Enduring Distinctions in Textual Studies
[Address to the European Society for Textual Scholarship meeting at the University of Antwerp, October 5, 2016, on the occasion of receiving a prize for my work in textual studies.]
I was asked to look back in order to look ahead--to offer a brief retrospective on textual studies. That could take a while since I have been a part of ESTS from its inception in 2001 with Peter Robinson and because I have been in textual studies since 1966. I first confronted European textual studies seriously in 1999, when Dick Van Vliet invited me to a conference of German textual scholars in The Hague. It was an eye-opening experience, but one I did not immediately understand. The English language is spoken on both sides of the Atlantic but we do not always understand the same thing by the words that we use. Words like authority and mixed authority, scholarly edition, emendation, copy-text, and even apparatus all had different meanings for me before ESTS because the historical contexts of textual studies in our different cultural traditions introduced unfamiliar values and nuances.
The passage from Past to Present and into the Future may be punctuated with new insights, but there is continuation as well. The enduring theoretical concepts of textual criticism and scholarly editing include certain basic distinctions and sensitivity to relations between the concepts so distinguished. One such distinction is that between the material document and the texts inscribed on them. We can treat the document as a unity, where the material and the symbolic are an undivided whole, or we can treat the inscribed text as a recipe that can be endlessly replicated in other documents. We have come to label these two ways of looking at texts in documents as the distinction between the bibliographic code, which is documentary, and the lexical code, which is symbolic. Despite all the ink that has been devoted to this topic, there may well need to be more.
Another distinction depends to some extent on how one sees the first one. It is between the material, visible text as found in a document and the verbal conceptual content or experience of the literary work which the text represents for, or stimulates in, readers. Documents, by themselves, apart from how they represent literary works, are of sufficient complexity and provide textual scholars with sufficient difficulties that we could spend all of our time with them without lifting our eyes from the material pages to the conceptual works and mental experiences enabled by the books. I doubt, however, that many of us ever forget that, as Emily Dickinson said, there is no frigate like a book to carry us away from our present time and place. Like John Keats, we have boarded those frigates and "travell'd in the realms of gold, / And many goodly states and kingdoms seen". With Keats we have all looked into Chapman's Homer and seen islands. We do that by seeing through the text to the world created by the imagination. Without that, we probably would not be discussing bibliography, textual criticism, or editorial theory. As textual critics, however, we look at the books, as well as through them. The relationships between literary works and the reader's experience of the them are dependent upon the material texts. We know that different readers construct or experience the same text differently; we also know that, when two material texts differ bibliographically or lexically in significant ways, they influence the reading experience in different ways. It is important not to lose sight of the literary work, the aesthetic object and our experience of it, while examining the literary documents, just as it is important not to skim unheedingly over and through the literary documents on our way to the literary work.
Some people love simplicity more than they love clarity of understanding, and so there have been a number of simplifying generalizations made about the relation between documents and works, but simplifications grasp one truth about the textual condition at the expense of others. The close observer of texts in documents and texts of works is forced to abandon simplifications. Just two common examples will clarify. It has been said that each document is the work because without the document we would not have the work. This simple equation of work and document seems to require, however, that each different document be a different work. If one does not want to say that every copy of a work is a different work, then one must not say that the document and the work form an inseparable unity. If, on the other hand, one says a single work is represented differently by the variant texts in different documents, it seems necessary to also hold that one cannot apprehend the work as a whole without somehow holding its variant iterations in mind. These difficulties point to textual complexities that resist simplification. The way one conceives of the relationship between documents and works influences the practice one follows when editing a work; it is, therefore, important to have a sense of the complexity of that relationship. Dirk Van Hulle and I collaborated on an analysis of this point in an article called "Orientations to Text Revisited" published earlier this year in Studies in Bibliography. I recommend the parts Dirk wrote.
A third distinction in my list is so obvious we have all internalized it and may not think it worth mentioning. It is the distinction between methods and goals. My first encounters with European, particularly German Historical Critical editing confused me because the general tendency of European editorial practice was different from that in which I had been trained. Each side thought we wanted the same goal, so, of course, the other side’s methods must be wrong. Turns out the goals were different, too. The European model emphasized assembling a record of a work’s historical forms, providing an orderly representation of textual history by combining a clear text, accurately representing one historical document's text, with an apparatus that codified accurately the texts found in other historical documents. This model has as its goal the compression between the covers of one volume of the historical textual information from the archive of documents representing a work. By contrast, Anglo-American editors--at least those who followed the principles set forth by Greg, Bowers, and Tanselle--conducted all the research into the archival forms of the work, compiled all the data for the historical apparatus, and attached that information to a critically edited text. Europeans accused Americans of contaminating the historical record; Americans accused Europeans of stopping before the real work of editing was begun. In their own way, each was right, but for the most part many of us failed to understand why the other side was editing in a way we thought was wrong.
It strikes me now, that while on the surface, the Historical /Critical approach appeared to Americans as narrow, rigid, and unimaginative, it was in fact fundamentally liberal and expansive because it presented its strictly factual product as a basis, not only for understanding the history of the texts of a work, but for new critical imaginative editing without trying to dictate what new editorial goals should be. By contrast, Scholarly Critical Editing in America, while on the surface seeming to be open and imaginative, offering to do the careful detailed textual work on behalf of other readers who could then focus on the Work without getting bogged down in the textual minutiae of the history of documents, was in fact a bit tyrannical, for it offered texts as accomplished, established facts, saying "This is the text you should use; the other data is of historical interest only." I think that Historical / Critical Editing and Scholarly Critical Editing both have honorable places in textual criticism. Their methods are different because their goals are different. No editorial method is the one correct approach for all editorial goals. An editor should not assume that his or her method will fulfill every goal, nor should editors assume that their particular goal in editing is the goal everyone should have. The test of a good edition is whether its methods actually fit its goal. And, also very important, though seldom mentioned in editorial scholarship, readers need to learn to use scholarly editions rather than assuming that they are all alike and work in the same way.
Another distinction, that between original material documents and representations of them, displayed itself in print in the distinction between new editions (especially scholarly editions) and facsimiles. New print scholarly editions claim to be only the lexical equivalent of original editions. Facsimile editions provide a simulacrum of the bibliographic code by imitating the physical aspects of original editions.
The digital age has both muddied and clarified our sense of this important distinction, first between originals and reproductions, and, second, between texts and images. Digitally, we can retype or re-key texts for representation or we can take scans or photographs, digitizing images of documents for representation. It is an ignorant assumption that the symbols of a text can be represented in any font or any medium and still represent the same work without significant loss. Nevertheless, digitally, it is often the case that a retyped text, marked up and tagged so that new forms of analysis and representation can become functional, is presented as if it were a sufficient representation of the historical text from which it derives. We have all seen 21st century transcriptions on line labeled as if they were the 19th century originals from which they purport to derive. Bibliographers call a re-keyed text a new edition. It may represent the same work but it does not do so in the same way that the original document represented it, to say nothing of the fact that every keystroke is an opportunity for textual error. We can also now, far more easily and accurately, create digital images of the original, including pictures of the document the text is printed or written on. In digital representations of original documentary texts, the distinction between (the lexical) text and (the bibliographic) image is stark because it requires different files, thus, clarifying a distinction that has always been there.
For large modern digital projects we have, once again, to acknowledge two truths: No one person knows all of our periods and areas of specialization, and everyone needs to know more than one area of specialization or have access to someone who will help us. Despite our long tradition of literary and textual scholars working alone in small carrels in libraries, our projects now require team efforts. I wish finally to distinguish team models. In one model the chief of the project says to his helpers, Do this; do that. The helper may be a graduate research assistant, a secretary or clerk, a librarian, or a computer technologist or programmer. Like a great secret, the chief sits in the middle and knows. Except that mostly the chief in the middle does not know--does not know how to do what the helpers know how to do and does not know if the helpers have actually done it the best way or an acceptable way or have just covered up not doing it at all or not well. This hierarchical model is well known to those of us who have been the helpers or have graduated into the chief position. I believe the hierarchical model of project conduct is counterproductive, limited, and I hope doomed to extinction. Another team model involves a group of persons with similar and overlapping interests who conceive of a project and lay out a system of collaboration. The tasks are various and should go to those best suited for the task. Being a good fundraiser makes you important but does not make you a chief. Other tasks focus on bibliography; materials collection; compilation of analytical data; analysis of data; elaboration of textual principles; organization of the work flow; and selection of existing software or development of improved software--which itself is complex, involving tools, data storage and retrieval, interfaces, navigation, and exit and portability strategies. When the relationship among the people who undertake these tasks is that of partners in an enterprise, the project becomes not only the fulfillment of an initial concept but the development of that concept in ways the chief initiator did not know and could not imagine. Unfortunately, a project cannot be better than its weakest contributor. But tell me, who amongst you is yourself the best fundraiser, bibliographer, librarian, codicologist, book historian, editor, and software developer that you know--you alone, all in one? And if you are not that, do you imagine you will do best by hiring underlings to do your bidding or by finding collaborative partners who can stretch your capabilities? Of course you should vet your partners, just as they should vet you. Partnerships like chains are only as strong as their weakest link. You should strive to be that weak link--which is to say, you should strive to partner only with those who are better than yourself. It is amazing how good that will make you look.
In a moment of weakness, and although he should know better, Dirk asked me to look into the future. In my own future I see fishing, woodworking, travel for pleasure, and the superintendence of a growing array of grandchildren. In your future I see your tasks and your accomplishments through a lens that reveals that knowledge is not knowledge if it is not verified; that in editing, the facts are all documentary. If you do not have the original documents, you cannot be absolutely sure of your facts. I see that methods of editing are not facts; instead they are ways to organize and present facts. I see that editions are arguments about the facts and are susceptible to the same faults and shortcomings that attend all critical arguments. I see that you will be tempted from time to time to believe that your discoveries, your methods, and your arguments are the best in the world and that you should tell others what to do and how to do it because, like the secret, you are sitting in the middle and know.
But let me leave you with a quotation from Richard Flanagan's magical novel called Gould's Book of Fish, in which the protagonist says:
To be frank, though I have painted all I know, it's clear that what I know is two parts of bugger-all. All that I don't know, on the other hand, is truly impressive & the library of Alexandria would be too small to contain the details of my ignorance.
In your future, cultivate productively the bits that you do know; and try to understand what others do before dismissing them or criticizing them. The world is a big place with room for many truths, but is too small I think for error, for unsupported argument, and for attempts to make everyone see and do the same thing the same way. We just don't know enough.