Authors

I want to talk about something that has a bit of history and can get very complicated. Back in the 1960s Michel Foucault and Roland Barthes began to question whether “the author” had a future in a “postmodern” culture. (They didn’t call it that, but it’s what we have come to call the future they were talking about, which bears some resemblance to our present, of course.) Foucault asked us to consider what the function of the author in discourse has historically been and whether that function might not change. Indeed, is it not possible that “the author function” could be transformed entirely beyond recognition? This would in effect be what Barthes called “the death of the author”.

Like I say, this isn’t a new issue. It’s been a topic of discussion for fifty years now and I’m sure there are people who will take issue with my simple-minded statement of the problem even in the preceding paragraph. I want to take it up within the limited domain of “scholarly” discourse. Is the problem of authorship different for scholars? Does the “scholar function” mark a different set of problems?

In the natural sciences, this hasn’t really ever been an issue. Scientists do not consider themselves primarily writers but, precisely, scientists. They do their work in labs and observatories or out in the field. They worry more about coordinating their hands and eyes with the apparatus than they do about finding their “voice” in the “text”. There aren’t really “authors” in science, except in very special cases, usually when a scientist begins to “popularize”. Carl Sagan, for example, had an “author function” in discourse. But it must be noted that this function doesn’t really have a place in the technical, scientific literature. It’s in public discourse that his voice is heard.

Since the early twentieth century, the social sciences have–sometimes eagerly, sometimes reluctantly–tried to emulate the discourse of the natural sciences. While social theory was once organized around a few major figures–Marx, Weber, Habermas, to take one famous lineage–it is now increasingly organized into research projects with rather more anonymous contributors. Social scientists spend less of their time reading and critiquing their precursors these days and more of their time generating new “empirical results”. Even before Foucault, Martin Heidegger was noticing this more “incisive atmosphere” in academia, which was shaping minds of “a different stamp”. They spent less of their time reading, thinking and writing, and more of their time travelling, meeting and negotiating. Today we might add that they spend a great deal of time writing grant applications and research assessments. “The scholar disappears,” as Heidegger put it.

Maybe I’m a romantic, but I don’t think we should abandon the author function in scholarship. Foucault found the traditional questions we ask about an authors “tiresome”:

  • “Who is the real author?”
  • “Have we proof of his authenticity and originality?”
  • “What has he revealed of his most profound self in his language?”

He wanted to ask other questions:

  • “What are the modes of existence of this discourse?”
  • “Where does it come from; how is it circulated; who controls it?”
  • “What placements are determined for possible subjects?”
  • “Who can fulfill these diverse functions of the subject?”

It’s not that I don’t think Foucault’s questions are interesting to ask about major writers like Shakespeare and Flaubert. It’s just that I’m not sure they are very helpful in thinking about our own work and that of our peers. I always think of something Wayne Booth said in the preface to his Rhetoric of Irony:

“I have heard it said that the two standard tutorial questions at Oxford are “What does he mean?” and “How does he know?” I doubt the report—no university could be that good…”

I think these are good questions to replace Foucault’s “tiresome” ones, and better than the ones that Foucault proposes, since they threaten to do away with the author altogether. I don’t think we should always reduce “How does the author know?” to question about the control and circulation of discourse. We shouldn’t always think that “authors” must account for their “authority” (and hence their authenticity). We should mean these questions in the ordinary sense of what justification the author has for believing the claims made in the text. Are those justifications also good enough for us?

I truly believe that our discourse needs to recover its author function. It should be possible ask each other what we mean and how we know without raising profound questions of authenticity or dissolving them in “diverse functions of the subject” (collaborating with other subjects on a proliferating network of social media). I’m not saying an analysis like this can’t bring interesting features of discourse to light. I’m just saying we shouldn’t be embarrassed to presume the authority we need to speak our minds. And while I would never demand that authors reveal their “most profound selves” to me in their writing, I do expect to learn what is on their minds from reading them.

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