The phenomenology of text
September 18, 2008 7:21 AM   Subscribe

The phenomenology / ontology of text: has anyone examined this issue directly in philosophical, literary and/or critical terms?

I am interested in the experience and perception of text, both within readership and on an abstract (more holistic level perhaps) as the archetypical mediator and virtual-archive of human culture. I wish to explore it via its mediums (e.g. book, computer screen), its modes (e.g. semiotics, translation) and its means (e.g. poetry, fiction, encryption).

I came at this problem through Heidegger (most specifically in his re-appropriation of the term 'techné'), looking at text as a technology.

I have since come upon the writings of D.C. Greetham and a couple of other bits and pieces.

I feel that this is an area not much covered by the critical fields, especially in these times of ever encompassing digital/web-based mediums. I'm interested in following through some of this to a PhD proposal.

What paths should I be taking?

Your help, as always, is much appreciated.
posted by 0bvious to Writing & Language (26 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
Umberto Eco, perhaps?
posted by Sys Rq at 7:36 AM on September 18, 2008

Hmmmmm... IMHO a lot of this kind of area has (sort of) covered by Derrida, also slightly off topic I know, but I would also say that this is kind of a big subject for a PhD and you're going to need to narrrow the focus a bit (as I'm sure you're aware), this is pretty normal though, a lot of PhD proposals start out this way.
posted by Chairboy at 8:03 AM on September 18, 2008

mehhhh... you did say 'some of this' - sorry for the off topic ramble.
posted by Chairboy at 8:04 AM on September 18, 2008

Do you have access to any school libraries and/or journal archives? Sociolinguistics, psycholinguistics (esp. early forays into the field), and cognitive science deal with this directly.
posted by iamkimiam at 8:14 AM on September 18, 2008

Best answer: Marshall McLuhan's work, specifically the Gutenberg galaxy: the making of typographic man (University of Toronto Press, 1962) might be of interest to you.
posted by k8lin at 8:21 AM on September 18, 2008

Response by poster: Although it looks interesting, psycholinguistics is probably not quite the right area of study. I think my PhD will focus on text as a technology, i.e. once text is re-aligned with its technological description what effect does this have on its phenomenological features. How do/have the changes in the technologies of text altered our perceptions?

[If you are interested, there is a tiny snippet from my MA thesis linked in my profile that examines the techné of text further. It might clear up my question a bit.]
posted by 0bvious at 8:27 AM on September 18, 2008

Best answer: You might also look at Wolfgang Iser's work on reader response theory.
posted by mattbucher at 8:29 AM on September 18, 2008 [1 favorite]

Best answer: It's a long time since I've dealt with any of this but isn't this Gaston Bachelard's territory? (See for instance).
posted by tallus at 8:30 AM on September 18, 2008

Response by poster: Mcluhan is the man - kind regards. Has anyone since attempted to directly follow up his work?
posted by 0bvious at 8:31 AM on September 18, 2008

This article may be of interest to you (although it's hard to tell, because your description is rather broad):

Jack Goody and Ian Watt, "The Consequences of Literacy." Comparative Studies in Society and History, Vol. 5, No. 3 (Apr 1963), pp. 304-345.
posted by pluckemin at 8:37 AM on September 18, 2008

I'd second Eco. Especially Kant and the Platypus (about categories and perception, but also about the semotics of text) and Six Walks in a Fictional Wood (about how narratives work, mostly about books though, and not about text on computer screens. Though this distinction seems lost on me).
posted by zpousman at 8:40 AM on September 18, 2008

Best answer: When I read the question, I knew that it was yours, 0bvious.

Now: I guess you could really split your question into two different topics: The perception/analysis of text, and the phenomenology of interacting with text across different mediums.

First, if you're looking at text/language: Have you considered Barthes and Derrida already? Barthes's 'S/Z' and 'Writing Degree Zero' might be a good place to start for a structuralist point of view on language, and Derrida's 'Of Grammatology' and 'Writing/Difference' for a post-structuralist one.

If you're looking at text across mediums, especially on the computer screen and as a follow-up to McLuhan: McKenzie Wark's 'Game Theory' is nice. Although the structure (not necessarily the content) is a little too influenced by Society of the Spectacle to be coherent, he has some analyses of computer/video cames that border on being a phenomenological view.

The key word here is 'New Media': I've been meaning to get this reader, as it's edited by Wendy Hui Kyong Chun, who teaches new media history at Brown's MCM.

Although I'm really interested in new media, it's hard to read new media theory as the field is still new and a lot of adherents seem to like it because it's new. This, in my mind, often leads to deliberate obfuscation and arguments that are convoluted more for the sake of a rhetorical aesthetic, and less about getting.their.point.across.
posted by suedehead at 9:36 AM on September 18, 2008

I recommend the book The Alphabet versus the Goddess. Extremely interesting stuff.
posted by Shebear at 9:41 AM on September 18, 2008

Best answer: My recently completed masters thesis project addressed some of these issues, though more from a new media/interactive/poetic angle. I went down some of these avenues, and maybe they'll be helpful to you. A lot of it you probably already know about, but maybe some of it is new:

Espen Aarseth's Cybertext builds a pretty good taxonomy of current practices in digital literature/poetry/whatever, and he does a good job of putting it all in historical perspective (along with a now-classic takedown of the term "interactive").

One of the small and wonderful things I took away from my BA in Linguistics was Silverstein and Urban's Natural Histories of Discourse, which talks about the concept of entextualization: how a text comes to be, especially in the context of linguistics fieldwork. Related: Elinor Ochs' Transcription as Theory.

Umberto Eco's Search for the Perfect Language has an interesting section about Kircher's, uh, impressionistic "decipherment" of Egyptian hieroglyphics before the discovery of the Rosetta stone. It might be of interest to you, along with a number of discussions regarding "ideal" writing systems (see also isotype, blissymbolics). On the other hand: asemic writing.

Tom Jenning's Annotated History of Character Codes steps through the development of digital text encodings from morse code to ASCII.

Some relevant movements in poetry and art, in case you're not already aware of them: Oulipo (The New Media Reader helpfully collects and translates a number of important Oulipo texts and articles), Lettrism, L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry (here, here, or here). See also: Christian Bök, Jackson Mac Low (also, especially).

I just started reading Loss Pequeño Glazier's Digital Poetics, which is focused around the claim that "one very interesting mission of poetry is to put forward investigations of textuality." It's pretty good so far.

I'm excited to see what else gets posted to this thread!

p.s. McLuhan is not the man... or, at least, he isn't the man in chapter 9 of Understanding Media where he claims that Chinese has a "pictographic and hieroglyphic" writing system ("they approach the animated cartoon"). That claim is untrue, and the conclusions he draws from it are aggravating. I don't know if he later revised that claim or what, but it makes me distrust anything he has to say about writing and literacy.
posted by aparrish at 9:57 AM on September 18, 2008 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I like the fragment of your MA thesis, 0bvious, particularly your focus on the idea of the palimpsest. All edited texts are palimpsests, but Finnegan's Wake is the most deeply palimpsestic text I am aware of, and perhaps it's no coincidence, given your regard for McLuhan, that he loved that book and used the intractable monster as a basis for his exploration of the nature of war.

A recent MetaFilter thread alerted me to the fact that Joyce had a schizophrenic daughter, and I don't think it's much of a leap to conclude that one of Joyce's major projects in writing the Wake must have been to get inside his daughter's broken mind by way of his incomparable mastery of language and the entire Western literary tradition, and then, though he could not heal her, I would say he believed he could redeem her enormous suffering (and his own guilt for his neglect and the circumstances of her childhood) by achieving an apotheosis of her insane language which would illuminate the entire corpus of Western thought and show literature itself the way forward.

And there is a way, it seems to me, that reading a text, as opposed to hearing it read or listening to language in any form, is difficult if not impossible to separate from a common feature of the experience of going insane: suddenly, when you are reading you hear a voice inside your head which is clearly not you--and yet it is-- saying things which are not your thoughts-- and yet they are as soon as they're read. If you are like me, it seems almost as involuntary as the voices a schizophrenic hears as well; I cannot see text in any form without reading it no matter what else I am doing at the time, and it has occasionally made me think I've gone a bit mad.
posted by jamjam at 10:47 AM on September 18, 2008

...Joyce had a schizophrenic daughter...
posted by jamjam at 10:51 AM on September 18, 2008

Response by poster: Some superb avenues to follow here, thank you muchly. And it's nice to know (thanks Suedehead) that my MeFi presence has an essential quality all of its own.

I'm off to do some link clicking.
posted by 0bvious at 11:46 AM on September 18, 2008

Although it looks interesting, psycholinguistics is probably not quite the right area of study. I think my PhD will focus on text as a technology, i.e. once text is re-aligned with its technological description what effect does this have on its phenomenological features.

This is correct; this is not the kind of issue that linguistics, psycholinguistics, or cognitive science deals with. (Unless you can reformulate your question into some kind of empirically/experimentally testable hypothesis, which I'm not seeing.)
posted by advil at 12:44 PM on September 18, 2008

Best answer: I'd definitely suggest taking a look at Lev Manovich's The Language of New Media, particular regarding your question about how changes in the technologies of text have altered our perceptions.

A few other items I can think of are N. Katherine Hayles's Writing Machines, Italo Calvino's essay "Cybernetics and Ghosts" from The Uses of Literature, and the writings of Maurice Blanchot.

Are you familiar with the work of John Cage? You might also find the work of Ann Hamilton, Janet Cardiff, and various other visual artists interesting.
posted by oulipian at 2:04 PM on September 18, 2008 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I should have said 'Finnegan's Wake is the most palimpsestic text I am aware of except for the human genome itself:

Reverse transcriptase makes trouble in other ways as well. The genomes of most organisms are littered with entities known as retroelements. These are a type of genetic parasite — stretches of DNA that (usually) do nothing useful for the cell, and exist simply to make more copies of themselves. (There are many different kinds of genetic parasite: as much as half of the DNA in the human genome is thought to have originated from them.) The way that retroelements proliferate is complicated, and depends on the element in question, for there are many sorts; but one thing they all have in common is that they, too, depend on the activity of reverse transcriptase.

Sometimes, by accident, reverse transcriptase goes to work on a regular piece of messenger RNA, and copies that into DNA. This new piece of DNA may then be incorporated into the genome, giving rise to a new gene — a retrogene.
' [my emphasis]

And as far as that specific text is concerned, consider JBS Haldane's brilliant and prescient (made before the discovery of the genetic code, I believe, though I can't find a reference to it online) epigram 'we are the product not of authorship, but of editing'.
posted by jamjam at 2:26 PM on September 18, 2008

This field use to be caused philology.
posted by bdc34 at 2:34 PM on September 18, 2008

Response by poster: Thanks again...

Jamjam, that is a great metaphor for texts in general (I fear though that getting deeper into that without talking about 'memes' might be difficult.)

On the schizophrenic point, is there a recognised syndrome related to a compulsive engagement with text? I know of the writing equivalent, hypergraphia. The compulsion to constantly have one's mind caught inside text seems more enrapturing, even religious, in notion.
posted by 0bvious at 3:59 PM on September 18, 2008

Response by poster: Ah ha, Hyperlexia
posted by 0bvious at 4:05 PM on September 18, 2008

Best answer: further to suedehead's suggestions on a text/language approach: if you're going to use Barthes, get a grounding in his (structuralist) theory of semiotics through Mythologies and Elements of Semiology, and then go on to his (poststructuralist) theory of the text. "The Death of the Author," "From Work to Text" (both collected in Image Music Text), S/Z, The Pleasure of the Text and lastly his autobiography. though Sade Fourier Loyola is also well worth reading. and a word of caution: Writing Degree Zero is a good read, but it significantly precedes Barthes's work with semiotics and does not sit very well with it.

and I've just started in on phenomenological approaches to literature myself. Maurice Blanchot is very good, and I am pretty sure there is a lot of Heidegger floating around in his work. start with The Space of Literature. and Gadamer is next on that particular reading list. I haven't got to him yet, so I can't say much more than he might be worth looking into.
posted by object-a at 4:15 PM on September 18, 2008

The big name right now in new media phenomenology is Mark B. N. Hansen. You might also find some stuff interesting by the Florida school people, building primarily on Greg Ulmer. Ulmer's work is very influential in Australia & New Zealand.
nthing Derrida. Also, check out the texts and technology program at UCF.
posted by media_itoku at 7:35 AM on September 19, 2008

What you may also want to do is to look up the lists for PhD qualifying or comprehensive exams in textual studies. I did my exam last year in that area and everyone in here is hitting on many of the items on my list (I would link my list, but unfortunately it's not available online). For what you seem to want to do, a good background in textual studies would be invaluable.
posted by pised at 8:00 AM on September 19, 2008

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