Paratexts (Different from Intertexts)- Part 1

5 Feb

Gerard Genette would seem to be the latest in a long line of French post-structuralist philosophers and intellectuals whose work is being applied to recent Anglo-American critical endeavors in ways that they could not have possibly anticipated.  Foucault never dreamed of applying his theories to literature; and yet, there they are, splattered all over the American university’s English department like so many globules of paint from a Jackson Pollock painting.  Genette is a less surprising addition to the pantheon in many respects, though.  His project has always been concerned with literature, and I would like to take some time to examine some of his ideas involving paratexts.  The phenomenon of the paratext is perhaps more worthy of the technical French approach to critical analysis and its penchant for semiotics than many other broadly ‘literary’ forms.  The term refers to, in the words of Richard Macksey, those textual devices that “comprise those liminal devices and conventions, both within the book (peritext) and outside it (epitext), that mediate the book to the reader: titles and subtitles, pseudonyms, forewords, dedications, epigraphs, prefaces, intertitles, notes, epilogues, and afterwords…”  It is a concept that is curiously medium-specific.  As Genette himself put it, “…the paratext is what enables a text to become a book and to be offered as such to the readers…”  And yet, he also asserts that “a text without a paratext does not exist and never has existed.”  I am inclined to understand his position as basically being that paratexts are the textual elements that mediate a text to the reading public.  Paratexts shift with the medium of presentation, since the medium determines how the reader will engage the text and therefor how the text will need to be mediated.  It is quite intuitive to understand the paratext as a chiefly functional element that serves a practical purpose, and indeed, Genette clearly states that that is his position on the matter.  However, such an understanding does not preclude aesthetic or otherwise non-functional purposes for paratexts.  How paratexts relate to the ‘main’ texts they mediate has been a subject that has engaged authors of literature for quite some time, perhaps most famously Laurence Sterne.  

The medium that most concerned Genette at the time he was formulating his ideas was the printed book.  With the advent of the onset of the digital revolution and the personal computer, conceptions of paratextuality have broadened, if not shifted considerably, and for obvious reasons those with an interest in the Digital Humanities have turned their astute critical gaze on to recent re-formulations of the paratext.    

More to come in Part 2!

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