Monday, December 10, 2012

A Retrospective

On Dec. 7, 2012, during the holiday (i.e., Christmas) party for the English Department at Loyola University Chicago, ill-advised and well-intentioned friends, in view of my impending retirement, honored me with a retrospective of my four-and-a-half years as the Martin J. Svaglic Chair of Textual Studies.  It was a pleasant, if mildly embarrassing, event that got me thinking about what, if anything, I had done in my professional career that had "made a difference" or "was worth remembering."  Here are some candidates.

In textual studies I've published a lot of articles and three books. I've also created and presided over the creation of a 10-volume scholarly edition of W. M. Thackeray's works.  And I've written two books on Thackeray and edited a third.  There are other things possibly worth revisiting--not sure.
In textual studies, perhaps one or two things in each book were important--judged in part by what people seem to have taken from them.

In Scholarly Editing in the Computer Age, already mentioned in this blog, perhaps the most quoted chapter is the one on "Forms" which presents the "orientations to text."   The idea that an editor's principles for choice of text as the basis for a new edition and the principles for emending (or not emending) that text are determined by one of various more or less incompatible views of the nature of literary works and the material evidence of a work's various or unstable existence.  And there is one sentence in the book which, although it was essentially written by my neighbor, Price Caldwell, over a beer and barbecue in his back yard one day when I was trying to explain what I was doing, is nevertheless one of the most important sentences in the book:  "From the receiver's perspective a work is the imagined whole implied by all differing forms of a text that we conceive as representing a single literary creation---James's Roderick Hudson, for example, in all its variant forms."   At the time I did not realize that this view is compatible with all the orientations to text, or that it would be in line with the Functional Requirements for Bibliographic Records (FRBR).  No single item is a full representation of a work; nor is a work the sum of all its expressions and manifestations; but it is the whole that is implied by each item and by all items that belong to the category "work."  No wonder there is so much controversy in textual and literary study--the center of our mutual interest is variable and unstable and always will be.
In Resisting Texts: Authority and Submission in Constructions of Meaning I believe the most substantial contribution is in the chapter called "Work as Matter, Concept, and Action."  I was accused both by a much admired friend and by well-known person whom I do not particularly admire of having tried in that essay to define a work, to nail down exactly what a work is, to lay down a grid that would capture and hold a work in place, strapped, so to speak, to a gurney for dissection and inspection.  These thoughts struck me a completely alien to what I was trying to do and from what I thought I had explicitly set out to do.  What I saw in the arguments about textual criticism and scholarly editing and the recriminations that flew back and forth in the literature and especially the reviews of new editions was linguistically chaotic.  Combatants used the words "work," "text," and "document" in different senses, such that the fencing jousters appeared of occupy different stages, and what seemed to be needed was a survey of all the definitions that were being used.  I suppose the result looks like a grid, but if so, it is a grid of usage in the profession.  I thought it would help the argument if whatever definition was being used could be agreed upon before an argument proceeded.  The observation about a "work" in the previous paragraph, above, perhaps suggested that a survey of definitions would be helpful, not in nailing down an unstable "object" but in clarifying which concepts of "work" or "text" were being argued about.
In From Gutenberg to Google: Electronic Representations of Literary Texts the two observations above weighed heavily in the idea that access to a digital representation of a single form of a work was not an adequate representation of a work.  It seems to be an almost universal notion that a work has been digitized if  one copy has been transcribed or photographed. This notion seems even more pernicious among users of internet "works" than among librarians who think that if they have one copy of Moby-Dick on the shelves they do not need a second or among literary critics who conduct their study of a work with a cheap paperback in their study but then check all their quotations against a scholarly edition which they cite, apparently believing that if the bits they quote are from the scholarly edition, then the fact that the rest of the book might have significant variants in it does not matter. 
I think the two most important chapters of From G2G are the third, on script act theory, and the fourth , on aspirations for electronic knowledge sites.  Although script act theory was first introduced in Resisting Texts it was much more fully articulated in From G2G; nevertheless, it has not taken off in the sense of being picked up and used by other scholars in understanding the multiple layers of meaning that have been attached to the writers, producers, and readers through time and in various places which nuance the contexts in which meaning is constructed. The chapter on electronic knowledge sites has developed into HRIT (HumanitiesResearch Infrastructure and Tools) as a set of principles for the construction of environments (CMSs), tools (software for manipulating and displaying texts), and content (texts, images, and commentary).  The ideas fly in the face of certain practices now current for developing digital archives and editions that settle for solutions  requiring compromise of scholarly goals (e.g., nesting requirements in XML) or that prevent open collaboration on digital surrogates for primary materials that should be common property (e.g., the practice of embedding code in texts, thus appropriating primary material at the git-go for one person's notion of its uses).
I might continue this later.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Inflexibility of Social Editing

   The inflexibility of the social editorial agenda, mentioned in the previous post, perhaps needs a word or two of explanation. Social editing was developed in opposition to critical editing that pursued strategies to establish a single reading text that best reflected the author's wishes for the work. Critical editing is a very sophisticated and self-conscious set of principles supporting a range of procedures, but it is easily reduced to an absurd caricature of itself. Two developing trends made it almost necessary to caricature critical editing as an idealist, absolutist, positivist, unsophisticated attempt to grasp and nail down the impossible. These trends were literary theory's rejection of formalist criticism (including New Criticism) and a Marxist critical elevation of the means of production as the most important aspect of literary history.  The first undermines the notion of the author as the controlling genius of the work; the second undermines the notion of any individual having final say in what is a social endeavor. The results have been a loss of interest in the so-called Romantic genius myth of authorship and a focus on the multiple industrial processes of book production. From an editorial perspective, these results require that critical editing and its "history defying" practice of creating "new texts that never before existed as fish flesh or fowl" be rejected in favor of social editing strategies that find each version of a work as interesting and important as any other version because it is social history and not imaginative genius that is the object of scholarship. Critical editing is replaced, not only by a newly defined investigation of the history of the text, but by a rigid anti-emendation approach to the texts designed to respect the work of all who participated in the production process regardless of their skill, motives, or agendas.  The relative skills and agendas of the production personnel could be investigated but the editor is interdicted from adjudicating value when editing (or rather not-editing) the text.
   I suppose that my potted history and description of social editing is just as oversimplified and caricatured as those that one encounters frequently now about the "copy-text school of editing," the "eclectic method," or the "discredited practices of Bowers and Tanselle". But my point is not to discredit "social editing" nor do I use "literary theory" or "Marxist criticism" in any pejorative way whatsoever. These have been hugely useful in helping to identify blind spots and weaknesses in scholarly editing, but their oversimplified and inflexible application to scholarly editing is now to be deplored just as strongly as the oversimplified strategies of critical editing were deplored by Jerry McGann in the 1980s and 90s. Speed Hill's approving quotation of McGann's remark that copy-text editing was dead as a dodo is nothing more than an indication of how a trend in editing procedures sometimes becomes a fad followed for its rhetorical force and not for any strength of argument.
   It was a great relief to me to see D. F. McKenzie's scholarly edition of the Works of William Congreve published because it declared itself to be an eclectic edition and follows with perspicacity and delicate balance the best practices of critical editing, relegating to the introduction and notes his considerable knowledge of the sociology of the texts he was editing to conform to Congreve's best intentions for the works.   It is my opinion that McKenzie's arguments in favor of an extended sociology of text have been hijacked in favor of social editing, when in fact they simply support an extended interest in a broader field of bibliography that can be useful in support of any legitimate kind of scholarly edition.

Do we need a new book on scholarly editing?

Following up on my first blog entry about the possibility of producing a 4th revised edition of Scholarly Editing in the Computer Age, I think we are at a point in the development of electronic scholarly editions to justify the idea. SECA was addressed to serious scholars who saw a need to edit a text but who had no training in scholarly editing. Some of the best textual critics (and some of the worst) come from the ranks of those untrained in bibliography and textual criticism but whose scholarly research rendered them unhappy with the existing editions of works they have investigated.
   Following the publication of the first three editions of SECA, I wrote (in part by gathering up scattered essays, revising them and adding new chapters) Resisting Texts: Authority and Submission in Constructions of Meaning (1997), this time trying my best to answer my own remaining questions about the nature of literary texts and the consequences of a range of editorial strategies that could be adopted for scholarly editing. The best compliments I have ever gotten about my writings have been about this book from scholarly editors whose works I have respected. I have also gotten dismissive remarks from folks who think it is too hard to follow, especially its key chapter, "Text as Concept, Matter, and Action". But I was wrong about that book being the place to work out my final thoughts on scholarly editing.
   Following developments in electronic scholarly editing, and in particular going to work as a colleague of Peter Robinson at De Montfort University, revitalized my attention to the potentials for electronic editing. However, it does not take a rocket scientist to see very quickly what was wrong with all the electronic edition prototypes that had developed by 2005: they were either developed by serious textual critics with poor technical support (ugly but useful) or by ersatz textual critics with wonderful technical support (pretty but amateurish scholarship). Or they were just still stuck in the mire of decisions that had been made in the 1990s: stuck with HTML or XML's hierarchies that prevented a swathe of things scholarly editors want to do; committed to transcriptions because images were too slow; and mired also in the inflexibility of the social editorial principles espoused primarily by Jerry McGann who was, without any doubt, the most influential textual critic of the last twenty years.
   So, I wrote From Gutenberg to Google: Electronic Representations of Literary Texts (2006), trying my best to explore what was meant by representing in a new medium the complexities of an old medium. Driving my thoughts were a respect for the illusive past--the history of particular literary works in the print era--and a deep curiosity about what could be accomplished in new digital media. What I mainly discovered is how much I did not know in areas where I thought I had known enough. The book is, in many ways, the work of an amateur in fields related to textual criticism. I despair of ever knowing enough to write a professional book on the subject. A number of people have been kind enough to say that they have learned things from me in that book, but I fear I have "shared ignorance" with them, as well. Much of From G2G looked to the future, focusing on what was wrong with the first two or three generations of electronic scholarly editing and imagining what would be better. Six years later, having spent a lot of time with computing professionals at Loyola University Chicago, working on HRIT (Humanities Research Infrastructure and Tools), it might be time for a new book rather than a reprise of SECA. The research side of textual criticism has not changed; the delivery side and the tools for developing that side are still at unsatisfactory development stages.

Sunday, April 29, 2012


Who did this? The Cult of Agency

    If one were to apply to everyday life the principles of interpretation of narratives implied by Foucault's and Derrida's notions of author or author function in literary criticism, one would cease to be interested in who committed the murder or who stole The Scream or who caused the fire, or who cooked the delicious omelet we had for breakfast.  There would be no giving of credit where credit was due or assigning of blame.  The burning question would be, what is the most interesting account of events that can be extracted from this body found on the steps leading into the Sydney Opera House.
     The urge to know who did some thing does not reflect a mere desire for closure--if we answer the question we can move on to the next question--as if all aspects of life were an exam paper set before us to pin down exact knowledge gained from study or to provide an argument supporting a lesson from experience.
      The desire to know the answer to the question who did this? is a need, not a just a desire, because without that answer it is impossible to understand what was meant by the narrative in question.  It is not difficult and not impossible to come up, from imagination, with scenarios that would explain the narrative.  That, in fact, is easy.  The difficulty is coming up with an explanation that corresponds to all the information that can be gleaned about the event and thereby stands a chance of grasping what meant by the speaker/writer.  And knowing who did this is an important aspect of every narrative, even if that answer is, the person who did this wishes to remain anonymous.  The real obstacle that frustrates one's search for an understanding is the inability to know who did this, or, worse, the false identification of the agent involved.
      It is, of course, true that finding out who murdered the person whose body was found on the Opera House steps will not revive the corpse.  Nor will apprehending and punishing the perpetrator restore order and assuage sorrow among those who knew the victim.  Nor will it prevent any further acts of violence by others.  At least, it never has.
      But it is true that identifying the agent of any action puts that action in relationship to a context and history that forces us to account for the action in a particular way.  Whether the action is a murder or an act of kindness, whether it was a typo or an emendation in a text, the identity of the person who did the act helps us assess the value or damage done.   For some, if the death was caused by lethal injection under the eyes of the law exacting its pound of flesh from a criminal, that circumstance makes the murder okay--for some.  For some, if that alteration in the text was made by the publisher's editor in an attempt to improve the marketability of an author's work, the change has a standing that it does not have if the change was introduced by a careless compositor who, in haste, misread the copy or tried to remember too long a phrase when setting type.
      In life and in textual studies, one cannot always tell or figure out who did this.  One might be cast back upon circumstantial evidence, which is never conclusive, or be tempted to make guesses based on past experiences or expected patterns of behavior, which is just speculation, though the speculators always say their judgments are "informed".  We must admit "I was not there" and so our attempts to determine who did this are constructions (I deliberately avoid saying REconstructions) of plausible scenarios.  For a vast majority of narratives in life, including textual studies, we know beyond doubt who did it.  We recognize the hand writing. The change was initialed.   For another tranche of actions we can narrow down the possibilities such that, while there can be doubt, there is usually no difference of opinion among those who have studied the case.  Nevertheless, doubt remains.  And for other actions we know that something happened, but we have no evidence tilting the scales of probability in favor of one actor over another.
     When we are reasonably sure of the actor, we have a door opened to us to interpret the act in the light of agency.  When we do not know, we must consider the differences that would result depending on who the actor was.