Sunday, May 23, 2021

Fact and Speculation in Documentary Investigation

I think this essay may be more about speculation than about facts or documents or investigation, though those topics will serve as boundaries for this meditation.

During the Society for Textual Scholarship meeting, a Zoom conference hosted by The New School, on May 19 to 22, 2021, a lively discussion about this topic spurred my thinking. Thinking clearly comes unexpectedly to me, usually while I’m walking the dogs.

The kick-off of the discussion was the following passage from my book, Textuality and Knowledge, where, in talking about the principles of investigating manuscripts and other documents I asserted that,

"The principles I am exploring are, I believe, the same regardless of the gender, geography, ethnicity, or temporal placement of a writer. The relation between documents as evidence and criticism as argument is without gender, nationality, time, or place."

Taken out of context, as it was, this statement appeared to suggest that the author, me, was a shocking throwback to privileged white male notions of scholarly neutrality and objectivity, unmindful of the biases and self-satisfaction of textual scholars of the past, all men, writing about male writers, celebrating male values. The presenter, a scholar who has often been heard and has received grants, seemed to argue that the passage quoted was of a piece with the neglect of women writers, the scarcity of women textual scholars, and the difficulties that women scholars have in being heard and getting grants. Over the years, I was frequently informed, and firmly believe, that to be as good a woman has to be better. I had thought, however, that the passage quoted was about the methods and the rigors of tracing and analyzing documentary evidence. So, at the end of the presentation, I asked the speaker: “When you are studying the manuscripts of a male writer, do you use a different set of investigative tools than you do when you are studying the manuscripts of a female writer?” “Are the methods of investigating the textual evidence of women’s writing different from those used in examining document written by men?” I was thinking of the difference between methods of investigation and the role if any of predetermined or unconscious desired results.

The ensuing discussion focused productively on the role of bias in scholarship, on the choices of writers to be studied or edited, on the sensitivity to the conditions of writing experienced by writers of different genders or ethnicities or economic condition, and, to me most interesting, on the different kinds of questions one might ask about the surviving materials for minority, etc., writers. The famous counter examples of surviving materials are, of course, Shakespeare and Goethe: for the former there is less than a handful of autographs surviving and some of them are questionable; for the latter there is a whole museum/archive of manuscripts. Explanations abound for the difference in the survival of documentary evidence, but none of them focus on gender or ethnicity. With regard to minor or minority writers, however, it is important to consider what is missing from the evidence. Racism, gender inequality, and biases about disabilities, economic backgrounds, education, sexual orientations have justified “reasons” to dismiss, undervalue, or flat out destroy materials bearing on the literary productions of victims of such attitudes.

The upshot of the discussion was that the main question was answered convincingly both yes and no. NO, because investigation of documentary evidence needs to follow the rules of evidence without regard to race, creed, or color, as the saying goes, and YES because special circumstances affecting the surviving evidence might well have been in place for writers suffering from biases that made either their work difficult to conduct or made the evidence about their work more likely to disappear. The methodology of investigation would be the same but the sensitivity to special circumstances would be different depending on the writer or the work. It can be argued that this is not a new injunction for researchers committed to finding all the evidence. But it is worth pointing in directions traditionally neglected, undervalued, and or dismissed, particularly in efforts to redress or account for missing evidence.

One discussant brought up the notion that we needed more space in textual scholarship for speculation. The idea was not developed and dropped from sight, but in walking the dogs it occurred to me that it was an idea worth developing. Not only had the discussion pointed out the importance and potential significance of absent evidence, anyone giving a smidge of thought to a manuscript (or any literary document) cannot but be struck by how much was left out, by how much must have gone without saying. A writer knows what paper is being written on, what pen or pencil is being used, who the recipient of the manuscript will be, what purpose the writing was to serve, and usually, the writer knows, or thinks she/he knows what the writing was meant to mean. The scholar, reading the text in an anthology or paperback or translation, or even the manuscript or first edition, knows none of that. It all went without saying except for the text itself. As for the meaning of the text, the reader lifts from the symbols on the page words from which to construe whatever the reader can best figure out. There is already lots of room for speculation; we cannot avoid it. We need a careful discipline for speculation.

The quotation that appeared to peg me to an old fashioned, exploded view of scholarship is a case in point. And my “reading” of what the speaker said is another case in point, for I could have been the one who did not understand. Textual scholars know that it isn’t just the writer who acts on the writing. Every member of the production staff from editors and compositors to designers, binders, and booksellers, knows what needs to be done and does it because that is what was expected--perhaps even because they wish to enhance the work. It all goes without saying. But, or therefore, the student reading a poem in an anthology has no notion of any of that.

The profession of English, the study of literature, and the world of book reviews has nearly always had the vague idea that a book contains a text which is or represents a work. Most people generally think that a Work of Literature is contained in a text that can be purchased and read. Students read many works in anthologies and in paperbacks. A work, it is assumed, is a thing that can be held in one’s hand. Teachers point to page numbers in their teaching copy of a work, and sometimes have to help students locate the corresponding point in their copies which are different editions with different pagination. But the general consensus is that they are all referencing the same work. It is common sense. It is common practice. It goes without saying. In fact, however, a work is not a thing. The thing in one’s hand is a document, not a work. To be a work the text must be processed into being through a reading. The fact that no two readings are identical is largely down to how well informed the reader is. Knowledge matters.

It is the central concern of Textuality and Knowledge to expose the importance of asking, about any text, Where did that come from? And How do we know what we know about the text of the work, not only the text in the document we are reading, but the history of the text in its previous and subsequent iterations? Knowledge about texts is not acquired merely by exploring the bibliography and textual history of the work, but it involves at least that. In addition, there is the reader/critic’s need to know--as best can be discovered or inferred or surmised or speculated about--the things that went without saying. This is true even though objective knowledge cannot be found. Each reading or critical insight that is more plausible, that accounts for more of the evidence than previous ones, not only adds to the richness of reader responses to a work but leads to more satisfying engagements with it. (That statement is true only if it is assumed that informed readings are more satisfying than the imaginative misprisions about works that are unfettered by the facts that can be known about them.)

It should be objected that the requirement that teachers, students, and book reviewers do a thorough investigation of the textual history of a work before writing about it is an absurdly impractical one. Exactly. And that is probably the main reason teachers, students, and book reviewers have adopted the notion that each text of a work is the text of a work. On the basis of the document in hand, it is assumed that they can speak about the work. My contention is that they cannot speak about the work as a stable or known thing because all they have to go on is a document, usually a printed copy far removed from the work’s origins and because a work is not a thing.. What they can be reasonably asked to do is to write about the work as found in their document. Honesty requires that some attention be directed to “what is being read.” At the very least, a habit of referring to the text in hand as a copy, rather than as the work, will draw constant attention to how little is known about the contexts of the work’s generation. There is much that can be known about the circumstances and contexts of the origins and textual history of the work that affects how the well-informed reader performs the work. That information should not be ignored as irrelevant just because it isn’t handy. The simple habit of acknowledging honestly “What is being read” should prompt questions about what “went without saying” that are useful for any reader’s experience of the work.

In short, whether it is wanted or not, speculation about what we cannot know about the texts of works is unavoidable. It is only hoped that speculation is not the first tool readers resort to when construing the work and writing about it.

All that was well and good--it was a good discussion and prompted me to think more deeply about the role of speculation in textual scholarship. But satisfying though the discussion was, it left me, as the author of the provoking quotation, looking like the representative of a narrow, male view of scholarship striving for objectivity and sporting a pretended neutrality--the distant ivory tower scholar above the fray, pretending that gender, race, period, etc., have nothing to do with the textual scholar’s work. Perhaps I over-reacted, but at the very least, it was a suggestion that I had misspoken through lack of awareness of my biases.

So, back to the context of the quotation; for, even after the productive discussion, and upon reflection and review of the pages from which the statement had been extracted, I still believed the statement as made was fully justified.

I think that a better understanding of my statement might result from knowledge to two bits of context, one of which went without saying until now and the other which was spelled out in the passages surrounding the quotation. The full paragraph states:

"In the last quarter of the twentieth century, the study of literature explored with great enthusiasm and intellectual profit the proposition that disinterested knowledge—knowledge that purported to be unassailable because of its comprehensive grounding in verifiable evidence and because it rejected overt political biases and agendas—was, in fact, deeply committed to biases and political agendas related to the “mainstream” sense of self. Unacknowledged political agendas of disinterested pursuits of knowledge were, it became widely thought, designed to protect the status quo power structures in academe and in society. One result of the rebellion against disinterested (but actually self-interested) scholarship was to pursue openly a vast array of interests and agendas, both in the original literary texts and in the scholarship purporting to elucidate such works. Among the most valuable ensuing developments were women’s studies, postcolonial studies, gay and lesbian studies, and ethnic studies. In this book, it might have been good to illustrate the relationship between textuality and knowledge and these overtly political approaches to literature; however, I have not done that. The central concern of this book is not the writings by men or women or minorities. The principles I am exploring are, I believe, the same regardless of the gender, geography, ethnicity, or temporal placement of a writer. The relation between documents as evidence and criticism as argument is without gender, nationality, time, or place. In order to keep my illustrations from being a litany of “he said, she said” hearsay evidence, I had to confine my illustrations to textual histories that I had examined firsthand. Case studies in this book include: extended illustrations from the works of a twentieth-century English woman, Virginia Woolf; a living South African, J. M. Coetzee; and a nineteenth-century Englishman, William Makepeace Thackeray. There are many other references to smaller points in the textual histories of other writers, many more of them men than women. But my concern is with the relationships between evidence and knowledge, and that is not, per se, a gendered or political issue, though the criticism that is based on that knowledge probably is. I do not know how to illustrate one relationship between document and knowledge that holds true only for the writings of women and a different one that holds true only for the writings of men. I do, however, show the consequences of ignoring, or of being aware of, the importance of documentary evidence in critical arguments."

To me the basis of good scholarship is the effort to discover, not the effort to prove. Scholarship is the open non judgemental inquiry, not an attempt to justify an already held view. Investigation produces information not conclusions. What one does with the information may very well be determined by one’s ideology or biases. That is analysis and opinion, not investigation.

This brings me to the second bit of context that till now has gone without saying. One of the publisher’s reader reports had objected that the book did not discuss enough works by women and minority writers. The reader wanted a more balanced set of illustrations of the points I was making about knowledge relative to texts. My first response was to say that the methods I was espousing and the questions I suggested should be asked of textuality would be the same regardless of who the writer was. My second was to claim that if I were to write about knowledge of texts, I would have to write about documents that I had personally examined. I could not give sample cases based on work done by others. Had I achieved a second hand balancing of gender, race, ethnicity by quoting or referring to the work of others, it would have obscured the main point I was making about knowledge, that it comes from personally looking at the evidence, researching, and verifying.

It is true that as teachers, students, and general readers, we rely on others for most of what we know about many works, but we do not then retail other people's research and put our names to it. Either we know because we investigated or we are quiet--unless we think trust and hope is enough. If trust and hope is enough, textual scholarship is unnecessary. Speculation would be enough. We have very good reading skills and active imaginations. We can make sense of almost anything. Ugh.

Friday, January 3, 2020

Taking Time

Taking Time
     I read an opinion piece in the Washington Post that lamented the absolutism, black and white, us vs. them mentality that is so visible in society today.  As an example, Nabokov's Lolita being banned and dissed by many suggests that nuance, ambiguity, uncertainty, complexity, and a desire to understand people different from one's self, particularly people of whom one disapproves, is a dead or largely diminished art.
     It got me thinking about negative capability, the concept so named by John Keats in a letter to his brother.  There is a good deal of ambiguity about what Keats meant by negative capability.  His baldest statement describes it as the ability to remain in uncertainty without grasping after a firm explanation.  He berated Samuel Taylor Coleridge for always pushing magical or mystical ideas into a corner, and he suggested that there was greater merit in enjoying the tentative or unresolved. 
        My initial thought in response is, I think, interesting but not necessarily, in the end, compatible with Keats's own idea.  I think that grasping after resolution or firm answers or even absolute explanation has two driving forces, antithetical to each other.  One is the drive for understanding the truth of an event or issue, rather like the indefatigable detective or researcher unhappy with easy, pat or obvious answers, constantly pushing for more evidence or better arguments, but always believing that getting an answer is what it is all about.  The other is a flabby grasping after the first, often barely, plausible explanation and treating as if it were true, posting it, more than likely, on Facebook without bothering to check sources or to examine the evidence.  In either case, the thing to be abhorred is not knowing.  
     There seems not to be, in either case, a sense of enjoyment of or contentment in ambiguity.   Graspers after resolution, whether ardent or lazy, frequently want something to list as a reason for doing something, for stirring something up, or for ignoring the warnings and conclusions of folk with whom they disagree, justly or not.   Seekers after firm truths want a reason for action or for blaming someone, finding the culprit, or fixing the situation.   There is no rest or pleasure for them in ambiguity.  No curiosity about, or tolerance for, difference from self.  No effort to see the world through the eyes of others.
        But on reflection, I think that first reaction, while I like it, is not really relevant to Keats.   Begin with two other ideas or, as he called them, speculations.  First, is Keats's statements about feeling or empathy or imagination as having a better chance of recognizing and appreciating beauty and truth than does logical argument and reasoning.   Not that he opposed logic, but that he found it limiting and inadequate to what he considered more important in life, which he frequently associated with the words beauty and truth.  And second that one's own sense of self, of a being who understands issues or other people, is constantly limiting one's ability to enter into beings other than self, to see as others see, to feel as others feel, and, thus, to experience what one's self tends to avoid or ignore.  Hence, negative capability involves the ability to negate or to set aside one's self, one's preconceptions, one goals, desires, or preferences or values in order to enter imaginatively into the being of another person or thing without judgment.  That is to say, to empathized with the being of the other without trying to understand or appropriate that being in terms of one's own values.  Note how different that is from "sympathy" which is just an effort to be generous from one's own point of view about the frailties and failures of the others, whom one cannot be bothered to understand by "becoming them."
        Keats's said Shakespeare had negative capability, evidenced in his ability to portray without judgement, such a vast array of different characters, none of whom seemed to be clones of  or representatives of the author.  Judgement is brought by the reader, not the author. It is also a truism of historiography that a historian who cannot enter into the mindset of a historical figure, cannot do justice to that person's actions.  A prime example is the historian attempting to tell the story of the Salem Witch Trials without being able to see why Cotton Mather, among other very well educated, widely read, intelligent persons believed that witchcraft was the only plausible explanation for the events of the day.  If we tell the story from our own point of view, we fail to understand theirs regardless of how sympathetic or generous we imagine ourselves to be.
        Thinking in these terms about the rancor and self righteousness and delight in extreme statements and outrageous behavior that currently seems to dominate social media and politics, one could lament the loss of civil discourse, remaining isolated, or one could enter the fray, leaving the devil to take the hindmost, so to speak.  For me, Keats is a reminder that life is essentially more about something other than wining arguments, surrounding one's self with people with whom we agree, preaching to the choir, or in obvious or subtle ways looking down our noses at others.  Nor is life about the loose thinking and "touchy feelly" that goes with claiming that everyone has his or her own truth or that what one holds sacred exempts one from considering with curiosity and appreciation views different from their own.  Garbage is garbage and false claims are false.  But nuance is easy to overlook and jumping to conclusions is tempting.  I'm not sure I can imagine Vice President Mike Pence contemplating the possibility that a man and a woman could be just friends, but I do not know anything about Mike Pence except what is reported in the media, none of which seems to rise to the level of curiosity and self-negation, and postponement of judgment that Keats captures in the phrase Negative Capability.
       Of course, Keats was a poet.  Poets can afford to revel in ambiguity.  They do not necessarily issue marching orders or point the way to great or even small actions.  Beauty and Truth, for the poet, can be just objects of contemplation, joyful insight, or horror.  Samuel Johnson, in a short paper first published in the Twentieth Century, admitted that in most walks of life, the practical exigencies of daily life require people, such as businessmen and politicians, to act on insufficient evidence because of time constraints.  Similarly, in law, the concept of "beyond reasonable doubt" is a practical necessity to encourage a firm conclusion even when there is no positive proof--the hurdle is high but not perfect.  By contrast, Johnson said that scholars, maintained at the public expense to do research, do not have an excuse to act before reaching a thoroughly researched conclusion.  They must, at the end of the day, find the truth they seek and reveal what they have found without regard to time or consequences.   Poets have that same liberty to disregard the consequences, but perhaps lack Johnson's insistence on public duty.  One very important truth that affects us all but is infrequently acknowledged or spoken is the fact that we do not know all the evidence relevant to understanding another person or event.
        In America, the concept of citizenship has always entailed a sense of duty.  There is a reason Americans are citizens and not subjects.  It is our government, by the people, for the people.  Hence, one's duty is to engage and support the right and oppose the wrong.   The word "fight" is one of the most common words in political rhetoric.  I will fight for you.  We must fight for the right.  It seems that the whole country is one giant military zone, with opposing parties on all sides, using, one hopes, words rather than cudgels or guns, as weapons in the struggle to win.    It is a harsh environment, when instead it could be that we are all Americans, all on the same side--if sides there must be--trying to make the country and the world a better place for all of us.   We subscribe to founding documents, imperfect though they no doubt are, that support the idea that we are in this together for the mutual good of all, not just the few.
       That brings us to the importance of uncertainty. Of recognizing the paucity of our evidence and of our understanding--uncertainty that should make us hesitate to condemn or judge.   No person who admits he or she might be wrong can kill or punish another for disagreeing.   It is the case that there are wrongs, but for the most part, we rush to judgment, because resolving an issue and  fighting for the right is more important than acknowledging the existence of uncertainty, acknowledging that we do not know all.  Community, consensus, compromise, and cooperation have a better chance than fighting and winning to make this a better country and the planet a better place for humans and other creatures.
     Take the time to make sure of your facts.  Take that time to consider and criticize your own arguments.  Take the time to understand the viewpoint of your so-called opponents.  Take the time to understand that human needs are not defined by your own needs alone or the needs of the people you live with in your real or metaphorical gated community.
       Man up: admit it when you are not sure; admit that it is not all about you and yours; admit that in a society, no one gets his or her own way all the time and perhaps not ever.  Live with it.  Enjoy the complexity, ambiguity, and uncertainty of a rich life.  And don't forget to vote.

Thursday, June 13, 2019

Academic Freedom

Academic Freedom: 
Why, When, and How I Retired
     There must by fifty ways to leave your workplace, your job, your profession, your career.  Some dream of leaving when they win the lottery.  Others, less fanciful, banal even, leave when they have figured out their income would be the same in retirement as it would be if they went on working.  Either way suggests work driven by money rather than by a passion or source of joy.  Or it means, they can now concentrate on the fraction of their work that they most enjoyed.
    When prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, altered England’s higher education, many faculty members were “made redundant” (i.e., retired early).  One man, still in his early fifties, said to me, “It’s like getting a Guggenheim every year for the rest of my life.”  My kind of guy.  A Guggenheim, (usually) a year-long fellowship, provides a modest living wage with some research expense money to boot--with the expectation of learning, writing, and eventually publishing the results, but no duties.  I had a Guggenheim once, but ten years passed before the book, Pegusus in Harness, was published.
      I always said, and then wondered if I were just kidding myself, “They pay me to do what I’d do anyway. I love my job.”   And I did, though I did not like grading papers—having to tell myself over and over that the work helped students learn to think more clearly so that they could express themselves more clearly.  But did they read my comments? Did they care enough to improve?   Experience said, occasionally, yes.  My work also entailed reading literature; talking about what I read; examining catalogues from Rare Books Stores in order to augment library collections; travelling to exotic cities for conferences with colleagues who not only understood my research and arguments but could point to weak spots—making me better.  (I recall Singapore, Innsbruck, Copenhagen, Alicante, Cáceres , Pisa, Milan, Bern, Munich, Sydney, Dunedin NZ, Kolkata, Cape Town, Amsterdam, The Hague, London, Edinburgh, New York, San Francisco, Victoria BC, Toronto, Chicago, St Louis, Vilnius, Bogota--there were more.)   My expenses to such places of pleasure were paid, mostly.   An emotional high also comes with acceptance of an article for publication, and again, a year or so later, at publication.  My paid work entailed spending time in libraries all over the world (among them Beinecke, Houghton, Newberry, Firestone, Perkins, Bancroft, British Library, National Library of Scotland, Bobst, Morgan, and Mitchell in Sydney)[1] to do research on what interested me.  It was the life of Riley.
      I always said I did not work for the university; instead, the university paid me to do what I thought best to do.   Well, I taught “assigned” classes—most often classes that I had asked for.   I also had imposed deadlines for getting grades in, with penalties I only guessed at for not complying.  I was “expected” to grade fairly and promptly, of course, but there is no pleasure in grading unfairly or making tasks take longer than needed.   I studied what interested me, taught the way I wanted to, wrote for journals of my choice, attended conferences that interested me.
     Loving one’s work can, unfortunately, make knowing when to quit difficult.  The event that colored my thinking on retirement involved a man I never knew personally, but about whom I “knew” two things.  Knew, in quotation marks, acknowledges that I have no way of knowing if my perception of him squared with reality.   That does not matter for the effect on my thinking about retirement.  Ian Watt wrote a book called The Rise of the English Novel which I read in graduate school and admired beyond measure.  It appeared to me that he had read everything written in the 18th Century, though he focused on Defoe, Richardson, and Fielding.  He definitely wrote coherently about it.  I could never read that much, but I desperately wanted to have some coherent view of the English Novel.  He gave me one.  Lionel Stevenson’s The Panorama of the English Novel I found covered more ground but seemed dry.  Edward Wagenknecht’s Cavalcade of the English Novel just seemed overconfident or arrogant to my student ears.  But Watt, what a brain.  What an intellect.     Years later, I attended a conference where Watt, then in his late seventies or eighties, presented a paper.  Four speakers shared an hour–and-a-half session, each allotted twenty minutes.   At forty minutes my idol had tumbled from its pedestal—not just because of the time overrun.  The audience sat politely—deference to a man who had given us all so much.  I would not forget that lesson.  Do not go there.
       Assuming one has a stellar career, has achieved some modicum of fame, has been feted or honored in some way, how does one know when to walk away? Accolades are heady; one wants more.  One needs to leave while one can still walk--preferably before noticing that the honors have slowed or ceased.  If one’s career has a peak, it is all downhill from there.  Better to quit at the first slips than to repeat the silent embarrassment of Ian Watt.   If one will never do better next time, why continue?   I repeat that I did not personally know the man or know what heights he might still have achieved.  I recall the event; it sufficed.
        My parents were missionaries.  They wanted me to be a missionary, too.  That thought dominated my education from age 7  to 21.  My mother taught me to sing:
I may never march in the Infantry,   (march)
Ride in the cavalry,   
(pretend you're riding a horse)
Shoot the artillery.   
(clap hands together)
I may never zoom o'er the enemy, 
(spread arms out and pretend to be a plane)
But I'm in the Lord's Army.   
(point one finger up to God)
I'm in the Lord's Army, (yes, sir!)   
I'm in the Lord's Army, (yes, sir!)

     The effect waned somewhat in college.  Two years I attended a Bible college, then transferred to a state university to major in English education.  The plan was to earn a living as a teacher of English as a second language in the country I had grown up in while also persuading lost souls to convert and assure themselves of heaven.   I abandoned that plan and went to graduate school,  when students in my practice teaching stint convinced me that high school was no place for the likes of me.
      Not only was Vietnam a battlefield I would have gone to Canada to avoid, the mission field lost all appeal.  In graduate school, for the first time, my motive for study was a desire to learn, just to find out, just to know, just to get the rush of discovering that which I did not know.  I no longer felt the need to fulfill someone else’s dream or plan for me.  Not in anybody’s army, I marched on my own.  It was exhilarating.  From 21 to 70 I was always in college, learning new things, always excited about what was next.
       I had a new feeling about my life.  I was a hound dog chasing literary rabbits—learning to learn and discover and share what I knew.   I admit, at least at first, I was not terribly good at it.  Should I reveal here the ways I embarrassed myself as a graduate student, or as an Assistant Professor, or as Associate Professor, or as Professor?  Though the events are still vivid, recalling them gives no pleasure.  Discovering the phrase “Fail better” eased my anxiety somewhat.   As time passed, the rookie mistakes became less frequent.  Honors came.  I felt over-valued most of the time, though I tried not to show it.   To be fair, there were times when I felt unappreciated: when a younger colleague got a bigger raise then mine, when an article got turned down, when I was told the university would survive even without following my advice—times when I felt my judges to be doofuses. I remembered the sign I saw in some office saying: Doing a good job around here resembles wetting yourself in a dark suit: it gives a nice warm feeling but nobody notices.
        But good work rewards us in other ways then the recognition one receives.  One colleague once said, specifically about scholarly editing, but applicable in any field, “Producing a first-rate edition is worth doing even if no one reads it.”   I’ve wondered if people who do not do good work find it easy or hard to live with themselves.  I decided to retire the evening I walked home from teaching a three-hour graduate seminar and suddenly realized that, in answer to a student question, I had given an extended answer based on facts I had muddled in my memory.  I got home and emailed a correction to the class.  I retired at the end of the year. 
     Other factors applied. Though primarily because I distrusted my memory, on which I had prided myself in my younger years, dimmed eyesight made it more and more difficult to read anything, especially scholarly articles to “keep up” in my field.  Furthermore, I had been in school from age seven to seventy; starting a new life had to be soon or would be never.   I left off learning professionally. I attended only two (invited) conferences after that: one to receive what I consider to be a life-time achievement award, and the other, my first conference ever in the country of my birth, where I presented my paper in my native Spanish.  I also quickly polished up and sent off four articles and a book that were nearing completion.  Then my back was fully turned.
      I began full-time amateur learning.  My new life consists of woodworking and forestry (with some time off for fishing) on 120 acres of steep forestland, which my wife and I had bought thirteen years earlier as a retirement place.  I have encountered the vastness of my ignorance and also the joy and excitement of learning new things in a new field.   My place sports a 40 hp tractor with frontend loader, scraper, winch, and bushhog; a pickup truck and flatbed trailer; a four-wheel runabout; a small hydro electric plant and solar panels to support us off-grid; and a workshop with planer, jointer, scroll saw, table saw, band saw, sanders, drills, routers, lathes, radial arm saw and various hand tools.  In retirement I have built a 20x20 shed over a dock, a 22x40 pole barn, a 16x24  fully enclosed workshop, and I have made, with wood from my forest, harvest tables, head- and foot-boards for beds, night stands, and a variety of wooden bowls and wooden pens.   Wood both exacts and forgives, requiring patience and careful attention to the material.  Mistakes can sometimes be smoothed or re-purposed.  Sometimes they require one to start over.  Attention to detail can allow one to achieve a thing of beauty; carelessness or inattention ruins everything.  The emotional high comes when someone sees something I’ve made and says, “Oh, I want one.”   By the way, cataract surgery and implanted corrective lenses restored my eyesight, so that reading became once again a pleasure.  I’m thankful that, in my new career, I have no evaluation meetings with a boss, no competitions, no reason to do anything for any reason save the love of doing it. 
     Which brings me to the topic: Academic freedom.  For this I am not doing research into the actual historical origins of the concept or the practice.  Nor am I doing any research into university handbooks about faculty responsibilities and rights.   Universities are institutions devoted to research leading to the discovery of new knowledge (and, inevitably, the discovery of old errors and faulty received wisdom).  It follows that its faculty members must have the freedom to pursue research and new knowledge without the restraints of political, religious, or economic interests.  No faculty member should be stopped from searching for new truths (well, actually, to be more honest and modest about it, searching for new, more plausible, explanations) about life, matter, art, actions, or whatever the subject might be.   Academic freedom means being free from the fear of being fired or squelched for discovering and revealing unpopular truths.  Tenured academics can fearlessly speak truth to power (clichĂ© though that is)—it’s their job, their privilege, their responsibility.
       Hence, tenure enacts academic freedom--freedom from the fear of firing because someone does not like the results of research.  Tenure does not grant job security for any other reason than the unjust dismissal for having researched and reported unpopular, controversial, or threatening subjects.   It is not protection from being fired for other reasons, such as not doing your job or engaging in behaviors detrimental to the intellectual pursuits of colleagues or students.  Tenure becomes a genuinely sticky issue when controversial “research” fails to be transparent or traceable, or when it is demonstrably shoddy.  When political agendas attach themselves to research, bias seems both inevitable and unethical, as has been shown with tobacco, race, medical cures, herbicides, and sexuality.  Dressing up economic, religious, or political agendas with shoddy research does not, in my view, merit the protections of academic freedom.  Real research presents the facts that speak the damning truth, the researcher need not sully him or herself with an agenda.  I suppose some clever person will already have sussed the fact that I’m clothing academic freedom in the shield of objectivism.  All I’ll say is that that is a plausible argument; and I’ll ask, what shield is that clever person hiding behind? Perhaps the one that says, since all positions are political and biased, I want mine to be the winner.
       For me, universities exist to discover, question, and explain what we know and want to know, and to share knowledge with others: in short, researching, teaching, writing, and floating ideas for discussion in classes and conferences.  Anything else wastes time and resources.  When one starts to do these things less well, the time to go has arrived.

[1] Respectively: Yale, Harvard, Chicago, Princeton, Chapel Hill NC, Berkeley, London, Edinburgh, NYU, Yew York, Sydney.

Monday, July 30, 2018

Linguistics and Textual Criticism

I think we have not seen enough discussion about the uses or importance of linguistics to textual critics of the modern era.  It seems to be generally accepted as essential in Classical and Medieval editing.  There the critical pursuit of scribal error usually lacks the types of corroborating evidence often found in abundance in the letters, autograph manuscripts, and marked proofs relatively common for modern works.  Hence, reliance on one’s thorough acquaintance with linguistic details is essential for the detection of error, or, more important, the detection of legitimate but rare usages.
     Even editors of modern literature, whose primary goal is to represent the texts of extant documents precisely, must feel the need of linguistic sophistication in determining obscure or unusual manuscript readings where ambiguity might either be discovered to exist or possibly be resolved by appeal to linguistic knowledge or principles.
My own interest in linguistics was strictly amateurish and limited, nor would I ever claim to be a linguist or even very knowledgeable about it beyond a graduate course taken before I realized its importance and a magnificent syntax course, experienced after I realized it was important to my work as a textual editor.
     It was my privilege to have had a friend whose interest in linguistics far exceeded mine but who nevertheless let me into his thinking over a forty year period, during which he gnawed and chewed on ordinary language and how meaning was created and expressed and taken up by speakers and writers and listeners and readers.  His thinking influenced my ideas about “script act theory” elaborated in Resisting Texts and From Gutenberg to Google.
     Price Caldwell’s writings on linguistics have been gathered and edited posthumously by Oliver Cresswell and Robert J. Stainton as Discourse Structure and Linguistic Choice: The Theory and Applications of Molecular Sememics (Springer, 2018).   I was privileged to write the forward, which I append here in its pre-publication form.   Blatant self-promotion revealed, can I just suggest that you ask your library to order the book.  (

Peter Shillingsburg
Price Caldwell and I were best friends for forty years, beginning when he moved in across the street and needed help sanding the floors of his house. At the time I fancied myself a good arguer. I had won a high school medal in debating. Price just looked tired when I got in that mode. He was not interested in conducting or winning a competitive argument. Winning a debate, he said, leaves one exactly where one started. Losing, on the other hand, means one has at least had to give up some untenable proposition. He taught me to use argument to discover what I did not know. He was never satisfied with what he thought he knew. He was seldom satisfied with what he had written – hence, I think, this unfinished book. If I were to be his friend, I would need to stop debating and start examining arguments for weaknesses to be fixed and for strengths that were hidden. In conversations with him, if both of us moved off of our opening positions, we both won. I miss him.
            In two ways I represent potential readers of Price’s book. One is as a layman fascinated with linguistics and theory and philosophy, driven by a hope that pursuit of these subjects will lead, if not to truth, at least to an escape from (some) self-deception of the sort that makes one so certain. Certainty is often, if not always, supported in part by one’s ignorance (sometimes willful ignorance) of that which would undermine it. Being undermined in one's certainty is a release from the burden of ignorance, of partial understanding. Price always wanted to know how an argument could hide that which undermined it. Time and again, in this book, he suspects the standard view to be based on some assumption hidden by the rhetoric of the arguments supporting it. His work is an exploration. He is not flogging a fixed position. He was always ready to concede in light of better argument.
            The second way I represent potential readers is my desire in particular to know how meaning works, how language makes meaning, and how people make language, driven in my case by a somewhat esoteric need to understand how revision works in the process of writing. I remember the first time Price tried to explain molecular sememics to me in the cafeteria of the college where we both taught. I was skeptical. Another acquaintance had been bending my ear about a modified version of phlogiston. I was not buying. About an hour and a half into the conversation with Price the penny dropped. I understood the basic notion: that the functional meaning of a word in a sentence as it was used by a person in a situation where speaker and listener both understood nearly everything that went without saying might, just might, be the same meaning to speaker and listener (intender and interpreter), even though the words were not defined so in any dictionary. Yet, the flexibility and instability and dexterity of language was such that there was no guarantee a word would mean the same to both speaker and listener, to both writer and reader. I revisited my college linguistic books, re-read J. L. Austin’s How to Do Things with Words, ate up the writings of John Searle, Quentin Skinner, Steven Pinker, and Paul Hernadi, sat in on a syntax course taught by my colleague John (Haj) Ross, and mulled Price’s ideas, and fancied myself quite the ‘pragmaticist’.
            The truth is I don’t think Price ever believed that I had understood him fully. I did not believe so either. I fancy he wrote this book to help me get there. Over the years he sent me drafts of some of the chapters. Any layman can understand them. He hated big words as much as I did. Big words too often hide things rather than expose or encapsulate ideas. His interests were in how ordinary language works in speech and writing, in propositions, jokes, lies, innuendos, hints, deceptions, inarticulations (how does one know the difference between a doohickey and a thingamabob? how can one say one thing and mean another?) – everything; mine was in how language works in writing, in understanding the writings of inaccessible (dead) authors. Price gave me new tools for studying drafts, manuscripts, revisions, proof alterations, and revised editions.
            I found the concept of molecular sememics invigorating and useful in elaborating a variation on speech act theory, which I called script act theory. There are a variety of important differences between speech and writing, not the least of which is that, in speech, speaker and listener usually occupy the same place and time, while in writing, it is usual for writer and reader to be leagues and ages apart. The contexts of speech that form one important aspect of the molecular sememe, are shaped and modified in crucial ways by what goes without saying – understood to influence meaning, though not explicit or even acknowledged. In writing, with gaps of space and time separating writer from reader, what went without saying ceases to do so. The controlling sememic molecule is eviscerated. In addition, molecular sememics explains how, as composition proceeds, triangulating processes narrow the range of acceptable and expected words at each next point in a sentence, such that each chosen next word means what it means in contrast to the few remaining other possible words that could have been chosen. (Umpires in baseball do not call a runner “in” as opposed to “out”.) When a writer chooses, crosses out, chooses again, crosses out and finally decides, each potentially expected word from that triangulated set of possible choices affects the meaning of the chosen word and simultaneously limits the range of options for the next word. We recognize typos and malapropisms, in part, because they fall outside that set of acceptable / expected words triangulated for us by what went before, and the contexts of the speech act. In script acts the writer has more time and space for experiment, and, yet, the final choice is not necessarily the perfect choice. The crossed out words belong to a limited set and help a reader know how the writer was thinking. Knowledge of each abandoned choice helps us understand the last one more precisely. These ‘Caldwellean’ concepts stand at the core of my books on textual criticism, Resisting Texts: Authority and Submission in Constructions of Meaning and From Gutenberg to Google: Electronic Representations of Literary Texts.Price’s ideas helped me understand the significance of revisions for literary criticism and for scholarly editing. Others will find his ideas intriguing and useful in other ways  
            Twenty-five or more years ago, for example, my enthusiasm for molecular sememics led me to explain the ideas to an artist friend, who at the time was also reading Foucault and Levi Strauss. She painted a triptych in which the first panel was a fairly faithful representation of an academic gown, the second panel was a portrait of a man, and the third a somewhat chaotic combination of the colors used in the first two panels in which a pattern emerged when viewed beside the first two panels. She said, “I got the idea from your friend’s idea about the capsule, you know, the module”. Maybe she got the words wrong but she got the concept clearly enough. Recognition of sameness and difference is crucial to meaning making.
            I do not mean to imply that this book is for laymen only, and yet, it might strike some linguists reading the early chapters that the way Price has nested his ideas in the history of linguistic thought, the ways he has explained his views by contrasting them with alternatives common in the field of linguistics, have left something to be desired. That is, it could be argued that the ‘potted histories’ of linguistics in the early chapters are insufficient to give gravitas to his views. He read more than shows up in the footnotes. He took an NEH sponsored course with George Lakoff. This sense of haste in ‘covering’ existing thought in linguistics is remedied in the second section of ‘the book’ (Chapter 5). I knew Price and the way he thinks. He had a vision of how language works that made more sense to him than did the existing views. His idea of conversation or discourse was that one did one’s best to be clear, and then one listened for the responses. Persuading others that he was right about linguistics was not his main aim. Offering as coherent an argument as he could, he hoped for feedback, even blowback, that took him seriously, genuinely considered his views. At every point, he was willing to concede his position in the face of new information or better argument. Too often, I saw him at times when he felt his ideas were dismissed a priori because he questioned rather than built on received wisdom or because he was deemed an amateur.
            The structure of this posthumous book reflects the processes by which Price thought his way into molecular sememics. Understanding that process will help explain the somewhat unorthodox structure of the book. The first four chapters, being collected for the most part from previous stand-alone articles, consist of four introductions to the subject, each developing some new aspect of it, but each covering some ground covered elsewhere. This is a good thing, because Caldwell’s overall intent is to introduce a new paradigm for understanding how ordinary language works, and that requires stripping away much that many of us have adopted as unquestioned truths about how language works. Chapter 5 consists of five sections of what Caldwell intended to be ‘the book.’ It is in some ways more formal, more methodical than the first four chapters, and because it represents his attempt to organize and present the idea of molecular sememics as a whole, it takes up in a formal organized way the ideas he has been introducing us to in the first chapters. No doubt, had he lived to complete ‘the book’ it would have stood more securely on its own without the essays he produced as he was working out the details of molecular sememics. Although some ideas are repeated more often than required in a single publication, I find the result of these multiple approaches and re-explanations very useful in making the ideas understandable.
            Though for years Price and I talked endlessly about MS and molecule-selection-and-execution structures, I did not know the full range of his thinking in the deep and interesting ways that show up in Section 4 of Chapter 5, “Qualities of the Sememe”— his clearest expression of the difference between MS as an arena in which meaning gets expressed in a dynamic exercise of rhetorical skill (even by the nearly inarticulate), on one hand, and the structuralist, formalist view of language as a pre-existing set of categorical choices offered by the Langue, on the other. Molecular sememics explains ordinary exchanges of intention and interpretation (speaker/listener) as skill in innovation of expression rather than as dexterity in the application of rules. And though he wrote it first many years ago, I did not know how well he applied his sense of how language works to the unpacking of nuance in Wallace Stevens’ poems, in Section II. Anyone unaware of MS before reading Caldwell on Stevens might be none the wiser about MS but surely would be wiser about Steven’s exploration of the relation between language and one’s sense of the ‘real’ world. But, having read this book, one can see MS lurking in the background of Caldwell’s analyses of Stevens, Hemingway, and Ford. The difference between applying with dexterity the categorical options of structured language by contrast to the momentary dynamics of constructing meaning is echoed in Caldwell’s comment on Richard Ford’s writing, that “Every writer should distrust the received meanings of words and concepts. He or she should take on the obligation to make meaning...”
            In the last fifty years or so, Samuel Beckett’s question about authorship and voice in literature: What does it matter who is speaking?, has been reiterated by Foucault, Derrida, and numerous literary critics. One of the reasons for this attitude toward voice is that interpretive despair and the absurdity of modern life have made the question uninteresting. Another is that when the text is read, it is the reader who is speaking, making up the tone and feeling about what is written. Caldwell focuses on how readers make up the tone and feeling of what they read. He begins with explorations of how writers and speakers create meaning using not just words but tone and feeling and context and expectations – providing meaning-determiners that sensitive listeners and readers can use to ferret out intended meaning, or at least to avoid the literalness of tone deaf readings. Reading this book brought home to me more clearly than ever that molecular sememics, as a theory about practical meaning making, is an enormously useful tool for well-informed reading. In short, Price gives us grounds for thinking that ‘who is speaking’ does indeed matter.
            While he is no longer with us to receive feedback, Price Caldwell would have been delighted to know that his ideas entered or provoked a conversation, a reconsideration of mainstream thinking on whether competence precedes or follows performance, whether language precedes or derives from speech, whether the rules of a language system predict or circumscribe language acts or if local speech, through repetitions and incremental conventionalization first creates and then modifies the rules, whether the rules of syntax determine word order or if the salience order of discourse creates syntactic paths that become conventionalized into rules. His primary insight, from my point of view, was the dynamics of meaning creation or construction, for dynamic meaning making, whether primitive or sophisticated, provides a plausible explanation for the innovative nuances that speakers and writers accomplish on the fly; as well as for the evolution of language competencies; and for how rules develop and how they can be broken to good effect. Beyond that, when he says, “meaning belongs to the molecule, and not to the word”, he opens a path for literary critics to seek historical meanings in writings as well as exploring the limits of misprision. Using what we know about the contexts of origination, the audience, the cultural expectations of the time and noting the actually trialed but rejected words in drafts, manuscripts, and revision, a critic can often come close to recognizing the molecular sememe that determined meaning for the writer. That one cannot always do that and that one cannot do so with certainty was not, for Caldwell, a reason to abandon hope of approximating intended meanings. His conclusion (that “there is as much good reason in examining the readers’ assumptions – as reader-response criticism insists – as there is in searching for historical evidence of the writer’s intentions”), is not startling. What is new is his methods for understanding how we go about that business.
            The important issue is not whether one or the other of the possible explanations for how language works is right, but how they can help us understand meaning and meaning making. As Caldwell demonstrates and as is well known, many grammatically and syntactically ‘correct’ sentences make no sense – are meaningless. Discourse salience in molecular sememics is like an owners’ manual for deploying the tools of language effectively, not just acceptably. That there are other explanations, Price obviously knew. That his ideas gave him at least a temporary sense of satisfaction and clarity of sight is also apparent. His ideas arose from the sense of dissatisfaction with the standard explanations. He was less concerned with whether he was right than he was with whether his thinking about language, running as it does against the grain in so many ways, could stimulate further thought and analysis. He would be happy to know that he had nudged the conversation forward, even if just a bit.

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Woodcraft and Textual Studies, Pt II:

Flaws and Errors vs Character of the Material

        I recently acquired an oak burl that was riddled with carpenter ants and some rot.  Burl wood is the result of disease or damage.  The tree attempts to repair the damage and isolate the disease or invading fungus or insect.  The result is a sort of gall of wood fiber without a set grain direction.  The patterning can be beautiful, but the juxtaposition of rot and insect damage with solid burl wood is erratic.  One could call it natural materiality, if one were aping aca-talk.
       I cut pen blanks from my burl.  A pen blank is about three inches long and 3/4inches square.  One drills a hole through the blank, inserts and glues a thin metal tube, mounts it on a lathe with appropriate bushings, and shapes a pen body.  What could go wrong?
       Well, first I ran into some soft sap wood that flecked off, leaving bits of exposed metal tubing.   In another effort I ran into the channels left by the carpenter ants.  And in another effort I gouged the wood by holding the lathe tool at the wrong angle.  It got me thinking about the differences between flaws in the material, errors of execution, and discovery of the character of the wood.  Woodworkers often casually refer to "character of the wood" to render beautiful that which appears anomalous.  Knots are the chief such objects.  In some woods the knots are surrounded by grain that curls and chips during planing, leaving dips and small divots chipped out of the wood.  Sanding might remove evidence of very shallow divots, and a smooth dip might be said to follow the grain.  Here is where a fine line exists between flaw and error.  Did the carpenter mar the wood by breaking fibers or was the carpenter exposing and displaying the subtle undulations of the wood?
       It made me think of the materiality of texts and the carpentry of editing.  It might make more sense to compare carpenters to writers, but writers create material objects from words, where the material is merely a medium, not the thing itself (whatever that is).  Editors, like carpenters, find the material already in existence and seek to find how it should best express itself.  Understanding the character of the material makes it possible to work with the material to expose and display its subtlety.   Some carpenters, like some editors, are not interested in the material.  Their eye is on a conventional outcome: a text without flaws; a chair or a desk that looks exactly like its mates and in which no undulations, subtle or otherwise, can be detected.   
       My pen blank with soft sapwood that flecked off the lathe declared itself unfit for the use I sought.  The ant channels offered a different problem.  They were not, per se, character of wood.  Yet, they were endemic to my particular piece of wood.  Did their existence render my pen blank inadequate for the job?  Or did they become a natural aspect to be appreciated and cared for in the pen-making process?   Is care, devoted to such material, a vain attempt to salvage inadequate material, or is it an homage to the material?
       Answers to those questions vary according to the expectations and inclinations of the person setting up as judge.  In editing, if one's expectations, one's predispositions and assumptions, about the material are strong, one can run roughshod over the subtleties.  If one's principles are strong, they might prevent one from seeing how the material resists the editor's tool.
       It has become common these days to lump Anglo-American editorial practice into a catch-all bin called intentionalism or idealism in order to contrast it (usually pejoratively) with European editorial practice in a bin called materialism.  The former is said to drive toward an unachievable idealism, while the later pursues and cares for material text(s).  Both bins are damaging oversimplifications: damaging because anyone buying into such stereotypes is encouraged to become inured to the differences between flaws and errors and between character of the material and character of the editorial principle. 
       It is no defense of realism or scholarship to say that the intentional character of material texts is outside the purview of editing.  Likewise, it is not defense of idealism or criticism to say one can treat documents as mere temporal snapshots of intentional works in progress.  Both statements contain truth and are thus more than a little bit attractive, but a true wood worker respects the character of wood and rejects the flaws.  To do otherwise is error.

Friday, March 3, 2017

"Agency" and "Authority"

"Agency" and "Authority"
   In discussions of textual criticism, the word "agency" often is used to answer the question: Who wrote this or who edited this or who made this change in the text.  The answers often are: the author or the publisher or the censor or, perhaps too often, I don't know. Answers to these questions supposedly lead to understanding why the changes were made and whether the changes were authorized or have authority.   
   Authority is a word with a variety of connotations.  If it means having the power to control how a reader understands the text, the reaction of many if not most readers has often been, Oh, yeah, watch me.  But if it means, exercising the rights of an author to have the words and punctuation of a text be what he or she wishes them to be, the word authority suggests instead that the change is not spurious.  Literary critics since the 50s have rebelled against the authority of authors to determine what they meant by a text.  They have rebelled against the notion that an expert critic can determine the meaning of a text to be the author's meaning and therefore the meaning that is to be taught to students.  The author is dead as the authority over he meaning of the text.  The author, at best, is just a function that initiates a discourse.  The author is a convenient fiction of the reader's imagination.  Authority, in that realm of meaning is abhorrent.  For critics, the word authority means what it means by contrast to liberty, freedom, flexibility, imagination.  Authority is an "anti-" term.
   That attitude has troubled textual critics whenever they forget or fail to see that their own interest in the authority of a textual change, in the author of a sequence of words, and in the authentication of sources of texts has nothing to do with the authority abhorred by critics.  Instead, for textual critics the word authority means what it means by contrast to spurious, fake, inadvertent, error, mistake, or interference by some interloper.  The contrast between the literary critic's objection to authority or authorities and the textual critics preference for authoritative or authentic texts is sharply seen in censorship.  Censorship is the exercise of the kind of authority literary critics hate.  Censorship is also the interference and introduction of unauthorized work that textual critics object to.
   In literary criticism, agency has had at least one additional meaning and function, which also has a bearing on the questions textual critics ask.   The question of agency in literary criticism is often connected to epistemology, how do we know, or is it possible to know, and who or what is it that is doing the knowing.   This is a double problem: our human distance from the objects of our attention, a gap that makes it impossible to be objective about objects, on one hand, and our human inability to pin down who it is that knows what we think we know, a problem of one's self as subject.  The question of agency is thus limited by the uncertainty of knowledge: both the knower and the  (supposedly) known.  Thus, even if one answers the textual critic's question, who wrote this, by saying, the author wrote this, the literary critic's response is likely to be two-fold.  First, what is an author or who is the author or how can you know what is meant by the author, on one hand, and secondly, who are you who claims that you know the author wrote this.  And having answered that you do not know for certain, the critic might wish to know why you tried to ask and answer the question in the first place.  That is, if you were trying to pin down agency in an effort to understand the author's meaning, you would have to contend with a series of questions about agency that undermine it as a means to that end.  In short, regardless of how you define authority, they will have none of it.
   Put a slightly different way, uncertainty about how one knows anything and uncertainty about one's own base of knowledge are together a definition of the human condition.  All social interactions, indeed all interactions that anyone experiences are rendered uncertain by these observations about agency.  And there is (as yet?) no way round it.  Many, maybe most, people proceed unbothered by this fundamental uncertainty.  Either they proceed unaware that there is a problem because, pragmatically, the uncertainty factor is small enough not to be noticed.  They believe they understand for the most part what was said to them and they believe for the most part what they say is understood by their audience.  Perhaps with less force, this contentment with some slippage also applies to writings, letters, laws, contracts, and even poetry and fiction--which are generally successful in being "taken for what they say."  So the problem, if it is a problem, is not noticed by many and felt to be negligible by most. They do not perceive it to be a significant problem.   Or, others proceed fully aware of the problem of uncertainty and fully aware that there is no way round it, but manage not to go crazy because they also know that it is a condition shared in common by all, and that life must go on as best it can. 
    For this second group, those who have learned to live with uncertainty, there are also two sub-groups: those, who having accepted the uncertainty of life, decide that any choice they make is as good as any other choice and that success is measured, not by truth, integrity, or right and wrong, but by dominance--survival of the fittest or might is right.  The other subgroup, having accepted the uncertainty of life, choose to proceed tentatively, always ready to concede that new evidence or a different point of view might have value.  The first sub-group is capable of cruelty--where there is no certainty, they merely have to assert their own certainty and impose it on others; the second sub-group is incapable of cruelty--where there is no certainty, one must always be ready to admit one's own limitations and self-deceptions.  That is to say, although recognition of the fundamental uncertainty at the base of all knowledge is a significant problem, it is rather  like gravity, neutral and universal in its effects and does not give grounds for any new kind of behavior.  The discovery that everything that we had taken to be at least relatively determinable and understandable is in fact always up for question, does not give us grounds for saying that nothing means anything determinable or that everything can have any meaning we are able to ascribe to it.
    Nevertheless, in textual criticism, acknowledgement of uncertainty about agency entails three areas of uncertainty.  First, evidence is often insufficient to establish who (which agent) was responsible for the text found in a document.  Second, it is not determinable with certainty what was meant by the agent of change. And third, it is not certain that you (or the reader) has taken up the words and their meaning in a the same way that motivated the writing.
   It is important to understand that the literary critic's revolt against the hegemony of what has been called author meaning is not a rebellion that textual critics need object to.  Textual critics can also object that the imposition of author meaning is or can be authoritarian in the worst meaning of that word.  Textual critics are not interested in author meaning as a goal of their work to be imposed on all readers.  They are not interested in restricting the liberty of readers to do whatever they wish to do with text in whatever way they want to do it.  
   But, it is telling to note that some literary critics, embracing the freedom to do what they like with their texts, have ceased to ask, what might the originator(s) of this text have meant by their text?  They have been so keen on establishing their freedom to ignore the author meaning that they seem to have forgotten how to seek author meaning out as one of their options.  The textual critic, more than any other branch of literary investigation, is devoted to providing the tools to increase access to author meaning as one of the options readers have.  Understanding which text of a wok one it reading, knowing where the text came from and who prepared it and how it was prepared, knowing how that text differs from other texts of the same work, and knowing the contexts surrounding its creation and the audience(s) to which it was directed--all these are crucial to the reconstruction of what could have been author meaning(s) and the elimination of meanings that could not have been author meaning.  The point is that it takes work and discipline to make author meaning even plausibly available.  It is not a question of imposing the correct author meaning; it is a matter of making author meanings available as one of the reader's options.
   Finally, it is good to remember that when textual critics speak of authorial intention, they are not speaking about author meaning; they are speaking about the choices authors make for the text: the choice of words and punctuation may be the most obvious, but they include the choices of paper and writing instruments, the choice of publishers, the choice of audiences.  What does the surviving evidence indicate were the author's choices.  We can argue about what was meant by these choices after we have determined who made the choices.  That is why agency matters to textual critics.