The Magazine

The Word Is Out

The textbook that teaches life is a text.

Feb 25, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 23 • By JAMES SEATON
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The World Is a Text

Writing, Reading, and Thinking About Culture and Its Contexts

by Jonathan Silverman and Dean Rader

Prentice Hall, 864 pp., $63.40

"Textualism," the notion that the world may and should be thought of as text, was once an esoteric theory available only to those who had worked their way through the works of Jacques Derrida. It has now joined Marxism, psychoanalysis, and New Historicism on the shelf of once-hot-but-no-longer-fashionable ideas. Textualism is enjoying a new life, however, as a view of the world disseminated to college freshmen in introductory writing classes. This anthology of readings, now in its second edition, advises freshmen that "we should think of our entire world as something that can and should be read. In short, we can think of the world as a text."

In the introduction, students learn that "the idea that the world is a text open to interpretation" derives from semiotics, and "in semiotics, the main idea is that everything is a sign of sorts." Students who absorb the lessons of the anthology "will become more critical and thoughtful readers of the complex text that is our world." Texts within this larger text include "human relationships" and "people." The editors even provide a reading that "suggests the ways in which you are a text, worthy and ready to be read."

So what? No doubt there are many ways in which it might be useful to think of objects, situations, and even people as texts "ready to be read," whatever one's semiotics. And there is little reason to worry that college students, even impressionable freshmen, are likely, in their excitement at learning from the anthology in their required writing class that they and other people are to be regarded as "texts," will neglect those aspects of their bodily existence that don't lend themselves to text-messaging.

Presumably, students will remember that, unlike traditional texts in books, which do not change once they are printed, they themselves are continuing to grow and change; they might sometimes become ill and eventually they will certainly die, an event that may be compared to a book going out of print but which is also quite different. Such differences between a human being and a text are so obvious they scarcely need mentioning. On the other hand, it seems at least possible that the appeal of the notion of the world as text, once confined to the high theory of Derrida's pronouncement that "Il n'y a pas de hors-texte," but now on offer to college freshmen, derives in large part from the blurring of such differences rather than from its supposed intellectual rigor.

It is often pointed out, usually by those sympathetic to Derrida, that intellectual rigor would require that "Il n'y a pas de hors-texte" be translated as "There is no outside-text" rather than as "There is nothing outside the text." The English language version plays it safe by providing both translations (though only one is italicized, and the other one is bracketed) and also including the French. Derrida's pronouncement appears in Of Grammatology thusly: "There is nothing outside of the text [there is no outside-text; il n'y a pas de hors-texte]." Although the English translation seems to "privilege" the more famous version ("there is nothing outside the text") it is plausible that the alternate reading ("there is no outside-text") is closer to what Derrida himself intended.

There is, however, an explanation--beyond the disrepute of intentionality as a criterion of meaning--why it is the former phrasing that has become famous: The alternate translation lacks the transgressive extremism of the former. The phrasing of the alternate version encourages the possibility that its meaning is nothing scandalous or even particularly interesting.

Richard Rorty, in a sympathetic exposition, calls the assertion nothing more than a misleading way "of saying that we shall not see reality plain, unmasked, naked to our gaze." But of course, since few besides mystics would claim to "see reality plain, unmasked, naked to our gaze," there would be no reason for anyone to pay particular attention to the expression and to the philosophy it is thought to epitomize unless it were taken to mean something quite different, something shockingly contrary to our common-sense understanding of the world.

The expression "There is nothing outside the text" does succeed in suggesting that there is something unique, something shocking, something well worth our attention, in the philosophy it asserts, just because it seems so much at odds with common sense, just because it does seem to assert that, in some mysterious but profound sense, the anthology's title is literally true: "The world is a text."