Thinking across Cultures

By Donald M. Topping; Doris C. Crowell et al. | Go to book overview

9
The Myth of Autonomous Text

Courtney B. Cazden Harvard Graduate School of Education

I invite you to step back and see ourselves as a moment in the unending conversations that constitute human history. In the words of literary critic, Kenneth Burke ( 1941/ 1973):

Imagine that you enter a parlor. You come late. When you arrive, others have long preceded you and they are engaged in a heated discussion, a discussion too heated for them to pause and tell you exactly what it is about. In fact, the discussion had already begun long before any of them got there, so that no one present is qualified to retrace for you all the steps that had gone before. You listen for awhile, until you decide that you have caught the tenor of the argument; then you put in your oar. Someone answers; you answer him; another comes to your defense; another aligns himself against you. . . . The discussion is interminable. The hour grows late, you must depart. And you do depart, with discussion still vigorously in progress. (pp. 110-111)

For centuries, conversations were all oral. And so most contributions to these conversations existed only in the context in which they were spoken. Exceptions were utterances that reappeared as reported speech, or became texts that were memorized and repeated by others--for example, as folk tales. But as soon as there were written texts, they could reappear in many contexts, recontextualized in many subsequent conversations.

Some texts have a continuous life--religious scriptures, for example-- although conversations about them, or their roles in the conversations, may change dramatically. Other texts die out, and some are later reborn, sometimes after a long silence (e.g., Vygotsky Thought and Language).

The typical pattern of text life is different in different domains. In natural science, texts are cumulative, and older ones are more quickly replaced and

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