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The Textual Criticism of Visual and Aural Works

From: Studies in Bibliography
Volume 57, 2005-2006
pp. 1-37 | 10.1353/sib.0.0008

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Textual criticism—the study of the relationships among variant texts of works—has primarily been associated, throughout its long history extending back to antiquity, with verbal works as transmitted on tangible objects such as parchment and paper. But all works, whether constructed of words or not, have had histories that—if fully told—would reveal stages of growth and change, reflecting not only their creators’ intentions but also the effects of their passage to the public and through time. All works, in other words, have textual histories. Whether or not one chooses in every case to use the word “text” to refer to the arrangement of elements that make up a work is irrelevant; the point is that the issues and problems dealt with in the textual criticism of verbal works have their counterparts in the study of all other works.

One reason that this point has not been as widely acknowledged as it ought to have been is perhaps the fact that the varying media used in different arts affect the nature of the accompanying scholarship. The textual criticism of verbal works, for example, often leads to the production of scholarly editions, which embody insights derived from the study of textual history. Because the medium of verbal works—language—is fundamentally intangible, a work can be represented by a text in a newly produced physical object (the one conveying the scholarly edition) without making any alterations to the historic artifacts that had transmitted earlier texts of the work to the present. But a work in a tangible medium, like a painting or a sculpture, cannot as freely be accorded scholarly editions, since any alteration deemed appropriate by the editor would permanently alter the artifact that uniquely is the site of the intended work and thus would deprive the future of some of the evidence that had been available to the editor.

Regardless of whether textual scholarship leads to editions or to essays, the medium employed in each art determines the nature of the evidence available for reconstructing textual history. (I am not speaking of the quantity of evidence, which can vary irrespective of the medium.) The evolution of the text of a painting, for example, may be attested to by sketches, which are analogous in some respects to the drafts of a verbal work. But, being made of a physical material that is applied to a physical surface, a painting may preserve earlier stages of its text that exist on the same surface beneath the layer of paint that is now on top, and these stages can be revealed, in varying degrees, by modern technology. Some works in intangible media, such as literature and music, can be transmitted either by direct imitation or by tangible aides-memoirs. When a textual tradition is entirely of the intangible kind, knowledge of a work’s history is dependent on memory; when texts are passed along in physical objects, there is direct access to certain moments of the past (the moments when the documents were prepared), but the texts thus reported are not necessarily more trustworthy than those carried forward in human memory. The objects, however, inevitably carry traces of their own manufacture; and when those clues are uncovered through analysis, they can help explain how the text came to be constituted as it is. This procedure is the counterpart to scrutinizing a canvas for underlying layers of paint: the examination of objects can be as crucial to reconstructing textual histories of works in intangible media as it is for those in tangible media. Textual critics must of course assess whatever evidence is available to them, but the process must take into account the fact that some evidence may be transmitted by media different from the medium of the work itself.

Furthermore, the textual history of a work proceeds beyond the point at which the creator or creators of the work die or cease to make changes in it. The discipline of textual criticism has traditionally focused on the evolution of texts only up to that point, though the evidence often has to come, by default, from later documents. But the alterations that texts undergo as they are disseminated to the public, both...

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