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  • La Condition McGann
  • Kevin S. Kiernan
McGann, Jerome. The Textual Condition. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1991. Pp. xiv + 208; 11 illustrations. Paper, $10.95.

Jerome McGann shows that he is still in top textual condition in this new collection of essays, published as the third title in the series, Princeton Studies in Culture/Power/History. Despite the marketing claim on the back cover of the paperback that these are all “new essays,” five of the seven chapters have appeared in print before, as McGann himself spells out in his Preface. Their latest manifestation, with a new introduction and conclusion, is nonetheless a persuasive argument for McGann’s persistent thesis that the meanings of texts change with changing bibliographical circumstances, even when the texts do not change linguistically. Readers will enjoy a bargain in the interesting interplay of the chapters, the wide-ranging discussion of textual and editorial issues, and the irresistible occasion to play the role of McGann’s materialist hermeneut by analyzing the implicit collaborations of the author and his latest publisher.

The first four chapters, Part One, are grouped under the title of the Borges story, “The Garden of Forking Paths,” a reference darkly explicated by a passage on book production from Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. The last three chapters, Part Two, come under the heading of “Ezra Pound in the Sixth Chamber.” The locale of this title harks back reassuringly to the same Blake excerpt, but the accompanying passage on instability and impermanence returns us instead to “The Garden of Forking Paths,” which in turn delivers us to Kathy Acker’s disorienting epiphanigram, “The demand for an adequate mode of expression is senseless,” from Empire of the Senseless. These loose-fitting framing devices, texts themselves, make different senses in their new settings, encouraging us to read the chapters as well as these texts in unconventional, “non-linear” ways. An ideogram of this kind of reading decorates these two pages in a little “text-tile,” with the threads of the warp pointing off in one direction and those of the woof pointing another way.

An insistent message of these essays is that a text is “a laced network of linguistic and bibliographical codes” (13), a textual condition that has profound implications for authors, editors, textual scholars, publishers, and readers. In this textual condition the establishment of a text, for example, becomes a contradiction in terms. An editor cannot stabilize a text, because the act of producing an edition in itself further destabilizes it, creating a palimpsest of the previous edition, overwritten by new bibliographical codes for new social situations. While an editor may strive to recreate the social context of its first appearance, and may even successfully recreate some of it, the new edition primarily produces a new text for a new context. As McGann puts it, “The textual condition’s only immutable law is the law of change” (9). It is therefore imperative to read carefully the changing bibliographical codes and the new sociohistorical conditions in order to comprehend the linguistic codes they silently influence.

Although his scholarly focus is on texts written during the past two centuries, McGann is aware that the textual condition of premodern literature, and the textual methods of studying it, provide some useful models for these postmodern perceptions. Among other things, medievalists will recognize the discipline of codicology, the bibliographical analysis of a manuscript codex, in the attention McGann urges us to pay to what he calls bibliographical codes. “We must turn our attention to much more than the formal and linguistic features of poems or other imaginative fictions,” he tells us. “We must attend to textual materials which are not regularly studied by those interested in ‘poetry’: to typefaces, bindings, book prices, page format, and all those textual phenomena usually regarded as (at best) peripheral to ‘poetry’ or ‘the text as such’” (13). McGann argues that one cannot formulate a convincing theory of textuality because each text is a particular social event best investigated as an individual case study. He opts for a “materialist hermeneutics” that treats texts as “autopoietic mechanisms” working “through a pair of interrelated textual embodiments we can study as systems of linguistic and...

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