Friday, September 28, 2012

Society IN the Text

Of course society is ‘in’ the text, sorta. The text, after all, is constructed according to social conventions. That puts society in the text, no?

Well, yes. That’s what I’m after. But that’s not how I want to get there. I want to take a crazy route. A just-so story.

To begin with, there is this matter of ‘the text.’ What is it? As I’ve explained in Texts, Traces, and Hyperobjects, it’s an ambiguous notion. On the one hand, the text IS the markings on the page. But around forty or so years ago some folks blew it out until it seems to have blanked the whole freakin’ world. I don’t want to go that far.

I want to think of the text as the symbols PLUS the simple act of reading it. Take the cascading neural resonance evoked in the process of reading the symbols; I’m including them IN the text. Call it the neuro-text, or the full text, or just the text. If you will, THE WORK.

Now think, not of print culture, where a lone author pens a text, puts it in a bottle, and tosses the bottle to its fate, but of oral culture, where a story-teller gets in front of the group and talks, gestures, jumps around a bit, makes faces, and gets a story over to a bunch of people who are listening, groaning, giggling, pumping their fists in the air, belching, sighing, munching Doritos, slapping their thighs, and generally having a grand old time. Well, if the story-teller knows his business they’re having a grand old time. If not, bummer.

In THAT situation, what’s the boundary of the work, the full text, the neuro-text, the cascading neural resonance set of by the string of signifiers that is the physical substance of ‘the text’? That boundary must extend over the whole group, no? They’re all listening, laughing, sobbing, and clapping. The story teller’s paying attention to them and responding to them, and they’re certainly aware of and affected by one another. All of that’s IN the full text, in THE WORK.

THAT’s the sense in which society is IN the text. And that’s the case I take to be primary when I think about literature. It turns out, wouldn’t you know? that that’s also historically prior to the lone-author text-in-the-bottle situation of the written text in print societies. The print scenario is derived from the oral.

Roughly, crudely, it goes like this. In oral society THE WORK (in caps, so you know I mean the full text, the group neuro-text) evolves through many performance. It’s always in synch with the audience; little changes here and there keep it that way. As a result, the ‘same’ story gets told over and over and over. From one month to the text it’s going to be pretty much the same: same characters, same incidents, many of the same verbal forms, same set speeches. But over the course of decades and centuries it may change quite a bit so that the story that’s at one end of a two-century long string of performances may be quite different from the one that’s at the other end. But, month to month, very similar.

That can’t happen with written texts. Once a text is committed to paper it’s pretty much fixed in stone. How, then, can such a text fit itself to the audience in the way the ever-pliable oral text does? Well, you write a bunch of texts, all different, though sharing themes and motifs, and see what happens. Some will get a lot of readings, others will get few readings. Some will inspire other texts, others won’t. Over time 10,000 texts get corked into bottles and tossed into crowds. 9900 sink to the bottom. The 100 that survive are the canon.

We have two different evolutionary regimes. In one the text evolves in society through a series of microadjustments. In the other, many texts are made and the group selects the ones it likes.

And that’s how society is IN the text.

What I’ve written here is a just-so story. Turning that just-so story into a real explanation is one of the primary tasks of literary study in the 21st century. What kinds of conceptual tools do we need? What kinds of evidence? What methods?


  1. Certainly this is something the playwright anticipates. And at the moment as I am reading Bleak House, I cannot imagine how Dickens, in his extraordinary ability to give voice to so many different characters, did not understand this as well. Bloom says that the best authors, and he is speaking of Shakespeare of course, invoke the action of making a character think out loud to themselves, which brings forth an interactivity not only within the play, but the mind of the audience which then properly asks themselves the same questions. The better authors thus, invite a re-reading even though their text is fixed. And some say that this is what is extraordinary about the Bible, in that it is invested with enough contradiction inherent the beauty of its language and appeals to the ineffable, that compel the reader to find alternative and deeper meaning.

    I find myself in agreement with Bloom, that we get to know ourselves better by knowing texts - that texts reveal themselves more completely than people whom we never fully comprehend. But the character who thinks aloud, we are his intimate confidant. We know Esther Summerson better than we know ourselves, and knowing her to be kind and patient we seek ourselves to be kind and patient. Her inner dialog brings us closer to virtue than anyone we know - even though we know that society places the character of some to be unimpeachable, in the case of Bleak House which I have not finished - this is what we are to expect of Lady Dedlock. Books do not hide secrets, people do. So what we know of virtue and vice in people is limited but what we know of characters is truely what we know. And ultimately are we not saying this is true of God as well? For who looks for God in the campfire story circle?

  2. It depends on the campfire and the story, no? And many of those Bible stories were told around campfires, or the equivalent, before they were gathered together in the Bible.

    On campfire stories, scan through this until you get to Trickster: