Concept Note


Sukanta Chaudhuri

A text is a composition in a language. There are languages other than the verbal systems – Hindi, Bengali, English etc. – that we most often mean by the term. Any means of conveying meaning through a code or a sign-system can be called a language. Any exercise in conveying meaning through any such means is a text. Works of music, dance and visual art (not necessarily symbolic in an explicit way) are texts. So are diagrams and traffic signs. So are communications using mathematical and scientific symbols rather than natural language. A play acted on the stage is a different text from the script of that play. Electronic texts remain texts even though their original language of composition has been ‘translated’ into a structure of zeros and ones. However, natural languages are the most complex and versatile sign-systems we know of, hence ‘languages’ par excellence. This is what I will mean by ‘language’ in what follows.

A language consists of a set of arbitrary sounds (which may be further represented by arbitrary visual signs), which we combine in arbitrary ways to render meaning. The signs are arbitrary because they do not carry any intrinsic meaning: one language can refer to a certain animal as kutta and another as dog because neither word has any essential link with the animal in question. There is always a gap between a word and what it ‘means’ or signifies: the word indicates something without being it or even having an organic link with it. The gap expands when the word combines with others in a sentence: how do we interpret the relationship between them? How does that structure of arbitrary signs relate to the structure of the ‘real’ world? How can a whole text composed of such signs tell us anything about that world?

A text is a fiction, something made or manufactured out of the materials of language. By ‘fiction’, I do not mean that a text must necessarily tell a story, though of course many texts do, like novels or epics. A novel narrates imaginary events about imaginary people – but they resemble real events and real people, hence novels can tell us something about the ‘real’ world. Other kinds of texts – say, a study of historical events or an account of the solar system – are usually viewed from the opposite end. We assume these texts are about real objects, events and people; but we can only understand them as the text describes them – in other words, as they are structured and narrated by the mind imaging or ‘imagining’ the subject. So the first point to understand about texts is that they are mental constructs: they represent an idea of something, not that thing itself – just as the words constituting that text represent ideas of things (even ideas of ideas!) rather than the thing itself.

The ideas that follow from this basic principle are easier to grasp. The second point to understand is that if a text is born in the human mind, it will change as the mind itself changes, while the world in which the mind is located changes too. Few if any texts spring ready-made in the author’s mind in one go: there is a process of composition, which might last a few minutes or continue over years. Hence the third point to understand: a text is not a fixed presence on the page but a dynamic process: the unchanging words on the page are only a sign or pointer to that process.

A work may not be published at all, or even formally composed or written down: it can keep growing for ever in the author’s mind. Or it may be published before it is fully composed: that is to say, the author might keep rethinking and changing the text even after publication. In that case, there will be later versions of the work, which might appear in print as later editions. Hence the fourth point to understand: the dynamic textual process is embodied in different material versions of the work. To come to terms with the work, we must look at all these versions – including hypothetical ones that may not have survived or even existed in the first place.

The fifth point to understand is that the author is not solely responsible for the text in front of you, unless it is a manuscript in his own hand. Books are edited, typeset, proof-read; also censored, abridged, compiled with other books, presented in various formats. Not only printed books but most manuscripts are the result of a process of ‘socialization’ involving other people.

The sixth point to understand is that besides the direct, concrete impact of other hands, a text changes with a change of medium – from orality to script, from manuscript to print, from print to digitality. It changes in a different way when transferred to a different form or language: from a play-text to a stage performance, from a novel to a film or an opera. In these cases, we may say that it becomes a different text in a different ‘language’. What, again, of works ‘born digital’? The electronic text has brought about a profound revolution of cultural history. We are living through it, even while extensively drawing on earlier textual forms, especially the printed book. How are we viewing and negotiating the change?

My seventh and last point is that the readerly reception of a text influences the reception and composition of other texts. We react to every book we read in the light of our experience of other books (of which each of us has read a unique combination). We may then proceed to write other texts reflecting our response to that particular text alongside others. Walter Benjamin called this continuing, potentially never-ending process the ‘afterlife’ of a text.

For all these reasons, when we see a text on the page, we cannot take it at face value. We must look at it critically, asking

  • how it came into being and developed as a composition;
  • how the author’s composition was refashioned and extended by others;
  • how, as a ‘sign’ at several levels (the sign-like function of language being the most basic), a text – a construct of arbitrary and empty words – engages with reality;
  • how one text generates others, as it was generated by others in the first place;
  • what factors might have compromised the text in front of us, and what the true reading should be;
  • given the above issues and problems, whether a text can have a single ‘true’ reading at all.

I would suggest that participants think about these issues, aided by the books on the reading list. You will find yourself generating other issues as you think about these ones. Select an issue that you find specially interesting or challenging, and locate one or more concrete examples from the texts you have read. Resist the temptation to develop your ideas in an entirely abstract or theoretical way. Analyse your chosen texts to show how they bear out your thinking about your chosen topic. That will be the basis of the essay you write for the workshop.