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  • Reading Beyond Meaning
  • George Aichele

The Theology of the Text

[T]here will never be . . . any theology of the Text.

(Derrida, Dissemination 258)

If the text is an instance of what Jacques Derrida calls “differance,” the ineffable writing, then there can be no theology of the text. There can be no theology of the text because the text is the trace which escapes onto- theological closure (closure of the “volume,” of the “work”) even as it inscribes it. As the non-identity or non- presence which lies at the heart of any scriptural identity, the text is no more than the entirely material “stuff” (hyle) which the idealism inherent in the traditional understanding of the text does not comprehend and therefore excludes.

This understanding of what a text is differs greatly from the traditional one. The traditional understanding of the text allows us to speak of two readers reading “the same text” (book, story, poem, etc.) even though not only the physical objects of the reading but the editions and even the translations involved are different. It allows us to agree or disagree about the legitimacy of an interpretation, the authority of an edition, or the accuracy of a translation. The invisible, underlying stratum which allows us to posit the identity of texts is their meaning, the spiritual essence which binds many varying physical copies into unity.

The traditional understanding of the text is therefore profoundly theological; it is that very theology of the text which differance refuses. It is also profoundly logocentric. For this understanding, the text is not the concrete, unique ink-and-paper thing which you might hold in your hand, scan with your eyes, file on a shelf, give away, or even throw in the trash.1 Instead, the text is an ideal, spiritual substance, a Platonic form of which the material thing is merely a “copy.” The physical object is simply the medium, the channel in and through which the spiritual reality has become incarnate. This way of thinking seems quite natural to us; this indicates how deeply ingrained the theology involved here actually is.

Corresponding closely to the theology of the text is a complex economy of the text, which allows texts to be owned in three distinct but interrelated ways. The conspiracy between these three types of ownership forms the traditional understanding of the text. Meaning is at the center of this system of values; what defines each of the three types of ownership, and their relations to one another, is the desire for meaning. These three types of ownership together establish a law of the text, a system which authenticates “my property” and delimits my rights and obligations in relation to the text. The law of the text establishes the legitimacy of meaning, the possibility of a proper reading. It is the law of what Roland Barthes calls the readerly.

The first owner, the reader, normally owns one copy of the text, a physical object, the book. The reader desires but has no guarantee of owning the book’s meaning. The second owner, the author, is the book’s origin and therefore owns its meaning—the true meaning reflected in every copy. The author secures the book’s meaning. There is also a third “owner,” the copyright holder, who may also be the author (or the reader). This owner possesses the legal right to disseminate copies, to control the event of incarnation. Each of these owners may say, “This is my book,” but the term “my book” cannot mean the same thing in each of these three cases.

This economy of triple ownership turns the text into a “work.”2 For Barthes, the work is defined by society’s recognition of an author and thus of an authority: “One must realize that today it is the work’s ‘quality’ ... and not the actual process of reading that can establish differences between books” (“From Work to Text” 79). The work is meaningful and complete; it is an object of consumption. All three owners require the work to be a union of spirit and matter—a union which can (and must) be undone. For the theology of the text, meaning is “in” the text...

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