Ron Rosenbaum

The Death of "the death of the author"?

I have to say this is an explosive development in the world of intellectual fashions.

It’s an essay by the scholar Richard Wolin originally published in The Chronicle of Higher Education (Sept. 1, 2006) which I found on my favorite cultural studies website Arts & Letters Daily.(You can still find it if you scroll down the right hand column til you see Foucault).

An essay entitled “Foucault the Neohumanist”. I swear it almost made me spill my Starbucks on my iBook. Because it essentially pulls the rug out from under decades of academic theorizing which, Prof. Wolin suggests, depended on an incomplete if not inaccurate, understanding of the the most influential theorist in what has come to be known as “Theory’s Empire” (there’s a book by that title)

If you’ve been following the evolution of what is known as Theory (that’s right just “Theory”) in literary studies as I have, most recently in the course of writing %%AMAZON=0375503390 The Shakespeare Wars%%, you know that for years the reigning orthodoxy in academic circles was dominated by Michel Foucault’s critique of the Self or “the subject” or “subjectivity” or free will. autonomy agency, whatever you want to call it, as an illusory product of the power relations of society.

The “self” Foucalt argued is “constructed” by external forces, subtle mechanisms of control that disguise themselves as “knowledge ” and “insight”. In fact, according to this doctrine, the self has no internal will power. Determinism rules. And writers are at best a mouthpiece for the zeitgeist, their works merely reproduce, zombie-like the order of the power structure. Thus the famous “death of the author” which almost all postmodern theorists, apparently ignoring their own “death” have enthusiastically endorsed.

But now Wolin says, it turns out that the illusion of the self, the death of the author are concepts that Foucault himself rejected in the later stages of his career.

On the basis of a new book Foucault 2.0 by Eric Paras who has recovered and translated the later lectures and analyzed the shift in Foucault’s political positions, Wolin says the conception of Foucault’s views among American academics who have not read his untranslated later lectures “seems wrong, or at best, only partially true.. .that in fact the later Foucault became a human-rights activist, a political posture that stands in stark contrast with his North American canonization as the progenitor of ‘identity politics'”.

Indeed Wolin argues, Foucault later “embraced the ideas that he had labored to undermine: liberty, individualism, ‘human rights,’ and even the thinking subject.”

Even the thinking subject! You mean you have control over your own thoughts? A writer has control over his own sentences?

The author is not dead? Half the tenured professors of humanities will now have to re think their position on the thinking subject. Or at least not claim Foucault’s supposed authority for dismissing authorship–not just of writing but authorship of the self.

About time.