Michel Foucault

Michel Foucault

Rather than beginning here with something familiar, I should like instead to begin with the unfamiliar, with the strangeness of things, to take a moment to appreciate how easily we take for granted what is really and truly strange about things, to note how the most bizarre and incongruous things, taken as a matter of course, are normalized, their incongruities flattened out, sometimes made almost into the very grain and texture of everyday life, and even reach a stage where what once was strange and unfamiliar is almost, as it were, inhaled, the most natural thing. This, of course, is hardly a novel observation. Hannah Arendt, for instance, was particularly interested in how Evil could, by some processes of totalitarian dehumanization, become so seemingly banal. She called it the ‘banality of evil.’ And, in a similar way, the late historian Howard Zinn has remarked upon how historically, “the most terrible things–war, genocide, and slavery–have resulted not from disobedience, but from obedience”–because they seemed the most natural, normal, even banal things, as banal as the air one breathes. But what if, for a moment, we were to stop and ask, as Morpheus asks Neo in the Matrix, “Do you think that’s air you’re breathing now?” It is clear from the examples mentioned earlier how even the most terrible, the most strange, the truly abnormal can become so banal. Likewise, one finds it rather strange that the God of whom we Christians speak so matter-of-factly today has so little to do with the God of the scriptures.

Today we speak of God as if he were some kind of abstract metaphysical form, one who, above all things, authors the universe in its metaphysical harmony, who balances metaphysical disequilibria, who fixes it in its meaning, its order, and its form. He is perfect, unchanging, eternal. He is omniscient, omnipotent, omnibenevolent–all knowing, all powerful, and all good. He is the good, the true, the beautiful. All of this, moreover, is rooted in an historical tradition for which these descriptions have a certain contiguity. For all their ostensible differences, many of the church’s greatest philosophers and theologians held rather similar views of God is like. If for Augustine, God is a perfect being, and for Anselm God is the highest and most excellent being, then for Aquinas, God is perfect, highest, most excellent being in itself, pure form, pure actuality.[1]  This is all well and good, but for one minor qualification: it has little or nothing to do with anything in the scriptures, where God is jealous, angry, wrathful. He is corporeal, incarnate, this-worldly, consorts with pimps and whores and tax collectors. The observation is so obvious I need not point it out.

The God of the philosophers, if we might call him that, however much he diverges from anything we might find in the bible, does, rather interestingly, have a strange resemblance to what Foucault calls the “author function.” In his famous essay, ‘What is an Author?,’ Foucault reverses the traditional relationship between author and discourse. Though we are accustomed to conceiving as the author as the producer of discourse, Foucault daringly suggests that the author is instead a product of discourse. The author is a function of a text which is implied in its interpretation. He is a “certain functional principle by which … one limits, excludes, and chooses; in short, by which one impedes the free circulation, the free manipulation, the free composition, decomposition and recomposition of fiction.”[2]  This “author function” as Foucault terms it, is the principle of hermeneutic unity which is presupposed in the interpretation of a text. It is distinguishable from an author. Consider, for example:

If I discover that Shakespeare was not born in the house that we visit today, this is a modification which, obviously, will not alter the functioning of the author’s name. But if we proved that Shakespeare did not write those sonnets which pass for his, that would constitute a significant change and affect the manner in which the author’s name functions. [3]

The author’s name, unlike other pronouns, is not just one element among others in a discourse. It is before discourse and above discourse. It is the precondition of discourse: “it performs a certain role with regard to narrative discourse, assuring a classificatory function. Such a name permits one to group together a certain number of texts, define them, differentiate them from and contrast them to others.” [4]

Foucault, in other words, is trying to figure out how, in our mind, we harmonize an otherwise incoherent play of significations. I am suggesting that how Foucault says we conceive of an author is also–is identical to–the way theologians and philosophers have historically conceived of God. The God of the philosophers is little more than a certain kind of author function, what we might, following Foucault, call the “God function.” But what, we might ask, is the importance of such a recognition–the recognition that the God of the scriptures is very different from the God of the philosophers, this God function? Foucault, perhaps unintentionally, provides us an answer:

The author is also the principle of a certain unity of writing–all differences having to be resolved, at least in part, by the principles of evolution, maturation, or influence. The author also serves to neutralize the contradictions that may emerge in a series of texts: there must be–at a certain level of his thought or desire, of his consciousness or unconscious–a point where contradictions are resolved, where incompatible elements are at last tied together or organized around a fundamental or originating contradiction. [5] (My italics)

The God function, like the author function, neutralizes contradictions. It maintains the superficial harmony of ideology. If we consider what role the God function plays vis-a-vis the institution of Capital, we see that it plays precisely this role: the injustices of Capital are justified in heaven. Hence, Marx’s famous dictum: “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.” The metaphysical disequilibrium of Capital (through its production of evil) is balanced, resolved, harmonized. The ideological nature of the God function, then, should be clear, especially in consideration of the contradiction, vis-a-vis which the God function and Christ assume virtually opposite roles: the God function neutralizes contradictions, Christ embodies these contradictions: a peasant who assumed the title of the Roman emperor, a sick joke of a saviour who assumed the title of the Messiah, a crucified God. In considering the ideological effect of the God function, it is enough simply to take account of its death, rather as one can take account of the size of a certain star by the black hole which occupies its place and takes its stead. Again, Foucault is instructive:

It is not enough … to repeat the empty affirmation that the author has disappeared. For the same reason, it is not enough to keep repeating (after Nietzsche) that God and man have died a common death. Instead, we must locate the space left empty by the author’s disappearance, follow the distribution of gaps and breaches, and watch for the openings that this disappearance uncovers. [6]

To evaluate, then, the immense magnitude of this ideological effect, we need to revisit Nietzsche’s proclamation of the death of god, and at this scene, ask what Gods have come to take the place of what was once there. As I have argued in a series of essays here, Capital is the God who has occupied this God function, and in precisely the same way: it structures, orders, and regulates life in its totality. The magnitude of the ideological effect of the God function is perceivable by reckoning the magnitude of the power and sway of the God, Capital, who has taken its place: total.


1. Brian Morley, ‘Western Concepts of God,’ in The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, originally published 12 August 2002, updated 07 July 2005, http://www.iep.utm.edu/god-west/#SH2b

2. Michel Foucault, ‘What is an Author?’ reprinted in The Foucault Reader, ed. Paul Rabinow, New York: Vintage Books, 2010, p.119

3. Ibid, p.106

4. Ibid, p.107

5. Ibid, p.111

6. Ibid, p.105