Michael Silverstein and Greg Urban, Eds.
Natural Histories of Discourse
Chicago, UCP, 1996, pp.1–2

La notion de «mise en textes» de la voix (entextualization) est un développement américain tardif (puisqu'il vient vingt ans plus tard) de propositions formulées par Jacques Derrida (écriture au sens de Derrida) et Paul Ricœur (article en anglais datant de 1971) à la fin des années soixante ou au tournant des années soixante-dix, c'est-à-dire au moment où naît l'anthropologie linguistique américaine.

To turn something into a text is to seem to give it a decontextualized structure and meaning, that is, a form and meaning that are imaginable apart from the spatiotemporal and other frames, in which they can be said to occur. Such an autonomously meaningful object, indeed, becomes a trope for culture, understood in the sense of an ensemble of shared symbols and meanings, so that we should not be surprised at its appeal for students of culture. For if a text has a despatialized and detemporalized meaning—in short, a deprocessualized one—then that meaning can be clearly transmitted across social boundaries such as generations, without regard for the kinds of recontextualizations it might undergo. Texts can thus be seen as building blocks or atoms of shared culture. We should observe here how congenial this simplistic construction is to notions that confuse an anthropological concept of culture with those folk-derived concepts in our various learned traditions of shared or common possession of texts, whether as quasi-physical or quasi-mental objects, as the attribute of "being cultured" or "having culture." Such congeniality should, perhaps, make these concepts all the more epistemologically suspect for us, of course, in a comparative and cross-cultural enterprise.

Footnote. We might, in fact, speculate on this trajectory of conflation, licensed apparently by Ricoeur (1971),[*] of "text" with "text-artifact," the latter a more or less permanent physical object like an "inscription." Such a text-artifact stimulates an entextualization in an appropriate context; it is the mediating instrumentality of a communicative process for its perceiver, for example, a reader of an alphanumeric printed page such as the one before you. To confuse the mediating artifact and its mode of production ("inscription") for a text and the sociosemiotic processes that produce it perpetuates a particular fetishized substitution […].

But this utility of texts is precisely what "the natives" (including us) see as well. They engage in processes of entextualization to create a seemingly shareable, transmittable culture. They can, for example, take some fragment of discourse and quote it anew, making it seem to carry a meaning independent of its situation within two now distinct co(n)texts. Or they can transcribe a fragment of oral discourse, converting it into a seemingly durable and decontextualizable form that suggests to interpreters a decontextualizable meaning as well. Or they can take such a durable text and reanimate it through a performance that, being a (mere) performance of the text, suggests various dimensions of contextualized "interpretive meaning" added on to those seemingly inherent in the text.

From this point of view, then, text is a metadiscursive notion, useful to participants in a culture as a way of creating an image of a durable, shared culture immanent in or even undifferentiated from its ensemble of realized or even potential texts. It is a metadiscursive construct—"this stretch of discourse is a text whose meaning is . . . "—that grows out of and refers to actual cultural practices, which themselves are presumably to be studied ethnographically, in addition to constituting the essence of ethnographic method itself.


[*] Le coupable ici désigné de la réification de la vie sociale en textes et du télescopage entre inscription et texte-objet est Paul Ricœur, The Model of the Text: Meaningful Action Considered as a Text, Social Research, Volume 38, Number 3, Autumn 1971, pp. 529–562.