Notes from the Text-Worlds Reading Group – 13th February 2019

This week, the Text-Worlds Reading Group read Chapter 7 of the earliest known version of Paul Werth’s manuscript for Text Worlds: Representing Conceptual Space in Discourse. The blog on our discussions has been written by Alison Gibbons of Sheffield Hallam University.

Text World Architecture: Building and Advancing Beyond Limits

Chapter 7 in both Paul Werth’s (1992) manuscript and in his posthumously published monograph (1999) explores the building blocks of text-worlds. Whilst the two versions of the chapter are strikingly similar, the group focussed their attention on some of the changes and reflected on some of the stable parts of the text with the fresh eyes of re-reading.

It is in Chapter 7 that Werth outlines ‘world-building elements’ and ‘function-advancing propositions’, concepts that are – by now – well-known to text-world theorists. Nevertheless, Werth’s typology of different variations of ‘function-advancing’ – shown in Figure 7.1 (1992: 294; 1999: 191) – was more or less resonant for different members of the group.

Screenshot 2019-02-26 at 10.45.45

Whilst Gavins (2001: 125; 2003: 131), van der Bom (2010: 10), and Norledge (forthcoming) have all made use of the category of character- or person-advancing, the different kinds of function-advancers are not always employed in contemporary text-world analysis. The reading group wondered if this might be, in part, because they are fuzzier categories than Werth’s tabular mapping implies. Indeed, Ernestine Lahey has even suggested that the distinction between function-advancing and world-building may not be clear cut. In her analysis of Canadian landscape poetry, she makes the case that ‘function-advancing elements may also contribute to the building of a text-world landscape’ (2005: 223). She notes (224):

processes assigned to entities in the landscape specify climate and/or season, and thus contribute to the reader’s understanding of the appearance of the constructed landscape in combination with the reader’s knowledge of climactic and seasonal characteristics generally.

Whilst the verbs that Lahey highlights are ‘scene-advancing’ in Werth’s categorisation, because of their primacy in landscape poetry, their role in constructing the landscape is also world-building.

The group also discussed Werth’s outline of world-building and world-structures. Werth argues in Chapter 7 that text-worlds can be simple or complex. Simple text-worlds ‘are those in which the deictic properties and function advancing propositions are entirely in correspondence’ (1992: 315; 1999: 204). However, as Gavins (2005: 82) has previously claimed, ‘rarely in literary fiction do the deictic parameters initially established in the opening lines of a text remain invariable for its duration’. This is certainly evident in Werth’s own example, which features negation (‘nothing’ and ‘it would not open’). This is itself a world-building property (Hidalgo Downing 2000; Gavins 2007; Gibbons 2011), though Werth discusses it in terms of accessibility, reflecting ‘inward reaction’ and ‘the character’s knowledge’ (1992: 316; 1999: 205). Complex text-worlds, in comparison, ‘contain sub-worlds’ (1992: 316; 1999: 205). Again following Gavins (2001, 2005, 2007), such sub-worlds are now seen as ‘world-switches’ to new text-worlds or as forming ‘modal-worlds’, a refinement that recognises the shift in world-building parameters and readers’ processing effort in conceptualising these new worlds. It also undoes the hierarchical structure implied by the term ‘sub-world’, which problematically suggests that such a world is ‘subordinate to its originating text-world’ (Gavins 2005: 82). The same critique holds true for Werth’s use of the term ‘sub-character’ (1992: 293; 1999: 190) which now seems very outdated.

Interestingly, a parenthetical aside only present in the 1992 manuscript appears to imply that Werth envisaged Text World Theory to be even more tiered in its mapping. Discussing his text-world diagram in Figure 7.2. (which does differ slightly between the manuscript and book versions), Werth writes: ‘The sub-world is projected either backwards or forwards (and the exact position of this with respect to the text-world denotes its relative tense), and its contents and type, including any of its own WB elements, are specified in the projection’ (1992: 298; my emphasis). The parenthetical comment suggests that text-world diagrams would use spatial location to map the temporal relationships of text-worlds and their sub-worlds. This has not really been taken up in contemporary Text World Theory, most likely due to the practical constraints of mapping complex text-world architectures. Thus, whilst Lugea offers a detailed and ‘principled way of dealing with tense’ and aspect (2016: 92) in Text World Theory, she admits that this might be ‘too much to add to text-world diagrams which are already wrought with complexities in their notational conventions’ (2016: 93). The reading group subsequently considered the 1992 version of Figure 7.2 (shown here), noting the forward projection of the hypothetical ‘if-world’ and the succeeding ‘purpose-world’. ‘Purpose’ is perhaps a bit of a misnomer here because, the group concluded, the forward-projection of this text-world stems from the infinitive verb tense of ‘to skin and clean’.

Screenshot 2019-02-26 at 10.52.51

In outlining the principles of world-building, Werth briefly analyses three example texts. Text 1 in the 1992 manuscript (presented as Text 2 in the 1999 book) is extracted from Brian P. Levack’s (1987) historical study The Witch-Hunt in Early Modern Europe. Werth considers this to be ‘a discursive, or explanatory text’ (1992: 284; 1999: 184) highlighting the world-building usage of temporal and spatial deixis. My own work in Text World Theory consistently explores the borderlines of fictionality and ontology (for instance: Gibbons 2012, 2014, 2016), so I was particularly intrigued to find a comment on fictionality in the 1992 manuscript: Werth claims that the text-world of The Witch-Hunt in Early Modern Europe is one that readers ‘take to be historically verifiable, although it could equally well be entirely, or partly, fictitious’ (1992: 285). Werth’s comment suggest that fictionality is an assumption made by readers based on the text, which could nevertheless be misleading.

Another issue close to my own heart is that of text-world construction in multimodal and dramatic text-types (Gibbons 2012, 2016). The third text in the 1992 manuscript is a description of a contextual scene (‘Mary and Peter are sitting on a park bench…’) which is replaced in the 1999 book with an extract from Tom Stoppard’s play text (1967/1968) Rosencratz and Guildenstern are Dead. Even so, Werth analyses the texts identically, treating the description of context in the former and the prevalence of stage directions in the latter as discourse-worlds: ‘The point is that as a text world, the situation is narrated rather than simply reported’ (1992: 287; 1999: 186). He claims that the difference is clearer in the video medium which ‘would bring us, the observers, closer to the reality of the discourse world, a world of (represented) phenomena and actions’ (1992: 287; 1999: 186). This is elaborated in the 1992 manuscript by suggesting that in video, the sight of ‘<Mary and Peter are sitting on a park bench>’ is ostensible and thus part of discourse-world context, whilst a linguistic narration of the same clause would be deictic and world-building and thus text-world forming (1992: 287). Such a distinction would have clear implications for the multimodal application of Text World Theory to film, TV, and live broadcasts. To my mind, though, this is not – as it stands – unproblematic: whilst live broadcasts such as interviews, new anchorage, or live reporting does fit with discourse-world conceptualisation, pre-filmed journalistic reports (essentially flashbacks) as well as fictional video genres such as film and drama must be text-world forming, precisely because of changes in deictic parameters or ontological status. In Footnote 3 to Chapter 8 of the book, Werth does in fact acknowledge the complexities posed by play-texts (1999: 207). Indeed, significant advancements have been made in applying Text World Theory to theatre and other genres that perform or stage text-worlds in discourse-world contexts, most significantly Cruickshank and Lahey’s (2010) analysis of Rosencratz and Guildenstern are Dead and my own studies of mobile narrative (2014) and immersive theatre (2016). For Werth, such performance is ‘a limiting case where the text world concerns some part of the manifest discourse world, so that no explicit deixis needs to be stipulated’ (1992: 289; 1999: 187).

It was also interesting to note – in light of the group’s previous discussions concerning the nature of the discourse-world, the concept of common ground, and Text World ontology more generally – Werth’s insistence, in both versions that the discourse-world ‘is fundamentally similar in make-up to the text-world’ (1992: 281; 1999: 182). Finally, the group remarked on Werth’s continued engagement with cognitive grammar, discussed in Chapter 7 in relation to function-advancing propositions (1992: 301-313; 1999: 196-204).


Cruickshank, T. and Lahey, E. (2010) ‘Building the stages of drama: towards a Text World Theory account of dramatic play-texts’. Journal of Literary Semantics, 39: 67-91.

Gavins, J. (2007) Text World Theory: An Introduction. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Gavins, J. (2005) ‘(Re)thinking modality: a text-world perspective’. Journal of Literary Semantics, 34 (2): 79-93.

Gavins, J. (2001) Text World Theory: A Critical Exposition and Development in Relation to Absurd Prose Fiction. Unpublished PhD Thesis, Sheffield Hallam University, UK. Available here.

Gibbons, A. (2016) ‘Building Hollywood in Paddington: Text World Theory, immersive theatre, and Punchdrunk’s The Drowned Man’. In J. Gavins and E. Lahey (eds) World Building: Discourse in the Mind. London: Bloomsbury, pp.71-89.

Gibbons, A. (2014) ‘Fictionality and ontology’. In P. Stockwell and S. Whiteley (eds) The Cambridge Handbook of Stylistics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp.410-25.

Gibbons, A. (2012) Multimodality, Cognition, and Experimental Literature. London: Routledge.

Gibbons, A. (2011) ‘This is not for you’. In J. Bray and A. Gibbons (eds) Mark Z. Danielewski. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Hidalgo Downing, L. (2000) Negation, Text Worlds and Discourse: The Pragmatics of Fiction. Stanford, CA: Ablex.

Lahey, E. (2005) Text-World Landscapes And English-Canadian National Identity In The Poetry Of Al Purdy, Milton Acorn And Alden Nowlan. Unpublished PhD Thesis. University of Nottingham, UK.

Lugea, J. (2016) World Building in Spanish and English Spoken Narratives. London: Bloomsbury.

Norledge, Jessica (forthcoming) ‘Modelling an unethical mind.’ In A. Bell, S. Browse, A. Gibbons, and D. Peplow (eds) Style and Response: Minds, Media, Methods. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

van der Bom, I. (2010) ‘Characterisation and text-worlds in House of Sand and Fog’. Online Proceedings of the Annual Conference of the Poetics and Linguistics Association (PALA). Available here.


Comments are closed.

Powered by

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: