Dinah Ribard. 1969: Michel Foucault et la question de l’auteur: “Qu’est-ce qu’un auteur?” Texte, présentation, et commentaire. Paris: Honoré Champion, 2019. 110 pp.
Review by Haun Saussy
11 November 2020
The story of Michel Foucault’s essay “What Is an Author?” is a transatlantic one. Given as a lecture once in France (at the Société française de philosophie in 1969) and a year later in the United States (at Buffalo), it is really two texts with divergent careers. An essential reference in literary theory for Americans, it was practically unknown to French-language readers until 1994. Its English translations omit several important passages and variants as well as the question-and-answer period that followed its first delivery.
It is also a transitional story: contemporary with The Archaeology of Knowledge, an after-the-fact meditation on the analyses that had underpinned his history of madness and his genealogy of the human sciences, this lecture asks (in addition to its title question) how authors take their places in genres, traditions, bodies of knowledge, aesthetic orders, markets, and structures of governance. Dinah Ribard’s short book reproduces the text included in Foucault’s Dits et écrits, vol. 1 (1994)—minus the question period—and surrounds it with commentary, both situating it in its moment and bringing it up to date.
Its transatlantic and transitional statuses give the essay a multiple register. It acknowledges its own author’s surprising celebrity (highly technical works in history of knowledge rarely make the bestseller lists) and looks forward to a phase in Foucault’s research that will cease to examine texts for their places in “the order of discourse” and asks what they do once released into the world. The “author,” as category of understanding, is perfectly ambiguous, for we may say “Descartes” as a shorthand for countless things that the individual René Descartes could not have imagined being responsible for, and which are nonetheless part of the author-effect of writings ascribed to him. When I say “Descartes tells us” I am more often applying a rule than actually quoting. The same applies, necessarily, to the author-name “Foucault”: the Foucault of The Order of Things is not simply the Foucault of Discipline and Punish, the French Foucault is not quite the American Foucault. “Michel Foucault” is a name we use to hold together (or apart) the elements of the corpus “Foucault.” “What Is an Author?” both analyzes and exemplifies this many-sidedness. Can Foucault both be and question “the author”? The post-lecture discussion (questions from Jean d’Ormesson, Lucien Goldmann, and Maurice de Gandillac, with answers by Foucault; questions from Jean Ullmo and Jacques Lacan, for which no response is recorded) turned relentlessly on this seeming paradox. It is typical that the first questioner at the Paris session suggested that Foucault could only have been bluffing when he proposed to replace “the author” with “the author-function.” The essay has endured many such attempts at commonsense “refutation” since its appearance, and Dinah Ribard enumerates them with dry irony.
In the United States, Foucault’s talk has often been assimilated to Roland Barthes’s quite different statement on “The Death of the Author” (1967). Ribard will have none of this, pointing out in her commentary the divergent publics and agendas of those two texts (pp. 63–66). What they have in common is a questioning of the priority of the subject as agent. Goldmann, in his questions, struggled against what he saw as Foucault’s “negation” of the subject; Lacan, getting through chance or justice the last word, reframes the issue as one of the “dependance of the subject.”
Another aspect of the talk that has been much debated is the category of “founders of discursivity,” figures who are not merely authors in their own right but “have produced something more: the possibility and the rules of formation of other texts” (Foucault, cited, p. 48). A “return to” such founders does not simply seek to clarify the meaning of their texts, but explores the limits of what else they could be used to say. The distinction between ordinary authors and “founders of discursivity” is perhaps fated to remain controversial, as are, for a greater or lesser number of readers, those founders.
For Ribard the text’s main line of advance is descriptive: “how Foucault’s essay sought to and indeed did open the investigation of the principles whereby the notion of the author acquired its form and function” (pp. 69–70). In this regard it found a good listener in Roger Chartier, who never took it on himself to refute Foucault’s schematic chronological indications, as a historian defending that discipline from philosophical interlopers might have done, but treated them as interrogations which historians of the book could and should use to reflect on the status of their knowledge (pp. 78–87).
In his inaugural lecture at the Collège de France Foucault added to the author-function the complementary institution of commentary, which regulates meaning not by reference to the text’s origin but to its expansions (paraphrase, application). Commentary, in turn, generates critique, from the moment that the text is not treated as authoritative, and critique speaks “the desire not to be governed” (p. 93). The second time Michel Foucault appeared before the Société française de philosophie, in 1978, he spoke on the question, “Qu’est-ce que la critique?” (What is critique?). Ribard’s discussion—only slightly longer than Foucault’s 1969 essay—lays out the notional path from authorship to autonomy. The citations from Foucauldiana not included in the collected writings are unfortunately short, probably for copyright reasons, but Ribard’s slim volume summons up the possibility of a volume that would bring together “What Is an Author?” and the other texts most closely related to it.