Electronic Textual Editing (review)
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Reviewed by
Barnard, Lou, Katherine O'Brien O'Keefe, and John Unsworth, eds. Electronic Textual Editing. New York: Modern Language Association of America, 2006. ISBN-13: 978-0-87352-971-6. Pp. VII, 419 (includes CD). $28.00.

Thirty-six authors and editors, twenty-four essays, thirty-six pages of institutional bureaucratic "principles", "guidelines" and such. And a 1200-word (more or less) review of same. Pithy and writ large. Merely listing the topics might suffice: it would at least show the lacunae, as there must be in any such collection, but would give little sense of the strange flavor of this ex cathedra statement from the policing organization of our discipline(s). And so, I ignore my precepts and concentrate first on the shortest and by far the most challenging essay in the collection—G. Thomas Tanselle's "Foreword" of a mere six pages. What, one may ask, is the leading proponent of the Greg-Bowers print-based editorial practice doing introducing a number of essays (none of which he cites) in a medium with which he has not been associated, except to declare that there is nothing new under the textual firmament (see "Thoughts") and that the old challenges, problems (and solutions) remain with us, despite what Paul Duguid has dismissively referred to as the over-enthusiastic "liberation technology" (73) of some of the less circumspect proselytizers of electronic scholarship and criticism? Basing his critique of such incautious enthusiasm on the comments of a six-year-old girl who (in Tanselle's words), "[said] essentially that the distinction between electronic and printed text was not one that she considered significant" (2), Tanselle confronts the "hyperbolic writing and speaking about the computer age, as if the computer age were basically discontinuous with what went before" (2), and warns that "when the excitement leads to the idea that the computer alters the ontology of texts and makes possible new kinds of reading and analysis, it has gone too far". Then what is this book—for which this Foreword has been commissioned by MLA—meant to address, if "electronic textual editing" does not offer a new ontology and new ways of reading and analysis? Are the contributors aware that many of their arguments and practices are being undercut by the Foreword? Did the contributors even see Tanselle's Foreword, and did he see their essays? As far as I can tell, the only author to make direct reference to Tanselle's Foreword is Marilyn Deegan's essay on "Collection and Preservation of an Electronic Edition", and she makes the appropriate concessive rhetorical gesture (several times) that "he is right" (360), except for everything she is covering in her essay. One wonders whether a similar rhetorical feint might have been adopted by the other contributors if given the chance. [End Page 133]

So there is a philosophical, practical, and procedural gulf between the opening of this book and the rest of its contents. Unfortunately, this is not the only such disjunct. The old magisterial MLA list of "guidelines" for scholarly editions, accompanying the "guiding questions for vettors" (i.e., "inspectors", who in the days of print would determine whether an edition was "approved" by MLA and thus worthy of its "seal of approval") is reprinted here with barely a reference to the specifics of electronic media. Such questions as "Have you sampled the edited text and record of emendations for accuracy, and have you included the results in your report" is not just a leftover from earlier dispensations but is clearly not intended for the readers of this book, very few of whom are likely to be "vettors" employed by MLA. The following "glossary of terms used in the guiding questions" and the "annotated bibliography of key works in the theory of editing" are both useful but are again primarily print-oriented.

Would that this sense of disorganization and topical relevance were limited to the eminently disposable MLA "fluff", but the book as a whole suffers from a perhaps inevitable incoherence, unlike, say, Susan Hockey's single-authored Electronic Texts in the Humanities, which has a comparatively clear narrative, an internal subdivision that mirrors this narrative, and avoids the contradictions...