If a text falls in the woods ...: intertextuality, environmental perception, and the non-authored text.

Author:Schmitt, Casey R.
Position:Essay
 
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In 2008, while studying narrative depictions of biophysical landscapes in the U.S., I conducted a series of field interviews with wilderness enthusiasts and nature pilgrims in the Pacific Northwest. Seeking to collect stories and personal experience narratives concerned with encounters and emotions in the wilderness environment, I began to notice a peculiar trend in the way my informants framed their individual responses. One informant related how, at an early age, he reveled in wilderness explorations with friends as "Lord of the Flies-type stuff." Another informant compared his journeys into the deep woods and other such locations as a "Thoreau thing." A third remarked on what she called "magical" aspects of a particular hiking spot by saying it was "very Lord of the Rings." Two years later, when returning to the area, I hiked through a wooded region outside of town with the children of a good friend of mine. The kids repeatedly compared the environment to the wooded regions depicted by and in a variety of popular media, including the film Return of the Jedi and the television program Lost.

My initial motivation for collecting wilderness experience narratives grew from an interest in longstanding folk traditions and the expression of magical belief, but, over time, I have come to recognize a separate pattern at play. Every single one of my informants--even those individuals who lived, worked, and spent much of their leisure time in the deep woods environment--had interpreted the wilderness spaces and places through the frame of some other, popular media form. The wooded wilderness, for each of them, undoubtedly held import in its own right (as evidenced by an avowed appreciation for certain sites and repeated, active engagement with the environment itself), yet their experiences of what they called "wilderness" were habitually expressed through evocation of and comparison to traditionally readable texts, including books, films, artwork, and television programs. I began to rethink my position.

Locations and spaces in the physical environment, I realized, may act as texts. At the instant the individual views his or her environment through an interpretive lens, imbuing it with symbolic meaning, it becomes a readable object with connotative meaning and association. A thick, dark forest might be read to mean mystery, foreboding, adventure, or the unfamiliar. A prominent mountaintop may be read to symbolize achievement, power, or a nearly divine sense of glory. A desert expanse might be read to mean despair, challenge, or, perhaps conversely, tranquility. To those who recount experiences set in and around such environments, the environments have meaning. This meaning may be rooted in physical experience, but as Yi-Fu Tuan, Henri Lefebvre, Kent Ryden, and many others have noted, it is more often culturally developed, through discourse. The environment is indeed a text.

Of course, this initial realization was not a significant surprise for me at the time, but, after reviewing the responses of my many informants over the years, a secondary--or, perhaps, supplementary--offshoot to the environment-as-text argument made so well by Tuan, Lefebvre, Ryden, and others rose to the surface. If environmental spaces and locations may function as texts with interpretable meanings, we, as critics, must wonder how and from whence those meanings are developed. My informants' accounts suggest that, at least to some degree, their readings of such environmental texts are guided and informed by simultaneous and automatic comparison, contrast, and reference, whether immediately conscious or not, to other readable and interpretable objects.

In recognition of this tendency, the reading of the spatial environment becomes an exercise in intertextual perception. That is, environmental texts--like any given text--derive meaning through their relationships with those other readable objects encountered by or available to the individual or the interpretive community. My fieldwork had led me to an intriguing set of more theoretical questions.

This essay, building upon a disciplinary grounding in folkloristics, spatial theory, and rhetorical study, seeks to answer those questions, and to extend the discussion of intertextuality first initiated by Julia Kristeva and Mikhail Bakhtin. Looking beyond traditionally examined texts, like books, artwork, and films, it suggests that intertextual theory may also apply to our readings of objects less traditionally examined as "texts," per se. Locations and spaces in the biophysical environment, I argue, make for a particularly interesting case discussion of textuality and intertextuality, as these objects, unlike other texts, have no discernible human creator or "author." How might an object function as a text, it asks, if no discernible author exists? Does environmental perception provide a case study of Roland Barthes's ideal imagined scenario of a text available free from author and interpretive interference, or independent of Michel Foucault's "author-function?" And, if we think of text as an object read to have meaning, when, precisely, does a non-authored object qualify as text? In other, somewhat playful yet wholly earnest words, if an object exists in the woods, and no one is around to read it, does it exist as a text at all?

Ultimately, this essay argues that environmental perceptions, like other texts, derive their meaning through intertextual relationships, demonstrating that intertextual theory, therefore, may be readily extended into novel fields of investigation. It examines the ways in which non-authored objects in our biophysical spatial environments--such as wilderness, mountains, shoreline, and other places--become coded with meanings through intertextual relationships, both at the vernacular level and through mass media representation. It is through the discourses exchanged in, of, and about the biophysical environment that such non-authored objects and spaces ultimately accrue a textual quality.

To approach this concept, the essay will make two essential movements: first, it will engage in existing intertextual theory and, second, it will apply this theory to environmental case examples. Along the way, it will briefly engage both Barthes's and Foucault's writing on the role of author in the establishment of the concept of a "non-authored" text. While environment-as-text arguments like those of Tuan and Lefebvre apply to all potential environments, this study will limit its primary discussion to biophysical environments and objects, ostensibly (and perceived to be) free from human design--in part due to my own continuing interest in the wooded wilderness space in narrative representation and in part for the unique opportunities such spaces allow in the discussion of text and author. The study also takes its lead from Ryden, in considering intertexts as those objects which "map" any given landscape. While my informant responses from Oregon suggest that more complex, popular media texts like books and movies play prominent roles in the development of environmental meanings, this initial treatment of intertextuality in the biophysical environment will focus attention on simpler and more proximically relevant intertexts as well, such as signposts and placards placed by visitors within the non-authored environment. By first engaging in intertextual theory and, then, examining the bounds of its potential extension, the paper will show how intertextuality codes the environments in which we live, work, play, learn, and travel.

Intertextuality and the Making of Meaning

Intertextuality refers to the web of relationships between texts and their meanings. An intertextual approach to communication recognizes that any identifiable text is in fact an unstable node within a constantly shifting and evolving web of references, appropriations, influences, and socio-cultural contexts. The presence of one text serves as context for another, influencing potential and available readings. Such relationships and lines of reference permeate all aspects of discourse and communication.

Modern theories of intertextuality begin with the writings Mikhail Bakhtin and Julia Kristeva. Bakhtin's assertion that "any utterance is a link in a very complexly organized chain of other utterances" (1986, 69) and Kristeva's argument that "any text is the absorption and transformation of another" (1980, 66) have found general acceptance in multiple disciplines, including rhetoric, media studies, cultural studies, folklore, literary studies, film, and more. Meanings are understood not to reside innately within a text itself, but to grow and change through the text's connection to, reference to, and juxtaposition with other meanings. Bakhtin notes, "[E}ach utterance is filled with echoes and reverberations of other utterances to which it is related by the communality of the sphere of speech communication" (1986, 91).

Theories of intertextuality certainly complicate the critical analysis, then, of any available text. They blur the boundaries of where one text ends and another text begins. Intertextuality, at times, allows individual texts to be co-opted for different ideological--or, even, subversive--aims, but it may also reify existing meanings and values in a process of ongoing, mutual reinforcement and interpretive aggregation. Any text that draws from or references another (whether explicitly or only subtly) complicates and expands the existing meanings available for interpretation and, in the end, any conceivable (or perceivable) text becomes, potentially, an intertext--a node of interpretable meaning wrapped up in and contributing to the lingering mental impact of its predecessors and its followers. Through the intertextual web, the task of determining concrete, singular meaning becomes fruitless (indeed, impossible), and is replaced by the task of tracing the web of relationships itself.

Jonathan Gray (2010)...

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