I have focused on some common and widely understood meanings of the term ‘voice’. We’ll approach the multifaceted term ‘text’ in a slightly different way.
Invent a few sentences that include the word ‘text’ or ‘texts’, varying the meaning with each example. Aim to produce four or five sentences before you go on to read the discussion below.
When I tried this activity, I found myself preoccupied with questions about length. Perhaps this was because the first two examples that came into my mind were radically different: one was the text message from a friend that popped up in my mobile phone’s inbox today, about a dozen words in length, and the other was the Charles Dickens novel Hard Times, about 300 pages long, that is sitting on my desk. Did your examples also span an enormous range in terms of size? What other variations emerged? And did any of your examples take you outside the realm of writing/written words?
‘Text’ is certainly a term that we encounter frequently in an academic context. My example of Dickens’s novel illustrates the fact that in literary studies, people are forever talking about texts. Historians, though, are more likely to refer to original writings as ‘documents’ or ‘sources’. In both areas, ‘text’ refers to something written, and this is often, though by no means always, the case.
So let us try coming at the issue from a different angle and ask what counts as a text in relation to different academic subjects. The most inclusive approach I can think of is that of the anthropologist Clifford Geertz, who viewed cultural practices – any cultural practices – as texts: in his essay ‘Deep play: notes on the Balinese cockfight’ he laid claim to a very generous interpretation of ‘text’ in asserting that ‘the culture of a people is an ensemble of texts’ (Geertz, 1975, p. 452). Even if we narrow the range of possibilities to rule out cock-fighting and other activities, we often find things that have been made, though not made from words, being studied as texts on academic courses.
It is perfectly appropriate, in certain contexts, to refer to buildings, paintings and many other kinds of objects, as ‘texts’. But very often the texts we study in academic courses are made of words, and for the most part those words are written.