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.