[LWC 71] Umbilical Severance: on the nature of the text

[Post by Lelangir]

This isn’t really about literary criticism, something I’m not really literate in anyway. But I’m going to share my thoughts on the origin of the text and its context, as Chuchlann enjoys how Frye “strips away the historical and political meanings from texts.”

Not to say that’s a bad thing, I don’t really care about the text itself, so to speak. Chuchlann made the useful distinction between using the text and reading it. I probably perform the former. Not to say that gender studies and post-colonial hoohah hold much interest, it’s that I see it, write about it, think its presence alone is interesting, I wouldn’t fret that there’s a prime example of what we may be likely to call “the magical negro” in LoGH. It’s like “oh wow, look, Mashengo saves the day,” and ends there.

But anyway, the text isn’t ahistorical. Though we may enjoy, for the sake of enjoyment, abort it and severe that contextual umbilical cord, and while there’s nothing “wrong” with doing whatever it is you want to do with the text, it can, in certain instances, kill the author, and assign it meaning.

“[T]he writer can only imitate a gesture that is always anterior, never original. His only power is to mix writings, to counter the ones with the others, in such a way as never to rest on any one of them.” In this sense, the writer is not the creator, not the entire maternal organism that nurtures the embryonic text – the writer is only a fraction of the biological functions that constitute and develop the text; it’s society, the politico-economic functions and relations of force that labor over and deliver the text into reality. “The text is a tissue of quotations drawn from the innumerable centres of culture.”1

Here’s an interesting example. Earlier in the millennium Kenny G, the infamous smooth jazz musician, overdubbed the Louis Armstrong singleWhat a Wonderful World”. The jazz scene went batshit because a mongrel, smooth jazz musician had the audacity to pollute the music of a founding father of jazz with his own bastard graffiti. Thus responded Pat Metheny:

…when Kenny G decided that it was appropriate for him to defile the music of the man who is probably the greatest jazz musician that has ever lived by spewing his lame-ass, jive, pseudo bluesy, out-of-tune, noodling, wimped out, fucked up playing all over one of the great Louis’s tracks (even one of his lesser ones), he did something that I would not have imagined possible. He, in one move, through his unbelievably pretentious and calloused musical decision to embark on this most cynical of musical paths, shit all over the graves of all the musicians past and present who have risked their lives by going out there on the road for years and years developing their own music inspired by the standards of grace that Louis Armstrong brought to every single note he played over an amazing lifetime as a musician. By disrespecting Louis, his legacy and by default, everyone who has ever tried to do something positive with improvised music and what it can be, Kenny G has created a new low point in modern culture – something that we all should be totally embarrassed about – and afraid of. We ignore this, “let it slide”, at our own peril.2

Interestingly, no one bothered (from the sources I’ve read) to question the position the text – the song – was located in. George David Weiss, a co-author of the song explained the meaning behind the song:

[a]t that time, during the Vietnam War, there was great confrontation between the races. Louis would try to cut down on confrontation. Louis would bring people together with love and with music.

Therefore, I wanted to write something that would reflect Louis’ life without being biographical. So I used the allegory of colors in the lyrics “The colors of the rainbow so pretty in the sky, are also on the faces of the people goin’ by.” I was of course hinting at better understanding between blacks and whites – hoping we could somehow get together and lessen the tensions between the races.3

[I know that one quote doesn’t prove that’s what everyone thought but I couldn’t find any other sources that spoke directly to the purposes here.]

There’s a shifting, discursive flux here. The inert text is surrounded by the ephemeral discourse. 1968 marks the Civil Rights era and Vietnam. 2000 marks the cultural politics of a dying art. What was intended forty years ago to be a plea to cultural harmony turns into a battle over the politics of authenticity.

What is the role of the musician? The practitioner? The reader? The writer? Is the musician simultaneously a writer and a reader, propagating the textual basis to create, in a similar nature to that of microcosmic criticism (as opposed to the criticism as lens view), a text in itself? Kenny G’s rendition is a text, a reading of a writing, a writing nevertheless.

Thus reading texts within any discourse doesn’t necessarily strip it of its historicity. The liquid discourse that inundates and surrounds the text is captured in record and history, and that is what must be taken into account primarily. The text is thus meaningless, and always so: “[t]he reader is the space on which all the quotations that make up a writing are inscribed without any of them being lost; a text’s unity lies not in its origin but in its destination. Yet this destination cannot any longer be personal; he is simply that someone who holds together in a single field all the traces by which the written text is constituted.”4

Foucault expresses that “history is one way in which society recognizes and develops a mass of documentation with which it is inextricably linked.”5 He also stated that the document isn’t inert, and by that notion it’s easier to see how the text is handled by the reader, it’s not a monolithic object, it’s, as Barthes put it, a space; a locus of inextricable cultural influence. Inevitably, draining a social space of any fluid discourse allows for a reading that isn’t contextual, enjoyable, critical to the merits of the text alone. But what is the merit of the text? – is that able to be separated from the conditions under which it was wrought? Of course the “original” or “authorial” merits of the text are inseparable from its historic discourse, What a Wonderful World may be a song steeped in political warfare, and it may have been extraordinarily well-received due to its social and cultural message, but that doesn’t seem like the case for critics of Kenny G who complain more about the person from which it was concretized in reality as a cultural symbol, Louis Armstrong, not the social climate out of which and for which it was birthed.

1 Barthes, Roland (trans. Heath, Stephen), “Death of the Author” from “Image Music Text,” Hill and Wang: New York, 1977, p. 146.
2 Pat Metheny on Kenny G, June 5, 2005, http://www.jazzoasis.com/methenyonkennyg.htm and http://www.allaboutjazz.com/articles/arti0900_03.htm
3 Janice L. Brewster and George David Weiss, Spotlight on George David Weiss, Music Educators Journal, Vol. 78, No. 6 (Feb., 1992), pp. 50-52, http://www.jstor.org/stable/3398384?seq=3
4 Barthes, p. 148.
5 Foucault, Michael, “The Archaeology of Knowledge and the Discourse on Language,” New York: Pantheon Books, 1972, p. 7.

Leave a comment


  1. Cuchlann

     /  13 October 2008

    Son of a… I knew I left a lot of stuff out of my post, but curses. I’m with you in arguing that the text itself has no meaning. I once pitched a book across a classroom and pointed at it, saying, “This has no meaning. It’s just paper with ink on it, that doesn’t mean anything.”

    “Not to say that gender studies and post-colonial hoohah hold much interest, it’s that I see it, write about it, think its presence alone is interesting. . .” I was wondering — in that statement, what is the “it” you’re writing about? I think I lost my hold on the pronoun’s antecedent as I was reading. : )

  2. lelangir

     /  13 October 2008

    “Not to say that gender studies and post-colonial hoohah hold much interest: I see potential analysis, write about such topics, think the presence of random topics alone is interesting. . .”

    I probably meant that, haha.

  3. Cuchlann

     /  13 October 2008

    Ah. Just wondering. : )

  4. Pontifus

     /  14 October 2008

    I also agree that the author is a translator of sorts, a mouth that speaks for a vast culture and history. What you describe as a “contextual umbilical cord,” though, I see as more of an electric power cord. It may draw its power from some default socket, but it can be unplugged and plugged into any alternate socket of the reader’s choosing. One of my impetuses as a critic is giving old texts new relevance, as the Romantic poets did with Paradise Lost, reading Milton’s Satan as a tragic hero. The Satan-as-hero reading probably didn’t spring from the context that birthed Paradise Lost, and can’t really teach us anything about that context (or so I’d assume), but resulted from a new context — a new outlet into which its power cord was plugged. I think that, while a text can teach us about the culture from whence it came, it can also teach us about any subsequent culture based on how it’s read and applied.

    In retrospect, though, I think you may have said that already. Ah well.

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