Analyzing Everyday Texts: Discourse, Rhetoric, and Social Perspectives

By Myers, Marshall | Composition Studies, Spring 2002 | Go to article overview
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Analyzing Everyday Texts: Discourse, Rhetoric, and Social Perspectives


Myers, Marshall, Composition Studies


Analyzing Everyday Texts: Discourse, Rhetoric, and Social Perspectives, by Glenn Stillar. Thousand Oaks, California: Sage Publications, 1998.

For centuries now, scholars have struggled with the problem of how to interpret texts. From as early as the ancient Greeks and Romans who anticipated looking for meaning both through the style of a document and in its content, scholars have labored to find the most satisfactory way of determining the inherent "meaning" of a piece of writing. Whether they looked at an artifact as a product of its times, or whether they saw a text to be generally free of outside influences, whole schools of thought have argued that writing should be interpreted a particular way based on the suppositions of a specific hermeneutic and theoretical construct.

Concentration on one particular methodology to the exclusion of others, however, has meant that often the full richness of a textual interpretation has sometimes been sacrificed at the altar of a limiting methodology, leaving the text's "meaning" confined to a particular stance to the exclusion of other more fruitful interpretations. Scholars are labeled "deconstructionists," "new historicists" or "structuralists" so that we can neatly classify both them and their methodology and see interpretation as a one dimensional activity: one text, one interpretation. But the result of using just a single approach is that such procedures oftentimes miss obvious opportunities to interpret texts more fully. Indeed, even the concept of "author" itself has been challenged, leaving readers and scholars afloat in a sea of confusion, frightfully wondering just where to turn for guidance and understanding.

Rarely, however, do hermeneuts use a variety of approaches to understand an artifact, seemingly because such a multi-faceted approach would add only more heat but hardly any more light to the questions of interpretation. Understandably, there is some merit in being consistent, for consistency, at times, can be conceived to be a virtue that not only adds weight to the argument, but also adds stature to the ethos of the critics themselves. Yet many texts go begging for interpretations that only one school cannot provide. Add to the mix, too, that literary texts are those most often analyzed, and most composition theorists are left cold. What, they may ask, does new historicism, for example, have to do with the first-year composition series? After all, our students are not producing literary texts; they are learning how to write, all too often, I'm afraid, the still living and breathing five-hundred word essay.

Of course, the probability is that most of our students will not produce literary texts. Does that then mean that the various approaches to interpreting texts provide no help to the composition teacher? After graduation, most of what our first-year writing students will write beyond their college writing experiences will be what may be called "everyday texts": letters, memos, proposals, reports, advertisements, and the myriad documents produced in a variety of settings and situations. At the same time, these same college graduates will also meet multiple texts to respond to, whether it be mortgage contracts, insurance policies, technical reports, and any other important written documents. In spite of the stem warnings of Quintilian, texts are often produced by less than "good men" who use the resources available to writers to produce documents of what Stephen B. Katz calls "expediency" (55-75). As his article makes so clear, writing, for example, was used to effectively carry on the day-to-day gruesome business of the Holocaust without even a flicker of moral conscience. Consumers of texts, then, must be aware of the full moral implications of a document if they are asked to take moral action on a variety of issues they may confront in everyday texts.

Thus, thorough examinations of everyday texts, if analyzed by a comprehensive union of different approaches to textual interpretation, can provide writers with valuable information about how readers should interpret and how they should write documents that are both ethical and effective.

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