The Differences between Barthes and Foucault on Authorship

Monica Lancini, English 111, 1999

The basic difference between Barthes' essay and Foucault's one is the general perspective on the subject of authorship, which doesn't prevent them from coming to similar conclusions. Foucault describes the process of writing and the question of authorship from the inside, whereas Barthes analyses the external consequences of it, focusing his attention on authorship in relation to institutions. Indeed, Barthes' premise is "we still lack a sociology of language" (Barthes, 185), whereas Foucault's starting point is "for the purpose of this paper, I will set aside a sociohistorical analysis" (Foucault, 115). I will try to make a collage of quotations to show where, in my opinion, the points of convergence are.

Barthes traces the death of the author back to the French Revolution, when authorial language was first used for political ends. That was the origin of the distinction between what he calls an "author" -- whose responsibly is to "support literature as a failed commitment" ( Barthes ,118) - and a "writer" -- better known as the intellectual. Foucault, on the contrary, restricts himself "to the singular relationship that holds between an author and a text" (Foucault, 115), although it seems to me that what he describes as the author's name oscillating between description and designation suggests, nevertheless, the idea of the author as a part of a historical continuum.

In both cases, the concept of authorship is basically a variable, which is not defined by spontaneous attributions but simply by our way of handling texts, or by the place of discourse within society. Both essays emphasize the death of the author mainly as the loss of a traditional definition. "It is obviously insufficient to repeat the empty slogans: the author has disappeared or God and man died a common death. Rather, we should reexamine the empty space left by the author's disappearance" (Foucault, 121) As we have already redefined the concept of authorship after the French Revolution (Barthes) or after Freud, Marx or Galileo generated "transdiscourses" (Foucault) I agree with Foucault when he says "the subject should not be abandoned but reconsidered" (137). Although their points of view might be diametrical, both "writers" are worried in saying what an author is not. Whereas Barthes' attitude is an affirmative one, even if tautological - an author is not a writer, a writer is not an author- Foucault provides the reader with a much more detailed description of what an author used to be and therefore is not today. In both cases, the concept of authorship still remains a very vague one.

Both Barthes and Foucault focus their attention on the contemporary conception of language as an interplay of signs, "regulated less by the content it signifies than by the very nature of the signifier" (Foucault, 116), it is "neither an instrument nor a vehicle: it is a structure" (Barthes, 187). What killed the author was his own work. "Where a work had the duty of creating immortality, it now attains the right to kill, to become the murder of the author" (Foucault, 117). This automatically excludes the ethical function, which, according to Barthes' fundamental distinction, is typical of the writer. Foucault's statement: "the task of criticism is not to reestablish the ties between the author and his work" (Foucault, 118), is translated, in Barthes' terms, into: "by identifying himself with language, the author looses all claims to truth" (Barthes, 187). "The essential basis of this writing is [...] primarily concerned with creating an opening where the writing subject endlessly disappeared" (Foucault, 116). Barthes' own conclusion is that "our age has produces a bastard type: the author-writer [...] the author-writer is an excluded figure integrated by his very exclusion" (Barthes, 192). Whereas Foucault says: "I am not certain that the consequences derived from the disappearance or death of the author have been fully explored" (Foucault, 117). Let's say that any attempt to redefine authorship should take into consideration at least two fundamental concepts: hybrids and absence.

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