- Textuality and Knowledge: Essays by Peter L. Shillingsburg
Peter Shillingsburg’s collection of recent essays and talks records the thinking of one of our strongest editorial theorists as the study of the book bent— or did not bend—to the winds of change during the first decade of the millennium. As such it asserts the principles of a strict empiricist who is at the same time attempting to defend his position with respect to the different claims of historical editing, social editing, and digitization. His preface functions as an introduction to those principles: ‘Sound evidence undergirds knowledge; unsound evidence cannot lead to or support knowledge—except by accident …. In literary studies all evidence is textual. It depends on documents, document preservation, and textual replication. Interpretative strategies are for understanding the evidence’ (p. vi). But wait: is all evidence textual in literary studies? Are literary studies as such central to understanding textuality? What actually constitutes a ‘document’? What does he mean by ‘interpretative strategies’? Are there other ways to be an empiricist? What in fact does he mean by ‘knowledge’? Shillingsburg the empiricist (and I say this from the inside, because I am one) has firm views on all these issues, a point of view in the study of the book well established since at least the time of Henry Bradshaw. Nevertheless book studies have been frustrated for decades by an unexamined application of empiricism and a narrow concept of its possibilities, dividing scholar from scholar, and continental historicist from Anglo-American textual critic. The schism is everywhere in these essays as Shillingsburg reacts to the limits of recent writing on editorial method, and also to the hostility between advocates of one approach or another. He does not ask, though I do: what is wrong with our field?
Shillingsburg sets out his plan for the book in his preface, and a wise reader should keep it at hand in working through the essays, which are rich in detailed examples but tend to be so reactive that the thread can be lost. How should textual criticism proceed, he asks: by an eclectic method which permits emendation (the Greg-Bowers tradition), as a historical methodology on the continental model, or as ‘social editing’ of the kind proposed by D. F. McKenzie and others? Shillingsburg is a firm advocate of the Greg-Bowers approach, and as a sometime editor I share his position; the emendation of texts is sensible, helpful to the reader, and if pursued with critical responsibility is a worthy way of establishing, evaluating, and indeed [End Page 399] advancing knowledge. At the same time I have learned much from European ways of thinking about the book, both the German historical method with which Shillingsburg has had close encounters and the French ‘social’ approach which he addresses only in its English version. Synthesis is difficult because these essays are often talks, written and re-written for various purposes; but let me try by focusing on several different essays for the way they reveal the general problems of which they are symptoms.
In the seventh essay, ‘Revisiting Authorial Intentions’ (together with the eleventh, ‘Non-Literary Text-Based Disciplines’), Shillingsburg insists, and I agree, that there is no correct way to edit, only adherence to a scrupulous, self-critical methodology to avoid the many wrong ways to edit. But here he falls foul of a definition: ‘I take scholarly editing to mean “prepare a historical text for publication and use by others”’, and then, ‘Scholarly editions are not normally undertaken for ephemeral literature or for so-called minor works’ (p. 94). He has in his sights the person who claims to ‘edit’ for teaching, say, or just because they love the work in question, but his complaint is chiefly against the recent widening of objectives for editions, not only the newer ‘dogmas’ of multiple texts, social evidence, or bibliographical codes, but the hostility with which their various...