Thirty years ago, the writer Michel Butor, in ‘The Origin of the Text’ (World Literature Today 56.2 , 207-15), pondered how a text comes into the world: ‘the origin of the text is what you can find in the text itself’, he says; and ‘the text comes from itself’; and ‘the text is never completely finished… It has to go on’ (207). From this perspective, perhaps rather alarmingly, a text has no beginning and no end.
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How then can we ever hope to access ‘the text’?
The answer surely is that there is no ‘the text’; there is only ‘a text’, an ‘ensemble’ (Butor, 208) of symbols that is provided with unique meaning by its assemblers/readers/viewers/interveners/participants. The text functions by virtue of its own past and present: its debt to other texts, its materiality, the way in which it is received, handled and understood. Likewise, the participant in the production of a text—the user—brings their own past and present to their interpretation of a text.
As for the future of a text: ‘It is a changing of death into life; but that transformation will never be finished’ (Butor, 214).
Long live text!