Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Text as fuel for Whatever fire you throw it in

This is an essay I turned in for a college final. It will maybe get a good grade, mainly because this teacher grades most graciously. It is written to a professor having spent the whole quarter discussing the definition and function of literature, so it's referencing a lot of theory. I think the general point is clear though, and slightly controversial, so see what you make of it and drop me a note of how you disagree. This is also an example of how much my essay writing sucks. It's barely passable for this class, but the structure and clarity are not professional.

Literature can be any written, or just printed work, because any sort of printed material can be defined as literature under specific theories. There are just so many diverse opinions about literature that somebody can find meaning in things others overlook. The back of my dry erase marker board cleaner bottle says this:

Directions: Erase marks before
applying cleaner. Spray surface.
Wipe with soft cloth

Are these intellectually, philosophically meaningless industrial directions, or can they be a satisfyingly ambiguous poem? The physical placement of those words matter; are they on a bottle or in a poetry book? The readers receptivity matters, and their education. The social institutions of publishing and taste determine whether this 'poem' comes to view at all. The original anonymous Message Stor employee who authored the directions doe not matter, but the person who prints it as a poem becomes its author, contributing the aesthetic vision; or at least they are the one who takes the effort to bring this passage into an existing aesthetic community.

Some other people, existing in as contemporaries to the person who would remix cleaner directions as poetry, are not at all a part of that community of poetic appreciation, and will give no meaning-valuation to the poem if they saw it. This other person belongs to a separate community which has no vocabulary or consciousness of textual interpretation or the function of poetry. This person is watching a YouTube video: the techno remix of the weeping Brittney Spears fan saying 'Leave Brittney alone!' This watcher is enjoying the work of an author who added music and blinking colors to clips of the original speaker's rant to produce a result that cruelly mocks the original author and is simultaneously a hilarious pop-culture social commentary. Now both the YouTube watcher and the found poetry person are bringing knowledge external to the text in order to appreciate the construct. So arguments for 'anything as literature' require the reader to contribute much of the meaning, and this can operate without the participants awareness.

A more traditional definition of literature makes it out to be only the most exemplary of a societies texts; the texts that are bold, unique, unparalleled in communicating (with artistry) the values and ideals of that culture. Such texts function by telling the reader the content more than requiring the reader to provide meaning. In other words, the text contains an internal logical pattern of conceptual units rather than the reader taking the textual elements as referents to external structures. Traditional texts where generally designed this way, by authors for readers, both agreeing that this is how the text should function. The works that last (having to be repeatedly recommended across generations) have a deep complexity and/or representational authenticity new generations recognize. With this definition of literature there must be a category for what it excludes; hack writing or pulp fiction. These texts are derivative, sensationalist without skill or artistic quality. But such unlauded texts remain in demand alongside 'better' ones, both the antique and newly written pulp. Is this only because there is such a shortage of literary murder-mystery detective novels?

Since both high and lowly rated texts have popular appeal, it is hard for me to think there is much validity to any one persons definition of literature, particularity my own. It becomes a preference based on specific goals. There are just too many systems of reasoning and too many different reasons people read and comment on texts. Literature is just communication people value. I personally find myself valuing texts for wildly conflicting reasons. While I could talk about the particulars of why I read the Bible, and also a comic strip about a girl who gets turned into a zebra demon, I think the real distinction between definitions of literature is that exclusive ones seek to find a unifying element that solves the question permanently, and inclusive definitions are based around the lack of knowledge and lack of fixed points of reference. By points of reference I mean things like our society no longer evaluating things on the basis of their compatibility to Biblical teaching, or Marxist doctrine, or a particular academic authority. (Nor is there any agreement on an established aesthetic quality.) I think this is all right, because instead of reflecting some sort of group unity, it is based on the natural lack of agreement people have.

There are many reasons for writing and reading things, thus people create their reasons why they do so. What is key is that the defense of personal selection comes AFTER enjoying those selections. Or, in a more serious academic context where enjoyment may not be a highly valued quality, it is a logical and/or ideological constancy that predates building a theory. Interestingly, only in specific contexts do people produce defenses for their choices:

academic settings where the construction, workings and effects of textual communication are studied.
cultural debates considering the moral fitness of texts.
publishing industry discussions of texts as business opportunities.
These three settings are occasions where texts are used in conjunction with some other purpose. The people purchasing commercial fiction or writing texts aren't usually doing so according to a theoretical framework, nor are they required to defend them. Instead there is a desire to consume (or produce) a particular sort of construct, and if doing so necessitates an explanation or defense, a person will get one.

Texts are as disparate as the stars in the sky. All quite different, in placement, of various types but little of that is important to people who look up at the night sky. Most people just enjoy the lights, or perhaps use them for navigation. Its the same for books. People study and categorize texts, or just read them without any formal purpose; everyone according to the use they will put the text to.

Any use can be fitting, effective within that persons personal and cultural situation. A person may be interested in the history of some time and place, so the concerns of that place and the beliefs and experience of the author will be useful in understanding a text produced then. After all, people create texts for their own reasons and since the text survived it must have some relevancy or merit. If the persons use is to illustrate the state of society, then a text can be analyzed for a particular viewpoint; gender, race, economic theory. Text itself is just fodder for where ever a persons mind wants to go. Like the trees much text gets printed on, texts get ground up or cut apart and shaped into many uses. The original tree does have an effect on the product, just as the text can only say so much and no further. Wood quality, strength, biological structure (thus color and sound), limit what the results can be. Texts, as trees grow according to their own biology of existence, wild according to the weather, or carefully planted and pruned ones. What is done later with their lumber does not always follow the occasion wherein they where originally formed.

Grady Houger ~ 1184 words.

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