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Text Genetics in Literary Modernism and Other Essays

Hans Walter Gabler

5. Editing Text–Editing Work

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  • 1 Jūratė Levina, to whom I am grateful for her perceptive pre-reading of part of this essay, has in (...)

1Manifestations to posterity of our social and cultural heritage have, since time immemorial, been recorded in writing. Prerequisite for writing are writing supports — documents in every material variety we care to imagine: stone, or clay, or bark, or papyrus, or well-prepared animal skins, or paper, if not even (most evanescent) sand on the seashore. That documents support writing means that our heritage manifests itself in a double order of materiality: primarily in that of the document, and secondarily in that of the material properties of the inscriptions on the document surfaces. We register these orders separately: the documents by their primary materiality; the inscriptions according to the implements (chisel, quill, pen, pencil) as well as the substances (ink, coal, lead, crayon) with which they were effected.1 Provided we even stop to think in, and to analyse by, these categories. For it is also true that, even in its doubling, we tend to take the materiality for granted, as ‘transparent’ because a conditio sine qua non, a precondition, instead of appreciating it as a necessary condition of material recording. In common awareness, the document recedes as a mere ‘witness’, we shortcut instead by classifying mainly the generic nature of what is written on the supports, and in whatever manner of signifying notation. Be the notation hieroglyphic or otherwise pictorial, or cuneiform, or alphabetic, or otherwise semiotic, such as for music: once mastered in perception, the system of notation becomes ‘transparent’, too, and what we privilege is the content the document archives hold. Generically, they will comprise laws and contracts, administrative ordinances and records, accounts of history as annals, chronicles, narratives, myth, or (say) instructions for theatrical performance, or music. What, furthermore, we generally do not reflect upon and distinguish is that, in their wide variety, documents and inscriptions carry content that is no less, but also no more than a record — a vast historical protocol, one might say, of the everyday. As an adjunct thereto, what is equally understood as content in our written heritage is transformation into art of all that the systems of notation are capable of recording and expressing. What brackets all signification of content in writing on documents is its tangible and palpable material presence. All content is there for us to encounter and grasp because it stands materially before us. Encountering every record materially, as we do, we encounter it as text. A main characteristic, in fact a necessary constituent of text is its materiality, even its material doubling, on support and as inscription.

  • 2 This was emphasised by Gunter Martens, the German textual scholar, in the wake of French philosoph (...)

2Its material condition in turn renders text mutable, indeed doubly mutable: both perishable and changeable. Inks fade, documents decay and dissolve. Texts are copied, and in the process undergo alteration, from document to document. Their preservation through transmission always also involves a measure of corruption, natural and inevitable on account both of the grounding of the transmission in materiality, and of the human agency involved in the acts of copying. The processes of change have over the millennia been largely attributed to human fallibility. Copyists have been blamed for corrupting texts in transmission, and critical human (counter) agency has consequently been instituted to edit them. What has been required of editorial scholarship from its early inceptions has been to identify (and eliminate) textual error and thus to stabilise texts. It is only in recent times that changeability has been recognised as natural to texts themselves. This has importantly refocused our perception of writing, texts, and transmissions. What can be observed with particular clarity from, say, the patterns of inscription in draft documents is that texts originate from out of a constant interplay of writing and reading and continued writing. That interplay does not end with fair-copying, nor at any stage of subsequent staying of the transmission or (reading) reception. On however many identifiable supports texts have found material permanence, changeability — variation — remains a prime characteristic of ‘text’. Texts, being forged out of language, do not shed the dynamic dialogicity which is the basic ontological condition of language — without it, language, as the discursive human faculty it is, could not exist; nor could texts. Texts harbour a double energy: they strive towards closure, but simultaneously retain an open potential for change.2 This makes them amenable to variation and revision in genetic terms. It equally allows for, if not indeed permits, considered alterations in copying (that is, changes not subsumable as ‘error’), or even large-scale adaptation responding to altered circumstances of situation, context and times. The basis, however, on which alone it is possible to make these distinctions is and remains that texts be materially manifest, nor cannot be encountered and dealt with in any other way than through their material presence.

3This, moreover, is true of any kind and mode of text, and almost goes without saying for the multiform range of utility texts — the vast historical protocol of the everyday of our cultural heritage. What needs to be carefully understood, however, is that it is also unremittingly true of all extant records that provide evidence for the transforming of language into (materially speaking) texts of art — the section of our heritage (say) where the texts encountered are customarily called ‘works of literature’. Yet so to call them is a marketplace foreshortening; it is distinctly misconceived under scholarly auspices in terms of textual criticism and editing. Alas, though, it is a naming, even a conceptualising, that the discipline tends unreflectively to adopt. Quite categorically, on the contrary, neither is any materially extant text as inherited, nor is any edited text as critically constituted, coequal with a work. While it is simplistically often claimed that a material text ‘presents a work’, or even ‘is the work’, what it properly is and does is to represent the work in one manifestation from a series of material instantiations that is, in principle, endless.

4Conceptually, however, the work in language is immaterial. Its representations are texts: they are manifestly material. Herein lies a division that distinguishes works of art in language, and foremost perhaps among them works of literature, fundamentally from works of art on canvas, or made of stone, or metal, or wood. In such ‘space arts’, the material manifestation is ‘the thing itself’, the work of art as tangible object. The materiality expressing the art does not, in itself, possess the dynamic discursivity and therefore essential changeability of language. Language is ever changeable because it is immaterial, yet it is also eminently formable into works of art. Works of art in language spring from the human creative power out of which they are given shape, processual logic and meaning. They are nonetheless in essence immaterial because they retain, and remain predicated on, the immateriality of language. They are ‘time art’ creations, evanescent and, dependent alone on the creative mind and the human voice of delivery as they are, they are by nature independent of a material carrier support. It is by grace of the technique of writing — that late invention of human culture — that it has become possible to give immaterial works of art in language their representation in material texts.

5A cultural technique corresponding, and as it were reciprocal, to writing is that of editing. It answers to two generally opposed, but on occasion mutually reinforcing vectors inherent in the creative processes of shaping language into works of art and materialising these processes in the writing-out of texts. Texts, as they materialise through being written out in compositional as well as revisional and transmissional processes, retain, on the one hand (as said) the dynamic dialogicity constitutive of language out of which they are made. On the other hand, they are, as texts, always also endangered by ‘corruption’ — even while, at times, errors and textual faults may be found to be generative of fresh contextualisation and be integrable into the text. To assess the given instance is a task of textual criticism; to act upon the assessment — or not to act upon it, as the case may be — is the ensuing duty inherent in editing. Importantly, recognising the forms that the dialogic dynamics of texting have taken in the successive courses of writing and progressive revision, as well as applying textual criticism and editorial decisions to textual records, constitutes editorial scholarship brought to bear on texts, that is on the material representations of works. Textual criticism and editing are never exercisable on works. To equal ‘editing a text’ with ‘editing a work’ is simply to commit a category error. Yet both, editing texts and editing works, are either separately or in variously graded admixtures genuine options of textual and editorial scholarship.

  • 3 I argue for looking beyond author-centricity below in: ‘Beyond Author-Centricity in Scholarly Edit (...)

6The twentieth century has been a phase in the history of editorial scholarship focused on the editing of texts. Three main factors contributing to this development have been the enormous increase in sophistication of text-critical and editorial methodology generally; the shift in (mainly) bibliography-based procedures from copy-text editing predicated on text and transmission to copy-text editing aimed at realising authorial intention; and the dwindling or outright disappearance in critical editions of discursive commentary. The misconception that ‘editing the text’ is coequal to ‘editing the work’ was, needless to say, prominently strengthened by singling out the author’s (final) intention as guiding principle for establishing edited texts. Not only does this precept epitomise an author orientation in scholarly editing on the level of text; it also constitutes the final outcrop of that author-centricity in the discipline, as such historically contingent, which still harbours a notion that the editor can be, and act as, the author’s executor.3 Yet this is at bottom legalistic, not historical or humanities’ thinking. From the author’s perspective, to be sure, there is often (if by no means invariably) one text definable as ‘the work’ (a first-edition publication text, for instance). Yet to focus on one material text, at the price of suppressing work-in-progress dynamics, as well as post-publication modification to the textual body of the work as a whole, cannot be the overriding determinant for text-critical understanding and editorial procedure. The author of course has every right to un-historicise, but the textual critic and editor would (and does), in following suit, fail in historical obligation. Not that the historical dimension of works and their texts hasn’t always also been understood as constitutive of editorial scholarship. The conceptual stance however that editing a text means essentially to edit the work drastically minimises the inherent professional obligation. For one thing, what it phases out is that the edited text is in actual fact uniquely new, and so yet another instance in a progressing series of material representations of the work. It is the editor’s text and as such distinct from every other extant representation. The critical essence of copy-text editing, for instance, lies not in a one-to-one matching of the copy, but in the editorially adjudicated departures from it. Similarly, if I properly understand the groundings of editing from transmissions of the pre-Gutenberg era, one cannot strictly in their case either claim to be ‘editing documents’. Facsimile reproductions aside — what editing here, too, always involves is putting the texts from documents (that is, the texts found inscribed in documents of any category: manuscripts, typescripts, prints, digital records) through the editorial process. This will always require departures from the text realisation in the original, be these, say, ‘simply’ expansions of abbreviations, or else emendations (based on collations with the texts of the given work in other material documents), or conjectures (edited-text adjustments critically arrived at without supporting material evidence). The result is again an editor’s text. The editor’s edited text situates itself in an historical spectrum of representations of the work in material texts. To perceive that this is so circumscribes scholarly editing essentially as an historical enterprise. It also opens the door to recognising the task of ‘editing the work’ as the more comprehensive complement to ‘editing a/the text’.

7To edit the work, then, means to lay out, so as to render analysable, the historical spectrum of material representations of the work. These comprise every materially extant text instantiation of the work. They all go together, as I strongly maintain, to constitute the work. This is not revolutionary thinking. It simply restates how editorial scholarship has understood the task of text editing all along. A restating is only necessary because both critical and theoretical thinking today demands a reassessment of the interrelationships within the spectrum at several of its nodal points. First and foremost: an edited text at the centre of an edition may hold that position not, say, because of an assumed or contingently real claim to ‘authority’, but because it is the product of an argued systematic editorial procedure — it is not so much the author’s ‘authorised’ text as it is a fresh text in the series of texts materially instantiating the work, established by consistent and declared method on the editor’s responsibility. This refreshes our view of the textual evidence from the body of extant documents of composition and transmission that provide the material substance for all editing. Here, the perception of, as well as the critical views on, textual changes and variation in and across document texts have substantially, and in important respects fundamentally, changed. An editorial methodology is today in demand to offer new responses in the light of these changed perceptions — beginnings are already to be seen, for instance, both in medieval studies in their development of a ‘new philology’, or, say, in modernist studies with manuscript editions, meanwhile dominantly digital, answering to the methodological stance of genetic criticism (critique génétique).

8The digital medium is, as I strongly believe, well on course to becoming the primary site for the scholarly edition. This will, and should, bring about genuine reconceptualisings and reenvisionings of the several discourses which in a scholarly edition relate to the edited text, as well as among one another. What is traditionally termed the textual apparatus, for instance, urgently needs to be digitally reborn. This entity, in scholarly editions in book form, was always already the locus to correlate the (transmitted and/or edited) text with the recorded variants. The relationship was understood as essentially binary — authentic reading versus error — and was dealt with by way of footnoted or appended lemmatised listings. In such typographical isolation from the presentation of the edited text, the records proceeded instance by instance with little or no regard for textual structure or for contextualisation and meaning. Against this, the book (already on the eve, as it were, of the transition of editions into the digital medium) had begun to realise alternative apparatus formats functionally to support the distinction between, on the one hand, ‘readings’, individually separated out as error and corruption, and, on the other hand, textually non-separable, always in-context revision and variation. The challenge to the edition in the digital medium is to take its cue from here and design digitally native structures for correlating the several members of the body of texts representing a work in such ways as to become genuinely the comprehensive textual foundation for all manner of research on and into the work.

9But the problematics of editing text and editing (the) work have yet wider dimensions. To find new bearings for editorial scholarship beyond its twentieth-century narrowing-in on text editing, we need to remind ourselves of one main task of the learned edition of old. It saw its purpose above all in mediating the work — the work represented indeed by the given edition’s text — not only to literary professionals (let alone to textual scholars only), but to a general readership. The discourse dominantly serving this purpose was the commentary. This was where the edition not only provided factual information of multiple kinds, but also addressed, via the edition’s manifest text or texts, the work’s meaning(s) and significance.

10It is the experience of every textual critic and editor that at every point and moment of engagement with the substance of the text for the edition in progress, interpretive considerations of meaning impinge. The circumstance that works of art in language, in themselves immaterial, are (bar the loss of documents) always represented by multiple material texts, raises the situation to considerable complexity. The interpretative process never ends; it is the essence of reading. That is, it is ever dynamically progressive. To engage progressively with and in the dynamics of interpreting the meanings of text and work was something the material medium of manuscript and book could not open-endedly sustain. The experiments with quasi-hypertextualising typographical arrangements for commentary in some medieval manuscripts or early printed books are amazing, and the compilations of discursive commentary in, say, the Shakespeare Variorum volumes (still ongoing!) are awe-inspiring. But commentary in book editions always needed to be cut off, with a wide range of rationalisations for chosen limits (e.g., not to prejudice critical interpretation, not to repeat what dictionaries or encyclopaedias could provide, not to assume ignorance of the self-evident, etc., etc.). The prime rationalisation for the virtual disappearance of explicatory and discursive commentary from the full-scale scholarly edition in the twentieth century, both from the critical edition of the Anglo-American and from the historical-critical edition of the German persuasion, was that the edition’s edited text could claim permanence far beyond any commentary, which was seen as possessing a much shorter half-life.

11Yet we might also discern true potential in the transience of commentary by admitting that it allows constant adjustment of factual knowledge as well as rearticulations, modifications, or revisions of critical insight and understanding. In technical terms, a digital platform would help to realise an ongoing interactive dialogue along such lines of progression. To embrace this option would importantly contribute to leading the scholarly edition out of its inherited mode of authoritativeness in decreeing what ‘the text’ is and what ‘the work’ says. It is time to de-hierarchise the scholarly edition and to reconceive it not only as a product of, but more importantly as a forum for critical scholarly engagement. The digital medium is where this may be accomplished. Hence, admittedly, we should also expect and be prepared to accept that the scholarly edition will in the digital medium thoroughly metamorphose into shapes other than those of the scholarly edition in print. The digital scholarly edition should, and I hope it will, become a dynamically progressive interactive research site, energised by experiencing a work through its texts, and reciprocally energising scholarship and criticism, as well as engaged explorative reading, as they search for innovative forms of enquiry and communication.


1 Jūratė Levina, to whom I am grateful for her perceptive pre-reading of part of this essay, has in private communication suggested the phenomenological terms ‘ground’ (stone or skin or paper) vs ‘figure’ (inscription) to distinguish and indicate the relation of the two orders of materiality I posit.

2 This was emphasised by Gunter Martens, the German textual scholar, in the wake of French philosopher Paul Ricoeur, in: ‘Was ist — aus editorischer Sicht — ein Text? Überlegungen zur Bestimmung eines Zentralbegriffs der Editionsphilologie’, in Zu Werk und Text. Beiträge zur Textologie, ed. by S. Scheibe and C. Laufer (Berlin: Akademie-Verlag, 1991), pp. 135–56.

3 I argue for looking beyond author-centricity below in: ‘Beyond Author-Centricity in Scholarly Editing’, which essay has been republished in German, with slight revisions owing to distinctions between German and Anglo-American text-critical and editorial thinking, as: ‘Wider die Autorzentriertheit in der Edition’, Jahrbuch des Freien Deutschen Hochstifts 2012 (2013), pp. 316–42.


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