Tuesday, May 10, 2011

U211 versus deconstruction

The OU course U211 "Exploring the English Language" continues to provide food for thought, and a drain on money as I buy books related to it. I've been interested by how "un-postmodern" it is as a course. The influential linguist Halliday developed a system called systemic functional linguistics, which intriguingly I brushed past as I was doing my computer science degree over 20 years ago, when as a field of study it would have been pretty much brand new.

Functional linguistics is in turn developed from the work of Bronislaw Malinowski, who focused on the use of language in context. He asserted that language is only really comprehensible if we take into account the whole context in which it occurs - the interlinking of language used and the setting in which it is used. In other words, if you take a text out of context, you are going to lose some of the meaning and significance. There's an old saying amongst Bible teachers, that "a text without a context is a pretext". It's not quite addressing the same issue, but it does work as an epigram in this field. And the most reliable Bible teachers take seriously the need to understand sections of the Bible in context, rather than using them merely as a springboard for their own thoughts.

English Literature as a field is almost next to this study of English Language/Linguistics. And yet, at times, its approach to context is almost the exact opposite. There is the deconstructive sense that (as I understand it) the meaning of the text is entirely found in the reader, rather than the creator. Thus, in literature terms, it is legitimate to analyse Shakespeare as a gay text, for example. I don't think the linguistic approach would object to a reader explaining the personal significance of a text, but it does insist that the full meaning of a text is found not in the response of the reader, but in its original context.

A deconstructive approach is ultimately self-defeating, as any text (including the one written by the person analysing another) is open to reinterpretation according to any context. Of course, there is the need to be aware of the cultural baggage of a reader as well as the cultural context of the writer - but this is very different from arguing, in effect, that authorial intent is irrelevant.

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