Foucault’s “What is an Author?”


 In “What is an Author?” Michel Foucault attempts to determine the historical function of the author, exploring such aspects as the significance of the author’s name and their position and role in discourse.

Key Terms:

 The Author Function


Founders of Discursivity

The Author’s Name

The Work

The Author Function significance

Foucault uses the Author Function to describe the way in which the author operates in terms of literary discourse. He describes how the Author Function has changed over time, how authorship didn’t bear as much importance in earlier times as it does now.

The Author’s Name significance

 Early in the text, Foucault discusses the importance of the author’s name, noting the difference between the author’s name and the ‘proper name.’ Foucault writes that “the author’s name serves to characterize a certain mode of being of discourse,” that attributing authorship lifts a text above common speech and gives it a “certain status” (211).

Founders of Discursivity significance

Founders of discursivity produce, in addition to their own works, the potential for creation of other forms of discourse. Foucault cites Freud and Marx as examples, since they “both have established an endless possibility of discourse” (217).

Passage Paraphrase

 “I think that, as our society changes… the author function will disappear, and in such a manner that fiction and its polysemous texts will once again function according to another mode, but still with a system of constraint—one that will no longer be the author but will have to be determined or, perhaps, experienced” (222).

Here, Foucault is predicting the disappearance of the Author Function, a movement into another episteme perhaps, where literary texts will be classified in a less identifiable way.

Discussion Questions:

Are there any instances of Foucault’s above prediction in terms of authorship today or in recent times? Are there any forms of fiction that operate in a mode other than the author function?

Who are some other potential “founders of discursivity,” those that have produced not only their own works but routes for divergent forms of discourse?

Foucault’s Panopticism


 In “Panopticism,” Michel Foucault presents Bentham’s Panopticon, a structure that allows a central watcher to observe surrounding cells without being seen, and relates this panopticism to various forms of discipline that are instilled as a form of power in society.

Key Terms





Human multiplicities

Panopticon/panopticism significance:

 Foucault uses the concept of the Panopticon to explain how “disciplinary mechanisms” are exerted on society by those in power. Foucault writes that the Panopticon “induce[s] in the inmate a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power (201). Panopticism, in turn, is the way in which society exerts power by imposing disciplines in various ways.

Disciplines significance:

 Foucault writes that discipline is “a type of power, a modality for its exercise, comprising a whole set of instruments, techniques, procedures, levels of application, targets; it is a ‘physics’ or an ‘anatomy’ of power, a technology” (215). He describes panopticism as a “discipline-mechanism” that smooths the exertion of power.

 Surveillance significance:

 Foucault writes that “our society is not one of spectacle, but of surveillance” (217). The ability for the watcher to conduct surveillance on its subjects, without the subject reciprocating, is what allows for the exertion of power, and the instilling of discipline(s), in a panoptic society.

Passage Paraphrase:

 “The movement from one project to the other, from a schema of exceptional discipline to one of a generalized surveillance, rests on a historical transformation: the gradual extension of the mechanisms of discipline throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, their spread throughout the whole social body, the formation of what might be called in general the disciplinary society” (209)

Foucault seems to be describing a transition between epistemes, where once discipline was used to sanction off the abnormal from the normal, it is now used in a more generalized sense, covering much larger aspects of society.

 Discussion Questions:

 With the transparency offered by social media and the digital age in general, how does panopticism operate in the present day? With the ability for anyone to observe someone’s social media presence, have we all become panoptic watchers?

In Oscar Wao, does Yunior exhibit panoptic tendencies? Or any omniscient narrator for that matter?