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."

And even though few if any are ready to defend that thesis as a literal statement of fact--indeed, the line taken by defenders usually rules out any appeal to factual claims of any kind--the fame of Jacques Derrida and the attraction of deconstruction surely derive, in some part, from the feeling of many (but by no means all) proponents that they are engaged in a radical enterprise at odds with bourgeois common sense, and perhaps even allied somehow to revolutionary politics.

But there is also another, less obvious, source of attraction to the notion that "there is nothing outside the text." Today Americans--and, perhaps, young people in particular--are concerned about identity and seem often to be searching for some sort of definite and secure identity. If religion offers one answer to this search--that we each possess an immortal soul--advertising offers another. Advertising tells us that everything we eat or wear, any game we play and, naturally, anything we buy, is a sign that tells other people something about ourselves.

We proclaim our social status, our sexual prowess and availability, our moral and political convictions--we all wear our hearts on our sleeves, if we are to believe the commercials and advertising all around us. A philosophy that tells us that we are all texts waiting to be read is, indeed, in tune with the times. Learning the skills associated with this philosophy holds out the promise that we may become adept at sending out the particular messages we wish others to read, and also adept at reading between the lines of the messages we receive.

The suspicion remains that those (like the leading textualist Stanley Fish) who reject "the premise that any discourse must be measured against a stable and independent reality," still count the cash the clerk gives them back when they use a $20 bill to make a $10.37 purchase. Philosophic conviction has little effect on practice.

Does that matter? Perhaps not. Lionel Trilling's 1970 observation that "it is characteristic of the intellectual life of our culture that it fosters a form of assent which does not involve actual credence" seems, if anything, more pertinent than ever. Yet there are occasions when belief becomes important, and on some of the most significant of these, believing in the world as text provides little or no assistance. A belief in oneself as spirit or soul at least can provide some reassurance and offer some support in the face of illness and death. It is not clear that the philosophy of textualism can do as much.

The late Susan Sontag was once willing, like many other advanced thinkers, to think of cancer as a text revealing that one was guilt-ridden, uptight, repressed--in a word, bourgeois. It was with this notion in mind that she once declared that "the white race is the cancer of human history." The experience of actually having cancer led Sontag to the conclusion that some things, like cancer, like disease of any kind, should not be thought of as metaphors.

The purpose of her book Illness as Metaphor, she explained, was to encourage others "to regard cancer as if it were just a disease--a very serious one, but just a disease. Not a curse, not a punishment, not an embarrassment." Without "meaning." Sontag's desire to regard cancer as without "meaning" would seem to be difficult to achieve in a world where there is nothing outside the text, or even one in which there is no "outside-text."

Textualism has a special appeal for college professors that it does not have for college freshmen. Trilling called attention in the 1950s to the characteristic "demand" of some intellectuals "for life as pure spirit," a demand that in its extremism would discount or deny what Trilling called "the actuality of the conditioned, the literality of matter, the peculiar authenticity and authority of the merely denotative."

Textualism seems to promise that literary critics can extend their expertise far beyond poems, plays, and novels, and even beyond films and television programs, to anything at all. Since everything is a text, and critics are the best readers of texts, it is literary critics who are best equipped to understand any phenomena whatsoever. Textualism provides a rationale that allows critics to comment on scientific theories without going to the trouble of boning up on physics or chemistry, just as it seems to license them to comment authoritatively on politics without making any particular study of history or economics.

This sort of appeal is very hard to resist. The attraction of an all-encompassing theory that allows one not only to make sense of what is otherwise a complex world but also to feel intellectually superior to bourgeois believers in common sense, is very strong--perhaps, especially, for would-be revolutionaries who end up in English departments. College freshmen, on the other hand, can probably be trusted to tell the difference between texts and things, despite advertising and despite their professors' assignment of The World Is a Text as required reading.

James Seaton is professor of English at Michigan State.