text and context

From: Jay Lemke (jaylemke@umich.edu)
Date: Mon Feb 14 2005 - 19:59:49 PST

Skimming over many recent messages, I picked up on the threads of
dialogical self and whether "context" is a useful notion in relation to
text (or perhaps to anything).

No surprise that Bakhtin is useful in getting a view of identity as
something interactional and relational. Insofar as identities are to some
extent discursive constructions, the echoes of the voices of others/Others
are to be found always in "our own" voices. B's "dialogism" is less about
real dialogue and more about the implicit dialogue among utterances, that
every word we make ours was someone else's before us, that we make our own
voices by mobilizing the voices and words of others, both specific others
and the generalized Other of the kinds of voices available in our community
(i.e. culture).

I'm less sure about what to do with the notion of "personality" ... it
seems so steeped in "trait theory" and the notion that traits are definite
features of "the person", and so NOT really relational or dialogical. I
think we might wind up with a cranky mix in which the formation of traits
was interactional, but the traits themselves were attributes of the person.
We then lose, I think, the valuable advance that identities are always
being reconstituted interactionally, and dialogically in B's sense; i.e. a
dynamic view that says we have to explain WHY apparent traits are stable,
and not just why they might change. We have to look to the stability of a
person's interactional ecology to understand the stability of personality
(as well as to any organismic stabilizations, persistence of body habits,
memory, etc.), and indeed to understand the COHERENCE of personality, much
of which is a reflection of the coherence of the social-natural
environment, and so arises from the historical co-evolution and mutual
interdependence of its elements. In such a view, we also reflect, or
inherit, in our identities, the contradictions of our social milieu.

Finally, on context. It was an advance to say that the whole system with
which or about which we make meaning was text-and-context vs. the older
view that texts were autonomous, complete meaning systems in themselves,
i.e. that a text "had" a meaning by itself and the work of interpretation
of that meaning should confine itself as much as possible to intra-textual
signs and evidence. But , on the other hand, it holds us back to think of
text "vs." context, or to reify context into a "something else" that in
effect is just to be interpreted in the same positivist way. What I find
more useful is the notion of _contextualization_ as a process, as a
meaning-making practice, by which we construe something to be a relevant
context-of something else. We do not, of course, typically do so entirely
as we please, but by making use of the conventions of a community (or
communities) regarding intertextuality ... where now, qua intertext of our
focal text, something becomes not just a context of it, but itself a kind
of text. I think it is in this sense that Derrida means that there is
nothing con-textual or trans-textual, that the contexts are all a part of
the text. At least they are made part of the text-as-we-construe-it. This
is perhaps also another sense in which every text (i.e. every
interpreted-text or meaning-text) is multimodal, made up of signs from many
semiotic systems, not just language.

Whether you like the idea of "textualizing" everything or not (and I do
only for the purposes of saying how anything can function as part of the
interpretation of a "text" in the narrowest sense of the word), I think it
still makes sense to regard text and context as parts of a whole, and as
made to be, construed as, or seen as constituting a whole, rather than to
dichotomize them, reify context, or take contexts to exist (relevantly for
meaning-making) apart from our practices of contextualizing the focal "text".


Jay Lemke
University of Michigan
School of Education
610 East University
Ann Arbor, MI 48109

Tel. 734-763-9276
Email. JayLemke@UMich.edu
Website. www.umich.edu/~jaylemke

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