Feeling the texture of text

Cross-stitched book sculpture by Lauren DiCioccio

The word text and the word textile have a shared Latin origin. This is readily apparent, but still it begs the question: What do texts have to do with textiles?

The word text comes to us from the Latin textus (via the Old French texte). In Classical Latin, textus referred to the construction of a linguistic work; in Medieval Latin, it had come to refer to written treatises or, more specifically, Scripture. The term textus, in turn, came from the word texō, meaning “I weave.” Textile, then, refers to a literal weaving of cloth and other materials, whereas text refers to a metaphorical weaving. Also related is the word texture, which refers to the quality of a weaving—I can talk about the texture of an argument or the texture of a tapestry.

But a text is never really just a metaphorical weaving. It is, always, also, a literal weaving of material and idea. We don’t always seem to appreciate this. For instance, we likely consider two different copies of a book to have the same text, even if they are different editions. However, a text must be written—otherwise it would just be a series of words or an idea. Therefore, the writtenness of a text must have something to do with its meaning.

This was the insight behind the Texts and Textiles conference in 2012 at the Centre for Material Texts at Cambridge. (Wish I could have gone!) This conference celebrates the meaning that materials contribute to texts (as, I must meantion, does the Document Academy on an ongoing basis, for those who are interested).

Still, our tendency to ignore the material side of texts is unignorable and worth exploring.

I’m not sure the extent to which this aspect of our view of texts is modern or new, but if it is, then the work of Michael Heim may shed some insight on the matter. In his book Electric Language: A Philosophical Study of Word Processing, first published in 1987, Heim writes:

In the psychic framework of word processing, text is increasingly experienced as data. … As the writer or reader now controls the search process through a logically determined program, certain random and intuitive kinds of reading and consulting will no longer be possible in referencing procedures. … What one accesses on line will tend to be precisely what one is looking for—always filtered in advance by the terms of Boolean logic.

Ron Day, in his book Indexing It All, makes similar observations: He discusses how the concept of document has been eviscerated and fragmented as the modern concept of information.

In essence, the motto of information systems seems to go: “If you want to be more successful in giving people what they ask for, then limit what they can ask for.” Soon people come to ask for only what they know they can get… and this provides the grounding for two big information-age issues we’re facing today: filter bubbles and fake news. Overcoming these phenomena, it seems to me, requires that we remember how to feel the texture of text.

Scriptum est

Time and the written word have a curious relationship. In order to read something, we must have the written word at hand in the present, but the words must have been written in the past.

This might occur to you when you’re reading a historical document, say, or when you happen across one of your old notebooks. But it characterizes every interaction with the written word that we ever come across. Even online—though the temporal gap is certainly closing in some online forums; though they might purport to be “live,” there is still some delay. And generally, we don’t notice it. This was the theme of an article I wrote in 2016, “Documents and Time,” but there’s much more richness to plumb.

Lately I’ve been reading Vesa Suominen‘s book About and On Behalf of Scriptum Est, which is a philosophical book about librarianship. Suominen criticizes the majority viewpoint that libraries trade in “information,” arguing instead that libraries deal in documents. Of course, Suominen is not alone; there is a growing constituency of scholars championing the document perspective. But Suominen takes this further, proposing a new concept: scriptum est.

Scriptum est is Latin for “it is written.” As Suominen explains, the adoption of this term is metaphorical, coming from the Bible, where the phrase “it is written” refers to something divinely ordained. That is, it couldn’t have not been written. We aren’t meant to interpret the concept scriptum est as a divine one, however; Suominen simply wishes to emphasize that everything that has been written has been written. The concept seems to constellate several things: the past in which the writing was written, the act of writing, the state of this action being completed and the writing’s existence in the presence. As Suominen says:

The very notion of scriptum est particularly serves my concept of the library as a place where there are books that always represent the past.

Regardless of whether the concept of scriptum est is found to be useful in other ways, this aspect of the concept is quite interesting. It’s not that something was written; rather, it is written. Writing is, befuddlingly, an anachronism!

Being, within and without literacy

"Monk by the Sea," by Caspar David Friedrich
“Monk by the Sea,” by Caspar David Friedrich

If you’re reading this, presumably you’re literate. We it for granted: being literate, seeing things and knowing what they say, reading for pleasure as much as for taking part in society. According to Walter Ong, being literate also influences the way we organize our thoughts and communicate, even orally. And we rarely question those conditions that most closely define us.

Kafka on the Shore, like most of Haruki Murakami‘s work, is a slipstream novel that melds fantasy and reality, wakefulness and dreaming. Being literate is one of the recurring themes of the book, but not one that has been much discussed. After all, there’s so much to this book: the Oedipus complex, selfhood, coming of age…

In the story, the main character, Kafka Tamura, loves books. On his fifteenth birthday, he runs away from home, and he ends up taking shelter at a library, where he spends his days reading. In stark contrast to Kafka is another character, Nakata, who suffered a mysterious accident as a child and now “is not very bright,” as he says, to the extent that he can no longer read. (But he can talk with cats.)

Nakata’s experience throughout the novel shows how hard it can be to get by in the world when you can’t read. As Nakata tells one of his cat companions, “In the human world if you can’t read or write you’re considered dumb.” Being illiterate in a literate person’s world extends far beyond simply not being able to read—which would be bad enough. (Take a look around you right now and see how many examples of written language you can see without moving.) But what’s more, literacy changes our speech, too. As Nakata says, “If you can’t read TV doesn’t make much sense. Sometimes I listen to the radio, but the words there are also too fast, and it tires me out.

Later in the book, Kafka has his own brush with illiteracy. In a dreamlike state, Kafka finds himself in a mysterious room:

As I gaze at the vacant, birdless scene outside, I suddenly want to read a book—any book. As long as it’s shaped like a book and has printing, it’s fine by me. I just want to hold a book in my hands, turn the pages, scan the words with my eyes. Only one problem—there isn’t a book in sight. In fact, it’s like printing hasn’t been invented here. I quickly look around the room, and sure enough, there’s nothing at all with any writing on it.

Given how much writing permeates our culture, how much it’s become part of us, it must be very jarring indeed to suddenly find oneself in a place where there is no writing. In this alternate world, Kafka soon discovers that libraries are very different:

“The library?” She shakes her head.

“No… There’s a library far away, but not here.”

“There’s a library?”

“Yes, but there aren’t any books in it.”

“If there aren’t any books, then what is there?”

She tilts her head but doesn’t respond. Again my question’s taken a wrong turn and vanished.

“Have you ever been there?”

“A long time ago,” she says.

“But it’s not for reading books?” She nods. “There aren’t any books there.”

Soon enough, Kafka winds up in that library. And indeed, there is “not a book in sight.”

What we come to understand is that this is a world of direct experience, instead of one of conceptualizing things through the written word. Rather, as Kafka’s interlocutor explains:

The most important thing about life here is that people let themselves be absorbed into things. As long as you do that, there won’t be any problems. … It’s like when you’re in the forest, you become a seamless part of it. When you’re in the rain, you’re a part of the rain. When you’re in the morning, you’re a seamless part of the morning. When you’re with me, you become a part of me.

Here the line between text and being is blurred. And though we generally equate “fiction” with “fake,” the real world is quite like this, too.

It reminds me of the wonderful book by Yun Lee Too, The Idea of the Library in the Ancient World. This book challenges our assumption that books make a library; rather, the library primarily constitutes people working together in a certain way. For instance, Too describes how certain educated people in Antiquity were considered to be “breathing libraries.” That is, texts can be not only in the form of writing, but also in the form of people who embody them. In other words, these people have “let themselves be absorbed” into the books.