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.

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