Elbow, Peter. “We’ll Sing Like Birds in a Cage: Text and the Dream of Eluding Time.” College English 82.1 (2019): 29-40. Print.
Contributing to an issue of College English dealing with the relationship between literacy studies and “text,” Peter Elbow explores the implications of different lenses we can use to look at language: speech, writing, composition, and text.
He prefaces his piece with a quote from the Greek philosopher Anaximander of Miletus regarding the boundedness of human activities by time and a sections from a poem, “As I Walked Out One Evening,” by W. H. Auden. Elbow later quotes two lines of this poem: “O let not Time deceive you,/You cannot conquer Time” (37). His article addresses the ties among the four lenses and human attitudes toward time.
Elbow maintains that writing itself arose from the need to cross from the embodied actions of speech to the more distanced communication of the written symbol. All writing systems, he contends, owe their existence to the use of rebuses, “visible pictures that represent audible sounds” (30). He illustrates the use of the rebus technique to convert an abstract word like “belief” into writing through images of a bee and a leaf, then goes on to trace the transition from using the meanings of the pictures to using their initial sounds to represent phonological sounds; thus, the Semitic word aleph, meaning “ox,” led to a drawing of an ox’s head that represented the initial sound of the word and that came to be the letter A (31).
In Elbow’s view, “writing” retains the connection to the embodied through its invocation of the physical actions and environments associated with putting marks on page or screen. However, he states, as writing studies aspired to academic standing, the implication of the “ordinary” and “everyday” inherent in “writing” no longer served and practitioners sought “a fancier word” (32). “Composition,” denoting something that Elbow claims no ordinary person ever sat down to write, does at least, in his estimate, capture the “process” involved in writing (32). However, Elbow claims, “composition” soon became ordinary in its own right and succumbed to an even more erudite term, “text.”
Elbow provides definitions for the three lenses. Text “foregrounds writing as a transaction of pure meaning” that “disconnects writing from persons, bodies, sound, time” (33). The writing lens, in contrast, evokes writing as “action by humans taking place in time,” while composition “ties writing to the classroom,” where it is “an exercise—not the real thing” (34; emphasis original). Elbow discusses a tension between seeing writing as private in that most of what people write, in drafts for example, will never be read by anyone else, and seeing it as public because “in the process of producing anything, we are haunted by that third-grade teacher-reader peering over our shoulder at every word we put down.” He proposes that such oppositions are each, “in a sense,” correct, and the true discussion should focus on “which lens is most useful” in a specific context (35; all emphasis original).
Elbow ties the “text” lens to time with an analogy to King Lear, arguing that Lear’s fatal actions were failed efforts to control and elude time. The effort to “create works that will last,” in his view, is a similar strategy to escape time (36).
Contending that text lends itself to the sense that words can “last forever” as well as to an illusion that we can take in the entirety of a “string of words” simultaneously, Elbow responds not only that texts can disappear physically but that meanings are ephemeral; moreover, reading is an activity bound to the progress through a text in time (37). At the same time, he writes, the success of text ultimately is a function of narrative, which “carrie[s] us forward from word to word” (37). He also finds the imprint of time in intonation, the way even silent readers have been shown to hear emphasis and even musical qualities in what they read, thus returning writing to the space of the body and therefore time (37-38).
Elbow proposes the “voice” lens, which he says reminds readers that “the words emerged from a physical body” (38). “Writing” similarly evokes a living being making choices, while “the text lens downplays time, person, voice, sound, and body” (38; emphasis original). He endorses reading aloud to audiences as a way of producing language that is “clearer and easier to process” (39). Ultimately, he claims, in order to come to life, text must give up “the dream of eluding time” (39).