I don’t know how to handle this English question and need guidance.

 Who can help me to write bout:What distinctions does Foucault make between a person and an author? What are some of the compelling ideas, and what makes them speak to you?Michel Foucault
What is an Author?
In proposing this slightly odd question, I am conscious of the need for
an explanation. To this day, the ‘author’ remains an open question both
with respect to its general function within discourse and in my own
writings; that is, this question permits me to return to certain aspects of
my own work which now appear ill-advised and misleading. In this
regard, I wish to propose a necessary criticism and reevaluation.
For instance, my objective in The Order of Things had been to
analyse verbal clusters as discursive layers which fall outside the familiar categories of a book, a work, or an author. But while I considered
‘natural history,’ the ‘analysis of wealth,’ and ‘political economy’ in general terms, I neglected a similar analysis of the author and his works; it
is perhaps due to this omission that I employed the names of authors
throughout this book in a naive and often crude fashion. I spoke of
Buffon, Cuvier, Ricardo, and others as well, but failed to realize that
I had allowed their names to function ambiguously. This has proved an
embarrassment to me in that my oversight has served to raise two
pertinent objections.
It was argued that I had not properly described Buffon or his work
and that my handling of Marx was pitifully inadequate in terms of the
totality of his thought. 1 Although these objections were obviously
justified, they ignored the task I had set myself: I had no intention of
describing Buffon or Marx or of reproducing their statements or
implicit meanings, but, simply stated, I wanted to locate the rules that
formed a certain number of concepts and theoretical relationships in
their works. 2 In addition, it was argued that I had created monstrous
families by bringing together names as disparate as Buffon and
Linnaeus or in placing Cuvier next to Darwin in defiance of the most
readily observable family resemblances and natural ties.3 This objection also seems inappropriate since I had never tried to establish a
genealogical table of exceptional individuals, nor was I concerned in
forming an intellectual daguerreotype of the scholar or naturalist of
the seventeenth and eighteenth century. In fact, I had no intention
of forming any family, whether holy or perverse. On the contrary, I
wanted to determine—a much more modest task—the functional conditions of specific discursive practices.
Then why did I use the names of authors in The Order of Things}
W h y not avoid their use altogether, or, short of that, why not define the
manner in which they were used? These questions appear fully justified
and I have tried to gauge their implications and consequences in a book
that will appear shortly.4 These questions have determined my effort to
situate comprehensive discursive units, such as ‘natural history’ or
‘political economy,’ and to establish the methods and instruments for
delimiting, analysing, and describing these unities. Nevertheless, as a
privileged moment of individualization in the history of ideas, knowledge, and literature, or in the history of philosophy and science, the
question of the author demands a more direct response. Even now,
when we study the history of a concept, a literary genre, or a branch of
philosophy, these concerns assume a relatively weak and secondary
position in relation to the solid and fundamental role of an author and
his works.
For the purposes of this paper, I will set aside a sociohistorical
analysis of the author as an individual and the numerous questions that
deserve attention in this context: how the author was individualized in
a culture such as ours; the status we have given the author, for instance,
when we began our research into authenticity and attribution; the
systems of valorization in which he was included; or the moment when
the stories of heroes gave way to an author’s biography; the conditions
that fostered the formulation of the fundamental critical category of
‘the man and his work.’ For the time being, I wish to restrict myself to
the singular relationship that holds between an author and a text, the
manner in which a text apparently points to this figure who is outside
and precedes it.
Beckett supplies a direction: ‘What matter who’s speaking, someone said, what matter who’s speaking.’ 5 In an indifference such as this
we must recognize one of the fundamental ethical principles of contemporary writing. It is not simply ‘ethical’ because it characterizes our
way of speaking and writing, but because it stands as an immanent rule,
endlessly adopted and yet never fully applied. As a principle, it dominates writing as an ongoing practice and slights our customary attention
to the finished product. 6 For the sake of illustration, we need only consider two of its major themes. First, the writing of our day has freed itself from the necessity of’expression’; it only refers to itself, yet it is not
restricted to the confines of interiority On the contrary, we recognize
it in its exterior deployment. 7 This reversal transforms writing into an
interplay of signs, regulated less by the content it signifies than by the
very nature of the signifier. Moreover, it implies an action that is always
testing the limits of its regularity, transgressing and reversing an order
that it accepts and manipulates. Writing unfolds like a game that inevitably moves beyond its own rules and finally leaves them behind.
Thus, the essential basis of this writing is not the exalted emotions
related to the act of composition or the insertion of a subject into
language. Rather, it is primarily concerned with creating an opening
where the writing subject endlessly disappears. 8
The second theme is even more familiar: it is the kinship between
writing and death. This relationship inverts the age-old conception of
Greek narrative or epic, which was designed to guarantee the immortality of a hero. The hero accepted an early death because his life,
consecrated and magnified by death, passed into immortality; and the
narrative redeemed his acceptance of death. In a different sense,
Arabic stories, and The Arabian Nights in particular, had as their
motivation, their theme and pretext, this strategy for defeating death.
Storytellers continued their narratives late into the night to forestall
death and to delay the inevitable moment when everyone must fall
silent. Scheherazade’s story is a desperate inversion of murder; it is the
effort, throughout all those nights, to exclude death from the circle of
existence.9 This conception of a spoken or written narrative as a protection against death has been transformed by our culture. Writing is
now linked to sacrifice and to the sacrifice of life itself; it is a voluntary
obliteration of the self that does not require representation in books
because it takes place in the everyday existence of the writer. Where a
work had the duty of creating immortality, it now attains the right to
kill, to become the murderer of its author. Flaubert, Proust, and Kafka
are obvious examples of this reversal.10 In addition, we find the link between writing and death manifested in the total effacement of the individual characteristics of the writer; the quibbling and confrontations
that a writer generates between himself and his text cancel out the
signs of his particular individuality. If we wish to know the writer in our
day, it will be through the singularity of his absence and in his link to
death, which has transformed him into a victim of his own writing.
While all of this is familiar in philosophy, as in literary criticism, I am
not certain that the consequences derived from the disappearance or
death of the author have been fully explored or that the importance of
this event has been appreciated. To be specific, it seems to me that the
themes destined to replace the privileged position accorded the author
have merely served to arrest the possibility of genuine change. Of
these, I will examine two that seem particularly important.
To begin with, the thesis concerning a work. It has been understood
that the task of criticism is not to reestablish the ties between an author
and his work or to reconstitute an author’s thought and experience
through his works and, further, that criticism should concern itself
with the structures of a work, its architectonic forms, which are studied
for their intrinsic and internal relationships. 11 Yet, what of a context
that questions the concept of a work? What, in short, is the strange
unit designated by the term, work? W h a t is necessary to its composition, if a work is not something written by a person called an ‘author’?
Difficulties arise on all sides if we raise the question in this way. If an
individual is not an author, what are we to make of those things he has
written or said, left among his papers or communicated to others? Is
this not properly a work? What, for instance, were Sade’s papers before
he was consecrated as an author? Little more, perhaps, than rolls of
paper on which he endlessly unravelled his fantasies while in prison.
Assuming that we are dealing with an author, is everything he wrote
and said, everything he left behind, to be included in his work? This
problem is both theoretical and practical. If we wish to publish the
complete works of Nietzsche, for example, where do we draw the line?
Certainly, everything must be published, but can we agree on what
‘everything’ means? We will, of course, include everything that
Nietzsche himself published, along with the drafts of his works, his
plans for aphorisms, his marginal notations and corrections. But what
if, in a notebook filled with aphorisms, we find a reference, a remainder
of an appointment, an address, or a laundry bill, should this be included
in his works? W h y not? These practical considerations are endless
once we consider how a work can be extracted from the millions of
traces left by an individual after his death. Plainly, we lack a theory to
encompass the questions generated by a work and the empirical activity of those who naively undertake the publication of the complete
works of an author often suffers from the absence of this framework.
Yet more questions arise. Can we say that The Arabian Nights, and
Stromates of Clement of Alexandria, or the Lives of Diogenes Laertes
constitute works? Such questions only begin to suggest the range of
our difficulties, and, if some have found it convenient to bypass the
individuality of the writer or his status as an author to concentrate on a
work, they have failed to appreciate the equally problematic nature of
the word ‘work’ and the unity it designates.
Another thesis has detained us from taking full measure of the
author’s disappearance. It avoids confronting the specific event that
makes it possible and, in subtle ways, continues to preserve the existence of the author. This is the notion of ecriture.12 Strictly speaking, it
should allow us not only to circumvent references to an author, but to
situate his recent absence. T h e conception of ecriture, as currently employed, is concerned with neither the act of writing nor the indications,
as symptoms or signs within a text, of an author’s meaning; rather, it
stands for a remarkably profound attempt to elaborate the conditions
of any text, both the conditions of its spatial dispersion and its temporal deployment.
It appears, however, that this concept, as currently employed, has
merely transposed the empirical characteristics of an author to a transcendental anonymity. The extremely visible signs of the author’s
empirical activity are effaced to allow the play, in parallel or opposition,
of religious and critical modes of characterization. In granting a
primordial status to writing, do we not, in effect, simply reinscribe in
transcendental terms the theological affirmation of its sacred origin or
a critical belief in its creative nature? To say that writing, in terms of the
particular history it made possible, is subjected to forgetfulness and
repression, is this not to reintroduce in transcendental terms the religious principle of hidden meanings (which require interpretation) and
the critical assumption of implicit significations, silent purposes, and
obscure contents (which give rise to commentary)? Finally, is not the
conception of writing as absence a transposition into transcendental
terms of the religious belief in a fixed and continuous tradition or the
aesthetic principle that proclaims the survival of the work as a kind of
enigmatic supplement of the author beyond his own death? 13
This conception of ecriture sustains the privileges of the author
through the safeguard of the a priori; the play of representations that
formed a particular image of the author is extended within a gray
neutrality. The disappearance of the author—since Mallarme, an event
of our time—is held in check by the transcendental. Is it not necessary
to draw a line between those who believe that we can continue to situate our present discontinuities within the historical and transcendental
tradition of the nineteenth century and those who are making a great
effort to liberate themselves, once and for all, from this conceptual
It is obviously insufficient to repeat empty slogans: the author has disappeared; God and man died a common death. 15 Rather, we should reexamine the empty space left by the author’s disappearance; we should
attentively observe, along its gaps and fault lines, its new demarcations,
and the reapportionment of this void; we should await the fluid functions released by this disappearance. In this context we can briefly consider the problems that arise in the use of an author’s name. What is the
name of an author? How does it function? Far from offering a solution,
I will attempt to indicate some of the difficulties related to these
The name of an author poses all the problems related to the
category of the proper name. (Here, I am referring to the work of John
Searle,16 among others.) Obviously not a pure and simple reference,
the proper name (and the author’s name as well) has other than
indicative functions. It is more than a gesture, a finger pointed at someone; it is, to a certain extent, the equivalent of a description. W h e n we
say ‘Aristotle,’ we are using a word that means one or a series of definite
descriptions of the type: ‘the author of the Analytics,’ or ‘the founder of
ontology,’ and so forth. 17 Furthermore, a proper name has other functions than that of signification: when we discover that Rimbaud has
not written La Chasse spirituelle, we cannot maintain that the meaning
of the proper name or this author’s name has been altered. The proper
name and the name of an author oscillate between the poles of description and designation, and, granting that they are linked to what they
name, they are not totally determined either by their descriptive or
designative functions.18 Yet—and it is here that the specific difficulties
attending an author’s name appear—the link between a proper name
and the individual being named and the link between an author’s name
and that which it names are not isomorphous and do not function in
the same way; and these differences require clarification.
To learn, for example, that Pierre Dupont does not have blue eyes,
does not live in Paris, and is not a doctor does not invalidate the fact
that the name, Pierre Dupont, continues to refer to the same person;
there has been no modification of the designation that links the name
to the person. With the name of an author, however, the problems are
far more complex. The disclosure that Shakespeare was not born in the
house that tourists now visit would not modify the functioning of the
author’s name, but, if it were proved that he had not written the
sonnets that we attribute to him, this would constitute a significant
change and affect the manner in which the author’s name functions.
Moreover, if we establish that Shakespeare wrote Bacon’s Organon and
that the same author was responsible for both the works of Shakespeare
and those of Bacon, we would have introduced a third type of alteration which completely modifies the functioning of the author’s name.
Consequently, the name of an author is not precisely a proper name
among others.
Many other factors sustain this paradoxical singularity of the name
of an author. It is altogether different to maintain that Pierre Dupont
does not exist and that Homer or Hermes Trismegistes have never existed. While the first negation merely implies that there is no one by
the name of Pierre Dupont, the second indicates that several individuals have been referred to by one name or that the real author
possessed none of the traits traditionally associated with Homer or
Hermes. Neither is it the same thing to say that Jacques Durand, not
Pierre Dupont, is the real name of X and that Stendhal’s name was
Henri Beyle. We could also examine the function and meaning of such
statements as ‘Bourbaki is this or that person,’ and ‘Victor Eremita,
Climacus, Anticlimacus, Frater Taciturnus, Constantin Constantius,
all of these are Kierkegaard.’
These differences indicate that an author’s name is not simply an
element of speech (as a subject, a complement, or an element that
could be replaced by a pronoun or other parts of speech). Its presence is
functional in that it serves as a means of classification. A name can
group together a number of texts and thus differentiate them from
others. A name also establishes different forms of relationships among
texts. Neither Hermes not Hippocrates existed in the sense that we can
say Balzac existed, but the fact that a number of texts were attached to a
single name implies that relationships of homogeneity, filiation, reciprocal explanation, authentification, or of common utilization were
established among them. Finally, the author’s name characterizes a
particular manner of existence of discourse. Discourse that possesses
an author’s name is not to be immediately consumed and forgotten;
neither is it accorded the momentary attention given to ordinary, fleeting words. Rather, its status and its manner of reception are regulated
by the culture in which it circulates.
We can conclude that, unlike a proper name, which moves from the
interior of a discourse to the real person outside who produced it, the
name of the 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. The
author’s name is not a function of a man’s civil status, nor is it fictional;
it is situated in the breach, among the discontinuities, which gives rise
to new groups of discourse and their singular mode of existence.19
Consequently, we can say that in our culture, the name of an author is a
variable that accompanies only certain texts to the exclusion of others:
a private letter may have a signatory, but it does not have an author; a
contract can have an underwriter, but not an author; and, similarly, an
anonymous poster attached to a wall may have a writer, but he cannot
be an author. In this sense, the function of an author is to characterize
the existence, circulation, and operation of certain discourses within a
In dealing with the ‘author’ as a function of discourse, we must consider
the characteristics of a discourse that support this use and determine its
difference from other discourses. If we limit our remarks to only those
books or texts with authors, we can isolate four different features.
First, they are objects of appropriation; the form of property they
have become is of a particular type whose legal codification was accomplished some years ago. It is important to notice, as well, that its status
as property is historically secondary to the penal code controlling its
appropriation. Speeches and books were assigned real authors, other
than mythical or important religious figures, only when the author
became subject to punishment and to the extent that his discourse was
considered transgressive. In our culture—undoubtedly in others as
well—discourse was not originally a thing, a product, or a possession,
but an action situated in a bipolar field of sacred and profane, lawful
and unlawful, religious and blasphemous. It was a gesture charged with
risks long before it became a possession caught in a circuit of property
values.20 But it was at the moment when a system of ownership and
strict copyright rules were established (toward the end of the eighteenth and beginning of the nineteenth century) that the transgressive
properties always intrinsic to the act of writing became the forceful imperative of literature. 21 It is as if the author, at the moment he was
accepted into the social order of property which governs our culture,
was compensating for his new status by reviving the older bipolar field
of discourse in a systematic practice of transgression and by restoring
the danger of writing which, on another side, had been conferred the
benefits of property.
Secondly, the ‘author-function’ 22 is not universal or constant in all
discourse. Even within our civilization, the same types of texts have
not always required authors; there was a time when those texts which
we now call ‘literary’ (stories, folk tales, epics, and tragedies) were
accepted, circulated, and valorized without any question about the
identity of their author. Their anonymity was ignored because their
real or supposed age was a sufficient guarantee of their authenticity.
Texts, however, that we now call ‘scientific’ (dealing with cosmology
and the heavens, medicine or illness, the natural sciences or geography)
were only considered truthful during the Middle Ages if the name of
the author was indicated. Statements on the order of ‘Hippocrates said
. . . ‘ or ‘Pliny tells us t h a t . . . ‘ were not merely formulas for an argument
based on authority; they marked a proven discourse. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, a totally new conception was developed when scientific texts were accepted on their own merits and
positioned within an anonymous and coherent conceptual system of
established truths and methods of verification. Authentification no
longer required reference to the individual who had produced them;
the role of the author disappeared as an index of truthfulness and,
where it remained as an inventor’s name, it was merely to denote a
specific theorem or proposition, a strange effect, a property, a body, a
group of elements, or pathological syndrome.
At the same time, however, ‘literary’ discourse was acceptable only
if it carried an author’s name; every text of poetry or fiction was obliged
to state its author and the date, place, and circumstance of its writing.
The meaning and value attributed to the text depended on this
information. If by accident or design a text was presented anonymously, every effort was made to locate its author. Literary anonymity
was of interest only as a puzzle to be solved as, in our day, literary works
are totally dominated by the sovereignty of the author. (Undoubtedly,
these remarks are far too categorical. Criticism has been concerned for
some time now with aspects of a text not fully dependent on the notion
of an individual creator; studies of genre or the analysis of recurring
textual motifs and their variations from a norm other than the author.
Furthermore, where in mathematics the author has become little more
than a handy reference for a particular theorem or group of propositions, the reference to an author in biology and medicine, or to the date
of his research has a substantially different bearing. This latter refer306 MODERNITY AND ITS DISCONTENTS
ence, more than simply indicating the source of information, attests to
the ‘reliability’ of the evidence, since it entails an appreciation of the
techniques and experimental materials available at a given time and in
a particular laboratory.)
The third point concerning this ‘author-function’ is that it is not
formed spontaneously through the simple attribution of a discourse to
an individual. It results from a complex operation whose purpose is to
construct the rational entity we call an author. Undoubtedly, this construction is assigned a ‘realistic’ dimension as we speak of an individual’s ‘profundity’ or ‘creative’ power, his intentions or the original
inspiration manifested in writing. Nevertheless, these aspects of an
individual, which we designate as an author (or which comprise an
individual as an author), are projections, in terms always more or less
psychological, of our way of handling texts: in the comparisons we
make, the traits we extract as pertinent, the continuities we assign, or
the exclusions we practice. In addition, all these operations vary
according to the period and the form of discourse concerned. A ‘philosopher’ and a ‘poet’ are not constructed in the same manner; and the
author of an eighteenth-century novel was formed differently from the
modern novelist. There are, nevertheless, transhistorical constants in
the rules that govern the construction of an author.
In literary criticism, for example, the traditional methods for
defining an author—or, rather, for determining the configuration of
the author from existing texts—derive in large part from those used in
the Christian tradition to authenticate (or to reject) the particular texts
in its possession. Modern criticism, in its desire to ‘recover’ the author
from a work, employs devices strongly reminiscent of Christian exegesis when it wished to prove the value of a text by ascertaining the
holiness of its author. In De Viris Illustribus, Saint Jerome maintains
that homonymy is not proof of the common authorship of several
works, since many individuals could have the same name or someone
could have perversely appropriated another’s name. The name, as an
individual mark, is not sufficient as it relates to a textual tradition.
How, then, can several texts be attributed to an individual author?
W h a t norms, related to the function of the author, will disclose the
involvement of several authors? According to Saint Jerome, there are
four criteria: the texts that must be eliminated from the list of works
attributed to a single author are those inferior to the others (thus, the
author is defined as a standard level of quality); those whose ideas
conflict with the doctrine expressed in the others (here the author is
defined as a certain field of conceptual or theoretical coherence); those
written in a different style and containing words and phrases not
ordinarily found in the other works (the author is seen as a stylistic uniformity); and those referring to events or historical figures subsequent
to the death of the author (the author is thus a definite historical figure
in which a series of events converge). Although modern criticism does
not appear to have these same suspicions concerning authentication,
its strategies for defining the author present striking similarities. The
author explains the presence of certain events within a text, as well as
their transformations, distortions, and their various modifications
(and this through an author’s biography or by reference to his particular
point of view, in the analysis of his social preferences and his position
within a class or by delineating his fundamental objectives). The
author also constitutes a principle of unity in writing where any
unevenness of production is ascribed to changes caused by evolution,
maturation, or outside influence. In addition, the author serves to neutralize the contradictions that are found in a series of texts. Governing
this function is the belief that there must be—at a particular level of an
author’s thought, of his conscious or unconscious desire—a point
where contradictions are resolved, where the incompatible elements
can be shown to relate to one another or to cohere around a fundamental and originating contradiction. Finally, the author is a particular
source of expression who, in more or less finished forms, is manifested
equally well, and with similar validity, in a text, in letters, fragments,
drafts, and so forth. Thus, even while Saint Jerome’s four principles of
authenticity might seem largely inadequate to modern critics, they,
nevertheless, define the critical modalities now used to display the
function of the author.23
However, it would be false to consider the function of the author as
a pure and simple reconstruction after the fact of a text given as passive
material, since a text always bears a number of signs that refer to the
author. Well known to grammarians, these textual signs are personal
pronouns, adverbs of time and place, and the conjugation of verbs.24
But it is important to note that these elements have a different bearing
on texts with an author and on those without one. In the latter, these
‘shifters’ refer to a real speaker and to an actual deictic situation, with
certain exceptions such as the case of indirect speech in the first person.
When discourse is linked to an author, however, the role of ‘shifters’ is
more complex and variable. It is well known that in a novel narrated in
the first person, neither the first person pronoun, the present indicative
tense, nor, for that matter, its signs of localization refer directly to the
writer, either to the time when he wrote, or to the specific act of
writing; rather, they stand for a ‘second self’25 whose similarity to the
author is never fixed and undergoes considerable alteration within the
course of a single book. It would be as false to seek the author in
relation to the actual writer as to the fictional narrator; the ‘authorfunction’ arises out of their scission—in the division and distance of
the two. One might object that this phenomenon only applies to novels
or poetry, to a context of ‘quasi-discourse,’ but, in fact, all discourse that
supports this ‘author-function’ is characterized by this plurality of egos.
In a mathematical treatise, the ego who indicates the circumstances of
composition in the preface is not identical, either in terms of his position or his function, to the ‘I’ who concludes a demonstration within
the body of the text. The former implies a unique individual who, at a
given time and place, succeeded in completing a project, whereas the
latter indicates an instance and plan of demonstration that anyone
could perform provided the same set of axioms, preliminary operations, and an identical set of symbols were used. It is also possible to
locate a third ego: one who speaks of the goals of his investigation, the
obstacles encountered, its results, and the problems yet to be solved
and this ‘I’ would function in a field of existing or future mathematical
discourses. We are not dealing with a system of dependencies where a
first and essential use of the ‘I’ is reduplicated, as a kind of fiction, by
the other two. On the contrary, the ‘author-function’ in such discourses
operates so as to effect the simultaneous dispersion of the three egos.26
Further elaboration would, of course, disclose other characteristics
of the ‘author-function,’ but I have limited myself to the four that
seemed the most obvious and important. They can be summarized in
the following manner: the ‘author-function’ is tied to the legal and
institutional systems that circumscribe, determine, and articulate the
realm of discourses; it does not operate in a uniform manner in all discourses, at all times, and in any given culture; it is not defined by the
spontaneous attribution of a text to its creator, but through a series of
precise and complex procedures; it does not refer, purely and simply, to
an actual individual insofar as it simultaneously gives rise to a variety of
egos and to a series of subjective positions that individuals of any class
may come to occupy.
I am aware that until now I have kept my subject within unjustifiable
limits; I should also have spoken of the ‘author-function’ in painting,
music, technical fields, and so forth. Admitting that my analysis is restricted to the domain of discourse, it seems that I have given the term
‘author’ an excessively narrow meaning. I have discussed the author
only in the limited sense of a person to whom the production of a text,
a book, or a work can be legitimately attributed. However, it is obvious
that even within the realm of discourse a person can be the author of
much more than a book—of a theory, for instance, of a tradition or a
discipline within which new books and authors can proliferate. For
convenience, we could say that such authors occupy a ‘transdiscursive’
Homer, Aristotle, and the Church Fathers played this role, as did
the first mathematicians and the originators of the Hippocratic tradition. This type of author is surely as old as our civilization. But I believe
that the nineteenth century in Europe produced a singular type of
author who should not be confused with ‘great’ literary authors, or the
authors of canonical religious texts, and the founders of sciences.
Somewhat arbitrarily, we might call them ‘initiators of discursive
The distinctive contribution of these authors is that they produced
not only their own work, but the possibility and the rules of formation
of other texts. In this sense, their role differs entirely from that of a
novelist, for example, who is basically never more than the author of
his own text. Freud is not simply the author of The Interpretation of
Dreams or of Wit and its Relation to the Unconscious and Marx is not
simply the author of the Communist Manifesto or Capital: they both
established the endless possibility of discourse. Obviously, an easy
objection can be made. 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. To take a very
simple example, one could say that Ann Radcliffe did not simply write
The Mysteries of Udolpho and a few other novels, but also made possible
the appearance of Gothic Romances at the beginning of the nineteenth century. To this extent, her function as an author exceeds the
limits of her work. However, this objection can be answered by the fact
that the possibilities disclosed by the initiators of discursive practices
(using the examples of Marx and Freud, whom I believe to be the first
and the most important) are significantly different from those suggested by novelists. The novels of Ann Radcliffe put into circulation a
certain number of resemblances and analogies patterned on her work—
various characteristic signs, figures, relationships, and structures that
could be integrated into other books. In short, to say that Ann
Radcliffe created the Gothic Romance means that there are certain
elements common to her works and to the nineteenth-century Gothic
romance: the heroine ruined by her own innocence, the secret fortress
that functions as a counter-city, the outlaw-hero who swears revenge
on the world that has cursed him, etc. On the other hand, Marx and
Freud, as ‘initiators of discursive practices,’ not only made possible a
certain number of analogies that could be adopted by future texts, but,
as importantly, they also made possible a certain number of differences.
They cleared a space for the introduction of elements other than their
own, which, nevertheless, remain within the field of discourse they
initiated. In saying that Freud founded psychoanalysis, we do not
simply mean that the concept of libido or the techniques of dream
analysis reappear in the writings of Karl Abraham or Melanie Klein,
but that he made possible a certain number of differences with respect
to his books, concepts, and hypotheses, which all arise out of psychoanalytic discourse.
Is this not the case, however, with the founder of any new science or
of any author who successfully transforms an existing science? After
all, Galileo is indirectly responsible for the texts of those who mechan310 MODERNITY AND ITS DISCONTENTS
ically applied the laws he formulated, in addition to having paved the
way for the production of statements far different from his own. If
Cuvier is the founder of biology and Saussure of linguistics, it is not
because they were imitated or that an organic concept or a theory of the
sign was uncritically integrated into new texts, but because Cuvier, to a
certain extent, made possible a theory of evolution diametrically opposed to his own system and because Saussure made possible a generative grammar radically different from his own structural analysis.
Superficially, then, the initiation of discursive practices appears similar
to the founding of any scientific endeavor, but I believe there is a
fundamental difference.
In a scientific program, the founding act is on an equal footing with
its future transformations: it is merely one among the many modifications that it makes possible. This interdependence can take several
forms. In the future development of a science, the founding act may
appear as little more than a single instance of a more general phenomenon that has been discovered. It might be questioned, in retrospect,
for being too intuitive or empirical and submitted to the rigors of new
theoretical operations in order to situate it in a formal domain. Finally,
it might be thought a hasty generalization whose validity should be
restricted. In other words, the founding act of a science can always
be rechanneled through the machinery of transformations it has
instituted. 27
On the other hand, the initiation of a discursive practice is heterogeneous to its ulterior transformations. To extend psychoanalytic practice, as initiated by Freud, is not to presume a formal generality that
was not claimed at the outset; it is to explore a number of possible
applications. To limit it is to isolate in the original texts a small set of
propositions or statements that are recognized as having an inaugurative value and that mark other Freudian concepts or theories as derivative. Finally, there are no ‘false’ statements in the work of these
initiators; those statements considered inessential or ‘prehistoric,’ in
that they are associated with another discourse, are simply neglected in
favor of the more pertinent aspects of the work. The initiation of a discursive practice, unlike the founding of a science, overshadows and is
necessarily detached from its later developments and transformations.
As a consequence, we define the theoretical validity of a statement with
respect to the work of the initiator, whereas in the case of Galileo or
Newton, it is based on the structural and intrinsic norms established in
cosmology or physics. Stated schematically, the work of these initiators
is not situated in relation to a science or in the space it defines; rather, it
is science or discursive practice that relate to their works as the primary
points of reference.
In keeping with this distinction, we can understand why it is inevitable that practitioners of such discourses must ‘return to the origin.’
Here, as well, it is necessary to distinguish a ‘return’ from scientific ‘rediscoveries’ or ‘reactivations.’ ‘Rediscoveries’ are the effects of analogy
or isomorphism with current forms of knowledge that allow the perception of forgotten or obscured figures. For instance, Chomsky in his
book on Cartesian grammar 28 ‘rediscovered’ a form of knowledge that
had been in use from Cordemoy to Humboldt. It could only be understood from the perspective of generative grammar because this later
manifestation held the key to its construction: in effect, a retrospective
codification of an historical position. ‘Reactivation’ refers to something
quite different: the insertion of discourse into totally new domains of
generalization, practice, and transformations. The history of mathematics abounds in examples of this phenomenon as the work of Michel
Serres on mathematical anamnesis shows.29
The phrase, ‘return to,’ designates a movement with its proper
specificity, which characterizes the initiation of discursive practices. If
we return, it is because of a basic and constructive omission, an omission that is not the result of accident or incomprehension. 30 In effect,
the act of initiation is such, in its essence, that it is inevitably subjected
to its own distortions; that which displays this act and derives from it is,
at the same time, the root of its divergences and travesties. This nonaccidental omission must be regulated by precise operations that can be
situated, analysed, and reduced in a return to the act of initiation. The
barrier imposed by omission was not added from the outside; it arises
from the discursive practice in question, which gives it its law. Both the
cause of the barrier and the means for its removal, this omission—also
responsible for the obstacles that prevent returning to the act of initiation—can only be resolved by a return. In addition, it is always a return
to a text in itself, specifically, to a primary and unadorned text with particular attention to those things registered in the interstices of the text,
its gaps and absences. We return to those empty spaces that have been
masked by omission or concealed in a false and misleading plenitude. In
these rediscoveries of an essential lack, we find the oscillation of two
characteristic responses: ‘This point was made—you can’t help seeing it
if you know how to read’; or, inversely, ‘No, that point is not made in any
of the printed words in the text, but it is expressed through the words, in
their relationships and in the distance that separates them.’ It follows
naturally that this return, which is a part of the discursive mechanism,
constantly introduces modifications and that the return to a text is not a
historical supplement that would come to fix itself upon the primary
discursivity and redouble it in the form of an ornament which, after all,
is not essential. Rather, it is an effective and necessary means of transforming discursive practice. A study of Galileo’s works could alter our
knowledge of the history, but not the science, of mechanics; whereas, a
re-examination of the books of Freud or Marx can transform our understanding of psychoanalysis or Marxism.
A last feature of these returns is that they tend to reinforce the enigmatic link between an author and his works. A text has an inaugurative
value precisely because it is the work of a particular author, and our
returns are conditioned by this knowledge. The rediscovery of an unknown text by Newton or Cantor will not modify classical cosmology
or group theory; at most, it will change our appreciation of their historical genesis. Bringing to light, however, An Outline of Psychoanalysis, to
the extent that we recognize it as a book by Freud, can transform not
only our historical knowledge, but the field of psychoanalytic theory—
if only through a shift of accent or of the center of gravity. These
returns, an important component of discursive practices, form a
relationship between ‘fundamental’ and mediate authors, which is not
identical to that which links an ordinary text to its immediate author.
These remarks concerning the initiation of discursive practices have
been extremely schematic, especially with regard to the opposition I
have tried to trace between this initiation and the founding of sciences.
The distinction between the two is not readily discernible; moreover,
there is no proof that the two procedures are mutually exclusive. My
only purpose in setting up this opposition, however, was to show that
the ‘author-function,’ sufficiently complex at the level of a book or a series of texts that bear a definite signature, has other determining factors
when analysed in terms of larger entities—groups of works or entire
Unfortunately, there is a decided absence of positive propositions in
this essay, as it applies to analytic procedures or directions for future
research, but I ought at least to give the reasons why I attach such
importance to a continuation of this work. Developing a similar analysis could provide the basis for a typology of discourse. A typology of
this sort cannot be adequately understood in relation to the grammatical features, formal structures, and objects of discourse, because there
undoubtedly exist specific discursive properties or relationships that
are irreducible to the rules of grammar and logic and to the laws that
govern objects. These properties require investigation if we hope to
distinguish the larger categories of discourse. The different forms
of relationships (or nonrelationships) that an author can assume are
evidently one of these discursive properties.
This form of investigation might also permit the introduction of an
historical analysis of discourse. Perhaps the time has come to study not
only the expressive value and formal transformations of discourse, but
its mode of existence: the modifications and variations, within any culture, of modes of circulation, valorization, attribution, and appropriation. Partially at the expense of themes and concepts that an author
places in his work, the ‘author-function’ could also reveal the manner in
which discourse is articulated on the basis of social relationships.
Is it not possible to reexamine, as a legitimate extension of this kind
of analysis, the privileges of the subject? Clearly, in undertaking an internal and architectonic analysis of a work (whether it be a literary text,
a philosophical system, or a scientific work) and in delimiting psychological and biographical references, suspicions arise concerning the
absolute nature and creative role of the subject. But the subject should
not be entirely abandoned. It should be reconsidered, not to restore the
theme of an originating subject, but to seize its functions, its intervention in discourse, and its system of dependencies. We should suspend
the typical questions: how does a free subject penetrate the density of
things and endow them with meaning; how does it accomplish its
design by animating the rules of discourse from within? Rather, we
should ask: under what conditions and through what forms can an
entity like the subject appear in the order of discourse; what position
does it occupy; what functions does it exhibit; and what rules does it
follow in each type of discourse? In short, the subject (and its substitutes) must be stripped of its creative role and analysed as a complex
and variable function of discourse.
The author—or what I have called the ‘author-function’—is undoubtedly only one of the possible specifications of the subject and,
considering past historical transformations, it appears that the form,
the complexity, and even the existence of this function are far from
immutable. We can easily imagine a culture where discourse would
circulate without any need for an author. Discourses, whatever their
status, form, or value, and regardless of our manner of handling
them, would unfold in a pervasive anonymity. No longer the tiresome
‘ W h o is the real author?’
‘Have we proof of his authenticity and originality?’
‘What has he revealed of his most profound self in his language?’
New questions will be heard:
‘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?’
‘ W h o can fulfill these diverse functions of the subject?’
Behind all these questions we would hear little more than the murmur of indifference:
‘What matter who’s speaking?’

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