Saturday, March 19, 2011

Texts, Traces, and Hyperobjects

One of the strangest concepts to emerge out of the humanities in the last half century is that of the text. It started in the literary studies as, well, those marks on paper (or papyrus, or vellum, or, well, any surface that can be inscribed) that carry, say, a poem or a play or a story, you know, whatever literary texts convey. It became generalized to just about anything a critic wanted to interpret – paintings, movies, TV shows, songs and such most certainly, but also clothing and cars and packaged goods, and buildings and cities, current and not so current events (e.g. Fukishima, Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, Alamogordo), and, well, history at whatever scale. All are texts, all can be interpreted, their meanings plumbed, and written into readings, become once again marks inscribed on surfaces.

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I want to draw back from the grand scope of ‘the text’ and think just about those objects where this expansion began. Those things inscribed on paper in symbols representing language. Given those objects, what do we mean by the text? Certainly literary critics have meant the markings on the page, certainly them. But not only the marks. When critics have talked about ‘fidelity to the text’, they mean more than just those marks. For, without a reader, those marks are just marks, the trace of some physical process, but no more. But when apprehended by a reader, those marks set off something else. Whatever it is, that something else is also what critics aim at and reach for when they talk of ‘the text.’ Just what that something else is, well, that’s a muddle and a mystery.

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To use a bit of theory-driven imagery from Walter Freeman, a neurobiologist at U Cal, Berkeley, any mental activity traces a trajectory in the brain’s phase space – a space of very high dimensionality. That trajectory is, in Freeman’s terms, the meaning of the text. And when we’ve finished reading the text, what remains in the brain are traces of that trajectory scattered about in synapses across and throughout the brain, millions upon millions of them. Those traces, they too are the text.

And not just the synaptic traces of one reading by one reader. But the traces of all readings by all readers. (And what of future readings by readers yet unborn?) Surely those too must be encompassed by the text. No? If it is to be more than marks on a page, if it is to be (considered as) a cultural object, then the text must be that strange object: the collectivity of traces in many brains of many people over many places and many times. And so the text grows over time, and changes, and yet always the same itself. The text.

And that, I believe, implies that text, whether by Murasaki Shikibu, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, or Jean Genet, is what Tim Morton calls a hyperobject – widely distributed in time and space, and, apparently, strange into the bargain.

How does study such a thing, the text?

I leave as an exercise for the reader the matter of the individual human mind. Consider it as the intersection of many cultural texts superimposed in the synaptic pathways of the brain. Each mind a superimposition of a different set of texts. Each superimposed intersection of cultural texts embedded in a unique biological substrate.

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