Whatís in a name?

Foucault takes up the question of "author" as product of "work" again, asking how "the name of the author" serves a function within literary-social relations. The name of the author (not to be confused with Lacan's "Name-of-the-Father") is, first of all, a proper name, a signifier that designates a specific and discrete historical individual (just as your name designates you as a specific historical individual). But an "author's" name does more than that: when we say "Aristotle," or "Shakespeare," or even "Foucault," we mean more than just the guy who lived--we also mean the thoughts he is attributed with, the mode of thinking, the objects of contemplation, the methodology, and/or the writings (or forms of discourse) associated with that name.Ý

The proper name of an author oscillates between two poles: between designation, which refers to the person, and description, which refers to the ideas, the work, associated with the name. Designation and description are not the same, not isomorphous. The proper name, as a signifier, can have either the signified of the actual person (the designation) or the signified of the work/ideas. In each case, the relation between signifier and signified--between proper name and what it either designates or describes--is arbitrary and separable.Ý

For example: "Shakespeare" can refer to the guy who lived in Stratford-on-Avon in the seventeenth century, or it can refer to the numerous plays and poems linked under the name "Shakespeare." The idea of the separability of designation and description becomes clear when someone argues that "Shakespeare did not write the plays of Shakespeare"--meaning that the historical figure is not actually the guy responsible for the body of works called "the plays of Shakespeare." Such a sentence makes sense only if "Shakespeare" signifies two separate things.Ý

This shows that the author's name serves as a means of identification, not simply as an element of speech. The name "Shakespeare" groups together a number of texts and differentiates them from others: Shakespeare marks what is not G. Eliot and what is not T.S. Eliot, etc. The author's name, according to Foucault, characterizes a particular manner of existence of discourse; the texts attributed to an author are given more status, more attention, and more cultural value than texts which have no author. We would read the grocery list we talked about last week differently if we knew it was written by T.S. Eliot. The author's name thus remains at the contours of texts, Foucault says, separating one from another, and characterizing their mode of existence. The name of the author is thus a variable, a signifier, which accompanies only certain texts to the exclusion of others.




To Barthes