John Bryant: The Fluid Text

I read The Fluid Text: A Theory of Revision and Editing for Book and Screen by John Bryant a little while ago and figured I would jot a few notes down before I had to return it to the library.

Simply put, a fluid text is any literary work that exists in more than one version. It is ‘fluid’ because the versions flow from one to another. Truth be told, all works—because of the nature of texts and creativity—are fluid texts. Not only is this fluidity the inherent condition of any written document; it is inherent in the phenomenon of writing itself. That is, writing is fundamentally an arbitrary hence unstable hence variable approximation of thought. Moreover, we revise words to make them more closely approximate our thoughts, which in tern evolve as we write. (1)

True point:

The very nature of writing, the creative process, and shifting intentionality, as well as the powerful social forces that occasion translation, adaptation, and censorship among readers—in short, the facts of revision, publication, and reception—urge us to recognize that the only ‘definitive text’ is a multiplicity of texts, or rather, the fluid text. (2)

Ok, so this point would have totally worked with my thesis and tying into Roland Barthes’ multiplicity of texts, but I pretty much already had my thesis by the time I read this. Still, a little confirmation is nice—nope, you cannot stop reading into it, and you cannot read too much into it. 

modern approaches to literature—formalism, poststructuralism, new historicism—have removed creative process, intentionality, and (most famously) authorship itself from the playing fields of interpretation. If texts cohere, deconstruct, or reveal the imprint of ideology, they do so, according to current theory, because of the nature of signification or of a reader’s response or of a culture’s ‘political unconsciousness,’ not through the conscious agency of an individual writer. It is, of course, a truism that we cannot retrieve the creative process, nor, according to the ‘intentional fallacy,’ can we use some magically derived sense of a writer’s intentions as a validation of or substitute for an interpretation of a text. […] Of course, intentions exist; they are an unalienable element in letters, love, and law, and once announced or perceived in some way, they tend to be the only topic of discussion.” (8)

I’m not so sure I would distance myself away from intentionality as Bryant says that ‘current theory’ does, but I do agree that there is no certain way we can prove intentions and we cannot invalidate what the reader brings through their own experiences. 

Despite efforts in the past decades to make textual fluidity more accessible in the graduate schools if not among the general public, fluid texts have not been analyzed much as fluid texts because scholarly editions (the repositories of textual fluidity) tend to showcase ‘clear reading’ texts; the evidence of revision is invariably marginalized in the editorial notes and apparatus. (9)

The realities of the fluid text strongly argue for a resurrection of the writer in our critical thinking, and for a form of historicism that can accommodate creative process and the forces that drive textual fluidity. This resurrection is really a transmigration, for if current theory has buried the Author, we need more fully to acknowledge the advent of the Writer. Author is a title conferred, late or soon, upon an individual whose writings have circulated to such an extent that the culture concedes and confers upon it a reputation, and while many have achieved this status in greater or lesser degree, the title itself is an acknowledgement of status and ‘authority.’ But whereas an ‘author’ appears only at the moment of cultural recognition, a ‘writer’ is simply one who writes and is born at the moment of his or her act of writing, not through the conferring of the status of social recognition. An author is a social construct; a writer is one who performs a human process. (11)

Now what G. Thomas Tanselle notes is fantastic:

Tanselle’s perspective, as elaborated most concisely in his Rationale of Textual Criticism, begins with the understanding that language, apart from the act of writing, is intangible. This is indisputable when we consider that words first emerge in mind (not on paper) out of a struggle to give expression to feeling and thought before they are subvocalized, or uttered aloud in physical sound, or written down in some material form. The act of writing is the tangible extension of a complex process of mental acts that begins with vague gropings at ideas or expressions and invariably includes recursive sessions of preliminary scribbling, then more thinking based on the scribbling, then more writing, and so on until the literary work finally manifests itself in a material form that the writer might say is finished. But even in this finished state, it may be argued (and both Tanselle and McGann do) that the completed product (a document, or written text) does not put an end to the writer’s mental act regarding that work, nor can it even be said that this particular written text is a fair approximation of what the writer would like to say at that particular moment of so-called completion. The question arises, then, where exactly does a literary work of art exist. On the page or in the mind, in the written product or the mental process?

The answer, of course, is that it exists in both realms, and this may be one source of literature’s uncanny ability to use physical objects (words) to move writer and reader toward a shared mental state and transcendence of the physical. But more specifically this dual ontology, according to Tanselle, is the reason that the analysis of intentions as a historicist method is necessary of constructing literary works. To clarify, we may follow Tanselle’s familiar definitions of three literary states of being: work, text, and document. A work is the set of intentions, desires, and visions existing in the author’s mind that together constitute the author’s conception of the literary work of art. As such, a work has no tangible presence, but this is not to say that it is not real. (30-1)

[…] In Tanselle’s words, a writer’s ‘desires have just as much historical reality as do the texts that were finally published’ (Rationale, 76), and it is the text of this historically real but necessarily speculative and conceptualized work the the intentionalist textual scholar attempts to locate. Here, text denotes the projected wording not necessarily the actual words an author intends.

[…] Because it is intentional, the text of work is intangible, but we have a fair chance of knowing this text because it is physically manifested in documents. A document can be a single manuscript, a set of proofs, or a copy of a first or subsequent edition; it is any material form in which the text of a work appears. (31)

Now this idea that a text can exist in many ways—that I can work with. This actually discusses a conversation I had with a friend about copyright and authorship rights and intentions. Well… we’re both right?

For McGann, text is not the manifestation of a ‘conceived Work,’ but an ‘event.’ That is, the reality of a text is located not in its status as a thing but as an action, or rather transaction, between words and readers. Moreover, poems do not simply transmit messages. Instead, as ‘forms of transmissive interaction’ or ‘autopoiesis,’ they act as ‘sef generating feedback systems.’ Texts are activated when readers read them, but once read and reread, they strike back at readers and transform them. Taking this poetics deeper in Social Values and Poetic Acts, McGann defines poems as a functional ‘set of social practices.’ As a form of knowledge, they do not tell the truth; rather, they ‘induce reality and the truth’ by engaging us in a self-conscious process of interaction with the ‘incommensurate’ nature of experience itself. By this, McGann means that poetry, like any form of discourse, brings us to see gaps between ourselves and the past. […] The reality of a text, then, is not in its relation to intentions and the text-object ‘things’ that come to us as representations of intention, but rather in its relation to the ‘eventness’ of texts, or the social actions that the text-object induces in readers. (48-9)

This bit is just awesome. It’s mind blowing, in fact, because my good friend Kelli once suggested to me that “art is memory because while there is an object presented, it’s our impression of the object that we take from it. And that becomes part of our memory. In a sense… we remember the experience we remember the colors and shapes and style and that experience becomes the work of art.

 The experience becomes memory.

artwork —-> experience/impression ——> memory" (I bolded for emphasis). 

Without even reading this book, Kelli put in much simpler terms how art acts with memory and experience. Art is an event—this blew my mind a month or two ago when she suggested it, and still blows my mind now. 

Texts are manifestations of the work of a culture over time. They are the emergent physical embodiments of moments in that working, and their critical relevance, for our purposes here, is not, oddly enough, solely in the meaning of those individual textual embodiments, but in their difference. Indeed, we can go so far as to say that if a culture is defined by the work it performs, then the energy of that working can be measured by the distance traveled between the products of the working. To come to the point, the cultural meaning of a fluid text is in the pressure that results in changes made in one text to create another and the degree of difference, or the distance, between the two texts. Thus, a poetics of the fluid text is a poetics of revision, whether that change is induced by an individual writer, a social demand, or as is often the case, a combination of the two.

What makes a fluid text fluid is its fluidity. This tautology is meant to stress an obvious point easily missed: When we read a fluid text, we are comparing it to versions of a text, which is to say we are reading the differences between the two versions, which is to say we are reading distance traveled, difference, and change. We are reading the energy of a culture that makes the change, an energy that has measurable meaning in our analysis of culture. (62-3)

Didn’t think that all that happened when you read, did ya? Me neither. 

I’ll end with how Bryant ends his section called “The Pleasures of the Fluid Text”:

The past does not frighten me. Its scents emerge when, holding a text that is itself an object from the past, I activate its words by reading them, and in reading, give them a present flavor distinct from flavorings created by other readers around me now, or by previous generations of readers, or even the originating writer. An awareness of the distance between our sense of the text that is only a reflection of me and that of the text that is not me naturally comes as we read. We might be of a temperament to deny this distance and refuse to read it, and we may read as if with blinders against the inherent historicism of a text, as if the text were all me and only me. But this willful act of blindness does not erase the realities of genesis and revision, of authorship and cultural pressure, that have material presence if only we, as editors, choose to offer them to readers. Pleasurable or not, to read is to read historically. (139-140)

Culture is a text we collectively revise; it is a fluid text. If we are to learn to read a culture, we must learn how this text is written down, whose words combine to convey the text, and how to read historically. […] Our culture is a fluid text, but we want to read it as a fixed thing, never seeking to find the dynamics of its changing but always to discover the authority of its imagined fixity, its nonexistent past purity. The strict constructionist makes present judgement upon the wisdom of a past moment and intention, and fails to recognize that the past, too, is a fluid text that we revise as we desire, as we must. Culture flows as history flows as text flows. 

We can deny fluidity in culture and text, or celebrate it for its own sake, but these conservative and relativist poses have little social or aesthetic utility. Fluidity is a condition we need to engage directly. We cannot cure the condition, for fluidity is not a disease and requires no cure. Rather, our obligation is to understand the causes and currents of fluidity. And find out what it means. (174)