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This is not a definition. Well, of course it isafter all, it is appearing in a dictionaryand yet, in a certain and actually rather important way, it is not. Or, put differently, precisely to the extent that the text is not an idea, this is not a definition. Of course, the text can be treated as an idea, perhaps even one whose time has come, but doing so misses something important about what the text is. In fact, what one misses in treating the text as an idea is its resistance to both idealism and the history of ideas, a resistance markedhowever obliquelyby the necessarily digressive form of this definition that is not one.


Text derives from the Latin textus (a tissue), which is in turn derived from texere (to weave). It belongs to a field of associated linguistic values that includes weaving, that which is woven, spinning, and that which is spun, indeed even web and webbing. Textus entered European vernaculars through Old French, where it appears as texte and where it assumes its important relation with tissu (a tissue or fabric) and tisser (to weave). All of these resonant associations are relevant to understanding how "the text" is used in contemporary scholarship, especially the interplay between its nominal and verbal forms, an interplay that registers the quality of what Julia Kristeva has called the text's "productivity," that is, its capacity to enable and exceed the producing, the materialization, of products.

The emergence of the text as an important concept in humanistic scholarship has taken many twists and turns. When Walter Benjamin, in his essay "The Image in Proust," described Proust's writing as a textum, a weaving not unlike the raveling and unraveling carried out by Penelope in the Odyssey, he was bringing to closure a tradition that dates back at least to Quintilian (c. 35100 c.e.), a tradition of associating the literary work with a tissue woven of many threads. If it makes sense to associate Benjamin with the closure of this tradition, it is because in his insistence on the dialectic of raveling and unraveling, he foregrounds a key preoccupation of what came to be known as textual criticism. Textual criticisma distinctive fusion of the practices of biblical exegesis, paleography, and philology linked now with the figure of the German philologist Karl Lachmann (17931851)was an institutionally and largely theologically organized emphasis on the text as an empirical object. This expressed itself during the fourteenth century in the works of William Langland, Geoffrey Chaucer, and John Wycliffe (among others) as a concern for the original and therefore true words contained in any writingin effect, what God actually said. The text was defined either in opposition to commentary and annotation or in opposition to all that is supplemental: introductions, appendices, etc. This was a text understood as a thing, as a specific and precise configuration of words toward which one was then authorized to turn his or her hermeneutical attentions.

Text and Semiological Text

When in 1972 Oswald Ducrot and Tzvetan Todorov published The Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Sciences of Language, it was the text as thing, the text of textual criticism, that oriented the first of their two entries on "the text," which focused on the way the text fills a gap in linguistics, rhetoric, and stylistics by providing them with a concept of the autonomous and closed unit that arises through the individuated use of a language system. In effect, "the text" answers the question: what thing is produced when a linguistic code is used to generate a message? In this it substitutes for either discourse or speech act. Significantly, though the Encyclopedic Dictionary contains a second entry on the text, it appears in an appendix, the very sort of supplementary material typically distinguished from the text of textual criticism. This text is dubbed "semiological" by the authors, a characterization meant to note the rather different way this second text engages the traditions and practices of humanistic scholarship.

In his contribution to the Encyclopaedia Universalis of the following year, Roland Barthes repeats this division of the concept of the text, suggesting thatdespite the centrality of his contribution to the theorization of the semiological texthe found the division, if not compelling, then certainly useful. Framing his discussion in terms of the "crisis of the sign," Barthes reminds us that the second text has a rather different genealogy than the text of textual criticism. For one thing, its emergence is considerably more recent. Although many of the writers who mattered to the theorists of the semiological textStéphane Mallarmé, Honoré de Balzac, Edgar Allan Poe, the Comte de Lautréamont, and otherswrote during the nineteenth century, the theorization of the text their work enabled unfolded during the postwar period in France. Nineteen-sixty is the date typically given for the emergence of the second text, and this is because it was in 1960 that the first issue of the influential journal Tel Quel appeared. While it is certainly the case that the text and Tel Quel are intimately related, the intellectual insights that converged in the concept of the text are discernible already in the 1940s. This becomes evident if one compares Maurice Blanchot's 1948 essay "Literature and the Right to Death" with his "Reflections on Nihilism" from part two of The Infinite Conversation (1969). In "Reflections" Blanchot makes explicit how his earlier meditation on literature, the book, the work, and deathframed largely in terms of the Hegelian principle of negativityconverts almost effortlessly into the properly textual concerns of Barthes and Jacques Derrida. Indeed, Blanchot appears to trace here precisely the movement from work to text that was to be thematized so fruitfully by Barthes in 1971. Perhaps because Derrida has made his debt to Blanchot explicit, it is difficult not to read in the title of the opening section of Of Grammatology (1966), "The End of the Book and the Beginning of Writing," the palimpsestic presence of Blanchot's conception of the disappearance of literature and the absence of the book. While it is true that Blanchot holds the very term "text" in abeyance (systematically preferring "work"), it is clear that his profoundly philosophical engagement with the literary object opened what Barthes was later to call the "methodological field" of the semiological text.

Tel Quel

While it might be argued that the appearance of Michel Foucault's "Language to Infinity" (an essay openly in dialogue with Blanchot) in an early issue of Tel Quel is what destined the encounter between the journal and the concept of the text, this presupposes rather than establishes the relevance of Blanchot. What clearly makes Tel Quel so pertinent to the emergence of the text is the fact that its longtime senior editor, Philippe Sollers, sought explicitly to devote the resources of the journal to the dissemination of the concept. Indeed, it is largely through the intellectual debates stirred by the journal that the text and textuality came to belong together. Although it ceased publication in the 1980s (morphing into L'infini in 1982), the journal not only brought together all of the major theorists of the textBarthes, Derrida, Kristeva, and Sollersbut, by virtue of its role in the French institutions of intellectual power, it allowed the text both to materialize and to do so in a manner that left it marked by the conditions of its emergence. Despite its heady and deeply theoretical character, the text was always in some ways a "pop" phenomenon. With the creation of the Tel Quel series at Editions du Seuil in 1962 (which eventually included major works by Barthes, Derrida, and Kristeva), not only was the text being widely disseminated (many titles in the series were translated), it became the topic of discussion at seminars, colloquia, and, thanks to Bernard Pivot's Apostrophes, nationally televised debates. Those eager to dismiss the importance of the text typically point to this as evidence of its degraded character, but in thereby hiding the commodity character of virtually all academic concepts they overlook the distinctly textual character of the text. The heterogeneous threads woven into the concept always included unruly, indeed compromising, material elements; indeed, this was part of its purchase on the concept of materialism, a purchase that might be said to culminate in the displacement of context (whether social or historical) by contextuality.

Jacques Derrida: Writing

Philosophically, the semiological or second text was given its earliest and perhaps most enduring formulation in the work of Jacques Derrida. Although it is true that Barthes had a longer, much more intimate, affiliation with Tel Quel (first publishing there in 1961), he would have been the first to admit that most of the heavy theoretical lifting was done by those around him, certainly by Derrida (and earlier Roman Jakobson, Claude Lévi-Strauss, and Jacques Lacan), but also by his protégée, and later master, Julia Kristeva. Certainly, Tel Quel 's tenacious defense of the politics of writing (both phonetic and grammatological or arché ) is unthinkable in the absence of Derrida. Indeed, Derrida's attack on idealism provided Sollers and others affiliated with the journal with rigorous means by which to link their early commitment to literature with a post-engagement leftism. Derrida's first sustained presentation of the concept of the text appears in Of Grammatology, although one finds important strands of the insight it crystallizes in his earlier reading of Edmund Husserl. There, the text is used in a way consistent with its use in textual criticism, except that it is linked to a meditation on the relation between what makes science scientific and writing, a link forged by making consistent appeal to Maurice Merleau-Ponty's use of the Husserlian concept of "interweaving" in the former's lectures on "The Origins of Geometry" from the 1950s. Invoked both by Husserl and by Merleau-Ponty to designate the encounter between language and thought, interweaving is taken up by Derrida as a way to introduce the rhetoric of textuality within a theorization of writing and its place in the dispute between science and philosophy. For example, in "Form and Meaning" (another early essay on Husserl) Derrida explicitly translates interweaving (given in German as Verwebung ) as the Latin texere, and does so in anticipation of a formulation in which linguistic and prelinguistic strata are shown to interact in accord with "the controlled system of a sort of text." "Sort of" here marks the advent of the semiological textthat is, the concept through which Derrida seeks to challenge phenomenology's account of the being of meaning.

The Text as Philosophical Paradigm

Of Grammatology draws out the relation between this text and a critique of the philosophical ethnocentrism expressed in the subordination of writing to speech. Although Derrida frames the issue in terms of a critique of Ferdinand de Saussure's account of the linguistic sign, it is clear that the problems raised regarding Husserl's figure of interweaving are not far away. Indeed, Saussure's subordination of writing to speech is read as an expression of his tacit agreement with Husserl's phenomenological construal of language. To challenge this subordination and the ethnocentrism sustaining it, Derrida uses the logic of the text, that is, the argument that the interweaving that confounds the distinction between different levels of consciousness and dimensions of reality also confounds not just the distinction between speech and writing but the distinction between thought and signs. Here, the semiological text comes to designate the unstable process whereby experience and representation (whether linguistic or not) engage one another in a radically undecidable manner. The oft-cited formulation "there is nothing outside the text," which appears in the discussion of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, thus asks, at one level, to be taken this way: there is no experience that can be absolutely separated from the systems of representations developed for its expression. The text then is less a thing than a philosophical paradigm, that is, a way of representingwithin the protocols and procedures of a certain discoursethe undecidable limits of representation. It is not that there is nothing but representation. Rather, if there is nothing outside the text, it is because there is nothing but the enduring missed encounter between experience and representation.

Because of the intimacy that defines the relation between Of Grammatology and Writing and Difference (from the same year), it is important here to acknowledge the way Derrida mobilizes Sigmund Freud to extend his critique of experience, a critique that might otherwise appear to leave both the personal and the ineffable unthematized. In "Freud and the Scene of Writing" Derrida, by tracing Freud's ambivalent relation to the metaphors of writing as they appear in various discourses, shows how a textual logic is at work both in Freud's account of neurophysiology (the thematics of Bahnung, "pathmaking") and in his account of the psychical interaction of memory and perception, whether in waking life or in the dream. Thus, the semiological text, by representing the undecidable interweaving at work in the different operations of the psychical apparatus, is shown to have yet another relation to the systemic mediation of experience. If, as Derrida argues, the signifier and the signified are interwovenin effect, structured by the differing deferral of différance (Derrida's well-known neologism)then, strictly speaking, there are no ideas. Idealism is then thrown into crisis, and while Derrida's materialism has consistently defied philosophical categorization, it is clear that the text paradigm, in foregrounding the interminable labor of differentiation, exhibits an unmistakable materiality.

Julia Kristeva: Textual Productivity and Intertextuality

Perhaps because Julia Kristeva's earliest articulations of the theory of textuality are framed within the context of a more intimate dialogue with Marxism than Derrida's, the text's materiality receives more direct attention. Specifically, in several of the essays that comprise Séméiotiké (1969) Kristeva links the text with the concept of productivity. This term derives from her effort to rethink Marx's concept of the "mode of production" from the vantage points of linguistics and psychoanalysis, with the aim of capturing both how values (economic, linguistic, etc.) are effects of a system of relations, and how this system is defined by a heterogeneity of relations (social, psychic, etc.) that sustain themselves in a permanent state of crisis. In the essay "The Productivity Called the Text," Kristeva shows how the text, again as paradigm rather than as thing, allows one to think about how language is deployed in ways that undercut its communicative function, at once revealing and confounding the codes that organize the production of linguistic messages. Although it is impossible to designate the product of the productivity called the text, it is clear that what is at stake here is the subject in process/on trial (Kristeva's original formulation invites both). The text provides one with the conceptual means by which to theorize and thus analyze the formation and deformation of the human being that takes place in the circuits of symbolic exchange.

Crucial to her point about the systemic articulation of heterogeneous relations is the conceptual innovation of intertextuality. Derived from the semiological concept of substance (used by Louis Hjelmslev to track the plane of content from one sign system to another), intertextuality describes the transpositions that allow different semiological registers to engage one another. Kristeva's earliest characterizations of intertextualityfor example, "in the space of a text several utterances, taken from other texts, intersect and neutralize each other"associate it with the process of literary allusion. In Revolution of Poetic Language (1974), however, a much stronger accent falls on the dynamics of transpositionthat is, the unstable process whereby differently realized texts collide in, say, a noveland she goes out of her way to disassociate intertextuality from the "study of sources." Because intertextuality is identified in Revolution as a third primary process (primary processes were Freud's list of psychic activities that effect the form and content of dreams), it is equally clear that transposition is designed to give the analyst access to the permutation of subject positions undergone in the production of a work. Kristeva's emphasis on textual interactivity underscores the interdisciplinary character of the text paradigm. No doubt because her mentor, Barthes, drew heavily on Hjelmslev's substance in his influential studies of fashion, where clothing is photographed, written about, and worn, Kristeva's use of intertexuality deliberately engages the forms of textuality that arise both in different sign systems and in different disciplines. Not surprisingly, therefore, music and painting have mattered deeply to Kristeva's thinking about literature.

A final conceptual innovation must be mentioned. Throughout the late 1960s and early 1970s Kristeva appealed to a distinction between the "pheno-text" and the "geno-text." Obviously modeled on the discourse of genetics (such as phenotype and genotype), this distinction was not about restoring the work's "organic" character. Instead, it sought to stress the continuum of effects that passed between the formation of the speaking subject and the works produced by him or her. In Revolution, this distinction is tied to one between the semiotic and the symbolic, and Kristeva uses it to analyze how the subject's relation to the maternal body and the social order manifests itself in the form and content of a poem. In designating different levels of the text, the pheno-text and geno-text serve to give the textual paradigm access to a field of literary production that reaches well beyond the poem without, however, renouncing any claim on its formal detail. In providing the analyst with the conceptual means by which to track the transposition of the semiotic into the symbolic, the pheno-text/geno-text distinction gives intertexuality its deep structure. In doing so it makes the process of transposition central to Kristeva's theory of the text, a theory that, among other things, calls the concept of the literary tradition deeply into question.

Roland Barthes: Pleasure of the Text

As Tel Quel 's "spiritual advisor," Roland Barthes (19151980) had enormous influence on the fate of the text. Although he often deferred to the theoretical rigor of others, he was unquestionably the text's most articulate and tenacious cultural ambassador. Like Kristeva he was keen to extrapolate the literary implications of the semiological text, and for this reasonnot to mention the largely literary cast of the American reception of textualityhis studies S/Z and The Pleasure of the Text still define for many in the Anglophone world what the second text is. This reputation is by no means undeserved. It does, however, tend to obscure the permutations undergone by Barthes's text. In S/Z (a textual analysis of Balzac's Sarrazine [1830]), for example, Barthes deploys a straightforwardly etymological notion of the text by identifying five codes that, in his account of the story, are "woven together" in its narration. Although the strong suggestion made by the study is that this approach is warranted by its pedagogical value (and Barthes's skills here are legendary), it is clear that Barthes is reading the narrative in a deliberately textual manner. That is, he is constructing the means by which the story produces the possibility of its meanings, including, it should be added, the intensely queer motif of the sexual undecidability around which the narration winds and unwinds. This approach, also exemplified in numerous essays of the period, does at a certain point succumb to the affective charge it channels, resulting in the publication of The Pleasure of the Text (1973), where the figure of weaving, while not giving way entirely, recedes in importance. In its place appears a theme first programmatically identified in his groundbreaking essay from 1971, "From Work to Text": the theme of pleasure, later set off against its more strictly Lacanian double, jouissance.

As part of Barthes's professional trajectory from semiotics to semioclasm ("sign breaking" or the defiling of the sacred status of signs), this shift clearly registers the impact of Kristeva (and to a lesser extent, Derrida) on his writing. Indeed, in engaging the theme of pleasure Barthes openly weaves into his text the problem of the body and its drives. Although struck by Kristeva's semiotics, Barthes rechannels pleasure toward the practice of the reader, that is, the highly mediated encounter between the absent body of the writer and the present, indeed attentive, body of the critic/theorist. Drawing on Blanchot's neutered account of literary space, Barthes reframes this encounter in the distinctly queer mood of promiscuous anonymity, making the textual paradigm accommodate a distinctly sexual, indeed homo-textual, relationality.

This attention to the reader's body and its practices (what the body does when it reads) finds perhaps its highest expression in Barthes's critique of the literary object, the work. Not content to stress the existential aspect of one's practice, Barthes links such practice to the social reproduction of the literary institution, arguing that its organizing conceit, the concept of a commodity laden with values deposited there by a genius, in short the literary work, is not only an ideological confection of that institution, but one being deployed in a rear-guard action against challenges being mounted against it from within a heterogeneous field of writings. Here, the methodological field of the text serves both to frame the literary institution, to account for its reproductivity, while also establishing how one might read from the inside out, that is, with an eye toward grasping how reading is also always an engagement with its social and psychic conditions. In thus calling for a paradigm shift from the work to the text, Barthes is not only echoing Derrida's call for the end of the book in historical terms, but is situating the text itself as the context for a transformation of intellectual power in the West, one that in demythologizing some of its most cherished ideas, challenges the West's ability to define and thereby legitimate its cultural values. In this sense the text is not itself an idea.

Textual Analysis outside Literary Studies

The specific terms in which the integrity of the literary object was questioned by the semiological text helped to catalyze discussion about objects in other disciplines. Kristeva's interest in painting and music has already been remarked. The most concerted effort to make the textual paradigm matter outside literary studies, however, was in cinema studies, where in the course of the 1970s "textual analysis" came to be synonymous with a rigorous psychoanalytically and/or philosophically inflected neoformalism. This development had strong immediate repercussions outside France, notably in Britain, where many of the writers affiliated with the journal Screen saw themselves as contributing to the "textual analysis" initiative. In France, the figures typically associated with elaborating the cinematic text would include Christian Metz, Marie-Claire Ropars-Wuilleumier, Raymond Bellour, Michel Marie, and Thierry Kuntzel. That each is quite distinctive does not deny that, taken as a whole, they represent a concerted effort to displace the filmographic or humanistic object of cinema studies by bringing to bear upon the institutional consensus sustaining it all the questions animated in the works of Derrida, Kristeva, and Barthes.

Because the sound track figured centrally as one of the "codes" to weave into the textual analysis of film, music (one of several components of the sound track), and more specifically musicology, also became a site for the elaboration of the semiological text. Pitched against musicological structuralism (of the sort embodied in the work of Jean-Jacques Nattiez), the textual analysis of music sought to push away from the concerns of compositional syntax, and toward music's performativity, especially its interaction with the array of practices legitimated by post-Cagean aesthetics, notably of course dance and experimental theater. While it is certainly true that the textual analysis of music has never had the sort of impact enjoyed by cinema studies, the writings of Daniel Charles and Ivanka Stoïanova have had influence. Moreover, precisely because of its emergence in musicology the textual paradigm has in significant ways secured its status as a uniquely powerful model of interdisciplinary and inter-media critical analysis. Indeed, textuality as a quality attributable to a wide variety of cultural practices derives its analytical force from the disciplinary dissemination both latent within the paradigm and materialized in its historical development.

The Global Social Text

Derrida, Kristeva, and Sollers were all still writing. Barthes died in 1980. Of the "textual survivors," none has assumed Barthes's ambassadorial responsibilities. In that sense the hour of the text may have passed. However, precisely because the semiological text posed the question of the literary, indeed the cultural, institution, thereby challenging the very logic of disciplinary reason and the ethnocentrism supporting it, the text retains what Benjamin called a "weak Messianic charge." This utopian and necessarily metacritical residue is nowhere more evident than in Gayatri Spivak's concept of "text-ility." Deftly picking up the etymological thread of the semiological text as a weaving, Spivak, in the controversial A Critique of Post-Colonial Reason (1999), deploys "text-ility" as the conceptual means by which to think the making and unmaking of the global social text. Specifically, she attempts to articulate the geopolitics of textile production in "the South," the multicultural fashion system supported in sectors of postcolonialism, and the "traveling theories" (a term derived from Edward Said's essay by that name) of largely Western academic intellectuals. Unashamed of her debts to Barthes and especially Derrida, Spivak makes it clear that in important ways the theory of the text, especially as it supplements itself, remains unfinished. At the very least she reminds us emphatically of what the text has always asked that we make of it: the theoretical and practical loom of the not there, the not yetperhaps even the undefinable.

See also Literary Criticism ; Literary History ; Literature .


Barthes, Roland. Image, Music, Text. Edited and translated by Stephen Heath. New York: Hill and Wang, 1977.

. The Pleasure of the Text. Translated by Richard Miller. New York: Hill and Wang, 1975. Originally published in French, 1973.

. S/Z. Translated by Richard Miller. New York: Hill and Wang, 1974. Originally published in French, 1970.

Benjamin, Walter. "On the Image of Proust." In Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings, 4 vols., edited by Marcus Bullock et al. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press (Belknap), 19962003. Vol 2 (1999), 237247. Originally published in German, 1929.

Blanchot, Maurice. The Book To Come. Translated by Charlotte Mendell. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2003. Originally published in French, 1959.

Charles, Daniel. "La musique et l'écriture." Musique en jeu 13 (1973): 313.

Derrida, Jacques. Of Grammatology. Translated by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976. Originally published in French, 1967.

. Writing and Difference. Translated by Alan Bass. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978. Originally published in French, 1967.

Ducrot, Oswald and Tzvetan Todorov. Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Sciences of Language. Translated by Carolyn Porter. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1979. Originally published in French, 1972.

Jameson, Fredric. "The Ideology of the Text." In The Ideologies of Theory: Essays 197186. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1988. Vol. 1, 1771.

Kristeva, Julia. Desire in Language: A Semiotic Approach to Literature and Art. Edited by Leon Roudiez. New York: Columbia University Press, 1980. Originally published in French, 19691979.

. Revolution in Poetic Language. Translated by Margaret Waller. New York: Columbia University Press, 1984. Originally published in French, 1974.

Metz, Christian. Language and Cinema. Translated by Donna Jean Umiker-Sebeok. The Hague: Mouton, 1974. Originally published in French, 1971.

Mowitt, John. Text: The Genealogy of an Antidisciplinary Object. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1992.

Ropars-Wuilleumier, Marie-Claire. Le texte divisée. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1981.

Said, Edward. "The Problem of Textuality: Two Exemplary Positions." Critical Inquiry 4, no. 4 (summer 1978): 673714.

Sollers, Philippe. Logiques. Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1968.

Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. A Critique of Postcolonial Reason: Toward a History of the Vanishing Present. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1999.

Stoïanova, Ivanka. Geste, Texte, Musique. Paris: Union Générale d'Éditions, 1978.

The Tel Quel Reader. Edited by Patrick ffrench and Roland-François Lack. London: Routledge, 1998.

John Mowitt