Friday, August 31, 2007

Does matter matter?

In my Texts and Textuality class last week we attempted the exercise of spelling out a minimalist definition of text. One of the more interesting questions that came out of this discussion is whether text implies a material instantiation or record. Our guest faculty member, Dr. Richard Priebe, insisted that it requires a record – that text is something to be returned to again, by oneself or another. I appreciate his point, but I don't think the latter proposition requires the former. (I should note here that one of his primary research interests is in folklore and oral traditions, so none of the arguments I'm about to make will be new to him.)

Traditions are texts. Performances are texts. Anything that can be approximately reproduced in the memory of a reader (in the broad sense) can be interpreted, modified, reproduced, re-presented, recontextualized, etc., and therefore constitutes a text as I understand the term.

Take for example a wedding ceremony. Certainly it can be based on a written script, and deviations can occur either by explicit consensus of the participants, or by improvisation, memory lapses, etc. And certain elements may be strictly required by interests of the church, state, or family tradition. But out of the entire social spectacle, how much of it is based on a written script? The words may be, and the music may be, but the attire is not. The arrangement of witnesses around the focal couple is not, nor is their arrangement in front of the officiator. The vocal intonations and sweeping hand gestures of the officiator are a matter of performance tradition, theater, rhetoric, and oral homiletics and/or judicial gravitas. These elements are handed down by a tradition of in-person witness and, more recently, of Hollywood representations. And yet they are reproduced with striking consistency within a given cultural milieu.

Matter is crucial in such traditions in the form of the architectural setting, the decor, the attire, and most especially the performing bodies. But this congregation of matter is a momentary conduit for the text that passes through it, not in any way a storage medium. Even without the near-universal photography and videotaping that goes on at weddings (by the way I realize now that my wife and I after 7 years to the day have yet to watch our wedding video), people would reproduce weddings with striking consistency. The text is not in the tape; it is in the performance. It can be parsed, praised, and parodied without any recourse to a script or record. (Here's a good guideline: if it can be parodied, it's a text!)

This weekend I saw a strange spectacle during the US Open tennis tournament. Top contender Novak Djokovic, still winded after winning a semi-final match, was prompted by a TV interviewer to perform impersonations of other players. He did so, taking specific requests for his subjects. So it seems tennis playing style is a text but, more profoundly, our personal being-in-the-world, comprising thousands of half-conscious and frequently repeated gestures, is a text that can be recognized even when performed by another. By the way, I would link you to specific YouTube footage of the performances in question, but when I looked for them I found two additional performances of the same two parodies, also caught on video. It seems this was no spontaneous performance.

During our class discussion Dr. Cornis-Pope threw out the hypothetical of an aggregation of debris on the beach. Is it a text? I'd say if someone wanders along and sees in it a contour that prompts her to envision the face of the Virgin Mary or some other signifier that registers with her then yes, it's a text. It becomes a text by her regarding it as such. She might even study it as an ephemeral abstract composition that she was fortunate to find before the rising tide gathered it up for its ongoing recombinant composition of found beach art. Now this text is made of matter, ephemeral though it is. The question in this case is not one of matter but of intention. Does designation of phenomena as text presume intentional composition?

Say the woman on the beach is a marine biologist examining the debris pile for microorganisms. Or a police detective looking for evidence of a missing person last seen sleeping on this beach. Does professional status confer textual properties on unintended aggregates?

If we follow Barthes' treatment of text, the crucial intention is not that of the text's author but that of the reader; or rather, the reader is the author of the text. The text may be transitory and unintended but remains a text in the memory of the reader. Perhaps memory constitutes a record and therefore could satisfy Dr. Priebe's requirement. Memory is notoriously transient and mutable, but it is certainly physical on the level of electrochemically charged neurons. Memory is the matrix in which forms are abstracted, connections made, patterns recognized, hypotheses tested, so perhaps in a nontrivial way Dr. Priebe and I are both right.

My minimal definition of text echoes the structuralist definition of the basis of language itself: a play of differences.

1 comment:

priest said...

I should note here that, though this post is listed under August 31 (the day I started it), it was actually posted September 9. Seems an odd convention, but who am I to question Google?