Delany on the Episteme

Delany on the Episteme
Earl Jackson, Jr.
Winter 1997
LTMO 115

Delany on the Episteme

An appendix to Delany’s novel Trouble on Triton opens with a scene excised from the manuscript, in which one of the characters observes to the other, „the episteme was always the secondary hero of the s-f novel – in exactly the same way the landscape was the primary one'“ (Trouble on Triton 333). He defines „episteme“ through another term, „textus“: „The episteme is the structure of knowledge read from the epistemological textus when it is sliced through (usually with the help of several texts) at a given, cultural moment (ibid. 333-34).

In his essay, „Shadows,“ Delany describes the dynamic tension between „text“ and „textus“: „Text, of course, comes from the Latin textus, which means ‚web.‘ In modern printing, the ‚web‘ is that great ribbon of paper which, in many presses, takes upwards of an hour to thread from roller to roller throughout the huge machine that embeds ranked rows of inked graphemes upon the ‚web,‘ rendering it a text. All the uses of the words ‚web,‘ ‚weave,‘ ’net,‘ ‚matrix,‘ and more, by this circular ‚etymology‘ become entrance points into a textus, which is ordered from all language and language-functions, and upon which the text itself is embedded“ („Shadows“ 75).


The textus comprises the interwoven social codes and knowledges that enable both ‚ordinary‘ communication as well as innovations in the repetoire of significations. The latter function of the textus is most easily seen in one of the processes through which new words are created and established. This is a complicated metonymic process in which „old words are drawn from the cultural lexicon to name the new entity (or to rename an old one), as well as to render it . . . part of the present culture . . . And the encounter between objects-that-are-words . . . and processes-made-manifest-by-words . . . is as complex as the constantly dissolving interface between culture and language itself“ („Shadows“ 75-76).

Delany illustrates this by imagining a child, who, upon seeing a fire engine for the first time, called it a „red squealer“. The child uses this expression among his or her friends, who in turn adopt it. Time passes, and the group persists although its members change. When a younger child new to this group hears the term, he or she asks an older child the reason for this designation. The older child explains that „‚Red Squealers must get to where they’re going quickly; for this reason sirens are put on which squeal loudly so that people can hear them coming . . . and pull their cars to the side. They are painted with that bright enamel color for much the same reason . . . Also, by now, the red paint is traditional, it serves to identify [it as] . . . a Red Squealer . . . and not just any old truck'“ This explanation is both fictional and satisfying – fictional, because it misrepresents the actual origin of the term, but satisfying, because „it takes the two metonyms that form the name and embeds them in a web of functional discourse,“ which continues the tradition of the signifier allowing the explantion to be „absorbed into the memory, of both the querant and explicator, which is where the textus lies embedded“ („Shadows“ 76-77).


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