Autobiography, Self-Constitution and the Possibility of Autonomy: Foucault on Authorship and the Writing of the Self

I argue that Foucault’s conception of auto-biographical writing is rooted on his views about authorship, which is in turn closely linked to his conception of subjectivity. In “What is an author?” Foucault famously argued that contrary to the then (1969) dominant view, ‘the author’ is not a creative principle that brings into being new linguistic and literary possibilities, but a “function,” a principle for intervening in the production and circulation of texts. I show that part of Foucault’s argument relies on a conception of the writing individual as passive with respect to the language within which she writes: rather than bring into being new linguistic possibilities, pre-existent linguistic possibilities carve spaces that individuals can come to occupy, and thereby constitute themselves as linguistic subjects of a certain type (of the type that make such-and-such type of claims, that use such-and-such turns of phrase, and so forth). This claim about the passivity of the individual with respect to language raises the question of whether and how it is possible for the individual to become an active linguistic user, to autonomously constitutive itself as a subject over which it can genuinely claim authorship. Foucault’s conception of autobiographical writing is an attempt to offer a positive answer to this question. The individual can genuinely constitute itself as the autonomous author of a text (and of its life) by actively playing on the possibilities afforded by language in order to generate a new way of being.