Continuum: The Australian Journal of Media & Culture
Vol. 4, No. 1, 1990
The Media of Publishing
Edited by Albert Moran

Missing Ironies

Rod Giblett

A review of Dugald Williamson, Authorship and Criticism, Critical Categories Series, No. 1, (Sydney: Local Consumption, 1988).

Dugald Williamson's Authorship and Criticism (hereafter referred to as A&C) is prefaced with its avowed aim of providing "a general introduction to recent work on the problem of authorship". As such, it provides a useful entree to this work and to some of the issues generated out of the debates around it. However, the discursive specificity of "a general introduction" is not precisely indicated, especially in contradistinction to A&C's professed critique of "authorial criticism" and "interpretive commentary". Indeed, at the same time as it undertakes a critique of these two discursive strategies operating elsewhere, A&C itself invariably takes them up in relation to 'recent work'.

This is particularly so with Foucault's essay "What is an Author?" which is continually invoked under the authorial proper name and subjected to an interpretive commentary. The irony here is that in that essay Foucault scrutinised the use of the authorial proper name as a name like no other name in that it does not refer to a real individual but marks off the edges of the text. [1] Interestingly, and perhaps symptomatically, A&C does not refer to nor undertake a reading of the three or four page discussion of the proper name of the author in "What is an Author?" [2] This irony is 'missed', though another isn't as the "Acknowledgments" make clear: "the irony of individually signing a critical study of authorship is hard to miss" (by whom? the 'author'? the reader? both? and can ironies be 'missed'? planes and people can be missed, but ironies? wouldn't 'overlook' or 'avoid' have been a more appropriate word?)

This irony is perhaps overlooked because A&C is primarily concerned with the authorship of "artistic" texts, not other sorts of texts like critical studies of authorship such as Foucault's "What is an Author?" This is partly evident through an elision of a quotation from the latter which virtually begins the text proper. Here the author is seen as "'a privileged moment of individualisation in the history of ideas, knowledge and literature"' (p.1). "What is an Author?" in fact goes on to say 'or in the history of philosophy and science'. [3] That this is not a minor quibble and is indicative of a general reduction of the concept of the author to the privileged figure of the artist is evident in the second chapter on Romantic theories of authorship which precisely reinforces the concept of the author A&C is ostensibly trying to critique. For example, "authors are often accorded the authority to speak on matters other than purely artistic ones" (p.16). The unqualified appellation "authors" not only equates authors with artists, not only reduces the concept of the authorial to the artistic and so flies in the face of the opening Foucauldian pronouncement, but also replicates the Romantic, elitist distinction between art and everything else which produced the figure of the author which A&C critiqued earlier.

That this is not an isolated slip is indicated when later A&C suggests on occasions such as those just referred to "various attributes of the authorial persona spill over from the artistic into other public domains" (p.16). This (again) equates the author with the artist. It also, interestingly, sees the artistic as dammed against other public domains with the ebullient authorial persona hardly contained by the artistic, but spilling over the dam wall and flowing out to irrigate the perhaps drought-stricken (because they are deprived of art) fields of other public domains. This metaphor is associated with an apparent nostalgia for the heroic myth of the Romantic artist who could intervene decisively in the public domain and make authoritative pronouncements on non-artistic matters. This is a function which has hardly ever been performed recently by artistic authors. A&C does cite a couple of examples, such as Patrick White and Saul Bellow, but these are the (very rare) exceptions which prove the rule. Both these examples are also problematic because of their possession of a Nobel prize for literature which is a different kind of legitimation than a purely 'artistic' one, if such a thing is possible anyway. Both authorial figures have entered/were entered in the star system by virtue of winning the Nobel prize. If the figure of the author is to be seen as a discursive principle, as A&C earlier suggests following Foucault's "What is an Author?" then it has to be seen as having its 'birth' other than in Romantic exclusions and myths, and so having a function outside the artistic domain.

The third chapter of A&C is on critiques of authorship and jumps from the Romantics to recent work on authorship including a passing, and general, paragraph on feminist criticism. What was perhaps needed at this point as well, or instead, was a recognition and discussion of the fact that the figure of the author is masculine. The author is traditionally a male, and the figure of the author was given masculine characteristics of excessive virility and spurious originality. To counter the exclusive reference to male Romantics in the previous chapter, a reading of a text such as Mary Shelley's Frankenstein would have provided Williamson with a more than useful beginning point for a critical meditation on authorship in science and elsewhere as a kind of mind- and techno-birthing of monstrous children. The token paragraph on feminist criticism begs for more development along the lines of a discussion of the masculine figure of the author and how women writers, such as Mary Shelley, have negotiated and resisted its demands and strictures - and even any cases where men writers have resisted or attempted to resist them. Some contemporary American writers like Thomas Pynchon, William Gaddis and Don De Lillo perhaps fall into this category.

After discussing semiotic and structuralist accounts of authorship, including Barthes' "The Death of the Author", A&C moves to a more extensive discussion of its pivotal text, Foucault's "What is an Author?" The first move here is to attempt to prise 'Foucault' apart from 'the post-structuralists' by stating that "Foucault does not, like the post-structuralists, criticise author-centred practices for being based on the ideological illusion of a constitutive subject. From a Foucauldian point of view, the idea that the author is a discursive function can be contrasted with the idea that the author is an ideological fiction" (p.34). Not only does this pronouncement revert to a Lukacsian concept of ideology as "error" and "illusion" (p.31), and so ignores the more recent structuralist theorisation of ideology as a lived relation which is not illusory, but also it maintains a hard and fast distinction between the discursive and the ideological which is not made in "What is an Author?" or more precisely, not made in another translation of this essay in an anthology of criticism sub-titled, ironically, as post-structuralist. In fact, quite the contrary occurs. In a passage not included in the translation used by Williamson, [4] the author is described as "an ideological product ... The author is the ideological figure by which one marks the manner in which we fear the proliferation of meaning", [5] what Foucault elsewhere calls, in a reader also subtitled, ironically, as post-structuralist, the author as the "principle of the rarefaction of discourse". [6] The discursive production of meaning is implicated with the ideological figure of the author. The ideological and the discursive are not mutually exclusive categories in "What is an Author?"

In the fourth chapter, A&C outlines three tenets of authorial criticism and two alternatives to them. The first tenet is to use the author's name as a means of classifying texts (p.43). The second is to treat the author as the origin of a work's form and meaning (p.44). The third tenet is that the author constitutes a principle of unity in writing (p.45) by "excluding discursive elements that are not easily aligned with the image of a singular source" (p.46). Although A&C certainly does not, in relation to Foucault's work, follow tenet one, and possibly not tenet two, it does use Foucault's name as a principle of unity in writing by constructing it in contradistinction to 'the post-structuralists' and the 'post-modernist (despite one flourish (p.34), and by excluding reference to a passage (perhaps unwittingly, albeit in another translation) not easily aligned with its image of a singular source concerned to distinguish the ideological as error from the discursive as function.

A&C goes on to connect these three strategies with that of interpretive commentary and to quote Q. D. Leavis' Fiction and the Reading Public as an instance of the latter. Included in a lengthy quotation are phrases like "Conrad is engaged in expressing an. . ." which bear an uncanny similarity to many used in A&C such as "Foucault points out that. . ." and "as Foucault indicates. . ." (p.40), both of which are suggestive of the author as origin of meaning. It is surprising that A&C continues to use the authorial proper name so inconsistently with its own argument on this issue, especially as it proposes as an alternative to it a shift in emphasis from the unified work (whose unity consists in its identification with the name of the author) to the dispersed text (whose meaning consists in its mobilisation of intertextual relations with other texts not classified under the name of the author. To consistently implement this alternative would at least entail a reference to a text, rather than to an author's name even, or especially, if used metonymically, and so unproblematically, of the author's text. A&C is unfortunately marred by a massive inconsistency between its form and substance, between its theory and practice, which severely delimits its effectiveness for those for whom these ironies are not missed.


1. Michel Foucault, "What is an Author?" Textual strategies: Perspectives in Post-Structuralist Criticism ed. Josue V. Harari, (London: Methuen, 1979), p. 147.

2. Foucault, pp. 145-8.

3. Michel Foucault, "What is an Author?" Language, Counter-Memory, Practice: Selected Essays and Interviews, ed. Donald F. Bouchard, trans. Donald F. Bouchard and Sherry Simon, (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1977), p. 115.

4. The translation which Williamson uses is that cited in the previous note. James Birnauer and Thomas Keenan in their bibliography of Foucault's work note that this translation is slightly abridged. See "The Works of Michel Foucault 1954-1984" Philosophy and Social Criticism, 12, 2-3, 1987, p. 238.

5. Foucault, "What is an Author?" Textual Strategies, p. 159.

6. Michel Foucault, "The Order of Discourse," Untying the Text: A Post-Structuralist Reader, ed. Robert Young (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1981), p. 58.

New: 27 March, 1996 | Now: 15 March, 2015