If you can bring nothing to this place
but your carcass, keep out.
-"Dedication For a Plot of Ground",
William Carlos Williams, 1917
Term coined by the deconstructionist philosopher Michel Foucault to describe the role the identification of an author with a work has on its criticism and interpretation, first described in the article, "What is an Author?".
Since the time of Neoptolemus and the Museum of Alexandria, writing has been criticized in terms of three basic aspects: style (diction, grammar, and, in the case of poetry, metre), structure (plot and character), and the poet himself, otherwise summarized as poetry, poem, and poet. Foucault attempted to analyze this method of discourse on literature by isolating the last of these, the author, and does so by defining the act of reading in the framework of relationships among the participants. He sets a dynamic relationship not between the reader and the author, but between the reader and the writing; in other words, the author enters the relationship by assuming a narrative persona in his work to varying degrees separate from his own. The name of a particular author becomes a label for certain stylistic and contextual unities of a particular corpus of texts; Vergil is no longer the name of an individual human being, but a collective term for the writer of the Eclogues, Georgics, and Aeneid, just as John Steinbeck represents a set which includes The Grapes of Wrath and East of Eden. In each case, we are no longer concerned with an individual's physical act of writing, a distillation of his ideas using a series of texts as a point of focus, but define the individual as an idea formed from our interpretation of the text. In this latter case, the individual becomes secondary to interpretation, a by-product, yet useful label for a comparative understanding of a set.
This role-reversal affected not only criticism, but the understanding of the act of writing. Foucault speaks of authors who write to maintain their immortality, explicitly mentioned by men such as Horace and Martial, embodied in the tales of Scheherazade. Words will grant their existence beyond their physical death, or prolong their lifespan. But as soon as they are separated from their texts, as soon as their biography is no longer important to it, they lose that immortality. Parodying Nietzsche, the Author is Dead.
We must, however, carefully distinguish between an active advocacy of a particular method of analysis and Foucault's description of discourse. He describes three cases in which the author's implicit presence is crucial to a text:
- When the work is controversially received, and so becomes a point of contention in the real world with manifest, physical consequences. In reading the works of the Marquis de Sade, we can not ignore that certain of his works, such as Justine, were banned at times and brought about his imprisonment in 1772-75 and 1792 again. Likewise, we will continually be plagued by the question of Ovid's exile, because of both the lewd nature of his early works and the remorse of his later letters.
- When the text assumes a particular authority of the individual to support its claims or conclusions. Foucault describes how this function was most prominent in older scientific or philosophic texts, and becomes less so as history progresses and the style of acceptable scientific writing becomes more objective. The names of Aristotle and Plato assumed great weight, and explain why there appeared so many pseudepigraphal works and forgeries. Later Medieval texts support their arguments with quotations from "Die alten Meister" such as Seneca. In literature, the function is usually based on an assumption of experience. We are more prone to believe the details in Moby Dick when we learn that Herman Melville worked on a whaling ship at one point, or the narrative aspect of This is Just to Say when we learn that it was based on a letter from William Carlos Williams' wife. The function is selective, interested only in the biographical details which contribute to a reading of the text. Thus, while we may know that Vergil lived in Rome for most of his life, in reading his rustic Eclogues and Georgics we are interested only that he was born and raised on a farm.
- When a set of texts is written consistently in a single narrative persona, most important in prose. We are thus more prone to believe in a Character or Temperament assigned to Jane Austen when we find usual traits in her novels, or make relative judgments on the intention of the author based on a previous understanding of profundity. Having read both A.E. Housman and T.S. Eliot, were we to encounter a new poem we would impulsively treat it differently based on which name should be attached to it. For each author, the author function demands an expectation of consistency in style and quality.
It should also be noted that the author function is completely removed from the start from certain types of literature, such as fairy-tales, myths, or folklore. While we may speak of a particular written redaction, e.g. the Fairy-tales of Jacob Grimm, each story is the product of a collective tradition, and thus can't be assigned to a particular point of focus which can be called an 'author'. This is the essential problem in the debate on the authorship of Homer which has plagued the last century.
Foucault's theories have had broad consequences on literary theory in the past 30 years. As a method of criticism, many critics have understood the work to advocate a complete removal of the biographical tradition from the interpretation of the text. While it is a quaint and somewhat interesting biographical detail, we must ignore that This is Just to Say was based on an actual letter from his wife, since nothing in the text indicates these actual details. Indeed, the dynamic of reading the poem changes completely, since the knowledge of a recipient removes us from our active participation in the poem, our momentary assumption of that same role. We would be poisoned with the assumption that Tibullus' Delia is a reflection of his actual amatory interest, of his real-life situation, rather than a literary composite.
The function is perhaps most important in the question of forgery. Inevitably, we are inclined to assign an author to a text by sifting through the details of the poetry and poem and comparing them to our other, known sets. Shakespeare, Vergil, Ovid, Tibullus, Aristotle, and countless others all have texts of doubtful origin which have been handed down to us under their names. Modern trends attempt to answer how our interpretation changes under the author function. Do we read MacBeth differently when we learn that the Hecate-passage is a later addition? A most famous case is the corpus of texts called the Appendix Vergiliana, a collection of poems all assigned to Vergil. When the Culex, for example, is assumed to be authentic, it is excused as the work of a young Vergil, before he has reached the height of his skill; when a forgery, it becomes the "work of an obvious poe-taster" (A.E. Housman).
Foucault's theory of the author function is really a subset of his belief in the socio-political determination of language. It allows us to explain the aspects of a text with reference to a particular focal point, definable within a particular historical and linguistic context. The works of the Marquis de Sade are no longer simple works of literature, but because of the association with him are explanable because of the French political transitions of the end of the 18th century, or perhaps the Freudian Psychology of his upbringing and relationship with his parents (as Simone de Beauvoir tried to do). With Foucault and the author function, we are asked not to ignore this dynamic, but apply it separately in the process of criticism.