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Article January 2010




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Kevon Rhiney
Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey

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Rhiney, K. (2010). Text/textuality. In B. Warf (Ed.), Encyclopedia of geography. (pp.

2809-2813). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, Inc. doi:

Text and Textuality

There is no consensus as to what constitutes a text or how the term should be

defined. Instead, the term fall victim to a wide array of interpretations and applications
across and within various disciplines. However, the term is often associated with the
pioneering work of Roland Barthes (1987) and other literary theorists and cultural
anthropologists such as Paul Ricoeur (1971), Clifford Geertz (1973), James Clifford and
George Marcus (1986), and Stephen Tyler (1987). Here text is regarded as a sociocultural product and/or process and is expanded from its traditionally narrow definition of
being a mere printed medium to include things as wide ranging as paintings, photographs,
maps, electronic media, landscapes as well as economic, political and social institutions.
A text, in the broadest sense of the word, can be regarded as a configuration of
signs that is coherently interpretable by some community of users. Implicit in the
definition is the view that something can only qualify as a text if it is void of anonymity,
randomness and illogic.

Hanks (1989: 96) for instance distinguishes the senseless

cacophony of a crowded street from the sound exchange of words between two mutually
oriented interactants or the noise of rush hour as opposed to the concerted dissonance of
a dramatic passage in a musical score. Texts are therefore innately communicative and
are part of an ongoing discourse produced, received and interpreted by various social
actors and agents.
The reading of a text occurs through its textuality. A text is replete insofar as it is
grounded in a locally defined social context. In order to understand a text and make it
semantically whole the reader has to draw on a variety background information or seek to
understand the particular context that gave rise to such text. Even the most rigorous of
linguists with their emphasis on textual form and content make reference to a texts
connection with the socio-cultural world. Textuality then, refers to the attributes that
distinguish the text as an object of enquiry. Texts are produced and understood in terms
of the broader socio-cultural context in which they arise. If read in isolation from the

broader social matrix in which it is inherently a part, a text becomes incomplete and
Also linked to the use of text as a concept, is the term intertextuality. Implicit in
this is the view that all accounts of the world are highly mediated by pre-existing notions
and theories. According to Barnes and Duncan (1992) places are intertextual in that they
are shaped by previous texts and practices that are deeply inscribed in their landscapes
and institutions. In short, texts shape and are in turn shaped by other texts. Therefore
meaning is produced from text to text rather than in and of the texts themselves.

The Discourse on Text

The discourse as to what constitutes a text, and in extension its textuality, has
been a longstanding and ongoing one. There are indeed many approaches to the study of
text. Approaches to textual analysis can be differentiated according to the scope and
extent to which text is seen as an object of enquiry. For a structuralist, texts are seen as
products of an ongoing hegemonic discourse. Much of the initial work on texts in
structuralism was carried out by Roland Barthes. Barthes believed that the world was
made up of signs. By studying these signs Barthes believed one could uncover the
complexities and instability that underlie our everyday life. Accordingly, landscapes are
perceived as being produced and shaped consciously to represent a particular set of
values and belief systems. Landscapes were therefore found to be unnatural and highly
ideological and political. In one of his most famous essays, The Blue Guide, Barthes
(1986) critiqued the widely used Hachette World Travel Guide as being an instrument of
Western cultural manipulation. Barthes illustrated how by showcasing a limited range of
landscape features the travel guide plays into western constructions of place, thus
ignoring the familiar (western) and romanticising that which is deemed as unfamiliar (the
orient). In fact, Barthes described the travel guide as an agent of blindness, one that
conceal non-western realities.
Post-structuralists on the other hand, challenge the structuralist notion that texts
are coherent and self-contained. Instead, advocates of post-structuralism posit that texts
are innately contradictory and indeterminate. Post-structuralists therefore shift their focus

away from the text itself (as a bounded linguistic artefact) to the interaction between
reader, text and author. The consequence of this is the expansion of the notion of text to
include even social life as text.
This expanded notion of texts also has its roots in postmodernism. The
postmodern view sees texts as being constitutive of reality rather than mimicking it
(Barnes and Duncan, 1992). For postmodernists the world is like a text, encoded with
meaning. Ricoeur (1971) for instance posits that social life has strikingly similar
characteristics like that of a written discourse. For Ricoeur (1971) social life, like text, is
detached from the intentions of its original authors, inherently unstable and possesses a
certain amount of objective fixity. Additionally, social life has an importance beyond the
initial context for which it was constructed again, like that of a written text. Similarly,
Geertz (1973) looks at culture as text. For Geertz, culture can be read by an
ethnographer as one might read a book. He extends his point by claiming that this
practice is not only academic in its orientation, but one that everyone practices.
Text, Textuality and Geography
The bulk of the literature on text and textuality has largely been confined to a few
disciplines literary studies, linguistics and anthropology in particular. Most of the initial
work carried out focused on issues relating to the organisation, production and
interpretation of text. Throughout most of the twentieth century, competing methods of
textual analysis have been put forward. Advocates of structuralism have focused on
semiotics or text as signs while post-structuralists have looked at text as being
constitutive of larger more dynamic discourses. The latter mostly adopts a Foucauldian
interpretation of text. Here discourses are seen as connected to knowledge, identity and
power. Society is seen as filled with multiple discourses that are representative of various
interest groups. Texts either reflect or shape these multiple and sometimes competing
discourses. Over the past few decades these textual methods of analysis have attracted
much attention and interest in the social sciences in general and geography in particular.
It was not until the 1980s and 1990s (during geographys cultural turn) that
geographers became interested with textual analysis. This cultural turn saw the promotion
of a hermeneutic approach to the study of place and the politics of representation. Most of

these studies have focused on landscapes, cultural landscapes in particular. For

geographers (new cultural geographers especially) texts represent a valid way of
interpreting landscapes. Implicit in this, is the viewpoint that landscapes are themselves
encoded with messages, and can therefore be read and decoded as texts. Geographers
are interested in the way places themselves encapsulate and communicate cultural
identity and how these places in turn shape our own perceptions and identities as social
beings. Peoples interactions with their surroundings are therefore viewed as interactive
and dynamic rather than one-dimensional and static. Landscapes are constantly written
and inscribed with meanings. These meanings can then be read or interpreted as signs
about the particular values, identity, beliefs and practices evocative of that particular
landscape, place, space or era. However, in order to read these signs, one must
understand the language in which it was written in other words, one has to become
familiar with the texts textuality.
Barnes and Duncans (1992) publication entitled Writing Worlds illustrates the
many ways geographers have used concepts such as text, discourse and metaphor to
explore the dynamics of power in the representation of landscape. Though the landscape
representations explored by the authors in the volume varied considerably (from
travellers writings, to propaganda maps), a common theme running throughout the book
was that all socio-cultural products and practices including landscapes, social action,
paintings, maps and even language are susceptible to textual interpretation. Patrick
McGreevy (1992) showed how written accounts of Niagara Falls dating back to the late
nineteenth century were informed by the metaphor of death. McGreevy went further to
illustrate how this metaphor of death had crept out of the written texts of the area into the
very landscape humans created around Niagara (evident especially in the many acts of
suicide carried out in the area). Likewise, Stephen Daniels (1992) used a water-colour of
Leeds painted by J.M.W. Turner in 1816 to show how even works of art are themselves,
inscribed with meaning and can be read as text. Daniel showed how the painting
addressed both features of Leeds industrialisation as well as of the intellectual and
political psyche of Turner and his time.
Another study worthy of mention is that of Denis Cosgrove (1998). Cosgrove has
applied social and cultural theory to the study of landscapes. According to him,

landscapes are constructed and shaped by socio-cultural and political processes.

Landscapes for Cosgrove (1998) represent a way of seeing. This way of seeing is
largely ideological and signifies the way in which the dominant class in a society
represents itself and its property. In short, landscapes are both constituted by, and
legitimate, social power relations.
Recent research in such subjects as sociology, anthropology and human
geography have build on these past notions of text though not explicitly in exploring
issues relating to the politics of place, identity and culture, place making,
place/destination marketing, transnationalism and even graffiti. Studies have shown for
instance how various media texts (including the internet: travel blogs; online
advertisements and other promotional literature for instance) have helped to either
reproduce stereotypes or even challenge dominant images of places. Erjavec (2001) for
instance have shown how the thematic and form structure of news reports work to
reinforce and legitimate discrimination against the Roma in Slovenia during the 1990s.
On a slightly different note, Pritchard and Morgan (2001) have shown how destination
branding strategies helped shape Wales tourism product. Based on their analysis of the
marketing campaigns and promotional literature

of the Wales Tourist Board


particular, the two concluded that the influence of repressive and liberating historical,
political and cultural discourses were seen in the way Wales marketed itself as a tourist
destination. Both examples though different in their focus speak to the relationship
between texts, identity politics and place representation (see also Mercille, 2005).
Even more recently, Mains (2008) have shown how Latin American transnational
identities are inscribed in both the cultural and physical landscapes around the U.S.Mexico border. In looking at the movements or exchange of music and architecture
between both sides of the border, Mains (2008) illustrates how cultural identities shape
the way places are constructed and represented. For instance, in both northern Mexico
and California, Mexican hip-hop, ranchero music, and U.S. rock dominate. These music
are often bilingual thus indicative of the influence of what can be termed transnational or
border identities. Similarly, Mains (2008) argues that an examination of the built
environment of cities such as Los Angeles or Tijuana, will show the influence of Spanish
colonial plazas and gardens, indigenous adobe materials as well as modernist office

buildings again reminiscent of a transnational culture, but also indicative of the ways
cultural identities are sometimes manifested in the physical landscape, and in turn
mapped onto space. In short, the U.S.-Mexico border and its associated cultural and
physical landscapes can be read as a text, as it embodies the interconnectedness with
people and places throughout the Americas and, has given rise to, as well as increasingly
shaped by, a number of distinct and competing discourses on mobility , immigration and
legality and transnational identities to name some.
It should not come as a surprise that even graffiti can be looked at as texts. By
studying the distribution of textual graffiti throughout Kingston, Jamaica, Jaffe et. al.
(forthcoming) illustrate how graffiti texts can be used to understand relations and
contestations of power in urban space. Here, graffiti are defined as a sort of text that
adopts a historically and culturally grounded interpretation of some aspect of the world,
shaped by human personalities and actions. The study revealed that graffiti not only alters
or edits the text of the cityscape, it also forms an independent body of texts that refer to
each other as well as to the canvas of the city on which they are literally inscribed.
Graffiti thus represents a written and visual aspect of language, with its own semiotics of
action, that if read properly can uncover the cultural politics of place, as well as various
geographies of power and identity.
There are however, a number of problems associated with the use of text, and in
extension textuality, that one should be mindful of. A major one relates to the issue of
representation. There are important epistemological and ethical issues surrounding the
notion of representation and its implications for textual analysis. Duncan (2000) points
out two such concerns. The first refers to the issue of the translatability of cultural
difference and the second refers to the ethics of speaking for others. The signs that are
embedded in a landscape may have different meanings for those who produce them and
those who interpret them. As such, great care has to be taken when interpreting these
meanings. Researchers have to be mindful of their own biases as well.
Kevon Rhiney

See also Cultural Geography; Hermeneutics; Landscape Interpretation; Identity;

Structuralism; Post-Structuralism; Postmodernism

Barnes, T.J. and J.S. Duncan (1992) Introduction: Writing Worlds. In T.J. Barnes and J.S.
Duncan, eds. Writing Worlds: Discourse, text & metaphor in the representation of
landscape, London and New York: Routledge, pp. 1-17.
Barthes, R. (1986, original 1957) The Blue Guide, in Mythologhies, trans. A Lavers, New
York: Hill & Wang, pp. 74-77.
Barthes, R. (1987, original 1971) From work to text. Image, Music, Text, trans. S. Heath.
New York: Hill & Wang, pp. 155-64.
Clifford, J. and G.E. Marcus, eds. (1986) Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of
Ethnography, Berkeley: University of California Press.
Cosgrove, D.E. (1998) Social Formation and Symbolic Landscape, Madison: University
of Wisconsin Press.
Daniels, S. (1992) The Implications of Industry: Turner and Leeds. In Barnes, T.J. and
J.S. Duncan, eds. Writing Worlds: Discourse, text & metaphor in the representation of
landscape, London and New York: Routledge, pp. 38-49.
Duncan, J. (2000) Text. In R.J. Johnston, D. Gregory, G. Pratt and M. Watts, eds. The
Dictionary of Human Geography, Malden: Blackwell, pp. 824-826.
Erjavec, K. (2001) Media Representation of the Discrimination against the Roma in
Eastern Europe: The case of Slovenia. Discourse and Society, Vol. 12 (6) pp. 699-727.
Geertz, C. (1973) The Interpretation of Cultures, New York: Basic Books.
Hanks, W.F. (1989) Text and Textuality. Annual Review of Anthropology, Vol. 18, pp.
Jaffe, R., K. Rhiney and C. Francis (being peer reviewed) Throw word: Graffiti, Space
and Power in Kingston Jamaica, submitted to the International Journal of Urban and
Regional Research.
Mains, S. (2008) Transnational Communities, Identities, and Moving Populations. In E.
E. L. Jackiewicz and F. J. Bosco, eds. Placing Latin America: Contemporary Themes in
Human Geography. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, p.205-234.

McGreevy, P. (1992) Reading the Texts of Niagara Falls: The metaphor of death. In
Barnes, T.J. and J.S. Duncan, eds. Writing Worlds: Discourse, text & metaphor in the
representation of landscape, London and New York: Routledge, pp.50-72.
Mercille, J. (2005) Media effects on Image: The case of Tibet. Annals of Tourism
Research, Vol. 32 (4) pp. 1039-1055.
Pritchard A. & N. J. Morgan (2001) Culture, identity and tourism representation:
Marketing Cymru or Wales? Tourism Management, Vol. 22 (2) pp. 167-179.
Ricoeur, P. (1971) The model of the text: meaningful action considered as a text. Social
Research Vol. 38, pp. 529-62.
Tyler, S. (1987) The Unspeakable: Discourse, Dialogue, and Rhetoric in the Postmodern
World, Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.

Further Readings
Cosgrove, D. and S. Daniels, eds. (1988) The Iconography of Landscape, Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press.
Daniels, S. and D. Cosgrove (1993) Spectacle and text: Landscape metaphors in cultural
geography. In J. Duncan and D. Ley, eds. Place/Culture/Representation, London:
Routledge, pp. 57-77.
Duncan, J. and N. Duncan (1988) (Re)reading the landscape. Environment and Planning
D: Society and Space, Vol. 6, pp. 117-26.
Duncan, J. (1990) The city as text: the politics of landscape interpretation in the Kandyan
kingdom, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Mains, S.P. (2004) Teaching transnationalism in the Caribbean: toward an understanding
of representation and neo-colonialism in human geography. Journal of Geography in
Higher Education. Volume 28 (2) pp. 317-332.

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