The relationship that an author shares with his text and the general concept of the ‘author’ have been at the centre of twentieth-century literary criticism; the proclamation of the death of the author, in the literal linguistic terms, marks its presence for the first time in the essay ‘The Death of the Author’ by the French literary theorist, philosopher, critic, and semiotician — Ronald Barthes.
The idea to replace an author-centric criticism with a reader-centric criticism by confining the practice of criticism to linguistic spheres was present before Barthes dethroned the ‘author’ from the power of authority; Barthes’ firm affirmative stance is analogous to that of Nietzsche, with the possible exception that the latter’s ‘God is dead’ encapsulated the eroding religious sympathies in the contemporary psyches, whereas, the prior’s ‘The Death of the Author’ reflects the collective effort of intellectuals to remove the limits on texts which the idea of ‘author’ may put on them.
Michel Foucault, while addressing and stretching the question of the author in the domains of literary interpretation, in his essay ‘What is an Author?’ echoes Barthes’ findings, though with a twist. Barthes declared the author to be a corpse; Foucault, in his admission of the death of the author brings forward the presence of the soul of the corpse that now has the authority, which the author enjoyed before the death.
The name of this new authority is ‘author-function’. In his stance, Foucault without contradicting Barthes and the promoters of the idea of the death of the author added another dimension, which further problematizes the solution which is yet to be accepted.
The torchbearers of the Postmodernism movement advocated the propagation of ideologies which favoured the denial of individualism and hailed the collectivism; to understand and critically analyse the idea of the death of the author, the contextualizing of Foucauldian and Barthes’ discourse into contemporary philosophical milieu is significant. In this essay, I attempt to critically analyse the concept of the death of the author and the significant discourse around the thought.
Consequences of both the World Wars and the uprisings in the late sixties gave rise to a fervent all around Europe, which wanted to do away with all kinds of authority, including the authority of the author. For Barthes and Foucault, assigning the author the power of authority generates the possibility of policing how the texts are interpreted; both of the critics agree that appeal to the author is the delimitation of the meaning. Barthes and Foucault, both challenged the authority that the figure of the author enjoyed in the traditional literary criticism, but Foucault goes a step further to problematize the generic term ‘author’ used by Barthes.
Foucault finds faults with the word ‘author’, for him, there is no author, but the author function through which a text finds its expression. He questions the defining characteristics of the author and its work with questions such as— what can be included in an author’s oeuvre? Does his notes, scribbles and shopping lists are part of his work?
Through the concept of the author-function, Foucault disassociates the subjective relationship that the author has with the text. For Foucault, the author is merely a function of the discourse, except in the matters of discursivity. The founders of discursivity, Marx, Freud and possibly Nietzsche, have a different relation to this author-function which makes them distinct from all the authors, as they, according to Foucault, were not just the authors of their texts, but they created the possibility of the formation of the other texts.
The attempt to suffocate the relationship between the text and the author to open the possibility for infinite interpretation can be questioned on multiples grounds: the suspicion of Gadamer that the infinite possibility would reduce the possibility extracting the truth from the meaning would be a good point to begin with. Seán Burke, the literary theorist in his book The Death and Return of the Author questions the death of the author by putting forward the issue of royalties and the copyrights. He claims that one cannot state that there is no author and then accept the royalties or copyrights for his/her works. Burke also argues that the ascertaining total authority of the author or claiming his total absence are both wrong; the author intention while interpreting the text is significant and cannot be dismissed as completely absent.
On the other hand, I.A. Richards’ literary criticism and his views of poetry can also be taken into consideration to critique Foucault’s and Barthes’ viewpoint. According to Richards, “Poetry is capable of saving us.” Poetry fulfils our psychological needs that other form of truths such as scientific or natural cannot fulfil. This view can be extended to support Foucault and Barthes views, in the manner that if property, literature or a text which Richards puts as pseudo statement fulfils our psychological needs, then the removal of the authoritative figure would allow the unguided relationship between the text and the reader.
It may appear that Foucault and the New Critics in their skepticism of the author intention are well positioned, but it is significant to note that the analysis of Foucault and the concept of author-function leave ample vacuum for a new possibility to arise which sufficiently reflects that negation of ‘author’ would create certain problems; For instance, what if the act of articulating, i.e., writing aims at the achieving liberty and policing the realm of meaning? What about the voices of the people of colour or the subalterns who use the texts to assert their freedom and not to the liberty of others?
What if the author denies being termed as the author-function, an instrument through which something larger finds its way? Can we, as readers or critics reduce authors like Maria Campbel, Ngugi wa Thiong’o and many others to author-function? Is it possible to ignore that texts of these authors are subjective experiences manifested on numerous individualities? Perhaps no!