What matter who's speaking?

Foucault talks about Samuel Beckett (the modernist novelist and playwright), and particularly about a line from Beckett, "what matter who's speaking?" Foucault sees this sentence as an expression of some of the major principles of contemporary writing, or what Foucault calls ecriture. (This ecriture is related to the French feminist idea of "l'ecriture feminine," but Foucault doesn't choose to give it a gender). One of the hallmarks of ecriture is the interplay of signifiers; language in this kind of writing is not about reference to a signified, but rather it's about the play among signifiers. The ecriture that Foucault is discussing tends toward the monologic, rather than the dialogic, in Bakhtin's terms; it is writing that is self-referential, writing about writing, or about language itself, rather than writing for/about social communication. As such, this writing is always working against the grammatical rules and structures within which meaning (or sense) is made. Because of this, Foucault concludes, such ecriture is not about "the exalted emotions related to the act of composition." Writing is not the vehicle for the author's expression of his/her emotions or ideas, since writing isn't meant to communicate from author to reader, but rather writing is the circulation of language itself, regardless of the individual existence of author or reader: "it is primarily concerned with creating an opening where the writing subject endlessly disappears" (p. 139b).

Foucault says that a writer's particular individuality is canceled out by the text, by writing, because we now see "writer," or "author," as the function of language itself. In the humanist model, the categories of author, text, and reader seemed self-evident and separate: an author is someone who produces a text, which is then read by a reader; the author was the source and origin of some creative power, which was unique to him or her, and out of which s/he created something entirely new.

So why does Foucault say the author is "dead"? It's his way of saying that the author is decentered, shown to be only a part of the structure, a subject position, and not the center. In the humanist view, remember, authors were the source and origin of texts (and perhaps of language itself, like Derrida's engineer), and were also thus beyond texts--hence authors were "centers." In declaring the author dead, Foucault follows Nietzsche's declaration (at the end of the nineteenth century) that "God is dead," a statement which Derrida then reads as meaning that God is no longer the center of the system of philosophy which Nietzsche is rejecting. By declaring the death of the author, Foucault is "deconstructing" the idea that the author is the origin of something original, and replacing it with the idea that the "author" is the product or function of writing, of the text. (Foucault also borrows the idea of "the death of the author" from poststructuralist literary critic Roland Barthes; his essay "The Death of the Author" appears in a collection of Barthes' essays entitled Image-Music-Text.)

An "author" only exists as the product of a text, or of writing. That is primarily what Foucault's article explores. What an author produces, according to Foucault, is a "work." The task of (humanist) criticism used to be to trace the ties between an author and the work s/he created, by reading the work as an illustration of the author's individual life history, of his or her particular concerns, thematics, etc. Foucault says that, once we throw the idea of "author" as individual creator into question, what do we mean by "work"?

Another way of putting this is to ask, once we have an author, does everything s/he wrote belong to the idea of her/his "work"? For example, think of that writing we discussed with Bakhtin: "Two pounds ground beef/seedless grapes/loaf bread." If we knew that this was written by T.S. Eliot, would it count as one of his "works"? Would it matter whether we thought it was a poem or a grocery list? Why or why not? Foucault says that we need to have some sort of theory to explain or analyze questions about what counts as an author's "work." A related question is whether anonymous writings can be considered "works," even though they have no specific author.