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Textuality: Definition & Standards

Instructor: Joshua Wimmer

Joshua holds a master's degree in Latin and has taught a variety of Classical literature and language courses.

Could this lesson be considered a 'text?' Keep reading to learn more about the concept and standards of the literary theory of textuality to decide for yourself!

Critical Reading: Textuality Defined

Do you think the notes you may have passed in class or Yelp reviews you've posted are going to be studied in a college literature course? Although we might consider them significant, chances are this is highly unlikely. That's because our personal correspondences and opinions don't necessarily meet the requirements for textuality - the qualities of a written work that make it suitable material for literary study.

The concept of textuality came about in the mid-20th century as a critical element in structuralism, a modern intellectual movement that views cultural phenomena (i.e. literature) in terms of linguistic relationships involved in all human activities. Philosophers, linguists, and literary theorists such as Jacques Derrida or Roland Barthes were major structuralist contributors, but it was Barthes in particular who really focused on what makes a 'text.'

Barthes theorized that we can view literature through two different lenses: as a collection of 'works' and of 'texts.' For him, a 'work' is a finished, closed object (i.e. a copy of Moby Dick). On the other hand, Barthes considered a 'text' to be a process of creating meaning while escaping definitive definition itself. Take for instance how the 'text' of Moby Dick - its themes, structuring, and underlying messages - constantly create new meanings for different groups of readers, making it difficult to give the text itself a clear identifying label. As in the case of Moby Dick, we can see that Barthes intended this duality of 'work' and 'text' not to be mutually exclusive, but to represent two different ways of looking at the same discrete pieces of literature.

Standards of Textuality

Just as it isn't easy to identify a 'text' in Barthes' theory, it isn't simple to qualify a clearly or authoritatively outlined set of standards for textuality. We find some of the same problems in standardizing textuality as we might encounter with standardized tests; namely, not all students approach the test the same way or with the same experiences. Likewise, not all pieces of literature possess their textuality in exactly the same manner. Nevertheless, there are a few things to look for when deciding if a work is 'worthy' of literary study.

Structure: As a product of 'structuralism,' it makes perfect sense that a piece's structure is imperative to its identification as a 'text.' The word's Latin root texere - meaning 'to weave' - reveals this fundamental quality of textuality. Just as a tapestry must be framed to keep its ends from fraying, so must a literary text adhere to some sort of structure in order for it to be cohesive and coherent. This can also refer to the inclusion of smaller structures (scenes, episodes, chapters, etc.) into the overarching framework of the text that embellish and support the larger whole as intricately woven vignettes might in a piece of textile art.

Texture: This aspect of textuality enables us to tell the difference between The Adventures of Alice in Wonderland and The Lord of the Rings. It represents the unique, 'concrete' characteristics that authors put into their works that differentiate them from those of others, especially when we think of the parts that we would rather quote directly than summarize. This might be due to the author's diction, or choice and arrangement of words. These unique qualities may also be related to sound patterns in poetry (i.e. assonance, alliteration, rhyme) or to a poem's specific meter. Imagery is another important textural element in both verse and prose.

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