Scholarly editing

Last November I participated in a workshop in UCC on Editing Skills for Research Postgraduates  and contributed a short article to an online postgraduate journal we created on wordpress, The November Module.  The introductory reading we were set was by Jerome McGann. Writing in 2004, McGann forecast that

[i]n the next fifty years the entirety of our inherited archive of cultural works will have to be reedited within a network of digital storage, access, and dissemination.[i]

The prophetic note he strikes is borne from the possibilities he sees new digital textualities affording the almost utopian ideal of a ‘transnational and transcultural’ scholarship (and, one imagines, a similar reconceptualisation of what counts as ‘our’ cultural heritage).

Other texts we were directed to (on Google Books) were : ed. George Bornstein, Ralph G. William , Palimpsest: Editorial Theory in the Humanities, University of Michigan Press, 1993.; Hans Walter Gable, ‘Textual Criticism and Theory in Modern German Editing’ in Contemporary German Editorial TheoryUniversity of Michigan Press, 1995.; John Bryant, The Fluid Text : A Theory of Revision and Editing for Book and Screen,  University of Michigan Press, 2002.; Peter L. Shillingsburg, From Gutenberg to Google: Electronic Representations of Literary TextsCambridge University Press, 2006.

The text I chose to respond to was Kenneth Price’s article  ‘Electronic Scholarly Editions’ in A Companion to Digital Literary Studies (published online by Blackwell). Price takes pains to point out ‘the theoretical sophistication, historical knowledge, and analytical strengths’ required to produce a scholarly edition. His definition of a scholarly edition is

the establishment of a text on explicitly stated principles … by someone with specialized knowledge about textual scholarship and the writer or writers involved. [iii]

In other words, the way texts are reproduced and/or altered in electronic form must have a sound rationale and be accompanied by an appropriate scholarly apparatus, such as introductions, annnotations , and bibliographies. So far all very commonsensical, albeit with a clearly stated guiding principle:

Mere digitizing produces information; in contrast, scholarly editing produces knowledge. [iv]

One of the tendencies Price identifies within the field is the development of a ‘textual apparatus’  or digital interface that can combine ‘the care of treatment and annotation of an edition and the inclusiveness of an archive’.[v]  As he goes on to explain, giving the example of the  William Blake Archive project,

‘the “edition” is only a piece of the “archive,” and, in contrast to print, “editions,” “resources,” and “tools” can be interdependent rather than independent.’[vi]

The interdependence of a transcribed text (encoded in an eXtensible Markup Language, ‘tagged’ and, therefore, searchable) and high-resolution, colour-corrected images of the material from which the electronic edition was produced will ‘create an edition of extraordinary depth and richness, an edition that provides both the evidence and the final product.’ [vii]

Joseph Viscomi  has described the illuminated book images developed by William Blake’s  process of ‘illuminated printing’ as

a multi-media space, a “site” where poetry, painting, and print making came together. [viii]

For anyone interested in studying or editing the complexities of Blake’s poetry and art, the advantages of an archive that makes such sites ‘navigable’  cannot be underestimated.

As Viscomi details, the nature of the graphic technologies Blake used and the complex relationship of word and image in his work  meant the William Blake Archive had do more than translate pictures into text and then interpret the translation. [ix] The digital reproductions of ‘the texts in the Archive are specific to individual plates; each transcription is of a particular plate in a particular copy and no other.’[x] Of course, the project is the result of editorial decisions, both ‘in the sense of works selected for reproduction and in the way images are reproduced’.[xi]

Digital reproductions have their limitations (cropping the image as compromise to monitor sizes, for example), but this kind of online resource, is what Price would term a ‘thematic research collection’;  an environment that ‘provide[s] the virtues of both a facsimile and a critical or documentary edition simultaneously.’[xii] It exemplifies the belief

that texts are not separable from artifacts, that texts are fundamentally linked to whatever conveys them in physical form.

Moreover, it stands opposed to typographic transcriptions, which abstract texts from the artifacts in which they are versioned and embodied’ to that, as Viscomi explains, might correct Blake’s idiosyncratic punctuation but at the expense of his artistic intentions.[xiii]

The editorial position that emphasises the intentions of the author and aims to uncover an ‘authoritative text based on “final intentions”’, Price reminds us, is a legitimate one. However, the privileging of the idea of a pure text doesn’t take into account the question of what might be an adequate representation of an actual, printed work.  The ‘hybrid all-in-one edition, catalogue, database, and set of scholarly tools’ developed by the Blake project best attends to the materiality and variabilty inherent in his unique artistic process in the kinds of detail that allows new art historical and critical engagements.

[i] Jerome McGann, ‘A Note on the Current State of Humanities Scholarship’ The Future of Criticism — A Critical Inquiry Symposium , Critical Inquiry 30. 2 (winter 2004), 409-413.

[ii] McGann, ibid.

[iii] Kenneth Price, ‘Electronic Scholarly Editions’, A Companion to Digital Literary Studies, ed. Ray Siemens, Susan Schreibman. Oxford: Blackwell, 2008.

[iv] Price, ibid.

[v] ibid.

[vi] ibid.

[vii] Price, ibid.

[viii] Joseph Viscomi,  ‘Digital Facsimiles: Reading the William Blake Archive’, Computers and the Humanities, Vol. 36, No. 1, Image-Based Humanities Computing, (Feb., 2002), pp. 27-48

[ix] “Once archived digitally, structured and tagged (indexed for retrieval in SGML, adapted to the purpose), annotated with detailed descriptions, and orchestrated with a powerful search engine (in this case DynaWeb software), the images in the Archive could be examined like ordinary color reproductions. But they could also be searched alongside the texts, enlarged, computer enhanced, juxtaposed in numerous combinations, and otherwise manipulated to investigate features (such as the etched basis of the designs and texts) that have heretofore been imperceptible without close examination of the original works” Viscom, ibid., p.31

[x] Kari, Kraus, “Once Only Imagined”: An Interview with Morris Eaves, Robert N. Essick, and Joseph Viscomi. By, Studies in Romanticism,  Summer 2002, Vol. 41, Issue 2

[xi] Viscomi, ibid.

[xii] Price, ibid.

[xiii] Viscomi, ibid.

The museum says no!

Two related articles in the art press this month prompted reflection and cast light on the direction my dissertation project might take. The first was the opening of an exhibition in the Irish Museum of Modern Art of the Irish artist Duncan Campbell  which runs from 8th November to 29th March  and includes the artist’s film It for Others (2013) originally commissioned by The Common Guild for Scotland + Venice 2013 (the Scottish representation at the at the 55th Venice biennale) for which Campbell was awarded the Turner Prize 2014. It for Others is a response to Alain Resnais and Chris Marker’s 1953 documentary, Les statues mourient aussi (Statues also die) that, as is characteristic of Campell’s practice, combines archive material with his own footage. The two films have been shown in tandem with Les statues mourient aussi presented as a ‘found film’ with an English transcript available.

Resnais and Marker’s ‘essay-film’ was commissioned by the journal, Présence Africane, associated with the ‘negritude’ movement. Such was their critique of French colonialism in Africa that the film was not shown in France for fifteen years as Resnais refused to accept the French censor’s cut. One celebrated sequence, made with the help and expert advice of the British curator, was filmed in the vaults of the British Museum; a parade of Benin Bronzes glitter in Eisenstien-like high contrast float out of the dark as the voiceover intones:

An object dies when the living glance trained upon it disappears. And when we disappear, our objects will be confined to the place where we send black things: to the museum. [i]

However Campbell, seeking to revisit these ideas about the commercialisation and commodification of African art, found it difficult to have permission granted to film the same objects; access, if not denied outright was not facilitated either. The strategy he adopted in the end was to film using ‘approximate replicas’ of traditional West African sculptures. In fact, from my point of view, the decision only serves to reinforce the point – the systems of exchange, histories of collection and practices of display that have  determined their value as artworks in western museums can be linked to their ‘death of purpose’, detached from their religious and social contexts. In an excerpt used in the Tateshots profile of the artist below, we can see the critical effect of the reversal of the principle of the spectator  gaze, ‘seeing not being seen’: the camera is placed behind the eyes of the masks looking out.

All this brings me to my main area of research interest – the issue of the repatriation of cultural artefacts– and to the second art-related announcement of note: the British Museum’s loan of a Parthenon sculpture of the river-god Ilissos to the State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg. In the words of the British Museum’s director, Niel McGregor, the artwork

…embodies the belief in the supreme value of rational debate among free citizens. There can be no better celebration of the Enlightenment ideals which the British Museum and the Hermitage have shared for 250 years.[i]

McGregor has perhaps been the most eloquent in defense of the concept and mission of the ‘universal museum’ in the face of post-colonial critiques, emphasising the ‘pre-imperial’ foundation of the British Museum and the cosmopolitanism of its address to publics. The Declaration on the Importance and Value of Universal Museums  (2002) sets out the official line:

The objects and monumental works that were installed decades and even centuries ago in museums throughout Europe and America were acquired under conditions that are not comparable with current ones. Over time, objects so acquired – whether by purchase, gift, or partage – have become part of the museums that have cared for them, and by extension, part of the heritage of the nations which house them.[ii]

The Pergamon Museum in Berlin, while not a ‘sister museum’ like the Hermitage, is also a fellow signatury to the declaration. Negotiations with the Dutch artists Lonnie van Brummelen and Siebren de Haan (whose work I discuss below) were not protracted, they were simply denied permission to film the Pergamon altar or access to archives, stating they had no interest in stiring debate about repatriation. So much for ‘rational debate among free citizens’! The artists had proposed ‘to produce a film work, which reflects upon the contemporary condition of displacement from a historical perspective’.[iii] That would include the monument’s own layered history, transported to the Berlin, capital of the German State from Bergamon in modern day Turkey in the late 19th century, taken to Moscow as war booty and then returned to the GDR after the death of Stalin.

Monument to Another Man’s Fatherland (2008-12) was commissioned by the Project Art Centre  and shown in Dublin in 2009. The installation consisted of two parts: the first, a 35mm film, Revolt of the Giants Reconstructed from Reproductions (2008 -2009), the second, a 16mm film Revolt of the Giants – recited by prospective Germans (2008). From the film, below, of the Project’s visual art curator, Tessa Giblin, introducing the work, one can get a sense of the imposing size and sound of the film projector in the centre of the room.

In the essay Follow the Hybrid, the artists set out their thinking and process. Firstly, they recreated the altar from over 100 print reproductions culled from art historical and archeological texts and guide books found in libraries, street markets and even the museum’s gift shop. As the 35mm film slowly pans the sculptural frieze, one is aware of the various photographic forms in which it has been inscribed in since the 1880s, ‘with their diverse grids, qualities and illumination … and formal qualities, such as contrast, printing technique and texture’. [iv]

Secondly, in a move to counter or make visible the exclusionary position of the museum, the 16mm film shows, in a screen test format, students on a language proficiency and intergration class (required for all aspiring Turkish migrants to Germany) in the Goethe-Institut in Istanbul. They read, in German, art historical descriptions of the frieze, grappling with difficult pronunciation and unfamillar terms. Maeve Connoly’s review in Artforum, describes how, in contrast, to

the methodical, relentless progression of the camera across the surface of the monument in the larger projection, the static cinematography in the second film reveals smaller and more hesitant movements, the facial gestures of the readers who attempt to decode the words shown them.[v]

The effect is open-ended and nuanced but points to language as a form of ‘symbolic violence’ that underpinns the appropriation of cultural heritage and in particular the  German value of Bildung, the individual internalisation of high culture.

So from negritude to Bildung, what does it add up to? Well, having prepared an outline proposal for a digital art project, the viability of which depends in large part on the degree of access granted to me by a national instituion to its archives and storerooms and phyical holdings, I’m heartened to see the creative possibilities, solutions and critical strategies of artists working within beauracracy or around refusal. Sometimes it’s more interesting when they say no!


 [i] British Museum press release Friday 5 December 2014

[ii] ‘Museums Serve Every Nation’, text of the ‘Declaration on the Importance and Value of Universal Museums,’, Wall Street Journal 12/12/2002.

[iii] van Brummelen & de Haan, ‘Follow the Hybrid’ in The moon has a complicated Geography, Middelburg: De Vleeshal/Roma Publications, 2013. (

[iv] Tessa Giblin, curatorial notes for the exhibition Monument to Another Man’s Fatherland, Project Arts Centre, Dublin, December 2008.

[v] Maeve Connoly, ‘Lonnie van Brummelen and Siebren de Haan, Artforum’, March 2009.