4.0096 What is Text? (103)

Elaine Brennan & Allen Renear (EDITORS@BROWNVM.BITNET)
Tue, 22 May 90 17:03:59 EDT

Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 4, No. 0096. Tuesday, 22 May 1990.

(1) Date: 21 May 1990 19:36:03 CDT (17 lines)
From: "Lou [Burnard] (in Chicagoan exile) " <U25914@UICVM>
Subject: Textual ontology

(2) Date: 21 May 1990 19:22:06 CDT (35 lines)
From: "Michael Sperberg-McQueen" <U35395@UICVM>
Subject: what is a text

(3) Date: Tuesday, 22 May 1990 9:56am CST (51 lines)
Subject: 4.0093 What is Text?

(1) --------------------------------------------------------------------
Date: 21 May 1990 19:36:03 CDT
From: "Lou (in Chicagoan exile) " <U25914@UICVM>
Subject: Textual ontology

I think that a text is a cultural object. This note is a text but there
is also a sense in which the machine I am writing it on is a text, and
another in which the textuality of this note is all in what happens when
you peek (or whatever) at it.

Being rather busy at present in trying to condense into some coherence
what others have proposed as `essential textual features', I fear

I must remain

yours elliptically

(2) --------------------------------------------------------------44----
Date: 21 May 1990 19:22:06 CDT
From: "Michael Sperberg-McQueen 312 996-2477 -2981" <U35395@UICVM>
Subject: what is a text

In response to Peter Junger's questions:

I don't know what most people think. Certainly I would have said that
the writs he describes, and recipes, are texts in the strict sense.
Nor can one limit the term 'text' to series of propositional statements
without eliminating a great deal of literature (even in the traditional

Computer programs seem more text-like than otherwise to me. I'd call
them texts, if only because the other position would cause problems for
recipes. Like recipes and writs, they can be read, or they can be
(read and) performed. It seems plausible that performance may be
different from reading, since computers can perform programs, but
that is a difference in the reader, not in the text.

Wiring diagrams will clearly cause some people to cough a bit before
deciding whether to call them texts. So will knitting patterns, and
bell-ringing charts. I'd personally say that calling a wiring diagram a
'text' is at least a comprehensible metaphor. I suspect a lot of people
(theorists at least) would say it's a normal usage and see no metaphor
in it at all. Apart from the confusion unexplained metaphors wreak in
unsuspecting listeners, I'm not sure there's a difference worth
discussing here. Wiring patterns can presumably be nonsensical or
garbled or impossible or inconsistent with themselves or just plain
weird, which suggests that they have something which can be called,
at least metaphorically, syntax, semantics, and pragmatics. Sounds
more and more like a text to me.

In haste,

C. M. Sperberg-McQueen
(3) --------------------------------------------------------------56----
Date: Tuesday, 22 May 1990 9:56am CST
Subject: 4.0093 What is Text? (136)

The question "What is a text?" is enormously complicated. It's not
enough to say that it's "a series of statements" (where did they come
from?), nor will it do to speak of a series of document objects-- though
both of those may be useful. In both cases, however, there are prior
questions that have to be asked-- i.e., whose statements make up the
series of document objects? what authorizes us to believe that those
objects are the right ones? This question has animated (to put it
mildly) recent debate over the 1984 "synoptic" edition of Joyce's
_Ulysses_ prepared by Hans-Walter Gabler and published by Random House
to supplant the 1961 edition with which most current readers are
familiar. As Charles Rossman has pointed out in a series of articles in
1988 and 89 (see TLS, December 88, and NYRB, also December 88),
decisions about what constituted the "text" of _Ulysses_ have been
fraught with all sorts of considerations-- political, economic, and so
forth-- that might seem at first glance to have nothing to do with Joyce
or _Ulysses_ or anything else; and yet those decisions have real impact:
I don't know how much Random House makes from sales of _Ulysses_ in any
given year, but it's not peanuts.

Or, to take a writer about whom I know more, there's the American poet
Marianne Moore (1887-1972). What is probably her single most famous
poem, called "Poetry" (it begins "I too dislike it"), was first
published in July 1919, in a little magazine called _Others_. There are
at least seven *different* published versions of the poem, three of
which are so different from one another and from all the rest as to
constitute different poems. There's the 1919 text already mentioned--
30 lines, in 5 6-line stanzas and a complex, consistent pattern of rhyme
and syllabification. The next major variant appeared in 1925, in the
second edition (and only the second edition) of a volume called
_Observations_ (NY: The Dial Press, 1925). This version is only 13
lines long, and is in free verse; it also suggests a different stance
toward poetry than that taken in the 1919 text. In subsequent
collections Moore reverted to a text resembling (though not precisely
identical to) the 1919 "Poetry"-- that is, until her _Complete Poems_
appeared in 1967: there, "Poetry" has been sliced down to a mere *three*
(3, yes) lines (these are in essence the first three lines of the 1919
version). A longer version, miscalled "Original Version," is preserved
in the Notes at the back of the volume. Whew! Sorry for all that
detail. Now: what is the text of Marianne Moore's "Poetry"? May we
talk about "the" text, or must we talk about the *texts*? The problem
becomes even more complicated because, in many cases, Moore entered, by
hand, "corrections" to published texts (e.g., before presenting a copy
to a friend, or when someone asked her to sign a copy for them, etc.
Whoops, sorry about the etc. But not very!). How would Humanists
recommend dealing with such things (this is not atypical for Moore, by
the way)?
John Slatin, University of Texas