Philosophers have differed in all ages; but the discreetest among them have always differed as became philosophers. Scurrility and passion, in a controversy among scholars, is just so much of nothing to the purpose, and at best, a tacit confession of a weak cause: My concern is not so much for my own reputation, as that of the Republick of Letters, which Mr. Partridge hath endeavoured to wound through my sides. If men of publick spirit must be superciliously treated for their ingenious attempts, how will true useful knowledge be ever advanced? I wish Mr. Partridge knew the thoughts which foreign universities have conceived of his ungenerous proceedings with me; but I am too tender of his reputation to publish them to the world.
...Without entering into criticisms of chronology about the hour of his death, I shall only prove that Mr. Partridge is not alive. And my first argument is thus: Above a thousand gentelmen having bought his almanacks for this year, merely to find what he said against me; at every line they read, they would lift up their eyes, and cry out, betwixt rage and laughter, "They were sure no man alive ever writ such damn'd stuff as this."
- A Vindication of Isaac Bickerstaff, Esq. (1709)
Jon Swift's April Fools' joke--perhaps one of the most successful such stunts in history--tells us much about what it was like to live and write in the Augustan Age. Londoners, who eagerly lapped up astrology and all sorts of mysticism, gloated over Swift's prank just as easily, even though Swift hated their folly as much as he hated Partridge. This very eagerness suggests a certain writerly dynamic: a public sphere hungry for texts of any kind, for entertainment, for "wit" in the Elizabethan sense. This hunger meant not only a widespread economy of texts, but also a willingness to play with the relationship between text and reality, text and text. We might say, in fact, that Isaac Bickerstaff and his ilk killed off the Author along with Partridge, long before we epigones got to him.
In his "Vindication," Swift plays a highly telling move: he makes of himself a public sphere ("the Republick of Letters, which Mr. Partridge hath endeavoured to wound through my sides"). Some might say this makes his text "embodied," but what it's really doing is foregrounding the question of authorial identity--staking a claim for his own existence as an author. Whose sides, after all, are we talking about? Isaac Bickerstaff's, of course; but he's a mere persona, a pseudonym with a history and a personality. One reason Bickerstaff can mock Partridge so heartily is that the latter's own identity--as something tied to a physical body and an authorial reputation--is not able to play the game as well as a persona that's pure text. (Michael Warner has argued that this textuality of the self is precisely what made Benjamin Franklin so successful).
For, after all, what separates Bickerstaff from Partridge? Swift's more naive readers would be unable to distinguish between them, since the substance of their authorship is their corpus of work--"legitimate" in both cases. Actually existing--actually being alive--does not offer any benefits in the textual arena of the public sphere. As Bickerstaff himself suggests, if your corpus sucks, you may as well be dead! This, I think, is why Foucault could write "What Is an Author?" specifically as an eighteenth-century historian: historians' own access to the personalities of the past is often limited to the corpus, one that in the eighteenth century is problematic and constantly undermined; labored attempts at establishing a flesh/text correspondence often lose both value and coherence. Authorship is more than bare life.
Consider this: the corpus, the textual "body" of Isaac Bickerstaff, was in no way contingent on Swift's continued existence. Bickerstaff achieved maturity as an author only when he came to write The Tatler, and swapping Swift for Steele could hardly hurt his credibility. It is certainly plausible that Bickerstaff was entirely different in Addison and Steele's hands than he was in Swift's--but isn't the opposite true as well? The Spectator is not the same author as Bickerstaff; he has different commitments, a different style. Indeed, he puts paid to attempts to interpret him as merely a creation of Addison in Spectator #46, where the author loses his notes--but upon their being publicly read at the coffee-house pulpit, refuses to acknowledge them, complacent and satisfied with the un-fleshliness of his authorial persona.
For Romantics, pedants, and philistines, such an attitude to authorship constitutes blasphemy. But in reading the Augustans, we have no other choice. Insisting on seeing pseudonyms as mere transparent screens for authorial intent is a sure way to garble any message, whether Swift's or Addison's--they rely so intensely on the interplay between author and writer, even, occasionally, text and imprint. Getting rid of the flesh qualification altogether doesn't seem like much of a sacrifice.