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!)   
(salute)
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.  (https://link.springer.com/book/10.1007%2F978-3-319-75441-3)

Foreword
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.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Textuality and Knowledge: the book

Update:  $44.95 paperback issued June 2018

See Order Form and Discount, below.
         In a time when the distinctions between fact and opinion have become blurred, I thought it would be good to review what we think we know about knowledge--about what we think passes as knowledge.   I think about the differences between knowledge, on one hand and opinion, speculation, guesswork, and wishful thinking, on the other.  I think about why the "fact" that uncertainty dogs every proposition is not an excuse for thinking that "uninformed" opinions are just as valid as "informed opinions."   I think about the need to validate arguments by showing sources of evidence and revealing the sources of the sources.   This book is about textual knowledge; knowledge of texts.  It is not philosophy; it is practice.
     Textuality and Knowledge
Errata
Page.line
39.11  1990  >  1990s
96.4  authorial,  >  authorial
96.5  intention-clear  >  intention clear
NB: the sense of that sentence ending would have been clearer had I written:   “. . . aims of producing clear texts representing final authorial intentions.”   Rather than what I did write:  “. . . aims of producing final authorial intention clear texts.”   
100.9-10  McGann’s applications to the editing of McKenzie’s bibliographical observations.   > McGann’s applications to editing of McKenzie’s bibliographical observations.
NB: the sense might have been clearer had I written: “. . . McGann’s applications of McKenzie’s bibliographical observations to editing.”  

Textuality and Knowledge: Essays is now available from Penn State University Press!




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Textuality and Knowledge


Essays

Peter Shillingsburg
In literary investigation all evidence is textual, dependent on preservation in material copies. Copies, however, are vulnerable to inadvertent and purposeful change. In this volume, Peter Shillingsburg explores the implications of this central concept of textual scholarship.
Through thirteen essays, Shillingsburg argues that literary study depends on documents, the preservation of works, and textual replication, and he traces how this proposition affects understanding. He explains the consequences of textual knowledge (and ignorance) in teaching, reading, and research—and in the generous impulses behind the digitization of cultural documents. He also examines the ways in which facile assumptions about a text can lead one astray, discusses how differing international and cultural understandings of the importance of documents and their preservation shape both knowledge about and replication of works, and assesses the dissemination of information in the context of ethics and social justice. In bringing these wide-ranging pieces together, Shillingsburg reveals how and why meaning changes with each successive rendering of a work, the value in viewing each subsequent copy of a text as an original entity, and the relationship between textuality and knowledge.
Featuring case studies throughout, this erudite collection distills decades of Shillingsburg’s thought on literary history and criticism and appraises the place of textual studies and scholarly editing today.

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Friday, March 3, 2017


"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.


Thursday, December 15, 2016

Disinformation and False Facts
     The rules of evidence require that demonstrations of the plausibility of opinions stand or fall according to cogent arguments based on the facticity, comprehensiveness, and relevance of demonstrable evidence.  Persuasion cannot be "by any means."  It must follow rules, that over centuries, have been devised to protect us from falsehoods and deceptions.  I do not mean, specifically, the "Federal Rules of Evidence" that apply in courts in the United States, but rather the rules of evidence that govern rational thought, that avoid fallacies, the support our best efforts as human beings to seek truth and shun error--forlorn and imperfect as those efforts might, in practice, prove to be.
     Recent events in the political history of the United States suggest that there is no necessary link between evidence and argument in general matters of life--faith and practice.  Perceptions, regardless of source or support, appear to be a sufficient base for beliefs and actions.  Of course, that was always the case, even when evidence was sought, examined and tested, and even when arguments were probed and questioned before leading to accepted conclusions.  All rational conclusions, as well as all prejudicial, superstitious, or otherwise biased conclusions, are based on perceptions.  Humans seem not to have any absolute way around the uncertainties of knowledge or the frailties of perception.   But are all perceptions of equal value?
     The difference between the ideals of deliberate, evidence-based argument, on one side, and bias, superstition and prejudice, on the other, has not been that evidence and argument leads inevitably to truth, but rather that evidence and rational argument have proven to be the best detectors of error.  One does not prove truth; one exposes error.
     Whenever it has been posited that religion and authority and dogma are the best guarantors of truth, it has been rational thought and investigation of evidence that has exposed the errors and won the day--at least for those who value evidence and argument over blind faith, submission, or indulgence in the self-deceptions arising from what Francis Bacon called the "Four Idols:" the tribe, the cave, the marketplace, and the theatre.  (Very much worth a re-read, btw.)
     Yet, the success of misinformation, false facts, deliberate bias, hyperbolic claims, and blind hope in the manipulation of public opinion suggests that in matters of faith and practice, that is, in matters of ordinary day-to-day life, we live in a place and time that does not require or use evidence and argument or the rules of evidence to sort out the way we live now.
     When I retired in 2013 I thought I should wrap up my scholarly life and thinking by collecting and honing what I thought to be the best papers of my last decade of work.  The resulting collection, I saw, focused on the relationship between critical understanding of literature and the soundness of the evidence upon which criticism had play.  The collection, titled "Textuality and Knowledge," explores the implication of the facts that in literature, evidence is all textual, texts are all documentary, and no two texts or documents are exactly alike, either bibliographically or lexically.  Sometimes the differences in the appearance or in the texts of documents purporting to represent the same work of literature are significant--are capable of stimulating different or even contradictory responses.  It would seem to follow logically that any critical argument based on a documentary text would apply, well or ill, to the text in that document and might not apply equally well or ill to the text of a different document bearing the same title.
     Textuality and Knowledge will be published by Penn State University Press in mid 2017.  The writing was completed before the presidential campaigns for the 2016 election and before that campaign made us all painfully aware, first, that we could not trust the sources of our news information, and second, that we tended to trust those stories that corresponded with what we already wanted to believe--even when those stories were proven false.  I think that was unfortunately too true across the entire political spectrum.  
     In our culture, our DNA, and our basic education we lack the habit of questioning sources, doing research, and finding out if a source is reliable in its use of research and facts.  The problem may start as early as the day a parent or teacher says, "Because I said so."  This appeal to authority is meant to squash the questioning spirit--usually on behalf of some form of desirable order or peace.  But the long-range effect may to be to quash curiosity and critical thinking, except, of course, in the rebellious few.
     So, in spite of a life of devotion to the idea that "the unexamined life is not worth living" and "every conclusion should be based on sound, comprehensive, relevant evidence and sound argument," I question whether that attitude is still important for the way we live now?  So many people seem not to care.  So many opinions hold sway without visible support.  All that seems to matter is the number of people who hold similar opinions based on similar perceptions, regardless of facticity or argument.
     Or is that just the expression of a local, temporary despair?  Somehow, I am not tempted to exclaim, "Oh, brave new world."  My eyes seem not to have been opened by a new truth.  They seem instead to have been clouded by a thicker than usual fog.
     Yet, the metaphors of "eyes newly opened" or "eyes clouded by fog" are rhetorical flourishes.   Am I adding to the disinformation about our place and our times by expressing disapproval of the way persuasion works?  I'm reminded, by his death this week, of Robert Scholes call several decades ago for a shift of focus in English Departments from high art, dissociated from daily life, to the practicalities of survival in a language-based culture.  English departments should teach "Textual Self-Defense"--students should learn enough about how language distorts and manipulates our culture so that they can see through advertisements, political speeches, and sermons and to protect themselves against what Vance Packard called "Hidden Persuaders."
     Careful attendance to sources, accuracy, and deliberate argumentation does not serve as a guide to truth but, rather, as protection against falsehood.   Nothing can guarantee truth.  Plausibility and persuasion is what we go on.  Investigation is always questioning, and trying to falsify propositions.  We, as thoughtful, questioning, rational beings hold tentatively to the probable truth of those proposition which have as yet not been debunked by argument and evidence.   There is much that has not been debunked--many "eternal verities"--that form the ground on which we walk.  Verities, despite the etymology of the word, cannot be verified.  Many have stood the test of critics, debunkers, rebels, and nay-sayers for centuries.  We feel that they are verities.  We live our lives by them. We are ready to give them up when evidence and argument warrant it.
     But in matters that can be verified, please, can we exercise caution and verify, to the best of our abilities before we spread rumors, gossip, or anything that comes to us through the transom that is the internet.   Let there be no more cases of, "I have not had time to see if this is true or not, but here it is."  Stop it!   Let there be no more, "I stand by what I said, regardless of the fact that I have no proof--or regardless of the fact that I made no effort whatsoever to determine if it was true."
     May peace and a clear head be with you, always.