How to succeed in Module A: Textual Conversations?

Updated: Dec 6, 2021

Ever since NESA conducted a series of alterations to the English Advanced course, students have consistently expressed their disdain and confusion towards the mystery and enigma that is: Module A: Textual Conversations. Naturally, this module has an added layer of difficulty given the fact that it requires you to closely study not one but TWO prescribed texts (and oftentimes these texts are of completely different forms e.g. a film and a play). Dissecting two texts can also be a bit of a tricky task particularly when it comes to synthesising your essay as the restrictions on word count can begin to undermine the quality, depth and strength of your arguments as you try to divide your analysis evenly across both works and fluidly alternate between analysis in a logical and coherent manner. But of course, the key obstacle to succeeding in this module is actually understanding what exactly NESA wants us to discuss and analyse with respect to the two prescribed texts and what concerns are of significance to us when undertaking a comparative analysis of an original work and a secondary work which explicitly seeks to respond and thus, converse, with its hypotext.

Despite these intimidating challenges ahead of you - have no fear, as we are here to help form a solid foundation before you embark on your Module A journey. We'll be using Shakespeare's 'King Richard III' and Al Pacino's 'Looking for Richard' as reference texts for some of our explanations.

What is a Textual Conversation? What are the key terms I should engage with from the rubric?

NESA crafts an interesting metaphor ‘Textual Conversations’ as the heading of the module. Despite it being a vague and seemingly innocuous term, there are plenty of notions implicitly alluded to in it which should form the basis of our understanding of the module and what we need to incorporate in our essay.

To keep matters simple, ‘textual conversations’ can be broadly conceptualised as the study of two texts in a dialogic and conversational rapport with each other despite being situated in different temporal, social and cultural spaces, of which through the study of their interaction with each other, opens up opportunities for NEW ideas to emerge and be exchanged. Essentially, we need to appreciate that our prescribed texts - despite their unique identities, lineage and construction - are bonded together by the very fact that the secondary text is crafted with the intent of responding to and conversing with the original work. All texts studied in this module involve the secondary composer using the original work as inspiration or source material for their own craft, meaning that it is not an original text. The second text explictly attempts to reach across the temporal lacuna which separates it from its literary ancestor, and seeks to extend or revise or reframe or re-explore certain elements of it to provide a new insight or idea.

This process of ‘reconstruction’, ‘reimagination’, ‘recontextualisation’ or ‘revisionism’ will indeed play an influential role in your analysis as it allows us to engage with the idea about how: through recreating or remodelling works of the past, the dissociation and synchrony between the texts provide direct insight into those aspects of culture and society that have evolved or remained stagnant. What exactly changes or remains the same will grant us an understanding of humanity and the course of its socio-cultural evolution alongside with the features which are inherent and unalterable in its nature. Furthermore, it means that we can also develop an understanding of the value gained from studying the original and its variant, perhaps because we get a different perspective of the overarching issues that both texts attempt to address.

The rubric employs various terms that we should also be well acquainted with. These rubric terms are what most of the questions you receive in trials or the HSC (at least for the generic type of questions that are not text specific).

1. Resonances: These refer to the commonalities or elements between the texts which reverberate and bounce off one another in a synchronous manner. These are points at which both texts converge in their representation of issues, concepts or concerns, perhaps because both composers provide a similar commentary about a specific theme or idea despite the contextual lacuna which separates their production. There are many factors which may influence why the two texts intersect in their framing of a specific issue, one of the most pervasive being the fact that many concerns explored across the literary capital is a vivid and entirely unique expression of the inalterable facets composing human nature, of which is timeless in nature and remains relevant or stable across time in spite of our persistent attempts to evade the conditions of our own being.

2. Dissonances: These are points at which the two texts diverge or dissociate in their representation of an issue, concept or concern. These dissonances might be a result of contradicting contextual values which in turn shapes the composer in different ways. The cavity or temporal gulf suspended between the two texts will have an undeniable impact on the values enshrined by the text, the manner in which it treats certain societal and cultural issues, and the impression that we receive as contemporary neo-post modern audiences influenced by our own dispositions and belief systems. The texts will differ in many ways and offer quite unique perspectives and representations on concerns, thereby allowing us to investigate how meaning is shaped by the respective periods in which they are composed, and how meaning is derived from an appreciation of their temporal disparities.

3. Mirror, align and collide: These terms emanate from the ideas underlying the previously discussed ‘resonances’ and ‘dissonances’. They essentially refer to the ways in which the texts might reflect one another or tightly correspond with each other in terms of their message or representation (i.e. “mirror”), the ways that the text may vaguely touch upon the same issues or provide a similar message to that of the other composer (i.e. “align”) or the ways that the text might clash with each other because the composers are postulating entirely contradicting or opposing messages, rebutting the other within their textual representation.

4. Common and disparate issues, values, assumptions and perspectives: NESA raises the fundamental concern about how the analysis of any piece of literature requires an appreciation of the fact that any textual product can be deconstructed as some sort of time capsule or artefact that embodies within its construction, the moments, events, thoughts, prevailing attitudes and beliefs of the world in which it is manufactured. Since the historical, social, cultural, political and religious spheres of a particular work undeniably informs the beliefs, predispositions, ideologies and shared consciousness of the composer and their audience, this will play a role in shaping the notions explored within the text and thus form an interconnected mass of various elements impinging on the composer’s representation.

Every act of unmasking, critiquing and investigating any textual system will circulate us back to the socio-cultural discourse that induced its creation and point our attention to the intellectual, philosophical, spiritual and ideological paradigms governing the public thought of that period. In fact, this method of critical analysis is termed ‘Historicism’, a literary theory which interprets texts as cultural products which reflects more so the social circumstances of its creation than the author’s imagination. For example, studying Shakespeare’s works means that we are reconstructing the cultural milieu of Renaissance theatre as well as diving into the complex social and sexual politics of Elizabethean England and the hierarchies governing its cultural landscape, its political mythologies, religious narratives and divine laws.

In the same vein, we can understand the secondary text as being influenced by its own unique context. For instance, Al Pacino’s docu-drama responds to a postmodern cultural landscape, a secularised modernising America that endorses Western ideals such as moral relativism and the instability of truth (or truths reified through the intergenerational transmission of metanarratives, of which the logical integrity of such truths have gone unquestioned), egalitarianism, democracy, freedom of thought and action, capitalism, science, technology and materialism.

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