Word of the Week 1.O : What is a Text?

I am very fond of the word text, and if you haven't noticed already, you'll find I use it very often to refer to books, articles, essays, and even other things such as advertisements, photographs, and films. You could say that I use text in a similar vein to how people use the word 'rhetoric' instead of 'words' (essentially the same), or 'cognizant' in place of 'aware of' (I've noticed this is particularly on trend right now), but since I actually do have a reason to make use of this diction (that's a joke), I'm going to tell you about it, right now.

If we go deep into the heart of Oxford English Dictionary land, we'll find a few standard definitions to begin with. 'n. 1 1 a.' defines a text as 'The wording of anything written or printed; the structure formed by the words in their order; the very words, phrases, and sentences as written.' If we go to 'n.1 2,' we have 'The very words and sentences as originally written.'

Some of the other definitions are a bit more archaic in nature and go on to refer to Scripture, but I think these two make good starting points: a text here is essentially a body of writing that contains words, and it tends to be the original source material, or as close to the original source material as we're going to ever have access to. For example, Shakespeare's plays as we have them today are likely quite different from how he originally wrote them- this stems from the lack of printing presses at the time, which meant his plays were constantly being copied, often incorrectly, by scribes- but the versions that appeared in the Folios are considered the standard, authoritative texts.

But how, you may ask, can I then make use of the word text in referring to a photographic image where there is no writing? Well, this is where Postmodernism comes into play. I'm planning on writing a more detailed post about it later, but basically Postmodernism was a movement that began in the 1960s or so that tended to destabilize the beliefs in rationality, structure, knowledge and absolute truth that Modernism and Structuralism, along with it, tended to assert.

In the words of theorist Glenn Ward, the postmodernists 'tend to regard everything as text. In other words, nothing is outside of language; everything is composed of signs, codes and discourses and is therefore open to many different readings.' (221) One thing to note here is the emphasis on how 'nothing is outside of language'. What I think Ward makes reference to here is the Postmodernist belief that you can never get away from language, no matter how hard you try. This is because of the fact that we communicate through language, we read in language, we write with language, but also, and most importantly, we think in language. Imagine trying to think about anything without using words: it's simply not possible.  

It is through this postmodernist understanding that we're able to consider a picture a text: even if it doesn't have words contained in the image, it nevertheless evokes words in our mind when we view it. If we see a photograph of a woman biting into an apple with a snake beside her, we'll be reminded of the Bible, the story of Genesis, and the fall of man in the Garden of Eden. We may also be reminded of John Milton's epic poem Paradise Lost. The point is, we end up right back inside language, even if the photograph itself doesn't incorporate any actual words. Hence, we can call it a text. We might be bending the original definition from the OED a bit, but if there's anything Postmodernism does, it's twist and manipulate in highly complicated ways.

There's one last definition of the word text that I'll give you today, and it goes back to Ward's discussion of how everything is 'composed of signs, codes and discourses'. It's my very favourite one, and it comes from a rather famous Postmodernist theorist named Roland Barthes. He states that 'The text is a tissue of quotations drawn from the innumerable centres of culture ... the book itself is only a tissue of signs, an imitation that is lost, infinitely deferred' (146).

Barthes, quite typical of Postmodernists, is not the easiest to understand, and I can't say what he means by this for sure, but what I think his definition points to is the fact that a text is comprised of language and signs that stem from a particular society's culture and history.  I used the example of a woman eating an apple beside a serpent above: the artist likely painted it in order to evoke the Bible, religion, good and evil, etc, because this is what these images mean in his/her culture. But you would only find it to mean this if you, the viewer or reader, grew up in a society where Christianity was prevalent, and this biblical story was deeply ingrained. Otherwise, you wouldn't decipher the signs of the painting in this way at all. You would probably think the serpent is going to kill the woman because it wants the apple she's eating or something. This goes back to my last blog post about subjectivity and objectivity- there are many, many different subjective interpretations available when it comes to every text.

But that doesn't mean some interpretations are right, and others are wrong, and this is what Barthes is getting at when he says that a book, or text, is only 'a tissue of signs, an imitation that is lost, infinitely deferred.' There's no value judgement here- Barthes isn't trying to say that this is inherently a bad thing. Rather, he's simply saying that there is no essential meaning in a text, or if there was supposed to be, it doesn't matter, because it's always going to be lost. We're never going to know what an author exactly intended. What matters is how we see a text, how we interpret it, which goes back to Ward stating that a text is open to 'many different readings'. 

All in all, this is why I like using the word text. Because to call something a text, is to say that it is open to various interpretations, that it can be used to create meaning in the reader (or the viewer, or whatever). It's emphasizing that you can have fun with it, you can get creative with your understanding, and there's no one who can tell you that you're just plain wrong, being it's subjective. This is why I really like literature, and had a pretty good time studying it at university.

Barthes, in fact, wrote a pretty huge essay on this topic that took the world by storm back in the 1970s when it was translated into English. It's called 'The Death of the Author', and it's what I'll be writing about next time on Truths and Edits.