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.