Wednesday, 10 October 2012

Academic Community - Lecture 1: What is a text?

This was the first week in which I had an Academic Community Lecture because it is every other week. The first week I had a seminar and then this week a lecture, etc. etc. I was quite looking forward to this lecture because when we had a Taster Lecture of everything on the Friday of Freshers' Week the lecturer for this made us all laugh. He walked up to the desk, put down a Frosties box and said: 'I am just going to say this again, you have done amazingly well to be accepted here, so I would like to raise a toast to you.' And then he lifted a piece of toasted bread out of the box. So I had a good feeling about this lecture, even though the module itself was a bit vague to me.


The word 'text' is used by most people and seen as a relatively simple word, yet it is everything but simple when you think about it for a bit. The Oxford English Dictionary calls it a 'printed or written work' or 'a written work chosen as a subject of study'. The main word here is 'written' which begs the question: what about songs and images? For example, to a researcher in Old Norse culture, there are barely any written texts available. But burial sites that were found say a lot more than any words could. What a person is buried with is like a biography of their lives, revealing a lot of information about their status and culture. Also, if you look a bit deeper at the etymology of the word 'text' in the OED you see it is derived from the Old Northern French 'tixte' which itself came from the Latin 'textus' which means 'that which is woven'. That sounds like a tapestry, rather than a 'text'.

Another question which is brought forward by the term 'text' is 'what text?'. Look at Beowulf for example, is the 'text' the actual manuscript in Old English or the Seamus Heaney translation? There are differences between the two versions and this leads to another question. Is a text what the author intends or is it the reader's own interpretation? A text is changeable, it is not written in stone. (Like the pun?) Here, another lecturer came in who talked about the many changes in the manuscripts of D.H. Lawrence. My favourite example was a photo of the manuscript for 'Women in Love' where you can clearly see both D.H. Lawrence's notes and his wife's. Some critics have said that the wife's notes should be taken out because the 'text' is only what Lawrence has written, yet taking out her additions changes the novel severely. Again, what is a text and who is the author? The language Lawrence uses is not his either since language is a common good.

Then, a lecturer for drama came in to talk about the importance and meaning of text for drama. What is important to remember in drama is that many texts are transcripts of performances. They were never meant to be read, a way in which many people are introduced to Shakespeare, but rather were meant to be seen. Richard Schechner in his paper 'Drama, Script, Theatre and Performance' argued the importance of the drama, the play itself. I am still slightly confused as to what he meant exactly, so I found the paper on JSTOR and am going to read it. So I'll come back to this at some later point. As a novel can have different versions the same counts even more for plays. Every time it is staged, there is a different version of the play. So which is the real version? The way it was played at the beginning, with men for women's roles, or a minimalist version?

And finally we learnt there are 2 different kinds of texts: a representational text and a referential text. The former is what most people sit down to read such as poetry, a novel and this even includes a painting. These texts usually engage the imagination, not straightforward and often ambiguous. A referential text is what most people often read almost unawares. It is the text on the back of your milk bottle or aspirin pack or even a road sign. These texts simply engage you on one level, impart information and are supposed to be completely unambiguous. I still find myself baffled by them sometimes but that might just be me.


So, that was my first Academic Community lecture. Doesn't sound too bad, does it? What do you think a text is?

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