Monday 10 October 2011

What Texts (of Manuscripts) are, really

Ok, I give up. It is time for me to enter in the arena and give my definition of Text, as I gave it during my last paper at DH at Reading.
I argue that to determine what a text IS is not that complicated (?), what’s complicated is to establish how it works and how it relates to its “support”.
So, here is my definition.
A text is a linguistic architecture that conveys a meaning which is potentially understandable to at least one group of receivers which have the capabilities to decipher the code in which the message is encoded.
With this definition I connect the theory of text with the theory of communication, but, mind you I am only speaking of texts contained, bared by manuscripts.
Let's consider for a moment the following "classic" diagram of the theory of communication:

Source --> SENDER --> Channel --> RECEIVER --> Destination
Message                       Noise                             Message’

Is this model helpful to understand texts within manuscripts? Let's try to understand what these terms mean in our case (i.e. digitised texts contained in manuscripts). Let's then have for the Code
  • Language
  • Grammar
  • Syntax
  • Rhetoric
  • Orthography
  • Writing system, conventions…
Which are the factors that can make the code hard to decipher? The main are time and space, which is to say diachronic and diatopic variations which  force us to modify our diagramme as follows, inserting CODE' and CODE''.

                  CODE'           CODE         CODE''
Source --> SENDER --> Channel --> RECEIVER --> Destination
Message                          Noise                           Message’

Of course, this factors are only the most common one when talking of ancient texts transmitted by manuscripts, but they are not by any menas , the only one. In fact, this new diagramme looks familiar to humanities people, in particular if we substitute the CODE with the terminology introduce be De Saussure:

                 PAROLE       LANGUE      PAROLE
Source --> SENDER --> Channel --> RECEIVER --> Destination
Message                          Noise                           Message’

So, we have to add to differences in time and space also differences in understanding and personal usage of the language.
Let's now consider the Channel, which in our case can be understood as follows:
  • Scroll
  • Codex (Manuscript)
  • Printed book
  • The screen of a computer
  • The screen of a mobile phone
  • Audio
  • The eyes/brain (perceptive network)
And finally, let's consider the Noise, which, again in our case, can be found

  • In the writing system
  • In the writing conventions
  • In the style of writing
  • In the support
  • In the layout
  • In the screen colours
  • In the pronunciation

Is this schematisation helpful to understand what is going on when doing a transcription, when, that is, we separate the text from its support?

I think it shows, at very least, how much of interpretation and subjectivity this operation implies, pace all the supporters of the objectivity of the transcription. It also shows how many things can go wrong here and how much understanding and skills and business of transcription is...

How can we reduce the distance between Message and Message' ? Well, I think I'll keep it for another post!


  1. This is interesting. To use the Shannon/Weaver model for communication is, of course, problematic in many areas. But does it work in this case, given the restriction to texts within manuscripts? The claim is not, of course, that it is true, just that it is helpful. Is it?

    I think so, if it can clarify the amount of interpretation and subjectivity this process involves. But I have a problem understanding what the message is. It seems to me that the model implies that the medium is not the message at all; that is, that the manuscript creator has a pre-existing message which is packed into a communication channel (a medium).

    But when I write a text (create a manuscript), the physical document I create influences the message. As my first reader I read what I write and that changes what I mean; what I mean to say, and what I mean in general. Writing is (so to speak) a game I play in order to find out what I am going to mean when the game is over. And the physical format of the document (paper and pencil, paper and pen, computer, etc.) influences this process.

    You know that the materiality of the medium matters, of course. So is the process I outlined above something your model (as a simplification) exludes? Or have I got it wrong, do I not understand how a manuscript is creatied? Or am I not getting at what you are saying; am I missing your message? ;-)

    In short: in my world there are no message before the code is finished; the message is partly made based on the code itself. How does this work with your model?

  2. Thank you very much for daring this proposition of interpretation Elena and thank you Øyvind for this complementary comment that is instructive and lights up some aspects that are very valuable for my studies and research in digital epigraphy.

    This humble comment, in a very bad English, is added to express that both point of views are useful for me, the use of the Communication and Information schema and the importance of the act of writing described by Øyvind. They work together in a useful complementary way, in my daily working life. Using a model, such as this schema that describes the normal state of a communication device, such as a manuscript, do not prevent from taking in consideration the process and the dynamic of such device (here the act of writing). In other words, and using analogy, making a static description of human body in its normal state do not prevent from taking in consideration the fact that it is also something that is alive and, because of this, never matches perfectly with its normal description. It helps understand it as an organism composed of systems. It also helps face situations when its state is abnormal. I am not sure to understand completely Øyvind, so I might write something not applicable to his comment. The entangled relationship between the act of writing, the code and the message is important. But, I have always seen the Information and Communication schema as a multidimensional one that could be applied to many situation and aspects of a same object and relatively to the information and the message taken into account to describe a process. In this simplified version of the schema and the enriched version proposed, I do not feel that the manuscript or the writing are forgotten. They are considered part of the message as a whole.

    Finally, I am interested by the introduction of De Saussure's concept of "langue" and will be happy to learn more about it in Elena's book or anywhere else.