Charles Stephen Craun
The Role of Form in the Interpretation of Text
What is it that determines the manner in which we determine the meaning within the language of a written text? It is undoubtedly true that we draw our individual interpretations of the meanings which constitute the signs of words from a combination of personal experience in the natural world, the relations of the concepts we manifest as words with their differences and similarly related elements, and the subjective interpretation of signs and symbols born from interior and exterior mechanisms of cultural conditioning. Written text is the manifestation of symbols to represent the verbal signs of words, which in turn are representative of elements perceived in the natural world, but when words are articulated upon a written forum the possibility arises for a vastly contrasting interpretation of their meaning, based upon the respective varying epistemological conditions of the author and audience. The form of a written text is endowed with a plurality of meaning, from the conscious or unconsciously implied intentions of the author, to the projected meanings assumed by the interpretation of the reader, but regard should be given to an element which is fundamental in determining the nature of the text and the meaning of the language contained within, the form of the text itself. The form of a text may be considered as the structure which gives the fundamental meaning of the words in language a specific value in a specific context, based upon the based upon the relation of the text to the nature of the work, itself and the orientation of the entire work as a member in a field or genre of written text. The form of a written text is influential to its ability to be understood, because the form of the text, and therefore the form of the discourse within the text, which provides the structure for which the language within a specific context may be accurately interpreted. It is therefore necessary to distinguish the conventions which constitute the form of a written text in order to encourage a greater clarity of communication in language through the comprehensive understanding of meaning within the language used in a particular form of textuality. The form of a particular work of written text may be considered as the product of the relationship between the meaning of the language within the text as projected by the
author, implied by the audience, and how this formation of language relates to a particular concept of reality within the mind of the reader. The form in which discourse within a written text is oriented can provide a fundamental reinvention of the meanings contained within the words themselves, based on the manner in which they are oriented with the surrounding text in a given work. James E. Kinneavy, in his article “The basic Aims of Discourse” uses the following example of how “The same sentence or paragraph may have a very different meaning in a different context”(Kinneavy297), which serves to illustrate that the elements of which were previously recognized to be the base meaning of words within a particular sphere of cultural conditioning can be altered to reflect the tone or form of a given work of written discourse in which they are oriented, such as to achieve an effect in the average reader for which it is intended. This distinction of frame surrounding a given work of written text may be considered to be an extension of the theory is reflective of the theory of semiotics, in the aspect of “vertically” relating the meaning of the signs of language within a given text to the entire system of language from which the text was constructed, including the relational concepts surrounding the meaning of the signs within a form of language itself. Furthermore, the form of the text is also determined by the relationship between the encoder or author, signal, or literary form, decoder, or reader, and the perception of reality. The intentions of the encoder to frame a particular element of reality in a particular way as to evoke a particular response from the reader, based upon the recognition of the influence of meanings which these signs are granted in the form of the text, is regarded as a persuasive or rhetoric form of discourse. In this form of discourse within written text, the encoder may “purposefully disguise his own personality and purposely distort the picture of reality which language can paint in order to get the decoder to do something or believe something”(Kinneavy301). In this way, the frame of the story may be based around the presumptions of the decoder as to the internalized meaning of ideas, concepts, or symbols which are internalized by the decoder through a system of cultural conventions meant to encourage unity of thought and belief. “It is essential that the encoder, reality, and language itself all become instrumental to the achievement of some practical effect in the decoder”(303) Such an example can be witnessed in the case of Daniel’s “Public Secrets”, in which the form of the narrative surrounding the correctional institutions of the state of California is a product of a distortion of language given value by the internalized recognition of the legal authority of the justice system. The very title of the documentary, “Public Secrets” is meant to imply that the injustice and inequality perpetuated by the correctional institutions is a publicly held secret, which the public “keeps safe from itself” through the presentation of a deceptive framework surrounding its existence. The form of a written text may also be considered as a product of social and cultural conditioning on the individual encoder, and the form of the written text itself may be seen to represent a form of collective cultural identity through the process of association through wordplay. Such an example can be witnessed in the literary construction of Tropes, which Killingsworth in his article “Appeal through tropes” deems as “pervasive and unavoidable. All forms of knowledge and even conventional uses of language are built upon the original
foundations of wordplay and configuration”(Killingsworth122). Killingsworth claims that tropes aren’t just embellishments of language, but encompass “entire ways of thinking”, and therefore the use of tropes serve as the frame by which individuals of a given society or culture orient themselves with their perspective of reality. The form of written text constituted by the use of tropes is a process of identification by which seemingly dissimilar forms, concepts or ideas are related through the association of these concepts of the world to the physical body. Through this process of association, the meanings of these metaphorical phrases are internalized within our conscious perception of our existence as individuals within a given society. This form of trope in its appeal to the body through the use of figurative language is one that is emphasized in our conception of reality as citizens of the U.S, such as the concept of “liberty or death”, which equates individual liberty with life itself, and the absence of such liberty as representing the inability to live. Forms of written text, in particular regards to the construction of tropes, can be recognized as being given meaning by the processes of recognizing similarity. These processes, as defined in the metaphorical text, and recognizing contiguity, or metonymy, the relation of closely related concepts or sequences, are “fundamental to human thinking”(killingsworth127) and “form the two poles of linguistic practice”(127). Therefore, it may be assumed that these constructions of tropes are themselves forms in which the meanings of the language contained within them gain a symbolic meaning beyond any literal connotation, but are almost entirely stable in their construction of a form of belief to grant the value to the meanings of the words contained within them. The case of Daniel’s “Public Secrets” is a clear example of how the form of the text within the construction of tropes can fundamentally shape the concept of cultural identity to an extent that the actual nature of the reality it is meant to symbolically represent can be fundamentally distorted to suit the appeal to the trope itself. Our concept of the prison industrial complex as a “correctional institution” functions under the assumption that it exists to “correct” the behavior our society considers to be deviant in the name of the “justice system”. In reality, however, the correctional institutions are notorious for encouraging a status based form of discrimination which is perpetuated by the removal of the inmates from the normalcy of society, even upon their release, and the revocation of their status as “citizen” entirely through the authoritative denial to the normal processes of daily life within society, such as the inability of felons to vote or attain many forms of gainful employment. The form of a work of written text may also be considered as being purely constituted by the context of the work itself, beyond the stylistic or cultural connotations which otherwise accompany the form of written work in its classification as a form of genre. The form in this instance is determined by the subject matter contained within the individual work in question, but also may be considered as an element of discourse within a network of comparable elements of context and form. This form of concept of form within the field of written text is illustrated through Landow’s construction of the theory of Hypertext, in his article “Hypertext
and Critical Theory”, in which he calls upon the linguistic theories of deconstructionism to disassemble the elements of literary form into a vast assemblage, or “a web which would allow the different threads and different lines of force to separate again, as well as being ready to bind others together”(Landow35). In this construction of literary form, the mechanical and stylistic elements which are utilized to distinguish and classify genre are disregarded in favor of the form presented within the context of the work itself, and the nonlinear correlations that the form presented within the context establishes provide the means by which the concept of genre may be reformed in order to provide for the creation of new forms or genres of text. In Daniel’s “public secrets” this concept of form through intertextual analysis can revolutionize the methods by which the form or genre in which a work of written text is oriented entirely. The form of the discourse within “public secrets” can be considered as a form of hypertext, because it presents the information contained within the critique from a decentralized basis, one of which the reader is invited to form through his or her own personal center of focus. Intertextual analysis is a structural analysis of texts in relation to the larger system of signifying practices or uses of signs within culture, and therefore the formation of genre can be reformed from the traditional model of classification by the correlation of “author/work/tradition” to one constituted by the relation of “text/discourse/culture”(Landow35). \The form of a written work of literature is fundamental to the interpretation of its meaning, because the form in which the text is contained provides a means by which the text may be interpreted in a particular context. The constitution of a form may be considered to be a fundamental element of what constitutes a genre, by proving the base form from which the language within a work of literature is granted its meaning. The form of a work of written text, which allowing for the attribution of meaning to language within a particular frame of context, is also influenced by our recognition of the existence of the form. While the form of a work may be considered to be a representation of an entire cultural system of signification of meaning through the use of sign systems and symbolic references, we must recognize that this system of internalized form is one that has been culturally conditioned into our understanding of literary form, and therefore blind adherence to the forms of thought can only serve to limit the ultimate understanding of the plurality of meaning within the text. It is therefore necessary for us to distance ourselves from the traditional views of form as a product of the evolutionary processes of literary history in order to discover the methods by which we’ve come to such conclusions regarding the function of form.
Daniel, Sharon. “Public Secrets.” Vectors 2.2 (Winter 2007): n. pag. Web. http://www.vectorsjournal.org/projects/index.php?project=57 Killingsworth, M. Jimmie. “Appeal Through Tropes.” Appeals in Modern Rhetoric: An Ordinary-Language Approach. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 2005 121-135. Kinneavy, James E. “The Basic Aims of Discourse.” College Composition and Communication 20.5 (Dec 1969): 297-304. JSTOR. Landow, George P. “Hypertext and Critical Theory.” In Hypertext 2.0: The Convergence of Contemporary Critical Theory and Technology. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins, 1997. 33-48.