text

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in a rather scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean– neither more nor less.” “The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.” “The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master– that’s all.”
-Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking-Glass

Alice’s encounter with Humpty Dumpty in Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass illustrates the difficulties of language simply by posing the correct question: Who is to be master?  The struggle to produce through language an intended meaning, the straining to communicate the correct message, is made all too clear when Humpty Dumpty, upon boldly asserting his control over language, promptly falls off the wall, shattering into a million fragments.  The struggles of language do not remain within speech, but also transfer to the written word, the text.  In fact, within text, the struggle to produce meaning is further complicated as the meaning, as well as the producer of the meaning, becomes even more unclear.

Text, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is the “wording of anything written or printed; the structure formed by the words in their order; the very words, phrases, and sentences as written.” Such a definition allows for text to be considered as both the written words in general, and, more holistically, as the combination of such written words to form a structure that produces meaning.  Thus, the definition of text moves between text and textuality, moving from a singular word or symbol to a symbolic structure woven by the threads of language.  Here, the history of the word text itself becomes crucial; text, stemming from tex-ere (to weave), is the “tissue of a literary work. . . .literally that which is woven, web, texture.”  As a texture, text is the weaving of words, ideas, and meaning, and it is also, most importantly, a texture spun by language, which in theory has become destabilized, a tangle of meaning and symbol.  Therefore, text, as textuality, has become a site of theoretical criticism and argument as the identity of the true spinners of text has been called in to question.  That is to say, theoretical movements have begun to examine where meaning lies within text, and who contributes to the final pattern.  Does meaning emerge from authorial intention, from the structure of the text itself, or from the reader’s own contributions ? [1] The pattern and threads of text have unraveled, leaving literary and linguistic theorists to weave together the structures of language and meaning, and to determine the limits and pathways created by text.

Text, as defined by the Oxford English Dictionary, is “the body of any treatise, the authoritative or formal part as distinguished from notes, appendices, introduction, and other explanatory or supplementary matter.”  Within its own definition, text implies authority: the final word.  Thus, we find ourselves quoting “the text” to prove a point, using “textbooks” to locate fact and truth.  This notion of the text as authoritative reaches back to the Old Testament and the biblical tale of the Ten Commandments.  When Moses reveals the inscribed tablets, he reveals the word of God; thereby, the written language has, from its mythical origins, been associated with the divine.  The phonetic alphabet, according to the Old Testament, replaces the making of images, and the written language thus becomes the paradigm for media, replacing images and laying claim to spiritual authority.

The traditional understanding that accompanies the idea of text as authority is that of the work as closed, finished, a final product to be deciphered.  Such a notion relies on structuralist thought, which posits language as a structure in which the relationship of words with one another produces a stable, unified meaning.  This picture of language as a complex and solid structure grows out of the work of Ferdinand de Saussure in Course in General Linguistics .  For Saussure, language is not merely “a list of words, each corresponding to the thing that it names,” but a system of arbitrary linguistic signs that, when viewed in relationship to one another, create a universal, fixed system of meaning. [2] As the relations between words, rather than the words themselves, are determiners of meaning, binary opposition is a fundamental to structuralist thought. [3] Thus, meaning emerges from opposition, (i.e. we know light from dark, and dark from light) and oppositional relationships function as stable supports to language structure. [4]

This structuralist understanding of language posits the text as fixed, a work which displays a stable structure of meaning.  In this vein, as Alan Goldman writes, “We do not perceive ink marks and infer that they are there to represent meaningful words.  Instead, we directly perceive words and sentences, and, if we understand the language being used, agree on their standard meanings. [5] Structuralism recognizes meaning as stable and, therefore, authorial intention may be successfully realized through the production of the text, a work created by a fixed system of language and meaning.  That is, we may search for a unified, universal meaning within the text, and we may attribute that meaning to the author, who we assume has successfully used the stable system of language.  However, even if the author has failed and his or her intention does not match with the text, that is the fault of the author and not of language; the text retains a stable meaning.  Within such thought, the texture of text remains a tightly-woven system of signifiers and signified.

However, Jacques Lacan, in “The Function of Language in Psychoanalysis,” disrupts the structuralist production of meaning by revealing the fractures in the signifying system.  For Lacan, signifiers float above the signified, creating a structure under which the signified may shift and slide.  The link connecting signified to signifier is dissolved, and entrance into language becomes the advent of desire.  As he writes: “Man speaks therefore, but it is because the symbol has made him man.” [6] Thus, rather than controlling a stable system of language, language controls us, and we encounter a Symbolic that forms our subjectivity.  Lacan, in revealing these rips between signs and meaning, destabilizes the system of language.  Moreover, he reveals that language controls the author, who himself is created by that language.  Searching for the authorial intention behind text thus seems inapplicable, for the structure of language slides out of the hands of the author, as well as our own. (see symbolic-imaginary-real)

Though Lacan reveals a split between the structure of language and that which it signifies, Roland Barthes attacks structuralism on a different level and dismantles the fixed structure of meaning within text, allowing the text to be a texture whose meaning is woven by the work of the reader.  That is to say, rather than viewing the text as a fixed system of meaning, Barthes understands the text as open and incomplete, as one awaiting the input of an engaged reader.  Barthes is central among a group of post-structuralist theorists who elaborated on the productivity of text in the French journal Tel Quel . [7] These theorists, including Barthes, Jacques Derrida, and Julia Kristeva, contributed to the discussions of text as a textuality, an unfinished work able to produce a plurality of meaning. [8] Though Barthes began his career adhering to the principles of structuralism, in his later works such as S/Z ,  Barthes moved into a post-structuralist position, accepting a view that text moves beyond the limits of structuralism to a plurality of meaning that lies in the hands of the reader. [9] Like Lacan, Barthes believes that language, and not the author, has control.  In his essay “The Death of the Author,” Barthes explains that the author, heretofore seen as “the final signified” and the creator of textual unity, is not the final authority on a text. [10] Instead, Barthes declares that the author is, in actuality, a mere scriptor who produces a text that speaks for itself, and whose speech is then interpreted on various levels by the reader. [11]

In understanding the text as speech, Barthes escapes the notion of the text as final and closed, and he inverts one of the ancient arguments against the written language in order to proclaim the openness and life of text.  Plato claims that “once written down,” speeches “are tumbled about anywhere among those who may or may not understand them, and know not to whom they should reply, to whom not: and, if they are maltreated or abused, they have no parent to protect them; and they cannot protect or defend themselves.” [12] For Plato, the author is absent in the written word, and the author’s absence ensures the absence of any kind of proactive and engaged reading; spoken discourse is the true medium.  However, Plato ironically posits his ideas in the written language.  He writes in dialogue, perhaps in order to grant primacy to speech even within his writing.  However, Plato’s written dialogue, though a critique of written text, simultaneously embodies the value of text by bringing speech to the page and, more importantly, by inviting the reader into the discussion; Plato himself creates a textuality that weaves an active reader into the work.  It is this textuality to which Barthes refers in calling the text a speech. For Barthes, the text does not coldly present meaning to the reader, as Plato would have it, but, rather, engages the reader who then creates meaning from the text.  Text offers pathways rather than limits, and blank margins serve as the reader’s space in which to expand upon and grow from the printed words.  As Barthes claims: “The text you write must prove to me that it desires me .” [13] Thus, reading becomes active and productive, what Wolfgang Iser refers to as “something like an arena in which reader and author participate in a game of the imagination.” [14]

Though, like Lacan, Barthes recognizes language as, in a sense, acting on its own, unlike Lacan, Barthes’s reader does not become what language creates but uses the displacement of the signified to create a plurality of meaning; we are not controlled by language but rather use the fractures in the system to create new meanings, new pathways for language.  In this sense, post-structuralism, as developed by Barthes, denies the idea that interpretation consists in determining the meaning of a text. It moves away from the text as a completed whole and opens the text up to reader contribution, thereby reuniting the notion of text with its original connotations of textuality, a weaving of meaning and ideas.  Thus, text moves beyond the limits of structuralism, and meaning reaches beyond any stable structure supposedly offered by the relationships of the printed words.

The progression from the idea of The Text, a completed work with a unified meaning, to text, a textuality weaving author, language, and reader to form limitless readings and a plurality of meaning, reveals the continual progress of critical discourse in examining the systems of language and the possibilities of text to provide structure as well as freedom to the active reader.  This renewed sense of text as textuality renders the function of text as vital to systems of media, in which ideas and meanings are submitted to systems of signs and gestures, which in turn communicate meaning, thwart meaning, and create new meaning, often through the textuality of text.

Jamie E. Carroll
Winter 2002

NOTES

[1] Alan H. Goldman, “Artistic Interpretation,” in Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ed. by Edward Craig (New York: Routledge, 1998), 503.

[2] Ferdinand de Saussure, Course in General Linguistics, ed. by Charles Bally and Albert Sechehaye, trans. by Wade Baskin (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1966 ), 65.

[3] Key Concepts in Cultural Theory, ed. by Andrew Edgar and Peter Sedgwick (New York: Routledge, 1999), 382.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Goldman, 502.

[6] Jacques Lacan, The Language of the Self, The Function of Language in Psychoanalysis, trans. by Anthony Wilden, (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1968), 39.

[7] Oswald Ducrot and Tzvetan Todorov, Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Sciences of Language, trans. by Catherine Porter (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1972), 356.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Key Concepts in Cultural Theory, 300.

[10] Jean-Loup Seban, “Roland Barthes,” in Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy. ed. by Edward Craig. (New York: Routledge, 1998), 657.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Plato, The Dialogues of Plato , trans. by B. Jowett (New York: Random House, 1937),279.

[13] Roland Barthes, A Barthes Reader . ed. by Susan Sontag. (New York: Hill and Wang, 1982), 405.

[14] Wolfgang Iser, The Implied Reader: Patterns of Communication in Prose Fiction from Bunyan to Beckett.   (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1974), 275.

WORKS CITED

Barthes, Roland. A Barthes Reader. Ed. Susan Sontag. New York: Hill and Wang, 1982.

Carroll, Lewis.  The Annotated Alice. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2000.

Ducrot, Oswald and Tzvetan Todorov. Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Sciences of Language. Trans. Catherine Porter. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1972.

Ed. Edgar, Andrew and Peter Sedgwick. Key Concepts in Cultural Theory. New York: Routledge, 1999.

Goldman, Alan H.  “Artistic Interpretation,” Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Ed. Edward Craig. New York: Routledge, 1998.

Iser, Wolfgang.  The Implied Reader: Patterns of Communication in Prose Fiction from Bunyan to Beckett.  Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1974.

Lacan, Jacques.  The Language of the Self, The Function of Language in Psychoanalysis. Trans. Anthony Wilden. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1968.

Plato.  The Dialogues of Plato. Trans. B. Jowett. New York: Random House, 1937.

Saussure, Ferdinand de.  Course in General Linguistics. Trans. Wade Baskin. Ed. Charles Bally and Albert Sechehaye.  New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1966.

Seban, Jean-Loup.  “Roland Barthes,” Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Ed. Edward Craig.  New York: Routledge, 1998.