The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms - Ross Murfin 2018


Text: From the Latin “to weave,” a term commonly used to refer to a written work or passage thereof. When used in this manner, text may be applied to objects ranging from a poem or book to a biblical passage or written transcript of an oral interview. Other critics include nonwritten material, such as images or music, in the designation text, as long as that material has been isolated for analysis.

In the 1960s, structuralist critics took issue with the traditional view of literary compositions as authoritative, personalized works constructed by individual, purposeful authors who orchestrated both form and meaning. Maintaining that all literature is subject to a set of codes, they identified literary compositions as texts, the essentially impersonal products of a social institution they called écriture (writing). They also argued for interpretation of texts based on an impersonal lecture (reading) involving awareness of how the linguistic system functions and reference to conventions and rules governing understanding of the text.

Roland Barthes, a French theorist who transitioned from structuralism to poststructuralism, distinguished text from work in a different way, characterizing a text as open and a work as closed in his essay “De l’oeuvre au texte” (“From Work to Text”) (1971). According to Barthes, who described the work as “a fragment of substance” and the text as “a methodological field,” works are bounded entities, conventionally classified in genres, with a determinable and determinate meaning, whereas texts are paradoxical, resist classification, and defer and multiply meaning; works are thus experienced as objects of consumption, texts as activities of production that call for reader collaboration. In S/Z (1970), Barthes divided texts into two categories: lisible (readerly) and scriptible (writerly). Texts that are lisible depend more heavily on convention, making their interpretation easier and more predictable. Texts that are scriptible are generally experimental, flouting or seriously modifying traditional rules — indeed to the point of becoming illisible, or unreaderly. Ultimately, texts that are lisible restrict reader participation more than those that are scriptible, which encourage or even demand cocreative involvement and effort.

Like structuralist critics, poststructuralists have rejected the traditional concept of the work in favor of the impersonal text. Unlike structuralists, however, they deny the possibility of determinable and determinate meaning, viewing the text as an endless chain of signifiers with no fixed meaning. Furthermore, they treat texts as “intertexts,” interconnected, crisscrossed strands within language, an infinitely larger text in which individual texts are inscribed and read. Indeed, they even see the world itself — the network of cultural discourses in which we live and think — as a text, a view perhaps most famously expressed by French deconstructive theorist Jacques Derrida, who declared in De la grammatologie (Of Grammatology) (1967) that “there is nothing outside the text.” Some poststructuralists, however, have rejected the term text in favor of discourse, which they apply broadly to any verbal structure, whether literary or not.