From Paul Bové, “Discourse,” in Critical Terms for Literary Study, ed. Lentricchia & McLaughlin, 1990)


Now with the question of the author, we come to an area heatedly debated and much misunderstood in recent criticism. Barthes, Derrida, and Foucault have variously proposed an apparently scandalous idea: the author is "dead"; language speaks, not the poet; the author is irrelevant. For the humanistic critic raised in the tradition of belles lettres or of American common sense or profitably invested in the defense of "traditional values," this sort of notion is either nonsensical, or, rather neurotically, taken to be a "threat to civilization,' or not taken seriously, or, perhaps most commonly, simply dismissed as just too hard to understand.


One must try to clear up some of the confusion by recalling Foucault's assertion that no one is interested in denying the existence of the writer as a cause in the production of literature or any other form of written discourse. However, what Foucault and others interested in the material effect of writing intend to argue is that there are different ways to organize our considerations of writing—that, indeed, we need first of all to describe and criticize the already institutionalized ways in which writing is conceptualized if we are to picture the principles which regulate the organization and which enable not only what we can say about writing but writing (and discourse) itself. In other words, when viewed as an element in a historical system of institutionalized discourse, the traditional idea of the "author," and the privileged value accorded to it in literary scholarship and criticism, is one of the two or three key concepts by means of which the critical disciplines organize their knowledge around questions of subjectivity and discipline both their practitioners and those they "teach."


The Foucauldian notion of discourse requires that we skeptically ask the question How did the category of 'the author' become so central to critical thinking about literature? This means "central" not only in theory but in practice: in the way single-figure studies dominate criticism; in the organization of texts in "complete editions"; in biographies; and, above all, in the idea of style, of a marked writing characteristically the "expression" of a person's "mind" or "psyche" whose essential identity scrawls across a page and declares its imaginative "ownership" of these self-revealing and self-constituting lines. (Even critics, after all, aspire to their own "style.") Carrying out this genealogy is beyond the scope of this essay. The attempt to do so, however, would, in itself, move critical analysis into a different realm and--if carried out in a nonreductive manner, one which did not simplify the complexities of discourse, one which did not newly reify certain "genealogical" categories--would exemplify a valuable new direction for literary criticism. In the process, it suggests the privileged place "lit crit" has held in the construction of modem subjectivity-though it is by now a rapidly retreating privilege. It also suggests to some, however, that literary criticism might assume a powerful oppositional political position within our society or that it might be of assistance to some people in their own forms of struggle elsewhere in the system. Were this possible, it would be very important. Since ours is a society which increasingly tries to ensure its political order through discursive systems that discipline our language and culture, any successful resistance to that order would seem to require strong weapons aimed to weaken that discipline. Hence the value of the poststructuralist idea that genealogical, discursive analysis can be politically valuable to others struggling against the established forms of power wherever they might be.