What is an author? From Paris to Buffalo

[Update November 2021: the full Buffalo lecture exists in the archive, and has not yet been published. I am leaving the below post intact to show how I’d realised what claims to the Buffalo text was actually something else – essentially a version of the Paris lecture, in a different translation, with some edits and a little of the actual Buffalo lecture appended.]

On 22 February 1969, Foucault gave a lecture ‘Qu’est-ce qu’un auteur?’ to the Société française de philosophie at the Collège de France. In March 1970 Foucault gave a version at SUNY Buffalo. Foucault’s visit was to the French department at Buffalo, and at this time he either lectured in French or with an interpreter. 

The lecture is translated as “What is an Author?” I’ve previously written about some of the textual issues concerning this piece. Essentially there I was concerned with how the text had been edited and translated. In brief, the 1969 Paris lecture was published in the Société’s Bulletin and was partly translated in Language, Counter-Memory, Practice in 1977, while the Buffalo lecture first appeared in Textual Strategies and is reprinted in The Foucault ReaderEssential Works volume 2 and The Essential FoucaultTextual Strategies was edited by Josué V. Harari, who translated Foucault’s lecture for this collection. In Dits et écrits there is a composite text (#69) which compares the 1969 French publication of the Paris lecture to the 1979 publication of the Buffalo lecture. (The Buffalo version is given text number #258, but not printed separately.) While there are other reprints, and an earlier translation of the Paris text by James Venit, there is no English translation of the Dits et écrits composite text, and only a partial translation of the Paris discussion.

I had previously taken the description of the Buffalo text at face value – that this was a translation of what Foucault said in 1970. There are some cuts at the beginning, some other minor changes throughout, and a discussion of ideology at the end. In Dits et écrits, the editors understood it as the Buffalo lecture too – they compare the 1969 French publication to the 1979 US publication, indicate the differences, and Daniel Defert translates the final section of the Buffalo talk back into French in a note.

However, I’m not now convinced that the Textual Strategies version actually is a translation of the Buffalo lecture. Instead, I think that it is a translation of the Paris lecture, cut and supplemented to make it closer to what Foucault said in Buffalo. It is a different translation from the 1977 one in Language, Counter-Memory, Practice, certainly, but working from the same source text. The differences can be put down to two translators working with the same source, and the cuts and additions of someone who was present in Buffalo.

What this means is that for Dits et écrits, the editors were comparing the French text of the 1969 Paris lecture to an edited translation of the 1969 Paris lecture, not to a translation of the Buffalo lecture. They were effectively comparing a translation to the original. It is not surprising that the differences were seen to be relatively minor, apart from the substantial cut at the start and the new bit on ideology at the end. Equally, when the Harari translation was reprinted in Essential Works, volume 2, it was apparently ‘slightly modified’. Given the Buffalo text has not been published in French, this modification could only have been done by comparing the Harari translation to the Paris text. Again, it’s very similar, so this is easy to do. There are some minor changes – ‘author-function’ to ‘author function’; some text in quote marks has these removed; italic is changed to roman, etc. A few lines from the original Paris version are restored. One editor note is retained, the others removed, the translation of chiasme is changed from ‘reversal’ to ‘switch’. Some paragraph breaks are in different places. There is even an odd moment when the Essential Worksrevision includes a French word in the text, in a section which in Dits et écrits is clearly marked as a Defert translation of Harari’s text. Unless they wanted to show us how Defert had translated the English to French, it’s rather redundant.

As anyone who has seen a Foucault lecture manuscript knows – either his handwritten versions which are reproduced in some French editions, or the transcriptions in, for example Lectures on the Will to KnowSexuality or Penal Theories and Institutions – he did not write out his lectures word for word, to read to his audience. Rather he wrote some complete sentences, some lists of points to elaborate, and other indications. He frequently went off script. It seems very unlikely that, to a quite different audience and over a year apart, he would have said something so close in Paris and Buffalo, even if he was working from the same lecture notes.

There are two manuscripts relating to this lecture in the Paris archive – NAF28730 box 54, folder 7. One of them is undoubtedly the manuscript used in the Paris lecture. 

In the Pléiade Œuvres, Frédéric Gros publishes just the 1969 Paris version, rather than the comparative text of Dits et écrits. But his notes are interesting. He too indicates that the two manuscripts in the archive are distinct, with the first used in Paris, and the other he describes as “un second manuscrit préparatoire, complète de plusieurs feuillets de notes et d’une bibliographie, sans que l’on puisse savoir s’il s’agit d’une version antérieure ou postérieure” (Gros in Œuvres Vol II, 1606).

He continues: 

Dans ce second manuscrit est fortement affirmée l’idée, absente de la conférence de 1969 mais que l’on retrouvera dans L’Ordre du discours, que l’auteur a surtout une fonction de limitation de la prolifération du discours, le thème du génie servant finalement d’écran de cette fonction de réduction : « on voit alors quel est le rôle de cette fonction auteur. Dans la prolifération indéfinie que semblent autoriser les discours de fiction, établir une loi et une limite. Introduire : un principe de réalité (puisque c’est dans l’auteur que toutes les significations doivent se nouer en prendre leur origine) ; un principe de vérité (puisque c’est l’œuvre de l’auteur qui doit permettre de valider certaines significations, d’invalider certaines autres) ; un principe de non-contradiction : un principe de causalité ; un principe d’ordre » (Gros in Œuvres Vol II, 1606; quoting from BNF NAF28730 box 54, folder 7, 19). 

L’Ordre du discours was delivered in December 1970 as Foucault’s inaugural lecture at the Collège de France (on the textual issues with that text, see here).

Gros suggests that Foucault gave “la même conférence que celle de 1969 en supprimant certains passages et en ajoutant un développement final, si l’on en croit le texte publié en anglaise en 1979 dans Textual Strategies…” (Gros in Œuvres Vol II, 1606). Gros is right that the evidence for what Foucault did in Buffalo is dependent on the Textual Strategies text, but I think this is open to question.  

So might we cautiously claim that the second manuscript postdates the first, perhaps from between the 1969 Paris lecture and the inaugural lecture? Might it therefore be the Buffalo text? I’m yet not confident in claiming that it is. Rachida Boubaker-Triki suggests Foucault gave a version in Tunisia, but that is the only indication I know that Foucault gave this lecture anywhere other than Paris and Buffalo. If the second manuscript is from Buffalo, or a different manuscript was used as the basis of the Buffalo talk, then it’s even less likely that the two published versions would have been as similar as they are.

In summary, I think the Textual Strategies version is not really the Buffalo text. I certainly think it’s not a translation of a faithful transcription of a recording. In the “Preface” to Textual Strategies, 13, Harari indicates it is a “revised version” of the Buffalo text, and that Foucault gave him “a free hand to edit” the text “with an American To achieve this, Harari translated the Paris text, and edited it to better match things Foucault said in Buffalo – cutting the Introduction, adding the final discussion of ideology. For the latter work did he have access to a recording, and might that still exist somewhere?

We know that Harari transcribed Foucault’s two lectures on the Marquis de Sade, also given in Buffalo on this trip, based on a recording. It is this transcription which is the basis for the publication in La grande étrangère/Language, Madness, Desire. This suggests at least some of Foucault’s lectures at Buffalo in 1970 were recorded.

Some minor notes

In Textual Strategies Harari says: “my translation appears here with the permission of the author and of the Société Française de Philosophie; a first version of the talk was given at the Société and appeared in its Bulletin, 63 (1969)” (p. 13). The reason Harari acknowledges the Bulletin is not just politeness, it is because it is a translation of that text.

Richard Lynch’s bibliography of shorter texts suggests that the Buffalo lecture (#258) was given in English, and that the attribution of Harari as a translator in Essential Works is “probably in error”. I think this is mistaken: the text was given in French and then translated (see Textual Strategies, p. 13).

I suppose one alternative to the above account is that Foucault used the 1969 publication of the Paris lecture as the text for his Buffalo talk. But I’m unaware of any other moment when he did anything like this, so I think that can be discounted.

One manuscript example. The published text says “Flaubert, Proust, Kafka”; the manuscript “Balzac, peut-être, Proust, Kafka” (DE#69 I, 793; EW II, 206; BNF NAF28730, box 54, folder 7, p. 9). Did Foucault make the same change in presenting both lectures, using the same manuscript, but without amending the manuscript? That seems unlikely; more likely that he made the change once and that the translators followed him twice.