Saturday, November 11, 2006

Textuality: More Than Just Words

What are Texts?

Recent developments in theory have pretty much rocked language's concept altogether by emphasising that 'all sorts of signs and symbols- not merely words' (Cavallaro, p.59) can be taken as language.

Hand in hand this takes us to the also newly redefined concept of reading, which shows us that we don't just read books or newspapers, but in fact, our cultural environment as a whole in itself! Plays, platters, billboards, blackboards, guns, gowns, statistics and even statues can all be regarded as text in very different ways. Indeed, we can say that texts can encompass all 'objects and data that are always open to varying readings and interpretations' (Cavallaro, p.59).

In fact, texts are not fixed processes, or entities, but they keep changing and evolving, gaining and losing new meanings or novel connotations in accordance to 'how they are received and perceived by their readers and to the cultural circumstances in which they are produced and consumed' (Cavallaro, p.59). Leading us to the understanding that texts can be made and unmade, and looking at it from an etymological angle this is further proved by the association of text with the act of weaving; the Latin equivalent is texere = to weave.

Inter-textuality and Inter-subjectivity: Roland Barthes and Julia Kristeva

Both Barthes and Kristeva have contributed profoundly to the conceptualisation of texts. They both approach textuality as an ever expanding, extensive and multi-pronged phenomenon, on very different levels.

Firstly, they drew materials from very different fields, such as media, art, fashion and literature for example, and showed that in spite of those materials such differences, they can all be regarded as texts. Secondly, with their use of such diverse disciplines they advanced the cause for interdisciplinary. This approach henceforth gave way to the suggestion that any product of culture can be regarded as a text, and indeed any text can be examined with reference to the interpretive tools in a culture, emphasising the criss-crossing of disciplines and the decoding of its products in any given culture. Thirdly, originally coined by Kristeva in 1966, both Barthes and Kristeva contributed to what is known as inter-textuality, whereby 'no text is wholly autonomous or self contained' (Cavallaro, p.60). In layman terms, this means that texts 'absorb' from other texts, transforming them in the process, and built upon 'traces' and 'echoes' resultant, or leftover from other stories and voices rendering them to being subjective. So evidently, if texts are subjective then responses to texts are inter-subjective. Which means that they depend on how each individual's 'interpretation of the world interacts with the interpretations proposed by other people within the codes and conventions of a community' (Cavallaro, p.60) and are in turn, endorsed or rejected . And finally, they pondered the relationship between textuality and the body, saying that both are analogous. Where bodies can be read and experiences concurred from them, so can physical and erotic drives which come into action in the reading and writing of texts.

Solo Effort: Roland Barthes' Contributions

Barthes' early theoretical career examines verbal and non-verbal codes and conventions of sign systems by using semiotic and structuralist methodologies. One of his main aims was to show that reality is never transparent, and he tries to prove so by his examination of the doxa, the body of unexamined opinions and assumptions that govern a culture or society. In this way Barthes approaches text as an onion with many layers consisting of numerous, and often conflicting, meanings with not a solid core of truth in sight!

In his 1953 publication, Writing Degree Zero, Barthes trashes claims to universality and suggests that writing is always timeless in the sense that it is always committed to the legitimacy of specific dominant ideologies. He also adds that no writing style remains forever revolutionary because of ideology's efforts of 'appropriation, assimilation, and colonisation of anything that threatens its fabric' (Cavallaro, p.61). He then continues to mention two types of text.

· The Scriptable: Known as the most transgressive of texts, this writerly type of text offers the reader no clear solutions, and requires active and constant participation in its construction
· The Lisible: Known as the readerly text, this type offers the reader a comfortable frame of reference, follows in cue with the status quo, and allows the reader to take refuge in a sober sense of conventionality

Barthes also prescribes two types of writers.

· The Ecrivant: The fundamentally realist writer committed to recording reality, and using text solely as a vehicle for transcribing facts
· The Ecrivian: The writer who is concerned with the act of writing and language, and is inclined to view text as an autonomous and independent of any external factor

Moving on to Barthes' 1957 publication, Mythologies, he takes his analysis of cultural encoding of non-verbal texts one step further by positing a double order of meaning through the mythical level (connotations) and the mythical level (denotations). By highlighting texts' connotations he shows that the most literal and innocent of images are subdued in ideological processes complimenting a culture's myth.

In 1964's Critical Essays, Barthes outlines what he sees as the function of a critic. According to Barthes, a critic's task is to un-express the text by 'unravelling its superficial denotational dimension and exposing its mythical character' (Cavallaro, p.62). Also published that year, Elements of Semiology, Barthes shows that 'any specific menu, building, interior arrangement or outfit can be treated as a syntagmatic combination of elements selected from the whole paradigm of the language to which it belongs' (Cavallaro, p.62).

In 1967's publication, The Fashion System, Barthes decodes clothes by their material and formal qualities, and their representation in fashion photography. He says that '[f]ashion has three styles at its disposal. One is objective, literal…The second style is romantic, it turns the scene into a painted tableau…The third style…is mockery' (Cavallaro, p.63). Barthes also adds that there are vast similarities between the promotion of fashionable products and the mode of realism in that they 'both capitalise on texts designed to make the implausible seem probable through their obsessive insistence on details' (Cavallaro, p.63).

The 1970's publication, S/Z, Barthes analyses Balzac's story 'Sarrasine' by dividing it into 561 units of reading, known as lexias, and by creating five codes.

· The hermeneutic: the strategies through which the story sets various enigmas and varyingly resolves or complicates them
· The code of signifiers: the ways by which important clues can be deferred from apparently insignificant words
· The symbolic code: the recurring patterns in the text
· The proairetic code: the actions presented in the text
· The cultural code: the accepted body of knowledge or opinion by which the story is told

Where structuralist's spatial analysis of texts isolated its main components, and reorganised them into a map or diagram revealing their central relationships and oppositions, Barthes adopts an opposing linear style. Whereby, this linear style allows the text to work on its readers modifying 'their expectations and interpretations through shifts, gaps and changes of direction' (Cavallaro, p.63). This is typical of an open and discontinuous style of reading.

Moving on to his 1975 publication, The Pleasure of the Text, Barthes not only approaches text through its content but also through its form. Where his writings are not uniform but lacunary, 'it is riddled with gaps that stoke our desire to fill them' (Cavallaro, p.64), and which in turn, hold sexual appeals.

In Barthes' 1977 publication, A Lover's Discourse, he examines the text instead of explaining it from a critical stand point. He sees the discourse of Love as random, incoherent and fragmented. Barthes acknowledges that '[t]hough each love is experienced as unique, and though the subject rejects the notions of repeating it elsewhere later on' he soon 'realises that he is doomed to wander until he dies, from love to love' (Cavallaro, p.65).

Julia Kristeva's Contributions

Earlier writings of Kristeva, concentrate on ways in which texts are shaped by cultural codes and conventions, and that texts carry certain ideologies. She also uses semiotics to show that the idea of a stable sign is a myth used to serve the illusion of cultural stability.

In her publication, Semeiotike, Kristeva moves from the analysis of meaning to the analysis of the signifying process. She holds that 'signs do not hold permanent meanings but rather acquire significance by being strung together and by being decoded in particular ways' (Cavallaro, p.65). She uses two processes:

Signifiance: the process of production of meaning
Semanalysis: the method which explores this process

She also uses ideologeme which is defined as 'a textual formation produced within specific cultural and historical circumstances' (Cavallaro, p.65). Related to the concept of ideologeme, there are two types:

Ideologeme of the symbol: epic, myth and folklore pivot on this, they are closed because the ideas they present are supposed to be decidable according to a fixed repertoire of images
Ideologeme of the sign: modern novels pivot on this, for there is no agreed method for interpreting its signs

Kristeva also talks about three types of texts:

The monological: text that promotes a uniform ideology aiming at depicting a stable reality
The dialogical: text committed to polyphony, and stresses that reality and status quo is always negotiable
Poetic language: text that refuses to reduce language to communication, suspends logic, and plays with structures of grammar and syntax

Kristeva places great emphasis on the relationship between the text and the body. She identifies different forms of language, characteristics of distinct stages of human development to show how the link between textuality and physicality changes as children grow into adults. She does this by correlating each stage of development to textuality.

The Semiotic: the pre-linguistic moments of childhood where the child babbles and imitates its surroundings to interact with them. The semiotic body is fluidwith no clear shape or boundaries, hence there no rigid linguistic categories or meanings at this stage. Pulsions are developed at this stage and they consist of emotions that are expressed through different noises, movements and gestures.
The Symbolic: the signs prescribed by adult society, associated with dominant symbols of power, and repress the body in turn. At this stage subjectivity is moulded, and linguistically the rules of grammar, syntax and logic are enforced. Sexually, strict distinctions between masculinity, femininity, homo and heterosexuality are established, and culturally the individual is subjected to political, religious, familial, legal and economic structures.
The Thetic: the stage of human development in which the individual is aware of its autonomous existence and begins to assert individuality. It is also the borderline of form of textuality.

The Thetic is related to the symbolic because awareness of our separation from others enables us to enter the adult sphere of language and law. In this process of separation we not only acquire identity but we also discover that we lack something, and cannot ever merge with others. This sense of loss produces desire to restore the un-differentiation of the infant world. The Semiotic is repressed by the Symbolic, yet it is carried on in adult discourse through non-verbal attributes of language: tone, rhythm, laughter, silence, rhetorical disruption and contradiction. In fact jouissance texts bring back the Semiotic because they resemble 'a highly physical form of pleasure comparable to a sexual orgasm which infiltrates the Symbolic order and shakes it up' (Cavallaro, p.67).

Kristeva's Powers of Horror, argues that 'children develop into adults by constructing themselves as individual texts through physical processes of great intensity' (Cavallaro, p.67). She believes that 'in order to enter the symbolic order, the subject must differentiate itself from others in specifically bodily ways: the budding subject is required to shed everything which culture perceives as unclean, improper, disorderly, asocial or anti-social' (Cavallaro, p.67). This is achieved via a process called abjecation. Abjecation can be defined as the process through which the subject gets rid opf the defiling elements that threaten its textual frame, these can be consistent of semen, urine, faeces, tears, milk or sweat. But mastering abjecation is inevitably incomplete; hence it is considered a metaphor for all types of uncertainty states.

In her publication Black Sun, Kristeva says that experiencing loss expressed through a form is art. On one hand, 'the creation of texts is a means of plugging the holes that riddle our lives' (Cavallaro, p.68), and on the other hand 'it can help us come to terms with loss be enabling us to relive it again and again' (Cavallaro, p.68). So by that she says that art is a way of experiencing the drama of loss from which all subjectivity is stemmed from, and that the inability to get over this sense of loss results in melancholy or depression- both states that challenge the symbolic order by rejecting socially approved forms of communication and expression, and also impair the subject's ability to relate to others.

Kristeva also comments about genuine love, by saying that is porous, in the sense that it creates a sense of openness to another individual, and an ability to dissolve the individual's self boundaries. In this case a text's 'erotic import is likewise related to themes of openness, separation and loss' (Cavallaro, p.68).

Thus we can conclude that with Kristeva's writings, people and stories become inevitably interchangeable with regard to their common nature. Neither the text notr the self can be set to anchor, they both 'unfold and branch off in disparate directions and with no obvious destinations' (Cavallaro, p.68).

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