a note: "I have forgotten my umbrella."

Where do we draw the boundary around a group of texts so as to call that group a single text? Are the Tales of the Thousand and One Nights only one "work"? What about The Decameron? Or The Cantebury Tales? What about the U.S. Constitution and the centuries of case law interpreting its abstract provisions? Does the original document and the set of interpretations generated by it constitute a single "work"?

The only possible response to these questions is the philosophers' favorite phrase -- "That depends on what you mean."

For Jean Paul Sartre there could be no author and no work until there was a reader. In his essay "What is Literature?" Sartre insisted: Literature demands "the conjoint effort of author and reader . ... There is no art except for others." (p. 37.)

In deciding between the idea of the author as exclusively the empirical reality of Charles Dickens with his backache and upset stomach arriving in New York, and the author as the persona standing behind the narratives appearing under the name "Charles Dickens," Foucault suggests that we play off "one against the other, two ways of characterizing writing, namely, the critical and the religious approaches. Giving writing a primal status seems to be a way of retranslating, in transcendental terms, both the theological affirmation of its sacred character and the critical affirmation of its creative character." (p. 104.)

This last statement by Foucault was merely the left jab followed by this beauty of a right cross:

"To admit that writing is, because of the very history that it made possible, subject to the test of oblivion and repression, seems to represent, in transcendental terms, the religious principle of the hidden meaning (which requires interpretation) and the critical principle of implicit significations, silent determinations, and obscured contents (which gives rise to commentary)." (p. 105.)

We live in a suspicious and literal time, a time that is wary of the imagination and its products; dismissive of the non-factual and brutally reductive in its understanding of truth. We prefer "masculine toughness" in thought to feminine "sensitivity."

The absurdity of these categories should be apparent, as I never tire of insisting.

The religious notion of the author as akin to a Kantian noumenal or "transcendental ego" floating above the page or within the tradition, like a guardian angel, is deeply unsettling to literal- but not literary-minded academics in America who, nevertheless, like to think of themselves as "rigorous" and "powerful" thinkers. Hence, some may wonder whether the questionable mathematical capacities of women indicate an inherent "inferiority," not realizing that it is only their own imaginative and intellectual inadequacies that such a question reveals. ("David Stove and the Intellectual Capacities of Women.")

Is it really not possible to imagine any other explanation for a difference in performance on math tests by young girls, Professor Summers, as compared with boys than so-called "intellectual deficiency" in young girls? Does a culture that makes the notion of a "math geek" even less acceptable for girls as compared with boys not have something to do with this situation?

Scholars in the humanities tend to suffer from "science envy." When Foucault throws in talk of the transcendental "excess of the text's meaning in relation to the author," professors panic, wondering whether law school is still an option. In fact, Foucault is only warming up. He will turn to the nature of the author's name and then to the author's function, before offering some conclusions. (Again: "David Stove and the Intellectual Capacity of Women.")

"The other one, the one called 'Borges' ..." -- Jorge Luis Borges.

The disappearance of the author has been duly noted by Foucault, but then who or what is it that is disappearing? What is an author's "name" and is that all that we mean by authorship? Is an author only a "linkage" from the text to a name? What function does the author's name perform in a text, besides that of identification? Foucault says:

"The author's name is a proper name, and therefore it raises the problems common to all proper names. [Foucault cites John Searle's work concerning "speech acts."] ... Obviously, one cannot turn a proper name into a pure and simple reference. It has other than indicative functions: more than an indication, a gesture, a finger pointed at someone, it is the equivalent of a description." (p. 105.)

The distinction between denotation and connotation will not be all that helpful, much to the chagrin of analytical philosophers and literal-minded lawyers, because names of authors not only serve as labels attached to specific human beings, but also as general descriptions. To describe a situation as frightening may amount to saying that it was a "Steven King moment" while a nightmarish experience with bureaucracy becomes "Kafkaesque."

An author's name is both an identification of a historical individual and a description of a set of qualities that exist in the mind which are understood, through language, independently of the actual presence of a physical or empirical individual fulfilling (or displaying) those qualities. An appeal to Derrida's work is useful. (See the story entitled: "Sherlock Holmes and The Case of the Missing Author" and "Jacques Derrida's Philosophy as Jazz.")

The same point applies to great literary characters, like Sherlock Holmes. To speak of sharp powers of deduction and flamboyant investigative techniques, for example, of the peculiar, embodied characteristics unique to Holmes, is instantly understandable to readers all over the world, regardless of the non-existence in the "real" world of a person possessing those specific mannerisms and history. Theological issues are highly analogous in this ostensibly "post-deistic culture."

Is our Western culture "post-deistic," I wonder? Foucault states:

"The proper name and the author's name are situated between the two poles of description and designation: they must have a certain link with what they name, but one that is neither entirely in the mode of designation nor in that of description; it must be a specific link. However -- and it is here that the particular difficulties of the author's name arise -- for the links between the proper name and the individual named and the author's name and what it names are not isomorphic and do not function in the same way." (p. 106.)

Samuel Clemens is a name attached to a specific individual, who is now gone; Mark Twain is an author associated with certain texts in a mysterious relationship, who is very much alive within those texts, amusing many and troubling others with unanticipated questions. Twain's disturbing essays on religion did not appear until after his death. There are distinct and philosophically puzzling relationships between those two names and what or "who" they "identify."

If it turns out that we were mistaken about the house in which Shakespeare was born, to take another example, so that tourists have been led around for decades in what turns out to be the home of, say, Shakespeare's taylor and not his own dwelling, this would have little bearing on the use of the name "Shakespeare" in connection with his plays, or upon what that name means for us.

On the other hand, if the author of Shakespeare's plays turned out to be the Earl of Oxford, Queen Elizabeth, or a visitor from another planet (I lean towards the third possibility), then the use of the name which has been attached to a set of specific texts becomes much more problematic. ("Shakespeare's Black Prince.")

We become less certain that we know who Shakespeare was or is, or with whom (with what historical personage) the qualities of the dazzling authorial intelligence that we associate with his great works is to be linked. What matters most to me, as a reader, is the possibility of encountering that intelligence -- not the name attached to it by scholars -- when I open my volume of The Collected Works of William Shakespeare.

To say that Homer, for example, did not exist may only amount to suggesting that several writers were brought together under that name and it would have no bearing on the quality of the texts which we associate with the name "Homer." Similarly, the intelligence and subtle humor emerging from the plays and poetry associated with the name "Shakespeare" continue to exist even if we decide to call that organizing intelligence by another name. This is because the value in the experience of the great works that we think of as "Shakespeare's plays" is not altered at all, and neither is the meeting with the genius to be found "within" them by such a change in attribution. "A rose by any other name ..."

Who is the author of Kierkegaard's texts? Victor Eremita, Climacus, Anti-Climacus, Frater Taciturnus, Constantine Constantius, are each narrators of different levels of intelligence and values, and different degrees of reliability. Kierkegaard is not usually regarded as a literary author, but as a writer of non-fiction, a philosopher, so that his texts are found in the philosophy section of the bookstore. Assuming for the moment that philosophy is best thought of as non-fiction, which is not at all clear, then it seems that the philosopher's name exists only to the extent that it performs a certain function. The author's role simply is that function -- to bring together and organize a number of texts. Also, the author establishes relationships between texts. For example: "this was written before his messy divorce, but after his conversion to Communism" may be a typical critical observation. Kierkegaard's device of deliberately fragmenting the literary self in order to avoid schizoid division in life -- or in the quest for Regina Olsen -- has not been surpassed. ("The Wanderer and His Shadow" and "What you will ..." then "Magician's Choice" and "Metaphor is Mystery.")

Scientists have found the notion of a "Deus Principle" similarly helpful in theoretical understandings of the workings of nature. This is a point reinforced and not challenged by the principle of parsimony.

I am certainly not suggesting that God is scientifically provable. I am suggesting that the idea of God may help "readers" to understand the meaning of what is "known" (scientifically) and is fully compatible with that knowledge as well as humanistic understandings in art. Others may prefer an "Anthropic" principle which may amount to the same thing. ("Is it rational to believe in God?")

Foucault summarizes his thinking:

"It would seem that the author's name, unlike other proper names, does not pass from the interior of a discourse to the real and exterior individual who produced it; instead, the name seems always to be present, marking off the edges of the text, revealing or at least characterizing, its mode of being. The author's name manifests the appearance of a certain discursive set and indicates the status of this discourse within a society and culture." (p. 107.)

Foucault concludes:

"The author function is therefore characteristic of the mode of existence, circulation, and functioning of certain discourses within a society." (p. 108.)

Authors only exist in societies where modes of discourse make the concept necessary. Within our Western civilization Foucault identifies four functions of the author's name: 1) the authorial function allows us to make texts or discourses "objects of appropriation," property, in other words; 2) it allows for the categorical differentiation of texts for scientific as opposed to literary purposes; 3) the author function does not merely develop spontaneously, so that it serves to "construct [socially] a certain rational being that we call an author" (p. 110.); 4) finally, the author provides the principle of a certain unity of writing.

Foucault might have added another function: The author becomes an identity, the performance of a role for that taciturn and shy person sitting at his computer keyboard constructing a narrative by which to transcend his or her physical and other limitations. ("Spephen Hawking's Free Will is Determined" and "Stephen Hawking is Right On Time.")

It is this penultimate function that provides the link to the tradition governing the attribution of Scripture and brings Foucault to the currently fashionable method of "hermeneutic reconstruction" -- which is a fancy way of saying "figuring out how or why some writing 'exists' as a text." Here is Foucault being brilliant again:

"The author is also the principle of a certain unity of writing -- all differences having to be resolved, at least in part, by the principles of evolution, maturation, or influence. The author also serves to neutralize the contradictions that may emerge in a series of texts: there must be -- at a certain level of his thought or desire, of his consciousness or unconscious -- a point where contradictions are resolved, where incompatible elements are at last tied together[,] or organized around a fundamental or originating contradiction." (p. 111.)

Think of the author as a magician who pulls not a rabbit, but him- or herself out of a hat, as part of the set of "tricks" presented to an audience. (The audience is really one "person" or "reader.") The literary magician's theatrical gestures, robes and wands, smoke and mirrors, must be seen as part of the literary "performance."

I often use the example of the narrator's opening monologue in "The Glass Menagerie" to illustrate this point -- "... [The author] is the opposite of the stage magician. [The magician] gives you illusion that has the appearance of truth; [the author] gives you truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion." ("God is Texting Me!" then "Master and Commander.")

Notice where all of this is leading Foucault and all of us, as readers, for he extends his reasoning to the interpretation of traditions within languages that "speak" authors. This is to touch again on the sacred or religious origins of authorial power. ("Sinbad's Excellent New York Adventure" and "The 'Galatea Scenario' and the Mind/Body Problem.")

Is the author dead?

"It is easy to see that in the sphere of discourse," Foucault writes, "one can be the author of much more than a book -- one can be the author of a theory, tradition, or discipline in which other books and authors will in their turn find a place. These authors are in a position which we call 'transdiscursive.' This is a recurring phenomenon[.]" (p. 113.)

Marx, Freud, or the authors of the American Constitution are, accordingly, "authors" of an entire mode of discourse, in which there is a recurring pattern of return to an original sacred or revered text (or texts) for re-authorization of the interpretive and constructive license to add or contribute to that tradition.

The literary-mythical tradition operates as a constraint on authorship setting the preconditions -- as do general social conditions and needs -- for what will be written and why. ("Is it rational to believe in God?")

The social setting along with the language used "creates" the author. The point to bear in mind is that the author is distinct from the person who writes the texts that we admire. Neither of these entities -- author nor individual human being -- can be "found" by searching for the other. Do not look for Samuel Clemens in the writings of Mark Twain for you may be disappointed. Foucault concludes:

"How, under what conditions, and in what forms can something like a subject appear in the order of discourse? What place can it occupy in each type of discourse, what functions can it assume, and by obeying what rules? In short, it is a matter of depriving the subject (or its substitute) of its role as originator, and of analyzing the subject as a variable and complex function of discourse." (p. 118.)

The language and historical moment "speaks" the author according to Foucault. The author is only a functional principle of inclusion and exclusion, one that becomes less important with new modes of discourse.

Foucault wrote before the advent of the Internet, which seems to confirm some of his more dire predictions. As discourse spreads and morphs -- becomes a shape-shifter in cyberspace -- it acquires additions and variations while continuing to undergo transformations since an alter-ego borrows a text from another then taking that text (in its altered form) to a third location in a constant process of ever-wider dissemination. By such means traditional authorship becomes increasingly irrelevant and the scripted self is "disseminated" more widely.

The point may be clearer with cinema where a vocabulary of images is quickly shared among directors, writers, actors in the ultimate collaborative medium. Much the same may be said of celebrity and identity in the age of images as famous "personas" are fashioned in the way that actors create "characters" on screen. Leonardo DiCaprio must invent a movie star persona and an everyday self. Most of us can barely manage to create one identity. It is easy to see why famous people suffer from psychological "vertigo." ("Serendipity, III" and "'Inception': A Movie Review" then "A Doll's Aria.")

I reject Foucault's most extreme claims.

Without authors, without authorial vision, coherence and finally relevance both disappear from texts. Authors can never disappear entirely, they do not even fade away. "Authors" only become more complex entities in our brave new communicative environment. ("Conversation On a Train" and "Beauty and the Beast.")

"Look for me, find me," the author says, "in the magic castle of the text."

The reader must understand -- I know that this is paradoxical -- that by finding the author in any complex work, he or she will also be finding the unique personal truth of that work. If you find the author in the text then you will have found yourself in it. At the center of the linguistic labyrinth there is always a mirror which is held by the author. Analogies to the scientists' task of reading "the book of nature" should be obvious, along with the theological implications of this observation. ("Is it rational to believe in God?" and "Is this atheism's moment?" then "Pieta.")

This is the advice to keep in mind, when coping with the mystery of Shakespeare. Do not get bogged down in the historical clues about the Stratford genius concerning where he slept or what he ate. Search for Shakespeare in that glorious poetry of the plays and you will find him ... always smarter, wiser, more forgiving than yourself, telling you who you are.

The analogies to religious thinking, again, are obvious: At the center of any great "work" is the possibility of an embrace (abrazo) with an authorial intelligence that, through that experience of absorption alone, results in the giving and receiving of something precious. The books are for you. ("An Evening With Gore Vidal" and "Shakespeare's Black Prince.")

If it is true that every text is better for a good than for a bad reader, then it must be equally true that every good reader is made better by a rich and complex text which is the priceless gift of a good author. Moreover, the text is also made better by good readers. ("'The Reader': A Movie Review" and "'Revolutionary Road': A Movie Review.")

Writing and reading well is a kind of "energy exchange," as Erica Jong has said. This may be even more true of cinema. Good and active viewers will always get more out of movies than passive viewers of films. (See my reviews of "The American" and "Inception.")

"I think that, as our society changes, at the very moment when it is in the process of changing, the author function will disappear, and in such a manner that fiction and its polysemous texts will once again function according to another mode, but still within a system of constraint -- one which will no longer be the author, but which will have to be determined, or perhaps experienced." (p. 119.)

Does it make a difference who is speaking?

Despite Foucault, I think that it always matters who writes a text and who wishes to read it. You are a text. ("Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Missing Author.")

The deepest connection in communication by means of language is always with an absent subject of discourse -- it is a human connection. I choose to read (and re-read) what a favorite author writes, not the writing that I then check against its source to determine who wrote it. If the text speaks to me I know who wrote it -- regardless of the name attached to the work. I defy anyone not to recognize the haunting voice of Myra Breckinridge on the page as contrasted with the Chandler-like style of, say, crime novelist Edgar Best. ("Metaphor is Mystery.")

Much the same may be said of film directors: I know when Steven Spielberg is directing after about two minutes of viewing a film.

Readers are changed by those authors whom we cherish, finding ourselves saying things in a new style as we absorb the admired qualities of the favored literary persona.

Among the most spiritual forms of love (and no, "love" is not too strong a word for serious readers when it comes to some authors) is that curious relationship that may arise between some writers and readers, between readers as the co-authors of the texts that they admire most and writers hoping to be understood (above and beyond their texts), or even loved, by their best readers. (See Virginia Wolf's "A Room of Her Own" and "The Ideal Reader.")

It has been suggested that "we read in order to know that we are not alone."

Maybe it is better to say that we create texts (and read them?) in order to find (or create?) our "other selves," perfect readers who will know that we were here and feel our absence when we are gone, sharing in our perceptions and pains, in our laughter and rage at the powerful, which is another way of saying, who will love us. ("Abrazo.")

We who search for missing lovers and truths, especially, will seek for -- and maybe find them -- only on the page. Recall E.M. Foster's advice: "Only connect."


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