So I was trying to understand the works of Michel Foucault and came across one of his essays titled “What is an Author?” You can get the text here.

I think what Foucault has to say about the notion of an author is very important and is key to our class discussion about authors, architects, musicians, film directors, ciritcs and ultimately designers.

The Title:
Foucault did not make a grammatical mistake when he titled his essay as “What is an Author”. Rather it sets the tone for his entire discourse. He views the author not as a person but as an idea or a concept.

He starts by pointing out how when we talk about an author, we immediately have the mental image of a rounded character, a solid representation, like a character in a fictional work – whole and universal. He asks how much of this is real. In other words, how much of our idea we attribute to the author is actually real when compared to the flesh and blood person who wrote it? Does the flesh and blood person even matter while studying the text? In his own words “these aspects of an individual which we designate as making him an author are only a projection, in more or less of a psychologising terms, of the operations that we force texts to undergo, the connections that we make, the traits that we establish as pertinent, the continuities that we recognize, or the exclusions that we practice.” Doesn’t this seem like a structuralist’s point of view? [ Foucault has denied many times to be classified either as a structuralist or as a post-structuralist.]

Author function:
Foucault breaks the illusion of him being a structuralist by introducing the term “Author function”. The author function is like a set of beliefs that govern the creation, usage and, study of texts. Let me attempt an example. You are walking on the street. You find a sheet of paper on which is printed a beautiful poem. You read it and understand it. You want to find who wrote the poem. You think it may be Keats or Shelley. You keep wondering and walk further down the road and come across another sheet of paper which is a flyer for a lost kitten. Do you attempt to think who the author of the flyer is? If not why? Foucault says that which makes us want to find the author of the poem is author function.

Even though it may appear strange that “author function” is attributed to the reader and not the writer, it makes sense upon reflection. The reader wants to make sense, to contextualize and to frame the text. In other words, the reader authors the text as a reading. (Jeff mentions this in his paper “Interaction Criticism and Aesthetics”).

This author function, Foucault says, is actually a product of the time of the writer and our lifeworld. Let me attempt another example to clarify this. Consider one of Byron’s sonnets. Let’s assume that they suddenly find some evidence that the sonnet was not written by Byron but by some two-cent poet. How does this affect the meaning of the sonnet? The sonnet has not changed it’s words. What happens to all the Byronian traits associated previously to it? In essence, what Foucault is trying to say here is that Byron is an idea that we use to deal with works from that particulare age and need. He does make it very clear that the author function affects different things, differently. For example, scientific texts are less affected by author functions that literary texts. Not many of us are worried about the authorship of the molecular weight of chlorine.

Founders of discursivity:
After establishing the idea of author function, Foucault goes ahead and says that this function is applicable not only to individual works but to discourse of works in general. I guess this applies to philosophical schools of thinking. When Freud published his texts on psychoanalysis, he actually opens up a who new field of discourse which is based on “freudian” thinking.

Foucault nods along when Barthes proclaims the “death of the author”. Foucault argues that “the task of criticism is not to bring out the work’s relationship with the author, but rather to analyse the work through its structure, its architecture, its intrinsic form, and the play of internal relationships”. Sounds familiar? Yeah! This is the argument Kael and others used to diss auteur theory. It makes more sense to me now.

Interaction Design:
I can’t help but wonder what would Foucault say about Interaction Design if he was alive today. What would it be like to have him present give a talk in CHI? Fantasies apart, I am trying to think in those lines.

  • Do we think that all designs from Ideo are brilliant?
  • Does it matter if a design has “Ideo” branded on it?
  • Is there something like a “designer function” similar to the author function?
  • What would happen if we diguise an existing Mac application in a Windows like graphics style and present it to an avid Mac user?
  • Will the same avid Mac user be able to tell apart between two applications both of which has a Mac like appearance and performance, one developed by Microsoft and other developed by Apple?
  • Who or what is the author then when it comes to design? User-centred design? Participatory design?
  • Can trends like Web2.0 be considered as “founders of discursivity”?
  • Would the iPod be as successful as it is today if it had been designed 10 years ago? [Assuming technological feasibility]
  • Are bad designs really bad designs or is the world not yet ready for them? [Or has their time already gone?]
  • Why do some of the old designs, which were not recieved well then, enjoy such a celebrity status now when revived? [This is true especially in fashion]

Thoughts, questions, comments, rants, welcome!