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  • Studying Textual Studies:Problems and Agendas
  • John Bryant
Modiano, Raimonda, Leroy F. Searle, Peter Shillingsburg, eds. 2004. Voice, Text, Hypertext: Emerging Practices in Textual Studies. Seattle: University of Washington Press.

Voice. Text. Hypertext. Each term represents a distinct “moment” in the development of textuality, from orality to literacy to digitization. But each is also the scene of considerable dispute, a point not at all lost on the editors and contributors of the volume under review. How distinct are these “moments”? How momentous? What threads of human consciousness connect them? What technologies advance them? For that matter, in what ways are this book’s featured transmission technologies—speech, inscription, print, pixel—at all relevant to the phenomenon of textuality? The subtitle’s focus on the “practices” of textual study indicate problems articulated for some future disciplinary agenda. How might we study these transitional, evolutionary textual phenomena, edit them for critics and students, and bring them and textual criticism to center stage in current critical thinking and pedagogy? Voice, Text, Hypertext is at times ungainly, but a gamesome and thoroughly engrossing field book that should inspire cosmopolitan research, critical editing, and interpretation.

Of the three organizing principles, the least accessible and hence most compelling is Voice. The age of the voiced text was an age of memory, performance, and textual evolution. Authority resided not so much in the text as in its singer, an individual of demonstrable memory, spiritual depth, and theatrical skill. What must it have been like when singers developed written aids to prompt their memory; or when full performances were first transcribed; or when transcriptions simply replaced singing: when agency was transferred from singer to writer, and authority was lodged, indeed sacralized, in words not sung but written? Reflecting on these imagined moments of transition deepens our appreciation of both the substance and insubstantiality of textuality. Despite the efforts of Walter J. Ong and others, the [End Page 90] study of orality remains a small precinct in our profession, perhaps because evidence of it is elusive. And yet in contemplating voice, memory, and transmission, we experience an itch for probing the remote regions of orality and gain, perhaps, a deeper understanding of the writing (not just printing) process. Rather than repeating our generation’s error of rejecting one pole of an imagined critical binary for the other, scholars of orality reinvigorate our discourse on the dynamics of authority, in which the solitary singer both contributes to and transmits a collective text.

But the frustrations for those who study oral texts are at least twofold. The problem of accessing centuries- even millennia-old speech acts is so daunting as to push scholarship of ancient voicings into the realm of pure speculation, some would say fantasy. To compound the problem is the fact that literary critics who pride themselves on hard core textual evidence are likely to discount such scholarship: what is the reliability or utility of speculating on unrecoverable linguistic events? The scholar of Voice (ancient or modern) risks being compared to the archaeo-anthropologist who looks at a chip on a rock and concludes that hominids stood erect. But if such speculation can be seen as having validity, how might the criticism that grows out of it be made delectable to an otherwise skeptical academic community? What is the agenda for this kind of textual criticism?

The problem of Voice is similar to problems we associate with Text in general. At issue is not only “who wrote what” or “which text came when” (the dynamics of agency and authority) but also how these texts are received: what do readers do when they read and how do writers write to meet the expectations of readers. For the editors of Voice, Text, Hypertext, the study of readerships is invariably linked to what we mean by the “material text”. But the dilemma is this: there is nothing more material than a text when it is “there” inked on a page or glowing on a screen; but there is nothing more immaterial than a text when I am, say, thinking the words I am now typing, even though those words may not be the words I first thought or typed or surrendered into...


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