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.