Table of Contents
Chapter 1: This
Chapter 2: Is
Chapter 3: Paratext
To plunge into the paratextual chain of citations is to risk discovering that the subject matter is complex, contingent, and interdependent… It is also to risk discovering that one’s own identity is complex, contingent, and interdependent. ~ Beth McCoy, “Paratext, Citation, and Academic Desire in Ishmael Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo“*
(This is paratext too.)
The door swings inward, bell jingling as I step into the cool and gently lit interior of the shop and make my way over to the Classics section. Setting my bag down on the tiny, child-sized stool (its smallness does not stop me from sitting on it) in the corner, I run my fingers over the cracked spines of the used books stacked — horizontally and haphazardly on top of one another — on the shelves, intermittently pulling one from its pile of prose until I have a slightly mountainous stack of books at my feet. There’s no telling, entirely, what will capture my attention about a book — sometimes (especially given that I am standing in the Classics section) it’s a familiarity with the author, or at least an awareness thereof, of their controversy, their importance, their ideas, their “you-haven’t-read-their-work?” factor, their relationship to other authors; sometimes it’s the title, catchy or relevant or creative or funny or in a weird font; sometimes it’s the cover, kitschy and monstrous or elegant and sleek or plain and intriguing; sometimes it’s the physicality of the book, the thickness (or thinness), the dusty, yellowed pages that smell musty-sweet and throw motes of dust into the air when I flip them through my fingers. No matter what it is that leads me to pull the books from their shelves, I generally end up sitting amongst ever-toppling towers of books on the floor of my favorite (and, admittedly, only) local bookstore, sifting through the piles of texts I think may possibly be fascinating as the staff and bemused customers carefully step around me. Even here (by which I mean, upon the floor, or possibly on that tiny little stool), though I have already pulled the books off the shelves, I am still sorting through them, reading through reviews and introductions, book jackets and author’s biographies (and, of course, looking at prices, as anything above five dollars is right out of my budget unless it is particularly fascinating), and first chapters.
These aspects of the books — titles, covers, page thicknesses, typefaces, biographies, book jackets, introductions, dedications — that I puzzle over are what literary theorist Gerard Genette defines as the paratext: those materials, inserted by authors, publishers, translators, and editors, that surround the main body of a text. You know how your third-grade school teacher would stand in front of your class, corralled as you were like a herd of tangled and over-excited cats in front of the door that would momentarily open into the Scholastic Book Fair, and tell you not to judge a book by its cover (perhaps I should not have phrased this memory as though it is a universal experience; after all, my memories of elementary school are individual and predicated in my origins from a privileged space)? I never liked that phrase. As much as some people (authors, critics) may want the text to be defined and decided upon solely by its existence independent of other influences, this is not the reality of the way a text, especially a book, is received. Titles, authors, fonts, introductions, covers: all of these act as portals into a text, aspects that are not entirely a part of the text but still influence the way a reader receives it. As Genette points out in his seminal work Paratexts:
More than a boundary or a sealed border, the paratext is, rather, a threshold, or… a ‘vestibule’ that offers the world at large the possibility of either stepping inside or turning back. It is an ‘undefined zone’… or, as Philippe Lejeune put it, ‘a fringe of the printed text which in reality controls one’s whole reading of the text’ (1-2).
When I am sat inconveniently on the floor in front of the Classics shelves, I am sorting through various paratexts, various gateways or liminal spaces that act, basically, as lenses through which I view the texts I am considering. And when I was caught in the crowd of eight-year-olds pouring into the Scholastic Book Fair, snatching enormous pencils and whacking each other with various copies of Captain Underpants, I was beginning to chew on my discomfort over the dismissal of paratext from considerations of the text (not in such words, mind you; the consideration was likely more along the lines of, “Why shouldn’t the cover matter? I’m looking at it, aren’t I?”). This is not necessarily to say (this is present me speaking, not eight-year-old me, although I’m sure she’s in here somewhere) that the paratext should define the text but, rather, that it should be recognized to influence of considerations of the text.
My considerations of paratext as a literary entity, as a term, arose in a class with Professor McCoy last semester, as she includes the term on her syllabi and integrates an awareness of the paratext into discussions on the text and reactions to the text; the term was a useful one to know, interesting in that it placed an academic label, and thus rendered study-able, on those things that I had always notice surrounding the text but had never deeply considered the influence of. Paratext was especially fascinating to me in its potential, when studied, to reveal marginalized aspects of certain texts (given that these areas of the text are literally the margins this is probably rather obvious), whether through its direct acknowledgment of these marginalized aspects or through uncovering, via analysis, the myriad of ways it is participating in this marginalization. However, this semester many of our in-class contemplations led me to focus on concepts of spatiality, specifically, the significance of exploring the spatial aspects and meanings we assign to certain words (as I explored in an earlier blog post on progress). In the context of this spatial fascination, I began to consider how the spatial aspects of the term “paratext” — that is, the idea of a “threshold,” “fringe” that introduces a receiver to the text — open the term up to applications beyond the purely literary. These applications allow for the exploration of peripheral spaces and influences that serve to define how we (I?) view spaces such as the classroom, the institution of Geneseo as a whole, and self-identity.
This is dedicated to every person who feels or has felt unsafe or as though they do not belong on this campus due to their identity. You belong. My saying that here, in this (self-reflective) blog post tucked away on a partially obscure webpage, may not matter too much; but there is conversation occurring and this post merely actualizes that truth and hopes to bring it into yet another space.
Chapter 1: This is Paratext to the Classroom
This class, in its interdisciplinarity, is filled with thresholds, gateways, and liminal spaces. The most obvious of these spaces, in the context of this current conversation, is found in the physical paratext of texts we read, especially that of our particular version of W.E.B. Du Bois’ The Souls of Black Folk and Kim Vaz-Deville’s Walking Raddy: The Baby Dolls of New Orleans. The Souls of Black Folk, particularly, is ripe for paratextual analysis in that it not only brings together text (“The Forethought,” dedications, epigraphs, copyrights), music (the Sorrow songs that generally are included in editions of Souls are not included, though they are mentioned, in this particular edition), and art (our particular copy holds upon it and within it illustrations by Steve Prince) but it also recontextualizes Souls (originally published in 1901), via an introduction by Vann R. Newkirk II which comments upon the Black Lives Matter movement and the election of the current president, within the present day.
Et alors? So what? Why should any of us care about the paratexts of our own texts? God, Abby, why did you even choose this term?
If paratexts shape how we view a text, our copy of Souls and its particular reasons for being included in our class syllabus — the inclusion and use of Steve Prince’s illustrations — clearly emphasizes this. While Souls can certainly be separated from Prince’s work and is certainly not dependent on it for meaning, the inclusion of his work alters our (specifically, our class’) perception of the text. Due to the focus of our class upon Prince’s work, his art serves as a particularly engaging lens through which to view the text. Prince’s work, for anyone viewing it and for our class especially, like Vann Newkirk’s introduction, recontextualizes Du Bois, allowing us to engage Souls with the subject matter and social justice issues that Prince so often depicts within his art. Interestingly, in that Prince’s art functions in our class both as a lens through which to view other texts and the main text to be viewed, it itself becomes a liminal space, neither fully text and neither fully paratext; this reflects that positioning of text and subject matter, as main text or paratext, is defined by context.
There are, however, other aspects to paratext in the classroom beyond the function of the paratexts and texts we read. I include work from Professor McCoy in this reflection for a few reasons, not the least of which is the fact that she has done extensive and comprehensive research, writing, and analysis on and about paratext; to not acknowledge this in an essay on paratext would be an absurd oversight and a failure to give credit where credit is due; additionally, including her work serves to emphasizes that there are paratextual spaces to the classroom beyond the physical (or online) texts we engage in. Professor McCoy’s** knowledge, studies, and interests (and love for Pikachu) shape how we approach the subject matter studied in the course, not in the least because these aspects (actualized through papers written, talks given, classes taught) serve as paratext to the syllabus. Given the interdisciplinarity of this class, Professor McCoy’s knowledge and interests are not by any means the only paratexts to our particular classroom and certainly not the lens through which we viewed the subject matter in this course.
With each new instructor that came into the classroom came a new approach to the same subject matter — Prince’s art — through a new lens. The basic texts we dealt with were the same but the multi-disciplinary approach of the course allowed us to exchange one paratextual threshold for another, addressing Prince’s oeuvre from a myriad of different perspectives. Acknowledging the multiplicity of paratexts surrounding Prince’s work and, in fact, any work was integral to our work and, in my own case, personal development in the classroom this semester as it made us, or at least me, consciously aware of the many different entrances and thresholds into a text or subject and the influence that these many different thresholds can have upon our conception of the totality of the subject.
Chapter 2: This is Paratext to the Institution
Structures of domination are built mysteriously but easily upon the way the Western academy conceptualizes and packages knowledge. ~ Beth McCoy, “Paratext, Citation, and Academic Desire in Ishmael Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo“ (620)
Sprawled across my roommate’s (much larger) bed, I screenshot a screenshot posted by a friend on Snapchat. The caption states: “Blackface and sunsets with bae.” The photo depicts a Geneseo student with a charcoal facemask on, grinning in front of a sunset. Realistically, there’s not much reason to screenshot it, I’m not going to be using the photo for any purpose, but it’s something to be saved, all the same, something to be kept present and in my awareness. We (the Geneseo students) receive an email in the next few days about a bias-related incident on campus; The Lamron publishes an interview with the creator of the post; student discussions, via Twitter, Facebook, clubs, conversations in libraries and classrooms and hallways, all are lit up with discussion relating to the incident. Sitting in the AFRO Town Hall, organized by students (not administration) to address the meaning and wider relevance of this incident in the context of our education at this institution. A few days later, I sit in class, supposedly working on this very essay; instead, I am leaning over my laptop, caught up in a hushed conversation about the Town Hall and the March that followed a day after with Sara and Morgan. Sara pulls out her phone and shows us a Twitter thread wherein someone recorded and shared the names and statements of those who gave testimonials and shared personal stories at the Town Hall, an event meant to remain open to the public but private in its relation of personal information; we look over this and discuss how some who shared are now afraid of experiencing negative repercussions of their participation in such an event. Someone mentions that during the March, a student who works for Admissions shared that she was told by the administration not to share with tours what the March was about, to simply refer to it as a demonstration by students.
Something about this difference in narratives, between student-led narratives and official narratives of the Geneseo administration, sparks an idea in relation to paratext in my mind. If paratexts are liminal spaces, spaces meant to serve as entrances, gateways into a text, then, in a certain sense, social media, marketing, email, bulletins, articles in The Lamron, all of these serve as paratext to the institution of SUNY Geneseo.
These liminal spaces, wherein discussions about the institution and the actions and inactions taken by the institution occur, wherein issues that influence the institution and dialogues that are a part of the institution but left unacknowledged occur, serve as thresholds, as gateways into our institution. Depending on which paratext you choose, your view of Geneseo (the same place, the same institution and administration, the same student body and professors, the same issues and advantages) will be different. Viewing Geneseo through its marketed paratext, through the official Geneseo Instagram, pamphlets sent to potential students, the landing page of the Geneseo website, tours around campus, whittles out a specific and sanitized view of Geneseo; those standing on the threshold of the institution, viewing it through these lenses will see a Keith-Walter-ized (no offense, Keith, you’re an amazing photographer) version of Geneseo: one with saturated sunsets and tree blossoms, beautiful buildings and active campus members, multi-cultural presences and events and a welcoming space for all students. This is not necessarily an inaccurate image of Geneseo but it is a well-curated and purposefully-created one; this is paratext with eliminatory intention.
The marginalizing aspects of presenting Geneseo through this paratextual lens are visible only when contrasted with a paratext rife with these marginalized aspects. Student-used and run social media and papers and the conversations that occur within these spaces are a prime example of paratext filled with marginalized narratives and influences. Viewing Geneseo through these paratextual lenses — though they may not have been sanctioned by the administration, these spaces are still paratextual to the institution as they are created by students who compose and create the institution — allows for a view of Geneseo that is more flawed, messier. These representations while messier, are also less-structured, not only in the sense that they are looser but in the sense that they are positioned less within the capitalist and academic motivations of the institution. Given that the version of institutional paratext found in the online and in student publications is not necessarily structured directly within the hegemony the administration is forced to participate in it is often a more accurate, all-encompassing introduction to the institution as it takes into account and allows voices beyond those of the administration.
Thus, we can see how deeply intertwined paratextual introductions and representations to texts, spaces, and institutions are with issues pertaining to representation and social justice. An inaccurate or sanitized paratext – one that involves, for example, limiting the news and truth (and, thus, the impact) of the March on Doty to those considering attending this institution — can function as an act of violence as it creates a falsified presentation of Geneseo as an institution.
In choosing any one representation, any one introduction to a text, to a space, to an institution, there arises a difficult balancing act, one that Geneseo must handle on a near constant basis. That is, to acknowledge the value of the text/institution while also acknowledging its interconnectedness, interdependency and near constant levels of growth and development in the context of possible failures. To acknowledge growth and development is to acknowledge initial failures and the development beyond these failures. This acknowledgment of failure and growth is perhaps best captured in Vann Newkirk’s introduction to our edition of Souls, wherein he asserts:
This book’s incompleteness as an exact framework for understanding race and movement today makes it all the more of a compelling and necessary read, and understanding what it lacks highlights the layers of nuance and thought that have been added to its tradition in the century since its publication. (xiii)
Vann Newkirk acknowledges the myriad of failures of W.E.B. Du Bois and illustrates that while these failures existed and are inherent in Du Bois’ narrative, they do not invalidate the narrative; rather, they must be acknowledged and built upon (this reflects the thoughts expressed by Brian Resnick in his article on intellectual humility, which I explore in a different post). As Professor McCoy points out in the epigraph, the Western academy, of which Geneseo is a part, is structured within a repressive hegemony that is predicated upon domination and marginalization. To acknowledge our institution’s place in this hegemony, while also making an effort, through both word and action, to use the institution’s officiality to undermine the negative effects of this hegemony is necessary for the growth of a non-harm-inflicting and, in fact, welcoming space. After all, the institution exists for a purpose and that purpose is our education, thus paratext to the institution is inherently paratext to our own education at this institution. Thus, awareness of, acknowledgment of, and effort to build upon the institution is, in turn, an effort to build upon and make justifiable our own education within this institution.
Chapter 3: This is Paratext to the Self
But what about the star of the show? You know, me! What does all of this talk of paratext and institutions and Steve Prince and Professor McCoy’s over-my-head literary theory have to do with me? I know you’re wondering.
The interdisciplinarity of this class explored in Chapter 1 has consistently led me into explorations of interconnectedness and awareness thereof. As discussed in the introduction, paratexts serve to place a text within a wider context; as much as a creator or editor or reader may want a text to exist independent of outside context, it cannot and, as discussed above, for something to exist within an area independent of context or within inaccurate (or incomplete) context is an untruth. Paratext, whether it be through contextualizing a piece made a century ago in the present (a la Vann Newkirk), connecting a piece with other disciplines (a la Steve Prince), or acknowledging the many influences upon a text by other authors, individuals, groups, and movements (a la citations, references, and acknowledgments), is the space wherein the interconnectedness of a text is clarified.
If Geneseo has a paratext, and my education has a paratext, and our classroom has a paratext, is it possible for me to have a paratext?
(I mean, the answer is obvious given both the entire nature of this essay and the epigraph from Professor McCoy, but play along with me here.)
Yes! At least, I certainly think so.
I’m Abby. That’s me. But I am also white, wealthy, cisgender, a high school graduate, an undergraduate studying at a public institution, an American, child of a stable household, the youngest sibling, a New Yorker (Buffalo, specifically). These aspects, they are not necessarily me but they shape me, shape how the world perceives me and the way that I function within and interact with the world, especially given the level of privilege that these aspects allow me. In the context of the formerly acknowledged need for intellectual humility, it is particularly important that just as I hope for Geneseo to acknowledge and productively craft its paratext, I too should remain aware of and acknowledge the many influences that allow me to function as I do. Thus, on a personal level I must pay attention to the hegemonies and structures that I participate in and utilize and acknowledge my position within these structures in a manner beneficial to creating positive influence upon others.
In a post on the Gaia Hypothesis I discussed my growing awareness of my own interconnectedness, not only in terms of my interconnectedness with the environment but in terms of my interconnectedness with social, political, economic, and interpersonal spheres. It is impossible for me to exist as an entity independent of the influence of others and, importantly, independently of influencing others. I must acknowledge my interconnectedness to both be aware of this influence and to be aware of the influence that I have (positive and negative) upon others due to my constant interactions and interconnectedness with them.
It is in this awareness and expression of influence that the work of Steve Prince and our engagement with it throughout our course has most deeply influenced me. In his deep attention to detail (which I was initially frustrated with), his constant awareness of the imagery he is using, of the influencers (whether they be personal, like his mentor John Scott, or cultural) he is imitating, expressing, and giving credit to, of many ways in which the stories he is expressing interact both with his personal narrative and with the cultural narrative he is engaging in, Prince is constantly engaging with his personal paratext and acknowledging the paratexts surrounding his works of art. In this sense, Prince is productively shaping his personal paratext and the paratexts of the work that he produces in order to reflect influences upon him and initiate productive influence upon the world around him through his work.
Sometimes, I only end up with one book. After all that piling and sorting and flipping through, only one book that I tuck into my bag as I pull the door open, bell jingling as I step out into the sun. Based upon that paratext I made a decision, chose to engage with a text, with an author, with an institution, with a context. Thus, these thresholds, these introductory spaces that paratext provides, they are integral in the decisions and judgments we (you, me, us) make when engaging with individuals, institutions and, most importantly, browsing choices at local bookstores.
*Upon reading the epigraph, Brooke Ward said, “That’s like going on The Voice and singing one of the judge’s songs.”
**These comments are not said with any level of accusation (or praise, I suppose); rather, by saying that Professor McCoy’s interests and knowledge shape the classroom I am simply attempting to acknowledge the influence that the individuality of each Professor has upon the functionality and approach of each class to content and engagement.