Textual Closure (Formal)

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Gutenberg's Bible, book of books, authored by divine authority.

Textual closure, in a formal sense, is the property primarily exhibited by the printed text of the book during much of the modern historical moment by virtue of its formal construction as a complete and unified conceptual whole. This should be distinguished from the frequently convergent notion of *discursive* closure, as reflected in the Romantic Era concept of the modern literary novel as a narrative whole proceeding from a beginning and end. A narrative text which is not discursively closed, such as a novel with an ambiguous or open ending, is still formally closed, as it has a defined end-point. But any distinct, data-bearing document, typically printed, is a formally closed text if it is delimited by a paratextual frame such as the book cover, and its text cannot be modified on the discursive level of its original inscription.

In the late 20th century, the adoption of computers for word processing has thrown the formal closure of the print form into question. While the transparency of word processing software is illusory, built on layers of computer code, the technical ease for the user of editing digital text within the ever-changing context of the Internet is increasingly denaturalizing entrenched formal and textual assumptions about the printed word as it has evolved over it’s 500 year history since Gutenberg. Yet what is less recognized is that web sites like Wikipedia suggest that a new dynamics of coherence are occurring for digital text. Rather than adopting a model presuming any user modification would lead to error, this model is finding out that user modification are leading instead to refinement.

The Incompleteness of the Written Word and the Truth of Dialectic: Plato and Phaedrus, 370 BC

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Plato (left) and Aristotle (right) depicted in Raphael's "School of Athens." Aristotle hand is out, towards the (closed) earth, whereas Plato's hand points up, towards the (open) heavens.

In his dialogue with Phaedrus, Plato debates the nature of the printed word in relation to oratory. Plato holds that writing can be useful as an aid to memory, but not as a replacement for it. He believes the presence of the written word stymies education, leading men to believe they 'know' truths documented in books, when it is education enabling one to reproduce this which is knowledge’s true measure. Plato writes, "[I]f a man believes … that lucidity and completeness and serious importance belong only to those lessons on justice and honor and goodness that are expounded and set forth for the sake of instruction, and are veritably written in the soul of the listener, and that such discourses are ought to be accounted a man's own legitimate children … this … I would venture to affirm" (278a-b, my emphases).

It is curious that, while the much later Romantic ideal of a text as a work of aesthetic genius inspired by nature is often considered a Platonic ideal, Plato himself holds that no static written work can contain “important truth of permanent validity.” He describes serious inquiry as the transfer of knowledge from the teacher to pupil, when a learned person selects a “soul of the right type,” through which to propagate “words which instead of remaining barren contain a seed whence new words grow up in new characters, whereby the seed is vouchsafed immortality…” (277a).

Texts for Plato are not closed, as they cannot be comprehensive. The knowledge that texts describe is validated only through dialectical transfer and practice. It appears Plato's thought may be that as one debates an issue more, both sides understand more about it as their collective knowledge is refined. This is in comparison to the static text, which Plato appears frustrated by: words seem to 'speak to you as though they were intelligent,' yet if you ask them about what they mean, "they go on telling you the same thing forever" (275d). True knowledge of truth, for Plato, is reached only through education, a process, not by a reliance on the illusory authority of written texts. In other words, for Plato, the text under-determines the truth, as it cannot possibly contain it. Conversely, truth over-determines the text in its dynamic complexity, and can be reached only through an ongoing dialectical analysis.

The Emergence of Formal Textual Closure: the Codification of Civil Law in Late Imperial Rome, 530 CE

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Edition of Justinian I's "Corpus Juris Civilis" ("Body of Civil Law"). Page tabs indicate its use for reference. It's appearance and heft conveys its imposing authoritativeness.

The codex was adopted in the late Roman Empire. Succeeding the continuous scroll, a radically serial, analog technology, the codex provided a sequential yet digital structure which enabled a new ease and power of reference. Filling the new codex was often the substrate of parchment. In comparison to the rough, porous, impermanent surface of Egyptian Papyrus, parchment was an easily-inscribable, yet erasable, medium of surprising durability. The parchment codex proved to be a powerful new administrative reference medium for Roman leaders. The Roman legal codex gave rise to an entirely new conception of textuality and civil law. Harold Innis has shown that, following the spread of the parchment codex, Rome grew from a territorial unit to an eternal empire (Vismann, 43).

Previously, various legal texts had been scattered across the Empire’s diverse localities, even withdrawn from circulation for preservation. The emperor Justinian I recognized the power of the codex, and undertook to codify Roman civil law within an ordered system, the codex. The result was the Corpus Juris Civilis (Body of Civil Law”) around 530 CE. Yet codifying existing laws did not simply entail collecting these. The process of compilation and codification radically reshaped the entire system, day by day. As documents were brought together, old or conflicting decrees were frequently excised, and supplanted with new protocols. The Pandects, or the Digest, as it was called, inaugurated a new kind of governance, through textual administration, which seeded their new textual traditions as they were transmitted throughout the empire.

Justinian sought to build a textual barrier to enclose the newly codified laws. In doing so, he cut off the natural ordering processes of law by imposed a universally-valid rule of law with its own self-justification. Local traditions, then, became overwritten and frequently lost, as Justinian sought to wield the new laws as weapons ('arms'), by punishing (textual) transgression. Texts in disparate languages were universally translated into Latin, an ur-language for the ur-text. Governance shifted from administrative form to an authoritarian one, as a new textual hegemony overtook the Empire. This was codification as textual purification, the disallowance of individual interpretation. The text was the law, and it had one official meaning, its literal meaning.

Textual Closure as High Natural Ideal: From Gutenberg’s Bible, 1450, to Goethe’s Bildungsroman, 1800

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Gutenberg's Bible. The hand-added leaves surrounding the text foreshadow both the concept of aesthetic enclosure and the future centrality of nature to Romanticism.

The circulation of texts largely ceased during the Middle Ages, following the crumbling of the Roman Empire. Gutenberg’s famed mechanical moving type printing press gradually reintroduced textual circulation was the gradual reintroduction of textual circulation centuries later, which literally inaugurated entire new literary and scientific traditions in the Renaissance. The new medium of printed text had a number of distinct qualities: fixity, a binding, and a mass potential, which ultimately came to form the basis for the book’s structure of formal closure. Yet the belief in the aesthetic textual perfection represented by the formal closure of the volume, while persisting far into modernity, can be seen to be a contingent quality of the book which emerged from the cultural foment of Germany's and England's entrance into the modern industrial era.

Print, birthed by its press, exhibited new formal qualities. Printed text was fixed materially to the page in a persisting fashion. By Goethe’s Romantic period, as books had been outliving their owners for centuries, this fixity came to connote an immortality to the printed word. Print formalized the book's paratexts, the cover, contents page, index, and so on, which delimit and contain the text materially. The paratextual conventions of print persevered across new books, and their semi-textuality enabled them to take on visual aesthetic qualities, which further served to reify the fixed text they contained. Further, the press' technical architecture enabled it to print texts in numbers not previously known. In time, books found a mass audience.

Yet it was not inherent to the book, but within the cultural ideals of the Romantic moment in Germany and England that the book was transformed into a unified, complete, and unchanging aesthetic entity. Central to Kittler’s account in Discourse Networks 1800/1900 is the notion of Romanticism as the discursive production of the primal Mother as the source for Man’s language (xxiii). The German notion of 'bildung,' or education, came to acquire a new significance. As developed by the German philosopher Humboldt, (http://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bildung) the word refers to both the process of education, and the end result. Humboldt argued, then, that the 'end' of education is actually its 'process.'

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Goethe's Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship (1796) the quintessential bildungsroman, the story of a boy becoming a man.

Alphabetization, then, is the process by which schoolchildren become inculcated with the written word within the newly modern context of compulsory education, such that their use of it becomes automatic, reflexive. Penmanship served both a universalizing and a textualizing function, as a practice of the unification of subjectivity. Through alphabetization, children learned to take on the printed word as a medium for thought, through which they could develop character vicariously through fiction. ‘The fine arts [became] the bond that holds men together.’” (Kittler, 70)

Crary (1990) describes the shift at early 19th century moment, in large part through Goethe's theory of color, from subjective phenomena such as afterimages being considered mere apperance, to being countenanced in the early 19th century as forms of truth. As an originary opening, the Mother’s Mouth becomes for the baby (boy) the origin of language, and as such, the origin of truth. As source of life, the Mother becomes equivalent with Nature, with divinity. The language of Nature, then, becomes united with Woman, as with love. (Kittler, 73). Compelled to ‘speak’ by Woman, the poet unites poetry (literature) and love. As Herder writes, “The poet [acts as] a translator, who brings Nature into the heart and soul of his brothers.” (73)

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Mother-Nature-God: Caspar David Friedrich's "Woman Before the Setting Sun" (1820).

With the poet as conduit, the medium of poetry then disappears beneath its content, to allow the author’s spirit to communicate directly with the reader’s spirit. (113) Alphabetization thus ultimately displaces all other media, as imagination becomes the ur-sense, fulfilling all the functions that later split up the perceptual field into film, sound, and (typed) discourse in Kittler’s 1900 moment into the 'Entertainment industry.' The printed word becomes for Kittler a universal language, what in Gramophone, Film, Typewriter (1999) he calls “Old Europe’s storage monopoly” (8), for that roughly century-long period before the technological fragmentation that inaugurates 20th century technical modernity.

In contrast to Plato’s view of the written text as radically epistemologically under-determined, for Kittler the closed aesthetic text is radically phenomenologically over-determined. In the bildungsroman’s perfect aesthetic unity of man, language, nature, buildung, and geist (spirit), there is more experience packed into the novel than every individual reading it could experience. The text’s formal closure does not serve to limit meaning, but in fact to construct it into a formal beauty through which the subject may glimpse the absolute.

Computational Sociality and the Cohering Unity of Fluid Digital Textuality, 1993

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Editing History of Wikipedia's "Evolution" article, showing thousands of iterations of changes by different authors, yet still cohering into a textual whole.

The onset of the information age has profoundly changed the very nature of textuality. Specifically, the Internet’s graphical realization in the Mosaic browser in 1993, and the widespread adoption of the Netscape browser in 1995 suddenly opened up an entirely new, textually-mediated ‘cyberspace’ to anyone with a computer and a data connection. The onset of a user-generated content paradigm, what has been called Web 2.0, has enabled these same subjects new ways to communicate, some might say to live, through the Internet. Clearly, this is a very different model than the hegemony of the printed word and what may be its aesthetically highest form, the formally complete work. Inherently, the Internet is a dynamic network. Yet it does not exist in an anarchic form. Form emerges as data clusters into sites (which might be considered a dynamic work) navigated by pages (a dynamic text). While the formally closed unity of the printed word, in this model, fundamentally does not exist, a new kind of formally open unity does appear to. While a Wikipedia page can be edited by infinitely many users over time, those users at each step cohere it into a dynamic but textually persisting form.

N. Katherine Hayles (2005) has argued that, even in the present age, most scholars of textual critique still regard the work as an abstract ideal, an abstract representation, which takes its form in texts, the specific sign system which manifests a particular work, i.e the English, German, or Braille edition of a work, and its associated versions such as scholarly or mass-market. The work and the text are materialized concretely in the document, the physical artifact seen as merging the abstract ideal and its sign system. Yet while the digital word appears transparent on a computer screen, simply another manifestation of the same work, its very ability to emulate the printed word so specifically is based on its fundamental infrastructural difference from the printed word. The text that appears on a computer screen is supported by what Rita Raley calls a “tower of programming languages”: word processing software, Operating Systems and their scripting languages, markup languages, high-level programming languages (more human-readable), low-level programming languages (more machine-readable), on down to machine code (Hayles, 110).

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Ad for Apple's iPad. Technological emulation as even better than a real book?

Hayles argues that the electronic word is fundamentally not a product, but a process. It does not exist, like the printed word does imprinted in paper does, before it is invoked, because the process of invocation is fundamentally what constitutes it. Here the concept of a static, divine ideal actually begins to lose intelligibility. Whereas the book is fundamentally a static, ontologically-persisting entity, the digital word is a momentary, performative entity which persists only as long as the page it is on does. The digital text fundamentally exists as machine data, not even as text. In this light, McGann has argued that these texts are “algorithmic, containing within themselves instructions to generate themselves as displays” (Hayles, 99).

Textuality itself here is in fact illusory, as ultimately the digital text’s form as display or interface is fundamentally dis-similar from its inherent form as data and the algorithms used to process that data. Yet textually nevertheless persists on the internet, in natural human languages (primarily English), and in fact textual wholes also persist, even if in a radically dynamic form. While thousands of users may edit a Wikipedia page, still the page continues to cohere around the particularities of its content. In fact, the Wikipedia model uses the very dynamic quality of pages, which would be expected to multiply textual corruption and difference, as a refining mechanism, multiplying textual coherence (Wikipedia explains on its ‘About’ page that older wiki pages are generally more balanced, whereas young wiki pages pages are generally more biased).

The very stasis of the printed word now begins to appear illusory and suspect. Yet this was the same insight Plato brought to printed texts, that the authority of the text’s completeness is a fallacy, as it cannot evolve, and hence cannot be complete in time. Plato favored a generative approach to knowledge through dialectic, in which knowledge was in a sense ‘grown’ over time through the analysis of different minds, “words which instead of remaining barren contain a seed whence new words grow up in new characters” (277a). In other words, what Plato and Wikipedia share is a belief in a new formal unity which coheres through time, fundamentally open.


Barthes, Roland, [1971]. “From Work to Text,” from Hale, Dorothy (ed) The Novel: An Anthology of Criticism and Theory, 1900-2000. Wiley-Blackwell. Print.

Crary, Jonathan (1990), Techniques of the Observer. Cambridge: The Mit Press.

Genette, Gerard (1997), Paratexts: Thresholds of Interpretation. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, UK. 1997. Print.

Hayles, N. Katherine (2005), My Mother Was A Computer: Digital Subjects and Literary Texts." The University of Chicago Press: Chicago. Print.

Hesse, Carla (1996), "Books in Time," pp. 21-36. From Nunberg, Geoffrey (ed) The Future of the Book. University of California Press: Berkeley and Los Angeles. 1996. Print.

Kittler, Friedrich (1990) Discourse Networks, 1800/1900. Stanford University Press: Stanford. Print.

Kittler, Friedrich (1999) Gramophone, Film, Typewriter. Stanford University Press: Stanford. Print.

Plato (1972) Plato's Phaedrus. Translated by Hackrord, Reginald. Cambridge University Press: London. Print.

Thompson, John B (1981). “Editor’s Introduction,” pp. 1-26. From Paul Ricoeur: Hermeneutics and the Human Sciences. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge. Print.

Vismann, Cornelia. Files: Law and Media Technology. Stanford University Press: Stanford. 2008. Print.