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Robert Crawshaw, Lancaster University

Translating the In-Between
SuAndi’s “The Story of M” or Reflections on Sociological Approaches to Literary Analysis
Das Dazwischen übersetzen
SuAndis „The Story of M“, oder Reflektionen über soziologische Ansätze der Literaturanalyse

presented by Nicole Falkenhayner


The purpose of this discussion paper is to reflect on the translation of human experience through written text and performance with reference to established approaches to the sociological analysis of literature. It takes as a point of departure the hermeneutic principle developed by Auerbach (1953) and Spitzer (1948) and subsequently exemplified by studies such as that of Stierle (1993/2001), in which the original features of literary texts are seen to encapsulate salient signifiers within the semiotic framework of society as a whole and thence can be read as a prism through which a given linguistic community can be better understood. Without taking issue with this approach which can be compared with Benjamin’s (1938) analysis of Baudelaire’s representation of Parisian society of the late 19th century and has been further reflected in more recent studies of black literature in the context of post-war Britain, the paper explores a more socio-linguistically grounded alternative. This alternative, ultimately inspired by the heteroglossic theories of Bakhtin (1928/1981) and Volosinov (1973), subsequently incorporated inter alia into the theoretical frameworks of Foucault (1974), Halliday (1978; 1981) and Thibault (1991), sees all discourses, literary or otherwise, as inter-subjective, provisional and context-dependent. Sociological conclusions can properly only be derived from texts’ discursive inter-relationship with each other when these are analysed from the perspective of their narrative structure or framing, the ways they position actors, events and interlocutors and the internal logico-syntactic patterns which define their ‘codes’ (Bernstein, 1981). The paper considers the methodological implications of this approach with reference to The Story of ‘M’ , an auto-biographical text by SuAndi, a leading Manchester-born British performance poet.

Translating the in-between: SuAndi’s The Story of ‘M’ or reflections on sociological approaches to literary analysis.

This is not a paper about inter-lingual translation as it is traditionally understood: that is the transfer of a linguistically encoded message from one natural language to another. Instead, it raises questions about the representation and transmission of human experience. It presents this latter process as an act of translation in its own right, one in which representations of real life in society cannot by definition be understood as referring either to a stable notion of a context of communication or to that of a transcendent self. Rather, following Bakhtin ([1929] 1973;1981; 1984), Volosinov (1973) and the post-modern thinkers who have developed the dialogic principle into a complete theory of discourse in society, it understands texts as heteroglossic, provisional embodiments of open-ended semiotic systems which are necessarily unstable and inter-subjective in character, acts of communication whose claim to represent reality lies in inter-discursive processes of signification. Such a view of the translation process shifts the ground on which the sociology of literature has traditionally been based. It moves socio-literary comment away from formal, idealised statements about the relationship between text and reality towards one which focuses rather on that between different acts of social mediation. Taking as a selective point of entry the hermeneutic approach articulated most cogently by Benjamin ([1938] 1973), Spitzer (1948) and Auerbach (1953) and subsequently systematically applied by Stierle in his monumental study of the myths of Paris (1993), the paper questions the foundations of their methodology and seeks alternatively to apply one which compares the internal lexico-grammatical logic of different discourses defining or articulating a common topos: in this case, the relationship between a writer of mixed ethnic background, her parents, other members of the society in which she and her mother were brought up and the form and impact of her own artistic expression. In so doing, I am closely following the approach described by Thibault (1991) which draws both on Foucault (1969) and Halliday (1978, 1985) in applying inter-discursive theory to close textual analysis. My argument derives from the premise that in the absence of any unified understanding of what society is, the most sociologically defensible way of deconstructing the relationships between individuals and communities is to analyse and compare the pragma-linguistic structures of interrelated texts.

Sam Selvon’s classic 1956 account of the lives of Caribbean immigrants in London is described on the cover of the 1985 edition as ‘The definitive novel about London’s West Indians’ (Financial Times). And, in a sense, so it is. Its hybrid, vernacular style, the insider-outsider positioning of the author-narrator which alternates between second and third person pronouns and its vivid portrayal of place draw the reader in, gently inviting him to see the metropolis through the restless, mobile, unsentimental scrutiny of its main protagonist, Moses Aloetta, the semi-fictional alter ago of the author. The narrative invokes an irresistible identification with the principal character and those whom he sees as his fellow urban travellers. It has an impact analogous to the best writing of Dickens or Balzac, but without Dickens’ self-regarding theatricality or Balzac’s detached omniscience. The novel has a sense of the real which bears comparison with George Orwell’s Down and out in Paris and London while avoiding Orwell’s insistent, polemical tone. As with Orwell, no-one can read The Lonely Londoners without being moved to empathy while simultaneously gaining an enhanced insight into what it was like to be an immigrant in post-war Britain (see extract attached – Annexe 1).

There is an established school of criticism deriving from the aesthetic power of creative art such as that of Selvon which sees literature as offering a condensed form of socio-cultural comment. Literary text is emblematic. It bears witness, or to apply Apollinaire’s eponymous trope Alcools , it ‘distils’ reality, providing the reader with a unique, aesthetically coherent vision of society which captures a Zeitgeist . According to this view of literature, the act of ‘translation’ can initially be detected within the mechanism of the text. A hermeneutic, cyclical process of interpretation (Spitzer, 1948; Auerbach, 1953; Steiner, 1975) identifies the salient formal structures which are seen to constitute its originality. A leap of faith then takes place. The topoi of the text, combined with its symbolic organisation, are assumed to correspond to that of a whole social group, defined in terms of some externally imposed category such as ‘community’ or ‘condition’ or, equally frequently, in terms of ‘place’, whether it be a city, town, region or rural space. The correspondence between the text or texts and the social or physical reality which they epitomise may or may not be supported by empirical evidence. At one extreme, no direct evidence is deemed necessary other than that of related accounts by contemporaries of the reality to which the texts allude.

This is typically the case in literary histories of place such as Stierle’s comprehensive 1993 account of how the myths of Paris have been ‘captured’ by the great French writers of the late 18th and 19th centuries (Stierle, 1993/ transl. Rocher-Jacquin, 2001). Stierle acknowledges that the reality encapsulated in the texts is itself a ‘mythical construct’, reflecting the metonymical features of the built environment. However, the compilation of literary representations is imbued with a universalising authority whose strength derives from description, quotation and illustration rather than from an analysis of the translation process itself. The metaphorical evidence of the original texts which are seen as archetypes is supported co-referentially by other texts which ‘testify’ to the authenticity of the creative vision of the original. It is thereby understood that the perceptions of the writers of the ‘living experience’ of ‘enhabiting’ Paris are shared by wider sections of the city’s population and in that sense that they constitute in themselves a ‘sociology’ of the urban environment. Underlying this approach, which echoes Benjamin’s famous studies of Baudelaire (1935, 1938, 1939 transl. 1973), there is an assumption, implicit for example in the chapter heading ‘Baudelaire or the Streets of Paris’ (Benjamin, 1973:170) [my italics], that the reality which constitutes the referential ‘tenor’ of the text (Ogden & Richards, 1929) is semiotically identifiable and, by extension, physically substantivised through its connection to a material space. Although linguistically mediated, social reality is deemed to be ‘out there’, its network of signs representing a coherent assemblage whose framework can be captured conceptually. Further, it is presupposed that this conception is, or was, collective. However, nothing other than the spiritually persuasive power of Benjamin’s own prose and the evidence of Baudelaire’s poetry bears out the truth of such assertions.

Stierle’s study is only one celebrated example of an approach which uses literature as a means of understanding society. It acknowledges the insights of post-Saussurian theory by placing the analysis of literary extracts within a wider semiotic context but does not focus on the mechanics of transformation and difference. Indeed, Jean Starobinski in his preface to the 2001 French translation of Stierle’s work says as much: ‘La méthode,dans ce livre de la maturité, évite de s’attarder sur ses problèmes constitutifs, elle ne met pas évidence ses apprêts instrumentaux’ (Starobinski, 2001: xiii). The relationship between the selected indices and the original textual material is allowed to speak for itself. A similar approach has been followed by many more recent literary commentators who seek to draw symbolic social conclusions from the writings of specific authors. James Procter’s study of post-war black British writing Dwelling Places (2003) strongly takes issue with early mimetic readings of The Lonely Londoners in which, as he puts it, ‘[Selvon’s] black London is granted a quasi-empirical status […] as an uncontestable “source” that is somehow able to transcend its own textuality’ (Procter, 2003: 47). Nevertheless, in concentrating on the terms associated with ‘dwelling’ as they appear in the works of selected ‘black’ British writers, he himself invests their lexis with significance as symbolic of the changing material conditions experienced over four decades by first and second generation immigrants. In doing so, he directs attention away from the internal syntactic structure of the discourse and hence from the texts’ social function as acts of communication in context.

As in Stierle’s work, contemporary visual images feature in Procter’s text (see Annexe 2). However, Procter’s approach goes further than Stierle’s. The inclusion of images and the juxtaposition of creative extracts alongside different texts with a similar topos serve to underline the dialectic within the semiotic framework projected by the original writing: that is the different representations of the dwellings of recent immigrants to Britain and of the kinds of activities which take place within and beyond them. Drawing on a reductive sociological analysis of the conditions of black immigrants from the early 1960s (Patterson, 1963; cit. Procter, 2003: 23), Procter critically points to analogies between Patterson’s text and a similarly prejudiced journalistic commentary supported by an image which originally appeared in the magazine Punch the following year (Huxley, 1964: 65; cit. Procter, 2003: 28.). Procter’s commentary on the image reads as follows:

‘In figure 1 the pavement of the street also forms the roof of the room: any easy division of indoors and outdoors is refused through the elision of the interior (private) space of the house and exterior (public) domain of the city streets. As with Patterson’s composite house and the pensioner’s home in Powell’s speech [a reference to a quotation from right-wing politician Enoch Powell’s notorious 1968 comments on the behaviour of immigrants, now known as ‘the Rivers of Blood’ speech], the West Indians in these accounts seem to be ‘disturbing’ because they fail to regulate and maintain such boundaries, not just between inside and outside but between day and night, legality and illegality’.

—(Procter, 2003: 30)

Procter’s approach to socio-literary commentary justifiably qualifies as ‘sociological’ in that he focuses on one specific aspect of social life experienced by a particular group in British society: that of ‘dwelling’ as lived and represented by West Indian immigrants, and as represented by ‘white’, culturally dominant commentators. He draws on different types of text in order to demonstrate the capacity of literary tropes to define the evolution of collective, yet contrasted, ‘imaginaries’ of ‘dwelling spaces’ which, by extension, offer an insight into social change.

While fully validated within academic discourse, if such an approach has any shortcoming, it is that the type of commentary it normally involves does not analyse in detail the language of the associated discourses which it cites as evidence. Its textual readings, while symbolically interpretative, are not close enough. Their meaning is assumed to be transparent to the informed reader. Such ‘transparent’ or ‘face value’ readings of discourse can nevertheless be lent empirical authority by having recourse to socially representative ‘live’ qualitative data derived from interviews and focus groups. In this way, the impact and even the collective readings of a given work of creative literature can be ‘scientifically’ attested through the systematic gathering of reader responses or related testimonies on the part of the writers themselves. These testimonies can then be offset against other textual constructions of place or ‘ways of life’ leading in turn to empirical deductions about the collective or divergent perceptions of specific social groups. The empirical analysis of a reading community does not constitute an inter-textual analysis of the relationship between an original creative text and those other texts which cluster around it as a reference point. However, it does represent a sociologically valid insight into creative production, reading and interpretation and, as such, is a gauge of the impact of a given text on society at large. It also simultaneously - if indirectly - reveals empirically how far the vision represented by the creative text corresponds to the perceptions of those who share first-hand knowledge of the narrated experiences as well as the attitudes of the public towards the issues raised in the text. If the original text is a translation of previously symbolised experience, the meta-discursive data which emerges from such research can themselves be described as a further ‘translation’ of the original. In commenting on the text, the reader-informants transform it through appropriation and hence, in a sense, ‘re-write’ it – as this paper is also doing. The process of translation is dynamic, ever-changing and infinitely recursive.

Just such an approach was adopted by the Bristol Cultural Development Partnership in their community-building project Small Island Read 2007 . The design and outcomes of the policy-led initiative to investigate the social impact of a popular work of bio-fiction were themselves the subject of two comprehensive discourse based research projects, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council of England and Wales and directed by James Procter. Small Island Read 2007 was expressly designed as a social experiment. 50,000 free copies of the novel were distributed to readers in four former slave trading cities in Britain and the readers’ reactions as well as the impact of the book on diverse communities expressed through interviews and focus groups systematically recorded and transcribed. According to a summary of Procter’s subsequent research published in the journal Moving Worlds (Procter, 2009: 26-40), his own projects’ findings took two forms: first a critical analysis of the design of the Small Island Read 2007 project based on close readings of the official documents, itself a sociological study, and second, selective analyses of the readers’ responses to their reading of Andrea Levy’s best selling text Small Island . In the latter instance, the readers’ responses were quoted as transparent statements of their points of view, as the following examples from a focus group demonstrate:

‘S4 She’s aspiring to better things isn’t she? She hasn’t really got anything to be that way about but she’s aspiring to live a better life and have better things isn’t she?
S1 She’s very judgemental though isn’t she? Everybody else you know does everything wrong.
S2 I think I might be like her if I went to live there somewhere in Africa and I’ve got my idea of Africans busy eating mangos in the sunshine (laughter).’

—(cit. Procter, 2009: 33)

The expression of the speakers’ attitudes, however different from each other, was taken as read, leading to Procter’s broad conclusion on the outcomes of The Small Island 2007 project that ‘it […] appears possible to activate the text as a meeting place for critical reflection, with some readers approving of Hortense’s personality [Hortense is the main character in the book and one of several narrative voices ], others disapproving, others changing their mind in an open, dialogic, and ultimately inconclusive conversation’. (Procter, 2009: 34) [my italics].

Proctor’s exemplary approach nevertheless illustrates the complexity involved in deriving collective meanings from qualitative data. It underlines the importance of interpreting discourses with reference to their immediate context of realisation. It also knowingly draws attention to the obvious dangers of basing a prioristic sociological generalisation on selected extracts, whether these consist of quotations from the original creative text or from other related discursive material. While not yet carried through to its logical conclusion, the methodological approach which I am seeking to define in this paper differs from those cited above in that it aims to identify analogous patterns within and between the discourses themselves and then, through close analysis, to demonstrate how text positions authors, characters and implied reader/listeners in terms of time, space, social relations, other discursive representations of related events and, most importantly vis-à-vis its own linguistic relativity as discourse. The sociological conclusions which can be drawn from this kind of approach are limited. At best they can point towards ‘the ways in which typical ‘co-patternings’ and intersections of (inter)textual meaning relations constrain in critical ways what social agents can do in specific domains of social practice’ (Thibault, 1991: 7); that is, close inter-discursive deconstruction can reveal how and to what extent a given speech environment conditions a subject’s response, thereby dynamically representing his/her position in a specific social situation. Obviously, no two situations are identical. Moreover the assumptions as to what is appropriate in a given context and the choices made by speaker/writers are vested in the individual consciousness and are infinitely variable. There are nevertheless ‘values’ inherent both in the meaning of words and in their grammatical organisation (code) (cf Saussure, 1913; Hjelmslev, 1943 [1961]; Halliday, 1978);), as well as in their narrative ‘frame’ (Bernstein, 1982; Foucault, 1974) in relation to which the subjects dialectically and strictly provisionally situate themselves. To the extent that the ‘external’ values can themselves be identified and the ‘position’ of the speaker/writer/characters adequately defined, it is then technically possible to extrapolate from a given inter-discursive text/situation ‘a’ and apply the same approach to inter-discursive text/situations ‘b… n’ , on the basis of which a working sociological hypothesis can progressively be formulated. The emphasis of this approach is not first and foremost on the potential of the individual inter-discursive data to generate sociologically valid generalisations, but rather on the insights it affords into the dynamic process of socially contextualised meaning making, in short into the formal elements involved in ‘translating society’. As the corpus of analogous data is enlarged and discursively compared, the basis for drawing valid social conclusions is enhanced, even if the creative texts themselves are, technically speaking ‘invented’.

The case I wish to consider for analysis is a dramatic poem written and performed by SuAndi OBE, a well known leading black writer/ poet/ performer. SuAndi is director and founding member of The Black Arts Alliance (BAA) in Manchester. Together with Liverpool, the Rotterdam of the 19th and early 20th centuries, Manchester was of course the heart of the industrial revolution in the North-West of England and the manufacturing centre of the world. The city has undergone a series of radical transformations since the early 1960s to the point where it can now be considered as one of the main post-colonial, multi-cultural metropolises in the UK, rivalling London as a vibrant cultural centre. SuAndi has been one of the high profile participants in an AHRC-funded project Moving Manchester/Mediating Marginalities (2005-2009) whose principal aim has been to capture the relationship between ‘black writing’ (or that of first and second generation immigrants and their children) and the changing public perceptions of Manchester as a place. The writing reviewed by the project, run by a team from Lancaster University, covered a 45-year period. The published output of more than 100 writers has been systematically studied and electronically catalogued during which at least 26 of them have participated voluntarily in interviews and focus groups. In these, they have discussed the origins and form of their writing, its links with Manchester and its potential impact on the public at large, as well as the material circumstances which have enabled their work to be produced and published.

The extract on which I wish to focus (Annexe 3) is drawn from one of SuAndi’s best known performance poems, The Story of M . The poem, which SuAndi has performed to acclaim all over the world, is re-produced in a BAA publication entitled 4 for More (SuAndi, 2002). The text, represented as a mini-drama/monologue was inspired by the famous BBC television series Talking Heads , scripted by one of Britain’s best known writers, Alan Bennett, in which a single figure speaks direct to camera about herself and her past, evoking her relationship with her physical surroundings and the people who have marked her life:

‘One night, now I’m already writing and performing, and one night I watched Alan what’s his name, Talking Heads, the very first one done by Mrs Bucket (I can’t remember her real name) who was the living image of my mother. I didn’t catch the beginning of it, just she came, you know I turned the TV on, she’s there on the screen talking to camera, she’s obviously dying, she’s obviously got cancer, I watched the whole thing stood up and wept, you know wept for ever and thought “There’s a Black version of this”. I think that’s the moment when I realised, I might not have realised I did have a connection with African-American literature which I read now, but I also have a connection with British based literature, but from a black perspective, does that make sense?’

—(SuAndi & Fowler, interview, 20th November 2007: 2)

The ‘M’ of the title stands for Margaret, SuAndi’s mother, an Anglo-Irish Catholic brought up in Liverpool, who moves to Manchester after the Second World War as a single mother with two children, the younger of whom, SuAndi, is the daughter of her unsettled marriage to a Nigerian sailor who leaves shortly before the move. Within the ‘text-world’ of the poem/ performance, Margaret is portrayed lying in hospital, dying of cancer. She reminisces about her past life: her own Liverpudlian childhood, the death of her father at sea, her rejection by her mother, her later encounter with the Nigerian who was to become her husband, her various jobs during and after the war and, above all, her loving relationship with her daughter which is marked by her continuous struggle against racial prejudice and social disadvantage as her daughter grows up in Manchester. Towards the end of the poem, ‘M’’s voice mutates into that of SuAndi herself. In an epilogue addressed directly to the reader/ listener/ participant in the performance, she reflects on her own identity as the daughter of an inter-racial partnership in a society which attempts to categorise her as a member of a marginalised social group whose origins lie outside Manchester. This categorisation she powerfully, movingly, rejects, affirming her dignity grounded in the love of her parents as an equal member of an idealised Mancunian community which extends beyond itself to that of humanity as a whole.

The published version of The Story of M is accompanied by stage instructions and includes in the margins small photographs of real life people, places and artefacts which are referred to in the text. As stated in the introduction to 4 for More :

‘The only thing that ‘M’ lacks is fiction. This true account of a mother raising her children during the 1940s through to the 1980s in Liverpool and Manchester is one of the most powerful social history accounts of our time’

—(SuAndi & Henry, 2002: i).

Later in the introduction, SuAndi emphasises the ‘truth’ of the poetry she performs, insisting that the embedding of the ‘truth’ in personal experience is a cumulative link between one representation of social reality and another, a vision which casts the poet as a personal mediator between discourses which are ‘true’ because they emanate from the author’s known life but which, once performed and published, become part of an inter-textually constituted, collective perception:

‘When I’m writing, I would say that 90% of my poetry isn’t mine. You are performing and someone asks for a particular poem that you don’t do (that particular poem) any more, because you’ve moved on. But because they’re our stories, we can bring them out, dust them off, and do them again and again, or maybe rework them. And so often, I’m inclined to say, by way of a link between poems, a bit like Maya Angelou does: “I tell everybody this story because it’s the truth”’.

—(SuAndi & Henry, 2009: iii)

As SuAndi’s words demonstrate, the ‘truth value’ of the stories does not simply derive from the fact that their author knows that they represent her own personal experience (my italics). In her statement, the pronouns ‘I’, ‘you’ and ‘we’ are represented as interchangeable. The stories are ‘true’ because they share common characteristics.

The heteroglossic principle as originally articulated by Bakhtin and Volosinov and subsequently developed by Foucault, Halliday and Thibault finds expression in the twin notions of ‘quotation’ and ‘comment’. This principle operates in at least two directions. First, a writer/speaker/performer in a given communicative context of situation is re-deploying or ‘quoting’ (sic. ) the discursive resources of a pre-existing framework. In other words, the initiator (primary interlocutor) of the inter-discursive act is re-enacting or, with reference to the title of this workshop, is ‘translating’ the elements of a situation-specific, semiotic micro-system from one context to another. In so doing, the initiator is, implicitly or explicitly, ‘commenting’ on its textual predecessors and is simultaneously modifying them. Second, a text can be described as ‘heteroglossic’ to the extent that it more or less openly draws attention to its own relativity and open-endedness: i.e. it is simultaneously in dialogue with itself and with a real or imagined interlocutor. This ‘reflexive’ function finds expression in auto-quotation, parenthesis, mitigation, re-definition of previously used words and phrases and in the re-positioning of internal and external interlocutors towards each other. At the same time, the heteroglossic dynamic operates at different discursive levels. Following Halliday (1973, 1978, 1981), the task of the ‘commentator’ (my/ourselves) who wishes to understand the social groundedness of the text is to approach the text at each of these levels in turn: the generic framing of the discourse in terms of its context, structure, and the interpersonal positioning of the actors and subsequently the text’s internal logico-semantic patterns which correspond to a given socio-linguistic ‘code’ (Berstein, 1982).

Applying the above approach to The Story of M , it is obvious that the narratological chronotype or ‘generic frame’ being quoted by the text is that of the daughter-mother-daughter testimony based on personal reminiscence. It is internally dialogic in the sense that it is the daughter who is ‘quoting’ the mother so that the two voices are heard to be simultaneously situating themselves in relation to each other and to the external interlocutor. The thematic frame consists of at least four main components: ‘M’’s terminal illness, her social position as child, wife and single mother with all that this implies in terms of exclusion and difference from others, her imagined identification with external historical events and physical places; above all the interchangeable, reciprocal love between mother and daughter, finally and beautifully encapsulated in the letter ‘M’:

‘’M’ for Margaret,
‘M’ for Mother,
And now ‘M’ for Me.
And my name is SuAndi’.

—SuAndi (2009: 18)

The structure of the narratological frame is episodic, chronological and dialogic, alternating as it does between accounts of the individual events situated in the past and comments on their sociological and personal significance. These refer explicitly to ‘M’’s relationship with groups or institutions which dialectically define her identity as an outsider: the Salvation Army, the Catholic Church, the Police, racist neighbours, other mothers, men in general and the historical events which serve as reference points lending her personal experiences wider relevance: for example the shooting of Malcolm X or the two American athletes’ famous black power salute at the 1968 Mexico Olympics. The salient feature of this generic chronotype is the way in which a personal episode is immediately related to a broader social context whose dominant characteristics are oppression and prejudice. Within the frame, the focal point of inter-textual comparison in making socio-semiotic generalisation is that of the relationship between episode and comment. The dialogic dynamic is on two axes: internally between the episode and the comment; externally and inter-textually, between this internal dynamic and those in other similarly framed texts.

However, as already suggested, the framing of the discourse in The Story of ‘M’ entails a range of voices embedded within each other: the voice of the narrator-performer, SuAndi herself, ‘envelops’ that of her mother, making SuAndi’s own identity the true focus of the text which is ‘predicated’ on the ‘theme’ of her mother’s life (cf Halliday, 1985). At the level below, ‘M’’s voice envelopes in turn those of other members of society whom she ‘quotes’ in her dialogue with the audience before responding to both interlocutors: internal and external:

‘When we first moved in, my daughter
Would leave the hall light on for me
Coming home from work.
The grandmother remarked one day
That maybe it was the delight of having
That was making us so extravagant.
Silly cow.’

—SuAndi (2009: 13)

In this way, the re-imagined dialogue between ‘M’ and her past life becomes one between SuAndi and her audience. In enacting her mother’s life story in which she, SuAndi, is represented as the bedrock of her mother’s existence, she is defining the values which define her, SuAndi, as a person, values which will always be represented in counterpoint to the forces of social oppression, exclusion and appropriation. However, it is not just the crystalline, unsentimental power of SuAndi’s closing statement which marks its sociological significance; it is the extent to which the multi-voice framing of the discourse as a paradigm involving a four-way relationship between daughter, mother, members of society and the reader/listener replicates other similarly framed accounts of inter-racial marriages which are the product of migration. It is the accumulation of similarity and difference within and between the discourses which actually constitutes the social reality to which it relates (my italics).

The same principle as that just described can then be applied at the level of the logico-semantic structures which are exemplified in the extract taken from the opening of the text. Focusing first on the interpersonal positioning of the ‘actors’ (Halliday 1985): ‘M’ herself (‘I’ […] ‘me’), ‘M’’s daughter (‘my daughter’ […] ‘her’ ), the daughter’s ‘boyfriend’ (‘my daughter’s boyfriend’ […] ‘him’ […] ‘he’), external agencies: (‘The Sally Army’ […] ‘they’; ‘poor Malcom’ [viz. Malcom X…] ‘him’) and finally the reader/ listener/ participant (‘you’)…, it becomes clear that ‘You’ is in fact ‘us’, the explicitly designated interlocutor of the performance event, hereinafter turned ‘white academic commentator/ translator’ seeking to envelope the whole recursive phenomenon of SuAndi’s text within his own provisional discourse i.e. simultaneously both to translate and in practice appropriate the live event in a new discursive context. Like the wedding guest in Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner , we are positioned as outsiders, the members of the general public who make value-judgements about others and who are now being challenged - or as Stuart Hall (1996), echoing Heath (1981) and ultimately Lacan, puts it - are being discursively ‘hailed’ by SuAndi as ‘M’ to re-evaluate our attitudes towards families who find themselves through force of circumstance in situations of social disadvantage associated with their racial origins. ‘M’ and her daughter are defining themselves in relation to ‘us’. Theirs is not in fact a transcendent identity. It is rather one which is shown to have been empirically constructed by external social determinants and which is now being defiantly re-defined through a dialectical discursive interaction with us as interlocutors.

Taking the analysis one step further, two discourses, as I have already suggested, stand in paratactic relation to each other within the text. The first consists of ‘M’s description of her circumstances in which short statements are placed in apposition to each other, each one cumulatively modifying or as Halliday (1985) terms it ‘enhancing’ those which have gone before.

‘I’ve got cancer
I have
Bloody cancer
And I know exactly when I got it…’

—SuAndi (2009: 2)

Each syntactic structure consists of a simple sentence (first person singular + verb + complement ) followed by another, without the second being subordinated to the first. Pronouns and nouns are repeated is similar rhythmic and sentential positions. Adjectives juxtaposed with nouns are few and far between: (‘bloody’ [x 3 …] ‘massive’ […] ‘big’ […] ‘poor’ […]). Where they occur, they function as blunt, factual, elliptical comments on the noun they qualify which avoid more extensive hypotactic subordination: (‘bloody cancer’ […] ‘bloody miracle’ […] ‘bloody racist’ […], or again:

‘Christianity my big toe.
Hi get it?
Big toe, big foot, big leg,
Oh never mind…’

—SuAndi (2009: 2)

Parataxis emerges as one of the key markers of the ‘code’ which SuAndi (aka ‘M’) is deploying. As such, it can be compared to stories recounted in similar situations to that imagined here which in turn enhances their social validity as testimony. As Thibault (1991) would have it, the ‘second’ statements, like the adjectives, ‘comment’ on the first in sequence and hence stand in a dialogical relation to it. A pattern of progressive elaboration is generated by the discursive context, ‘M’’s implicit aim being to explain her predicament to the interlocutor and then, having done so, to switch the discursive timeframe to that of her past. The code is a function of the imagined speech situation which simultaneously simulates and ‘quotes’ analogous patterns in other similarly structured contexts.

Against this discursive pattern, a second is set, in parenthetical relation to the first, whereby ‘M’ comments on her earlier statements in order to qualify them or clarify their significance for the audience: for instance ‘I suppose you’ll think I’m daft me calling him her boyfriend….’. The parenthesis enables ‘M’ to re-define the meaning of the term ‘boyfriend’ as it might be thought to apply in ‘normal parlance’. She thereby re-contextualises the specific relationship between her daughter, the man she is living with at the imagined time of the discourse, and herself in counterpoint to the assumed usage of her implied interlocutors. Similarly the repetition of the word ‘together’ progressively hones down the shared understanding of the term and so testifies to a shift in values which literally takes place as the word is dialogically repeated in performance:

‘They live together
Not together like
But you know together.’

—SuAndi (2009: 2)

In this way, the reader is positioned both as outsider and insider, invited to recognise the particular circumstances which have attended both ‘M’’s own early life and the development of her daughter and to accept them as conventional. To do otherwise by definition casts the reader/listener as one of ‘them’, the judges, a potentially oppressive member of society at large.

The above cursory analysis reveals only in part only how the Story of M can be seen to stand in an inter-discursive relationship both with other analogous texts and with itself. The paper stresses the need for close inter-textual comparison as socio-semiotic evidence but has not offered any empirical examples drawn from the texts with which The Story of ‘M’ might be compared. It defines a methodology but has not yet followed it through in its entirety. Nevertheless I hope that the paper as framed undermines any rational claims to social mimesis on the part of any text, beyond the assumed referential value of terms shared by a given speech community. Even these, however, are redefined though the speech context and the textual environment in which they are employed and translate reality differently with each successive articulation. It is tendentious to draw sociologically valid conclusions from literature without detailed reference to other texts and contexts with which the text under scrutiny stands in complementary distribution. In so doing, the language of the texts, whether these be designated as literary or functional - whatever these terms may mean - can never be taken at face value. The meaning of ‘Jam cream sponge cake’ acquires different connotations as The Story of ‘M’ progresses, eventually becoming a metonym for a whole way of life and a marker of ‘M’’s serendipitous personality. Similarly the photographs in the margins take on new symbolic attributes in virtue of their relationship with the text world within which they are framed. The social significances of hospital wards, the Salvation Army flag and Malcom X are translated by the text into an original semiotic combination. The same can be said of the rhythmic structure of the language in this wonderful poem which could form an object of study in its own right. The speech rhythms repeat each other in the same paratactic manner as the syntactic structures, following irregular yet cumulative patterns which both signify the rhythms of day to day conversation while remaining distanced from them – much as the hybrid prose of Selvon’s ‘Lonely Londoners’ stands in ambivalent relation to the authentic vernacular of West Indian immigrants to London in the 1950s. Neither Social Science nor Literary History can legitimately draw direct conclusions from literature’s power to represent conditions in society other than by first closely considering the modes of translation by which one text quotes and comments on another and on itself.


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Darstellung, Kommentar und Fragen

Oktober 2009

Literatur und Soziologie verbindet eine schwierige Beziehung. Auch wenn sich die Literaturwissenschaft den manchmal ungeliebten Buhler oft mit komplexen Aussagen über Werkimmanenz und Eigenlogik der fiktionalen Literatur vom Leibe und vom Untersuchungsgegenstand zu halten suchte, konnte und kann die soziologische Forschung in Form von Systemtheorie, der Analyse des literarischen Felds nach Bourdieu, oder der objektiven Hermeneutik, um nur einige im deutschen Sprachraum beliebte Ansätze anzudeuten, nicht von der sich enigmatisch und spröde gebenden Literatur lassen. Die ästhetische Verfasstheit des Textes, so eine oft geäusserte Befürchtung, wird in solchen Ansätzen der Gefahr einer Überformung ausgesetzt. Nabokov kommentierte dies folgendermassen:

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The study of the sociological or political impact of literature has to be devised mainly for those who are by temperament or education immune to the aesthetic vibrancy of authentic literature, for those who do not experience the telltale tingle between the shoulder blades (Nabokov, Lectures on Literature 1982 p. 64)

Diesem Beharren auf die ästhetische Selbstgenügsamkeit des Textes möchte ich ein Zitat von Derrida gegenüberstellen, dass meiner Ansicht nach evokativ auf Robert Crawshaws Aufsatz »Das Dazwischen Übersetzen« verweisen kann. Es ist ein Zitat aus dem Aufsatz „Überleben /Bord-journal»:

Ein Text lebt nur wenn er über lebt, und er überlebt nur, wenn er zugleich über setzbar (includes connotation of „to ferry across the river») und unübersetzbar ist. Völlig übersetzbar verschwindet er als Schreiben, als Sprachkörper. Völlig unübersetzbar, selbst innerhalb dessen, was man für die gleiche Sprache hält, stirbt er sofort» (102/3)

Die Bootsmetaphorik , die Derrida hier benutzt, macht aus dem Prozess des Übersetzens ein „über-setzen» („ferry across the river»), und verweist für meinen Zweck auf die Stärkung der Textattribute, die Crawshaw in seiner Konversation zwischen Literatur und Soziologie erreichen will, ohne die Literatur dabei zu „Entgesellschaften»: Gegen wissenschaftliche Aneignungsstrategien des Texts an eine ihm äußerliche Wirklichkeit stellt er die Wendung in die Sprache hinein, in ihre Codes, Grammatiken usw..

Die Frage nach der Übersetzung von verschiedenen Teilen von hybriden Erfahrungswelten und ihren Textsystemen steht im Vordergrund vieler Forschungsfragen auch und gerade innerhalb der Literaturwissenschaft. Zwar erscheint das historische „Reale» in der Folge von Poststrukturalismus und Dekonstruktion als ähnlich enigmatisch wie der literarische Text, gleichzeitig gibt es auch eine Hinwendung zum Einbruch von „Realität» in Textwelten, die das System flottierender Signifikanten ins Stocken bringen und unterbrechen, etwa in der Repräsentationsproblematik bei Traumaerfahrungen (Koschorke). Gerade nicht als Zusammenbruch der Signifikation erscheint die Frage nach dem Verhältnis von Gesellschaft und Text, wo Identitätsproblematiken aufgegriffen werden. Oft sind dies Texte, die halb oder fiktiv autobiographisch eine besondere Nähe zu realen und geschichtlichen Orten, Ereignissen und Erfahrungen herzustellen scheinen, und sich so der repräsentativen Deutung anbieten, um sich ihr durch ästhetische Sprachspiele, unzuverlässige Erzählstimmen und poetische Verknüpfungen gleichzeitig wieder zu entziehen. Da dies eine beliebte Form von Migrationsliteraturen darstellt, und deren Rezeption von anderen politischen und gesellschaftlichen Diskursen oft besonders überformt wird, ist bereits im Bereich der literarischen Textwelt hier die Beziehung von Gesellschaft und Literatur auf spezifische, auch politische Weise verstellt, und eine Gleichzeitigkeit von Übersetzbarkeit und Unübersetzbarkeit scheint gegeben. Folgerichtig wählt Robert Crawshaw für seine Analyse einen Text, der die Verschränkung von verschiedenen Diskursen und Arten von Texten bereits in seiner genuinen Form enthält: SuAndi’s „The Story of M» ist ein „Performance Poem», oder ein mini-drama, es ist allerdings gleichfalls ein narratives Gedicht, und die Erzählstimme wechselt während des Vortrags oder der Aufführung von der Mutter SuAndi’s zur Stimme der vortragenden Autorin selbst. SuAndi, Tochter einer Liverpooler Mutter und eines Nigerianischen Vaters, war Teil des Projekts Moving Manchester / Mediating Marginalities, an welchem Crawshaw federführend beteiligt war. Ziel des Projektes war es, Verbindungen zwischen dem Schreiben schwarzer Autorinnen und sich verändernder öffentlicher Konstituierung Manchesters als Ort und Kulturmetropole aufzuzeigen.

Das „M», dessen / Deren Geschichte erzählt wird, bezieht sich auf mehrere miteinander verknüpfte „gesellschaftliche» und personelle Zeichen und ihre Kontexte: die Mutter Margret, Manchester, in dem sie lebt, Malcolm X, dessen Bewegung sie emphatisch verfolgt, und ultimativ das „Me» der Autorin SuAndi, die über das Gedicht ihre Subjektposition als relational hergestellt im Wahrsten Sinne ausbuchstabiert, und so zu einer Dopplung von „Me»/»We» kommt, das and das „WI» der Dub Poetry erinnert. Das „Außen» der Gesellschaft wird, wie Crawshaw ausführt, in der Gestaltung des Textes und der Positionierung von Sprecher/ Hörer / Interpret kontingent konstiuiert, und erschwert damit eine genuin „soziologische» Lesart, ohne sich zu „Entgesellschaften» Crawshaw grenzt die Methode seines Lesens von verschiedenen literatursoziologischen Ansätzen ab. Hierbei spielen die Metapher des Übersetzens und die Figur des Übersetzers eine signifikante Rolle.

In Robert Crawshaws Aufsatz nimmt Übersetzung eine grundlegende Bedeutung für kulturelles Handeln ein, die dem Übersetzen von einer natürlichen Sprache in eine andere vorausgeht. Für ihn stellt jede Form der Repräsentation menschlicher Erfahrung bereits eine „Übersetzungsleistung» dar, in der keine mimetische Art der Übertragung stattfindet. Stattdessen, so bezieht Crawshaw sich auf Bakhtins dialogische Heteroglossie, liegt der Anspruch semiotischer Zeichen, die Realität zu repräsentieren, gerade in der notwendigen Offenheit, Prozeßhaftigkeit und Interdiskursivität von Zeichensystemen. Sein Gespräch zwischen literarischer und soziologischer Analyse will sich daher abgrenzen von den formalen Ansprüchen, welche die Literatursoziologie an das Verhältnis von Text und Wirklichkeit herangetragen hatte. Er folgt hier einem soziolinguistischen Ansatz von Paul Thibault, der in der Semiotik das Vehikel sozialer Aktion und politischer Praxis darstellen will und im Bezug auf Bakhtin, Volosinov, und Derrida, die Sprache als Mechanismus und Möglichkeit interpersonellen Denkens begreift. im Terminus Medvedevs, in der „doppelten Brechung» der fiktiven, sprachlichen Ausformung, werden Textwelten hier nicht zum Lukacsschen „Stellvertreter» gemacht, sie enthalten selbst erst die Möglichkeit des Sozialen, erschaffen also das „Wirkliche» grundlegend und in immer spezifischer Weise – gerade hierdurch enthalten sie bereits, nach Derrida, ein aussertextuelles „Überlappen», die Möglichkeit eines „über-setzen». Der Text ist nicht Ersatz für das Interpersonelle, sondern hier ist das Interpersonelle überhaupt erst zu finden, so verstehe ich dieses von mir zitierte Zitat aus der Einleitung Crawshaws:

„Mein Argument hebt von der Annahme ab, dass aufgrund des Fehlens jeglichen universellen Verstehens davon, was Gesellschaft ist, die soziologisch sinnvollste Dekonstruktion der Beziehung zwischen Individuen und Gemeinschaft in der Analyse und dem Vergleich der pragma-linguistischen Strukturen von Texten und ihren Wechselbeziehungen besteht.»

Aus der Dichte der sich überschneidenden Diskurse innerhalb von SuAndis Gedicht entsteht für Crawshaw so eine „Sprache» von ineinander übersetzten Aussagen über, zum Beispiel, eine Stadt, das Leben in ihr, eine Autorin und ihr Verhältnis zu ihrem Schreiben, die Erfahrungen „Anderer» in strukturell ähnlichen Situationen gleichzeitg spiegeln und hinterfragen. Durch Positionierung von Aussagen werden dem Zuhörer oder Interpreten verschiedene Vorannahmen vorgeführt, etwa in der Art, wie die Mutter von der Beziehung ihrer Tochter spricht, sich im Modus einer Verunsicherung, überlegt, wie der „boyfriend», der vielleicht keiner ist, zu verorten ist:

‚They live together not together like but you know together’

Dadurch, so Crawshaw wird der Zuhörer oder Interpret ebenso textuell generiert wie die Sprecherin – es werden angenommeneVorverständnisse und Haltungen der „generellen Öffentlichkeit», des Interpreten und „M»s eigene vom Text aus abgefragt:

„Der Zuhörer wird sowohl als Aussenseiter und als Mitwisser positioniert, eingeladen die partikularen Umstände von „M» anzuerkennen und sie als konventionell zu akzeptieren. Dies nicht zu tun, macht den Zuhörer zu einen von „denen», die Richter, ein potentiell oppressives Mitglied der allgemeinen Gesellschaft»

Crawshaws Ansatz ist eine Semiotik der politischen und sozialen Intervention, die nicht nur eine Dekonstruktion sein will, sondern ein besonderes Gespür für die selbstreflexive, immanente Stellung der Theorie entwickelt, die auf den Untersuchungsgegenstand zurück wirkt, und sich selbst in einem Spiel von Relation und Differenz befindet. Eine Theorie und Methode des „sozialen semiotischen Systems», wie Thibault es nennt, ist somit Teil eines Prozesses, welches das System von Beziehungen – zwischen verschiedenen Zeichensystemen und innerhalb eines solchen – sowohl stabilisieren als auch verändern kann. Nach meinem Verständnis verfolgt Crawshaws Ansatz zwei Ziele, welche gerade für die Rezeption von Literatur sogenannter „ethnischer Minderheiten» relevant sind: So muß einerseits die Zurückweisung der mimetischen Repräsentation von Wirklichkeit im Text im Zusammenspiel mit der von ihm gewählten Autorin SuAndi eine Zurückweisung der ‚Burden of Representation’ sein, eine Zurückweisung damit einer Lukacschen „Sprachrohrfunktion» von Insbesondere Migrationsliteratur. Dies zeigt Crawshaw im Verweis auf die Rezeptionsgeschichte des oft stellvertreterisch, oder als Sozialroman, gelesenen The Lonely Londoners von Samuel Selvon (1956), welcher als realistische Darstellung der Lebensumstände karibischer Einwanderer in den 50er Jahren repräsentiert wurde. Er grenzt seinen Ansatz gleichfalls ab von neueren qualitativen Rezeptionsstudien, wie er sie am Beispiel der von James Procter geleiteten Studie Small Island Read 2007 erläutert. In dieser als soziales Experiment angelegten Studie wurden 50.000 Freikopien von Andrea Levy’s Roman Small Island in vier ehemaligen Städten des Sklavenhandels in Großbritannien ausgeteilt, und genaue Leserresponsesurveys angefertigt, die den Roman als Diskursgenerator erschienen lassen.Bei der Besprechung von Procters Arbeiten meine ich zu lesen, dass Crawshaw in Procters Analysen, und anderen, die Literatur und ihre Rezeption als Empirie oder Empiriegeneratoren verwenden, eine Instanz schmerzlich verloren geht: Dies ist, so scheint mir, die Instanz des geschulten Interpreten, der sich mit kritischem Vorwissen der linguistischen Ebene der Texte nähert, und diese in ihren Beziehungen weiter aufschlüsselt, um sie mit anderen Texten, die von ähnlichen sozialen Bedingungen aus entstehen, zu vergleichen – dabei ist der Interpret aber nicht mehr der erleuchtete Wegweiser einer unwissenden Leserschaft, sondern begibt sich in eine enge Verbindung mit dem Text, der ihn auch selbst während der Interpretation konstituiert, er wird somit Teil des interdiskursiven Gewebes, das der Text generiert.

Diese Methode, nach meiner Übersetzung, ziele darauf, „analoge Muster innerhalb und zwischen den Diskursen zu identifizieren um daraufhin, durch genaue Analyse, zu demonstrieren, wie der Text Autoren, Charaktere und implizierte Leser /Hörer innerhalb von Raum, Zeit, sozialen Beziehungen, anderen diskursiven Repräsentationen von verwandten Ereignissen, und, am Wichtigsten, vis à vis seiner eigenen linguistischen Relativität positioniert». Hier ist es meiner Meinung nach wichtig darauf zu verweisen, dass in SuAndis Gedicht auch heterotopische Strategien zum Tragen kommen, die das zeitliche Beziehungsgeflecht des Textes, in dem „M» die Rückschau auf ihr Leben im Szenario eines vereinzelten, spartanischen Krankenhausbettes aufführt, verräumlichen. Hierfür spricht auch die Bildzugabe zu dem Gedicht, in dem das Krankenzimmer dargestellt ist. In diesem anonymisierten Raum werden die Erinnerungen, die Zeit und ihre Ereignisse aufgeführt, und vom persönlichen Schicksal im Krankenhaus aus eine Verbindung mit den Zuhörern hergestellt, die wiederum die implizierte, gesellschaftliche Wahrnehmung von „M»s Schicksal als ein „Anderes» unterlaufen und zu einem allgemein Menschlichen machen:

‚Now I’m here, two parts dead going over me life, like you do; like you all will, given the chance’

In dem »Nichtraum« des Krankenhauszimmers entsteht eine spezifische Füllung mit zeitlichen Relationen, in denen die verschiedenen »M«s des Gedichtes (Margaret, Mutter, Me, also SuAndi, Manchester, und Malcom X) sich miteinander aktualisieren.

Crawshaw warnt, dass die soziologischen Ergebnisse, die einer solchen Textanalyse folgen können, begrenzt seien – hält sie jedoch für grundsätzlich möglich – und an dieser Stelle setzen meine Fragen ein, die ich gerne „übersetzt» hätte:

Crawshaw schlägt vor, es sei technisch möglich, die einmal eingeschlagene „Übersetzungsmethode» von einem Text ‚a‘ auf den nächsten interdiskursiven Text ‚b‘ und so weiter zu extrapolieren, um dann eine „soziologische Hypothese» aus diesen Analysen zu formen. Welcher Art könnte so eine Hypothese sein, und nach welchen Aspekten von Gesellschaftlichkeit lässt sich so fragen? Welche Art von Empirie wird durch die Analyse von miteinander in Kontext gesetzten Texte generiert, und in welchem Bezugsrahmen sind sie zu werten? Zu Crawshaws Analyse selbst und der Auswahl von Texten, die auf Text ‚a‘ folgen können, stellen sich mir Gewichtungsfragen: legt man den Schwerpunkt auf das Diskursmaterial, dass in die kreative Gestaltung einfliesst, oder bezieht man sich mit stärkerer Gewichtung auf die kreative Neuformung selbst? Die Frage bezieht sich auf den Punkt in Crawshaws Papier, wo eine sensible Textanalyse die Möglichkeit einer Art von Empiriegenerierung hervorbringt. Mich würde also interessieren, nach welchen Kategorien und mit welchen Parametern der Schritt des „über-setzens» aus den Textaussagen zu sehr viel stärker sozialwissenschaftlichen Aussagen oder Fragestellungen gemacht wird.

Welche Rolle, welches Vorverständnis bezeichnen in seinem Papier Autor und Interpret? Mir schienen beim Lesen beide Instanzen in Crawshaws Ansatz über die textuelle Beziehung gestärkt zu werden – jedoch, wo der Text zum Netzwerk von Signifikationen gerät, kann hier der Autorin noch eine spezifische, subjekthafte Rolle zugeteilt werden, oder fällt sie mit dem zusammen, was Link (1980) als „Strukturbündel» bezeichnet? Welchen Stellenwert haben in Crawshaws Methodenvorschlag also die miteinander durch den Text verbundenen Instanzen Autor/Interpret und Imagination/Realität? Lassen sich von diesen Positionen aus Aussagen über Gesellschaft machen, oder verschwinden diese Instanzen hinter dem intertextuellen Gewebe, sprich, gibt es einen (mehrere?) Akteure dieser „semiotischen sozialen Praxis»? Es wäre meiner Ansicht auch interessant, stärker zwischen „Realität» und „Gesellschaft» zu differenzieren.