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Molly Nesbit v. Foucault. Marx redivivus. A843 Ex. 4.4

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Edited by Steve Bamlett, Sunday, 22 Oct 2017, 21:50

It should be apparent from Nesbit’s title that her essay is, in some sense, a retort to Foucault’s influential ‘What is an author?’ As you read try to keep this dimension in mind. Ask yourself, and include in your notes:

·        How does her account differ from Foucault’s perspective on authorship? To put this another way, what is her dispute with him?

·        How does copyright define biography/authorship? How does it change?

·        Why does Nesbit employ the past tense?

1.     Style is important in comparing this essay to Foucault: ‘The French definition of the author has gone vague …’. We begin with a very relaxed response to what ‘some say’ about an author, including the characterisation of Barthes infamous notion of the ‘death of the author’ – ‘some say corpse’. This rather deliberate undercutting of your antagonist (a kind of reduction ad absurdum’) is as near to the allusiveness of Barthes and Foucault as is gossip to formal debate. It mimes the ‘crudeness’ (229) of which it speaks. This then is stylistic control of a high order, which tries to show that author-functions (the plural is indicative of what is to follow) are implicit in the work but may be multiple, rather than singular. It shifts the question from, in the last analysis, what are authors in relation to a work – even, we might say, somewhat reflexively, the work you are now reading. The use of an authorial ‘we’ in this essay is probably as worthy as study as anything else in it.

The substance of the dispute with Foucault appears on pp. 240ff.and again starts with an allusive wit. In mounting a case that Foucault does not cite law specifically as a means of explaining the socio-cultural function of an author: “to characterize the existence, circulation, and operation of certain discourses within a society” (cited 240). Nesbit riffs, in the stylistic register of the detective –fiction genre. Foucault does not ‘call in the law’ to investigate the death of the author but prefers like any old private dick to do the job himself.

We are left with a deeper critique than we might suppose. Foucault assumes authority in order to question it, and, Nesbit suggests, thus fails to see how, in the end, even his own function is socially inscribed in determining economic practices – market regulation in the name of the law. Author functions are called forth by the relations of supply and demand in the economy: ‘Authors function, whether the state of knowledge recognizes their existence or not.’

This is so beautiful – in turning ‘author function’ into ‘Authors function’ we see that function in relation to the economy of desire (another term for supply & demand). Nesbitt says Foucault fails to note that discourses are not superior to the ‘market economy’ and are indeed their locus of being: indeed ‘this economic condition … defined the author in the first place (240). Author functions are determined (or in Althusser’s use of the Freudian term  ‘overdetermined’) ultimately by the economy in Nesbit, who goes to insist that law is, at some level, the primary political articulation of this changing economic condition. The ‘state of knowledge’ ruled by Foucauldian authority forgets that its ‘state’ is merely transitory and ultimately determined (‘in the last instance’) in determining socio-economic practices such as the market. It is a state therefore in deep political peril.

Nesbit therefore argues, I think, that history, through mutating legal discourse, does not provide an authoritative definition of the author and their work but a determining ‘working definition of art’, which has been ‘as a quantity not a quality, the zero-degree of the law’ (241). Her conviction is that Foucault is blind to this because he is blind to any perception of over-determination, such as is argued by Marxism as a totalising analytic philosophy. As the economic bases of an economy slowly change, so do, by necessity, the laws which maintain stability are slowly changing, either in the direction of the consolidation of notions of individual ownership of intellectual property or capital (235) to one where capital is aggregated from interest groups working in uneasy collaboration (in the present day [257]). In this present context copyright law is barely able to form a coherent statement, not least about what an author is. What I think is suggested here is that the author is seen as a conflicted concept at present and that, it is in this conflict that there is hope of beneficial historical change, in which cultures differentiate in the very act of coming together (257). This provides a source of postmodern change not available to the more structuralist theories of Althusser.

My concern here is that Nesbit rather reifies the law and its ability to speak in a unitary voice. The law speaks only at the moment of its interpretation (in court) and otherwise lives in an interpretive vacuum, using only tools enabling its texts to be read and these in themselves being largely past interpretive moments (the role of legal precedents). Law in practice is often defined by discourses other than itself – including professional discourses. If we fail to see that, we fail to see how a liberatory law for those with queried mental capacity in 2005 has become a law that articulates mainly how ‘deprivation of liberty’; can be justified – following revisions in 2010.


2.     Copyright defines biography’s relationship to authorship by ‘flattening’ any differentiations one might want to make between authors’ biographies which other discourses, such as those of connoisseurship: high art, lower art and non-art; genius or non-genius; or good art & bad art. It reduces authorial function to a set of rights ‘to a cultural space over which he or she may range and work’ (230).Thus photography is defined not by its concomitant devices (such as the camera) but by the photographer’s ‘work’ understood as his or her ‘property’. (237). This could be extended since Nesbit here falsely names the camera device as the main progenitor of photography as an art, whereas it was in fact the means of imprinting durable images produced within the camera. There remains a lively debate about the role of the camera in visual art since Brunelleschi, Caravaggio and Vermeer. This debate however would perhaps not shake Nesbit’s main point. The artist’s ‘eye’, ‘hand’ and their especial interaction remained a means of enforcing hierarchical distinctions, since it was conceptualised as a valorised and distinct type of interaction through virtue of nature, nurture or both.

3.     Nesbit employs the past tense for a number of reasons I think.

§  First it acts as if the author, being dead according to Barthes, can only be a past phenomenon. In this sense ‘was’ is past perfect in tense.

§  Second the ‘was’ might be a past imperfect tense. In this sense it does not ask what was the author when it existed but what was the author in the past compared to what the author is now and will be in the future – it was once that but it now is … and may become … (re-establishing the dynamic dialectic of history in Marx over Foucault’s archaeological metaphor for it.

§  It riffs on Foucault’s title. Foucault says what ‘is’ an author because he remains that type of author established by the Old law (as, more tragically, does Barthes). He does not know that he sings of his own obsolescence – believing that the hall of discourses (the university) trumps historical changes in the economy and the new law that will articulate it. Atget’s and Duchamp’s ‘common-sense’ appreciation of art is favoured over theirs as more historically accurate, timely and sighted out of the old writer’s ‘blind spots’. It establishes a new wave of Marxist cultural analysis: Lyotard to Nesbit.

That’s me, done though.


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