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.