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Text/Textuality - Etymology

tradition tissue words closure

Text derives from the Latin textus (a tissue), which is in turn derived from texere (to weave). It belongs to a field of associated linguistic values that includes weaving, that which is woven, spinning, and that which is spun, indeed even web and webbing. Textus entered European vernaculars through Old French, where it appears as texte and where it assumes its important relation with tissu (a tissue or fabric) and tisser (to weave). All of these resonant associations are relevant to understanding how "the text" is used in contemporary scholarship, especially the interplay between its nominal and verbal forms, an interplay that registers the quality of what Julia Kristeva has called the text's "productivity," that is, its capacity to enable and exceed the producing, the materialization, of products.

The emergence of the text as an important concept in humanistic scholarship has taken many twists and turns. When Walter Benjamin, in his essay "The Image in Proust," described Proust's writing as a textum, a weaving not unlike the raveling and unraveling carried out by Penelope in the Odyssey, he was bringing to closure a tradition that dates back at least to Quintilian (c. 35–100 C.E.), a tradition of associating the literary work with a tissue woven of many threads. If it makes sense to associate Benjamin with the closure of this tradition, it is because in his insistence on the dialectic of raveling and unraveling, he foregrounds a key preoccupation of what came to be known as textual criticism. Textual criticism—a distinctive fusion of the practices of biblical exegesis, paleography, and philology linked now with the figure of the German philologist Karl Lachmann (1793–1851)—was an institutionally and largely theologically organized emphasis on the text as an empirical object. This expressed itself during the fourteenth century in the works of William Langland, Geoffrey Chaucer, and John Wycliffe (among others) as a concern for the original and therefore true words contained in any writing—in effect, what God actually said. The text was defined either in opposition to commentary and annotation or in opposition to all that is supplemental: introductions, appendices, etc. This was a text understood as a thing, as a specific and precise configuration of words toward which one was then authorized to turn his or her hermeneutical attentions.

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