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Mind and Textual Matter

From: Studies in Bibliography
Volume 58, 2007-2008
pp. 1-47 | 10.1353/sib.2006.0008

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“The things which the textual critic has to talk about are not things which present themselves clearly and sharply to the mind. . . . Mistakes are therefore made which could not be made if the matter under discussion were any corporeal object, having qualities perceptible to the senses.” This remark, made nearly ninety years ago by A. E. Housman in his well-known address “The Application of Thought to Textual Criticism,” suggests the crux of many recent editorial discussions, in which some of editing’s most basic humanistic assumptions have been challenged with arguments influenced by the movement sometimes called “postmodern” literary theory.1 Many of the challengers are themselves editors, and were motivated at least in part by a sense that textual criticism was both technically overdeveloped as a field and falsely estranged from literary criticism. An expressed interest in drawing textual and literary criticism nearer to one another (as if they were not already interpenetrated dimensions of the same discipline) was thus a prominent feature of many of the discussions. A second interest, also of an integrating character, was in surmounting the perceived national or linguistic isolation of Anglo-American editorial scholarship through an engagement with editorial traditions of other countries, especially Germany and France. Movements to open intellectual horizons in this age of overly determined specialization are to be welcomed, and this one has had its benefits, as readers of Scholarly Editing: A Guide to Research can attest.2 Many of the two dozen scholars whom David Greetham assembled for this unusual project exhibited a felt sense of responsibility in their contributions, which taken together provide Anglophone students with a useful history of textual criticism across several periods of time and many languages.

Other expressions of dissatisfaction with a perceived narrowness in the editorial status quo have been less progressive, however, including many of the attempts to align textual criticism with contemporary trends in literary theory. It would not be unfair to say that interest in widening the horizons of editing has not always and everywhere been sincere, some of it seeming to mask an anxiety that textual criticism, with its traditional historical and biographical focus, and rigorous bibliographical preoccupations, was simply missing out on the wave of postmodernism that had swept through the English departments of American universities in the 1980s. While the swell of enthusiasm that marked the appearance of this wave has largely receded (along with an improbably abstruse and jargon-filled form of discourse), some of its dehumanizing ideas are still very much with us. The anti-objectivist, metaphysical conceits of the deconstructionist approach to texts, for example, found their way across the imaginary line separating literary from textual criticism, and were received with favor by some editors of English-language Renaissance and modern works. The evidence can be seen in the shift of editorial focus away from the author, even to the point at which the author is completely abnegated as an object of editorial interest. In recent editorial literature it is not impossible to find bizarre statements in which the human origins of texts are seemingly denied, and authors are redefined as abstract concepts conjured, depending on the argument, in the Romantic or Modern period. Objective reality is consequently denied also to aspects of the past having to do with authors’ lives, and especially to the thoughts of authors in relation to particular works. These thoughts were an object of editorial discovery long before the moment in 1939 when R. B. McKerrow gave prominence to the idea of authors’ intentions, and have for just as long a time served as a focal point for the critical reconstruction of works which imperfectly survive in documentary witnesses.3 Editors engaged in such reconstructions have accordingly bound themselves to approach variant readings or suspect passages with the author’s preferences, rather than the preferences of others (including their own), in mind.

Where authors themselves are liable to being reduced to posthumous concepts, author-centered critical texts not surprisingly have been denied scholarly legitimacy, often with the charge that these texts are “Platonic” ideals. As Stephen Orgel, one of the most influential opponents of the traditional bibliographical and editorial focus on the author, remarked in 1996, “the...



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