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Canagarajah, Suresh. A History of Orientations to Text. CE, Sept. 2019. Posted 11/24/2019.

Canagarajah, Suresh. “Weaving the Text: Changing Literacy Practices and Orientations.” College English 82.1 (2019): 7-28. Print.

In a special issue of College English, “Reorienting to the Text,” Suresh Canagarajah’s guest editor essay explores the reference to “weaving” in the etymology of “text” to trace a progression of attitudes toward texts in academic and intellectual circles since the advent of alphabetic writing. He writes that these attitudes have tended to produce binaries like “orality versus writing,” “community versus artifact,” and “mobility versus stability,” among others (8). Approaches that Canagarajah groups under “modernist literacy,” he states, valued the second binaries in this list, while later orientations shifted the focus to the initial concepts (8).

Cautioning that the history of text is not a linear path to “an enlightened conclusion” (8), Canagarajah writes that modernist literacies result from what he calls the “Great Divide” that divorced oral and written communication, privileging the written because of its supposed “transparent meanings” and permanence (7). Under the heading “Autonomous Literacies,” Canagarajah discusses various approaches to text that focus on its claim to convey stable meanings across contexts to those able to receive those meanings (9-10). He sees this approach deriving from the Enlightenment’s “orientation to reality” because such an orientation “transform[ed] experience into manageable and abstract information” (10). Similarly, colonization worked to silence disruptive local or unsanctioned communication, and the need of religion to manage ideas required official language represented as incontrovertible (10).

Canagarajah points to the New Criticism as an example of adherence to this view of text as separate from author and context (10). However, in the 1970s, he writes, an “ethnographic bent” led scholars to challenge the claim that texts could produce meaning not influenced by the social circumstances in which they functioned (11). Scholars like Shirley Brice Heath produced work that Canagarajah classifies as “Social Literacies,” which examined how the diverse contexts in which language was both constructed and interpreted was shaped by a “text’s social functions” (11). Inherent in this literacy was a recuperation of spoken communication, which was seen as “complementary” to writing (11). Meanwhile, interest in “new literacies” deriving from multimodal practices drove attention to “vernacular” literacies (12).

Canagarajah writes that this social turn retained a view of the community itself as “homogeneous,” tending to respond to a particular “bounded object” like a text in uniform ways (12). Reaction to this tendency led to attention to the effects of power, even within communities, on the dissemination and uptake of texts (12). This turn advanced “critical literacy,” which, in turn, paved the way for the “social-constructionist orientation” (12).

Social-constructionism, Canagarajah writes, may have been equally sanctioned by the sense of loss of agency and control occasioned by late capitalism. The social-constructionist move to reduce the social, the material, and the effects of power to textual representation may have produced “greater order, coherence, and control over life” (13). This “textual turn,” as Canagarajah calls it, means that the force of the text itself is replaced by the interpretations with which it is received across divergent contexts. There is no constant meaning; power resides in the reader, whose ideology, in turn, is formed not by any exterior reality but by earlier texts: “That is, our knowledge and interpretations are a chain of unending texts” (13). As a result, texts are not seen as “reflecting social practices and material life,” but rather as “constructing” them (14; emphases original). Returning to the metaphor of weaving, Canagarajah writes that in this turn, society and text became interwoven so that complex social threads could be deciphered in texts, with the result that nothing existed outside text (14).

He characterizes a new turn as a “mobility turn” engendered by the degree to which world events “bled outside the text” (14). The need to address the reception and uses of texts by widely divergent communities across multiple borders led, in his view, to a rejection of the idea of “bounded communities” and to a conception of society as composed of “liminal contact zones” (16) where people with different ideologies and needs interact. The “traveling text,” in this view, can be appropriated endlessly, with consequent ethical implications for such repurposing (15-16). “Recontextualization” captures ways in which power-relations within contact zones can be revised as texts are taken up for new uses; “entextualization” refers to the ways in which speech can become text as it is taken up and embedded across divergent spaces (17): “It is as if the textual fabric gets rewoven with new threads every time people wear it” (17).

Canagarajah next examines a “material turn” that heralds enhanced awareness of the ways that context and physical objects have agency and impact the production of texts (18). In this view, texts are one object among many that construct meaning. Ancillary to this approach is the “recuperat[ion]” of “the agency of the textual artifact” itself as an object acting on contexts it encounters (17). Scholarship noted “performative” aspects of text/materiality interactions, with the activities involved in meaning making replacing the product as central to production and use (18-19). This emphasis, in Canagarajah’s view, underlines the “unpredictability” and expansiveness of texts in the world and reveals the ways in which experiences with texts are “mulitisensory,” with aspects that are “affective, aesthetic, imaginative, and social” (20).

Canagarajah notes the role of technology as a material actor, using the hashtag as an example of the kind of entextualization that emerges as meaning builds and shifts from activities within a “whole network working together” (21): rather than crediting a single author, such entextualization sees meaning as “coconstructed in the doing” (21). For participants, creating text becomes an “everyday practice” (22).

Such approaches to textuality, Canagarajah argues, call into view prior literacies that practiced texts as embodied and social and that were erased by Western culture (22). He uses his own Tamil heritage to explore how a single text, preserved orally, drew its significance from performance in varied settings across time: “The transcribed version was not the full ‘text’”; rather, the emotional experience engendered by encountering the text in specific material, social, and affective moments gave the text its meaning (23).

After summarizing the contents of the special issue, Canagarajah contends that movement from autonomous literacy to the fluidity and expansiveness of the material turn does not guarantee “more inclusive and democratic literacies” (26). The resources that permit coproduction of meaning, in his view, also serve interests that may wish to hide their own agendas. As a counter to this danger, Canagarajah argues that “critical intervention” remains possible because “[n]o one can control the weaving of the text” (26).