The second reading would be returning to the same text, either taking along the comments from the first one or starting afresh, which has to be decided
(interned in the Bicêtre on April 21, 1701)
(interned at Charenton on August 31, 1707)
On February 22, 1969, Michel Foucault presented the lecture "What Is an Author?"(1) to the members and guests of the Société Française de Philosophie. Three years earlier, the publication of The Order of Things had made him a celebrity. In the audience (which included Jean Wahl, who introduced the lecture, Maurice de Gandillac, Lucien Goldmann, and Jacques Lacan), it was easy to confuse fashionable curiosity with excitement about the topic to be discussed. Foucault began his lecture with a quote from Samuel Beckett ("What matter who's speaking, someone said what matter who's speaking")(2) as a way to formulate an indifference toward the author that would serve as the basis of all ethics of contemporary writing. What is in question in writing, Foucault suggested, is not so much as the , in which the does not cease to disappear: "The trace of the writer is found only in the singularity of his absence?"(3)
But in its very enunciation the Beckett quote contains a contradiction that seems ironically to evoke the secret theme of the lecture. "What matter who's speaking, someone said what matter who's speaking." There is thus someone who, while remaining anonymous and faceless, proffered this statement, someone without whom the thesis denying the importance of the one who speaks could not have been formulated. The same gesture that deprives the identity of the author of all relevance nevertheless affirms his irreducible necessity.
At this point, Foucault goes on to clarify the meaning of his operation. It is based on the distinction between two notions that are often confused: the author as a real individual who remains rigorously out of the picture, and the author-function, on which Foucault focuses his analysis. The name of an author is not simply a proper name like any other, neither at the level of description nor at the level of designation. If I learn, for example, that Pierre Dupont does not have blue eyes, or that he was not born in Paris, or that he is not a doctor as I believed, for one reason or another, the proper name Pierre Dupont nonetheless does not cease referring to the same person. But if I discover that Shakespeare did not write the tragedies attributed to him and that instead he wrote Francis Bacon's Novum Organum, then it cannot be said that the function of the name Shakespeare has not changed. The author's name does not refer simply to civil status; "it does not pass from the interior of a discourse to the real and exterior individual who produced it"; instead, it is located "at the edges of the text," whose status and regime of circulation it defines within a given society. "As a result, we could say that in a civilization like our own there is a certain number of discourses endowed with the 'author function' while others are deprived of it. ... The author function is therefore characteristic of the mode of existence, circulation, and functioning of certain discourses within a society?"(4)
Hence the various characteristics of the author-function in our time: a particular regime of appropriation sanctioned by the author's rights and, at the same time, the possibility of prosecuting and punishing the author of a text; the possibility of distinguishing and selecting discourses in literary and scientific texts, to which various modes of the same function correspond; the possibility of authenticating texts by constituting them as a canon, or, conversely, the possibility of determining their apocryphal character; the dispersal of the enunciative function simultaneously into several subjects who occupy different places; and finally, the possibility of constructing a transdiscursive function which, beyond the limits of his work, constitutes the author as a "founder of discursivity" (Marx is far more than the author of Capital, just as Freud is more than the author of The Interpretation of Dreams).(5)
Two years later, when he presented a modified version of the lecture at the State University of New York at Buffalo, Foucault proposed an even more drastic opposition between the author-individual and the author-function. "The author is not an indefinite source of significations that fill the work; the author does not precede his works. He is a certain functional principle by which, in our culture, one delimits, excludes, selects: in short, the principle by which one impedes the free circulation, the free manipulation, the free composition, decomposition, and recomposition of fiction."
In this division between the author-subject and the arrangements that actualize this subject's function in society, Foucault's strategy is marked by a profound gesture. On the one hand, he repeats several times that he has never ceased working on subjectivity, while on the other hand, the subject as a living individual is present in his research only through the objective processes of subjectivation that constitute this subject and the apparatuses that inscribe and capture it in the mechanisms of power. This is probably why hostile critics have reproached Foucault, not without a certain incoherence, for both an absolute indifference to the flesh-and-blood individual and a decidedly aestheticizing perspective with regard to subjectivity. Foucault was in any case perfectly aware of this apparent aporia. In the early 1980s, writing in the Dictionnaire des philosophes, he characterized his own method in the following way: "Refusing the philosophical recourse to a constituent subject does not amount to acting as if the subject did not exist, making an abstraction of it on behalf of a pure objectivity. This refusal has the aim of eliciting the processes that are peculiar to an experience in which the subject and the object 'are formed and transformed' in relation to and in terms of one another."(6) And in response to Lucien Goldmann, who, in the discussion following the lecture on the author, attributed to Foucault the intention of effacing the individual subject, he said with irony: "To define how the author function is exercised is not equivalent to saying that the author does not exist.... So let us hold hack our tears?"(7)
From this perspective, the author-function appears as a process of subjectivation through which an individual is identified and constituted as the author of a certain corpus of texts. It thus seems that every inquiry into the subject as an individual must give way to the archival record that defines the conditions and forms under which the subject can appear in the order of discourse. In this order, according to a diagnosis that Foucault continually emphasizes, "the trace of the writer is found only in the singularity of his absence; he must assume the role of the dead man in the game of writing?" The author is not dead, but to position oneself as an author means oc-cupying the place of a "dead man." An author-subject does exist, and yet he is attested to only through the traces of his absence. But in what way can an absence be singular? And what does it mean for an individual to occupy the place of a dead man, to leave his own traces in an empty place?
There is perhaps only one text in Foucault's work where emerges explicitly and thematically and where the illegibility of the subject appears for a moment . I am referring to "Lives of Infamous Men," originally conceived as the preface to an anthology of archival documents, prison records, and lettres de cachet, in which, at the very moment when they are struck with , the encounter with power and silence these human existences that would otherwise not have left any traces?(8) The grimace of the atheist, sodomite sexton Jean-Antoine Touzard (interned in the Bicêtre on April 21, 1701) and the obstinate, obscure vagabondage of Mathurin Milan (interned at Charenton on August 31, 1707) shine for a brief moment in the beam of light cast upon them by power. in this instantaneous fulguration exceeds the subjectivation that condemns them to opprobrium and is marked out in the laconic statements of the archive something like the luminous traces of another life and another history. To be sure, these infamous lives appear only through quotes in the discourse of power, which fixes them as responsible agents and authors of villainous acts and discourses. Still, as in those photographs from which the distant but excessively close face of a stranger stares out at us, something in this infamy demands [esige] its proper name, testifying to itself beyond any expression and beyond any memory.
In what way are these lives present in the brief, sinister annotations that have consigned them forever to the pitiless archive of infamy? The anonymous scribes, the insignificant functionaries who wrote these notes certainly had no intention of either knowing or representing these men: their only aim was to stamp them with infamy. And yet, at least for a moment in these pages, these lives . Can it be said for that reason that these lives found expression here and that they are somehow communicated to us and given to be known, albeit in the most drastic abbreviation? On the contrary, the gesture by which they have been fixed seems to remove them forever from any possible presentation, as if they had appeared in language only on the condition of remaining absolutely unexpressed in it.
It the infamous life somehow constitutes the paradigm of the presence-absence of the author in the work. If we call "gesture" what remains unexpressed in each expressive act, we can say that, exactly like infamy, the author is present in the text only as a gesture that makes expression possible precisely by within this expression.
How should we understand the modality of this singular presence, by which a life appears to us only through what silences it and twists it into a grimace? Foucault seems to be aware of this difficulty.
One won't see a collection of verbal portraits here, but traps, weapons, cries, gestures, attitudes, ruses, intrigues for which words were instruments. Real lives were played out [jouées](9) in these few sentences; by this I do not mean that they were represented, but that their freedom, their misfortune, often their death, in any case their fate were actually decided in them, at least in part. These discourses intersected with lives in real, concrete ways; these existences were effectively risked and lost in these words(10).
It was therefore taken for granted that these were neither portraits nor biographies; what binds the infamous lives to the fleshless writings that record them is not a relationship of representation or refiguration, but something different and more essential: in these sentences; their freedom and their disgrace are risked and decided. In what way are these lives present in the brief, sinister annotations that have consigned them forever to the pitiless archive of infamy?
Where is Mathurin Milan? Where is Jean-Antoine Touzard? Certainly not in the laconic notes that register their presence in the archive of infamy. Nor are they outside the archive, in a biographical reality of which we know literally nothing. , like the gesture that has both rendered it possible and exceeded and nullified its intention.
: in this context, this is an ambiguous expression, which Foucault emphasizes by using quotation marks. Not so much because jouer also has a theatrical meaning (the phrase could mean that these lives are staged, or their roles recited), but because the agent, the one who put these lives into play, remains deliberately obscure in the text.Who put these lives into play? Was it the infamous men themselves, abandoning themselves without reserve - Mathurin Milan to his vagabondage, and Jean-Antoine Touzard to his sodomite passion? Or was it rather - and this seems more likely - the conspiracy of familiars, the anonymous functionaries, the chancellors and policemen who were in charge of their internment? The infamous life does not seem to belong completely to either one or the other; it belongs neither to the juridical identity that will have to answer for it nor to the functionaries of power who will judge the infamous men in the end. The infamous life is only played; it is never possessed, never represented, never said - and that is why it is the possible but empty site of an ethics, of a form of life.
But what does it mean for a life to put itself or to be put into play?
In Dostoyevsky's The Idiot, Nastasya Filippovna enters her drawing room on a certain evening that will decide her existence.¹¹ She has promised Afanasy Ivanovich Totsky, the mall who has dishonored her and kept her until now, that she will respond to his offer to marry the young Ganya in exchange for seventy-five thousand rubles. All her friends and acquaintances are gathered in her drawing room, including General Yepanchin, the ineffable Lebedev, and the venomous Ferdischenko. Even Prince Myshkin is there, as is Rogozhin, who at a certain point makes an entrance at the head of an unseemly clique, hearing a packet containing a hundred thousand rubles for Nastasya. From the beginning, the evening has something sick and feverish about it. The mistress of the house never stops repeating: I have a fever, I don 't feel well.
By agreeing to play the unpleasant society game proposed by Ferdischenko, in which each player must confess his own abjection, Nastasya immediately places the entire evening under the sign of games and play. And it is out of playfulness or caprice that she makes Prince Myshkin, who is practically a stranger to her, decide her response to Totsky. From there, everything happens very quickly. She unexpectedly agrees to marry the prince, only to take it back immediately, choosing Rogozhin instead. Then, as if possessed, she grabs the packet containing the hundred thousand rubles and throws it into the fire, promising the avid Ganya that the money will be his if he has the courage to pluck it from the flames.
What guides the actions of Nastasya Filippovna? However excessive her gestures may be, they are incomparably superior to the calculations and the attitudes of the others present (with the exception of Myshkin). And yet it is impossible to discern in these gestures anything like a rational decision or a moral principle. Nor can one say that she acts in order to seek vengeance (against Totsky, for example). From beginning to end, Nastasya seems gripped by a delirium, as her friends never tire of saying ("But what are you talking about? You're having an attack"; "I don't understand her, she's lost her head").
Nastasya Filippovna has put her life into play - or perhaps she has allowed this life to be put into play by Myshkin, by Rogozhin, by Lebedev, and, at bottom, by her own caprice. That is why her behavior is inexplicable; that is why she remains perfectly inaccessible and misunderstood in all her actions. A life is ethical not when it simply submits to moral laws but when it accepts putting itself into play in its gestures, irrevocably and without reserve - even at the risk that its happiness or its disgrace will be decided once and for all.
The author marks the point at which a life is offered up and played out in the work. Offered up and played out, not expressed or fulfilled. For this reason, the author can only remain unsatisfied and unsaid in the work. He is the illegible someone who makes reading possible, the legendary emptiness from which writing and discourse issue. The author's gesture is attested to as a strange and incongruous presence in the work it has brought to life, in exactly the same way that - according to the theorists of the commedia dell'arte - the Harlequin's lazzo incessantly interrupts the story unfolding on the stage and continually unravels the plot. And yet, just as the lazzo owes its name to the fact that, like a lace, it returns each time to retie the thread that it has loosened, the author's gesture guarantees the life of the work only through the irreducible presence of an inexpressive outer edge. Like the mime in his silence and the Harlequin with his lazzo, the author tirelessly returns to enclose himself again within the opening he has created. And just as we seek in vain - in old books that reproduce the portrait or photograph of the author as a frontispiece - to decipher the reasons and the meaning of the work from the author's enigmatic features, so does his gesture hesitate on the threshold of the work, like an intractable exergue that ironically claims to hold its unavowable secret.
And yet this illegible gesture, this place that remains empty, is what makes reading possible. Consider the poem that begins "Padre polvo que cubes de España."(12) We know – or at least we have been told - that this was written one day in 1937 by a man named César Vallejo, who was born in Peru in 1892 and is now buried in the Montparnasse Cemetery in Paris, next to his wife, Georgette, who survived him by many years and is responsible, it seems, for the flawed edition of his poetry and other posthumous writings. Let us attempt to pinpoint the relationship that constitutes this poem as a work by César Vallejo (or César Vallejo as the author of this poem). Does it mean that on a certain day this particular sentiment, this incomparable thought passed on a brief moment through the mind and soul of the individual named César Vallejo? Nothing is less certain. Indeed, it is rather likely that this thought and this sentiment became real for him, and their details and nuances became inextricably his own, only after – or while – writing the poem (just as they become such for us only in the moment when we read the poem).
Does this mean that the place of thought and feeling is in the poem itself in the signs that make up the text? How could a passion, a thought be contained in a piece of paper? By definition, feelings and thoughts require a subject to experience and think them. In order for them to become present, someone must take up the book and read. This individual will occupy the empty place in the poem left by the author; he will repeat the same inexpressive gesture the author used to testify to his absence in the work.
The place of the poem – or, rather, its taking place – is therefore neither in the text nor in the author (nor in the reader): it is in the gesture through which the author and reader put themselves into play in the text and, at the same time, are infinitely withdrawn from it. The author is only the witness or guarantor of his own absence in the work in which he is put into play, and the reader can only provide this testimony once again, making himself in turn the guarantor of the inexhaustible game in which he plays at missing himself. Just as, according to Averroes, thought is unique and separate from the individuals who use their imaginations and fantasies to join with it from time to time, so do the author and the reader enter into a relationship with the work only on the condition that they remain unexpressed in it. And yet the text has no other light than the opaque one that radiates from the testimony of this absence.
But this is precisely why the author also marks the limit beyond which no interpretation can proceed. Reading must come to an end at the place where the reading of what has been poetized encounters in some way the empty place of what was lived. It is just as illegitimate to attempt to construct the personality of the author by means of the work as it is to turn his gesture into the secret cipher of reading.
Perhaps Foucault's aporia becomes less enigmatic at this point. The subject – like the author, like the life of the infamous man – is not something that can be directly attained as a substantial reality present in some place; on the contrary, it is what results from the encounter and from the hand-to-hand confrontation with the apparatuses in which it has been put – and has put itself – into play. For writing (any writing, not only the writing of the chancellors of the archive of infamy) is an apparatus too, and the history of human beings is perhaps nothing other than the hand-to-hand confrontation with the apparatuses they have produced – above all with language. And just as the author must remain unexpressed in the work while still attesting, in precisely this way, to his own irreducible presence, so must subjectivity show itself and increase its resistance at the point where its apparatuses capture it and put it into play. A subjectivity is produced where the living being, encountering language and putting itself into play in language without reserve, exhibits in a gesture the impossibility of its being reduced to this gesture. All the rest is psychology, and nowhere in psychology do we encounter anything like an ethical subject, a form of life.
(1) Michel Foucault, "What Is an Author?" in Aesthetics, Method and Epistemology, ed. James D. Faubion, trans. Robert Hurley (New York: New Press, 1998), pp. 205-22.
(2) Samuel Beckett, "Texts for Nothing," The Complete Short Prose, 1929-1989, ed. S.E. Gontarski (New York: Grove Press, 1995), p. 109.
(3) Foucault, "What Is an Author?" p. 207.
(4) Ibid., p. 211 (translation emended).
(5) Ibid., p. 217.
(6) Michel Foucault, "Foucault," Aesthetics, Method and Epistemology, p. 462. This is an encyclopedia article that Foucault wrote in the third person about himself – TRANS.
(7) Michel Foucault, Dits et écrits, 1954-1988, Volume 1 (Paris: Gallimard, 1994), p. 817.
(8) Michel Foucault, "Lives of Infamous Men," Power, ed. James D. Faubion, trans. Robert Hurley (New York: New Press, 2000).
(9) The ambiguity of this French word (interpolated both by Agamben and by Foucault's English translator) is explained below - TRANS.
(10) Foucault, "Lives of Infamous Men," p. 160 (translation emended).
(11) Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Idiot, trans. Alan Myers (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992), pp. 143-86.
(12) "Father dust who rises from Spain." César Vallejo, The Complete Posthumous Poetry, trans. Clayton Eshleman and José Rubia Barcia (Berkley: University of California Press, 1978), p. 262.