History and Future of the Book: To Err

I’m not quite all the way through this week’s reading, but I have to be honest and admit that I’ve had a difficult time finding a foothold in the reading to use for a response post. So I’m making the decision to settle on the problem of errors. Or rather, the problem of exactly what an error means. Or is.

Especially in Chapter 7 of the Greetham text, but in a lot of the other textual scholarship stuff we’ve read so far where the focus is on transcription, the multiplicity of editions of texts, etc., it seems like the problem of errors is assumed to be sort of the central problem. What I find interesting about that is it seems that one of the goals of this intense kind of textual scholarship is to ‘denaturalize’ (as we’ve been calling it) the text, to sort of undermine the possibility of thinking there is this one final object that is ‘the text.’ Textual scholarship accomplishes this through its various methods of analyzing the physical characteristics of various editions of texts, by creating and engaging with knowledge about historical developments of the book and the varied practices of book manufacture and creation, among other things. All of this so, when we sit down to read Hamlet, we don’t think of this book we have sitting in front of us as the absolute Hamlet, but we’re forced to recognize it instead as a contingent incarnation of Hamlet. But then when we have the physical things we call errors. Possible mistakes in copying texts. Differences between a quarto and a folio text. Aspects of the text that appear to be there due to printing constraints. I don’t know of a better word for these things, but it seems to me that by calling them ‘errors,’ this still forces an implicit acknowledgment that there is, in some sense, a proper original error-free version that all the contingent incarnations of a text are merely reflections of. It’s a very Platonic notion, really.

Which isn’t to say I think that idea is wrong, exactly. When we think about a text, and when we think about a physical book as something that bears a relation to a text, the ‘text’ we’re thinking about necessarily must be an immaterial thing, something that exists as a real thing above and beyond any specific physical instance of that text. But what I find problematic about the idea of errors is that it implies the physical instances are poor reflections of the text, when it would seem like, we should more properly think of the text as a reflection of its physical incarnations. Or perhaps even better, we should think of the two as mutually constitutive of each other. There is in fact a real immaterial thing that is Hamlet, a real immaterial Hamlet that is not exhausted by any of its contingent incarnations, that in some way supersedes any and all specific printed (or performed or memorized or even composed) versions. But the immaterial Hamlet is not a Platonic, error-free thing. It might not be made up of any specific individual instance, but even as it undoubtedly exerts a certain influence over the relative importance of its different versions it is constituted by all of its specific individual instances: it exists because of and according to the various instances of its printing. The fact that there is a different version of the ‘To Be or Not To Be’ speech is interesting and problematic. But it would seem like the hunt for errors is teleologically concerned with finding the Platonic original in order to free our perception of it from errors—each discovery of an error alerts us to an aspect of the text that we must view skeptically in order to reduce its distortion of our perception of the real text. But in the case of the ‘To Be or Not To Be’ speech, we have to acknowledge that if, for example, we were to discover that the more famous version of the speech was more due to error than the other version, we would not then have arrived at a purer perception of an error-free Hamlet. Something about what we understand as Hamlet would be fundamentally different, but to say that we now are able to perceive Hamlet more clearly seems like an absurd assessment of the situation.

I wonder, would it be possible for textual scholarship to frame its discoveries in a positive as opposed to a negative way (or maybe I mean additive as opposed to subtractive)? Could the search be for new additions to the text, rather than to make errors visible so they can be weeded out?

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7 Responses to History and Future of the Book: To Err

  1. c2ross says:

    I like the way you point to the implication that when we identify errors we invoke something like a Platonic ideal version of the text. It is possible that such “errors” go back to the original manuscript, and may or may not have been caught in subsequent editing or proofreading by the author or some other authorized person. We all know what it’s like to type or write something other than what we “meant” to write, even without the assistance of Autocorrect software. If you edit someone else’s work, there are moments when you make a change because you “know” that the author “meant” something other than what she or he wrote. You change the external text to match the ideal, in other words.

  2. Amy says:

    Your post reminds me of a wonderful scene in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade where Dr. Jones says to his class, “Archaeology is the search for fact, not truth. If it’s truth you’re interested in, Dr. Tyree’s philosophy class is right down the hall.” It reminds me of this because when we think about this (as you call it, Platonic) version of the text – are we looking for truth or are we looking for fact? Or both? To what extent does “truth” (if at all) have to do with historical bibliographical work? Perhaps those people who are hell-bent on knowing the “ideal version” are looking for the true “ideal” version – but if we stick to Plato’s ideal forms, we have to remember that there is no way we can ever see/know an ideal – if we did, we would be a god (according to the Phaedrus). Therefore, our souls spend their existence attempting to get as close as possible to the ideal forms and those who even catch a glimpse become philosophers and are able to merely speak about the ideal forms, let alone identify them wholly and completely. That said, while I agree that we should not be concerned with locating this “error-free” version – the endeavor may be more akin to the Aristotelian principle of the “first mover” – so a more metaphysical question than a question of Platonic ideals. Finding that “original text” should be an archaeological endeavor of fact rather than a philosophical endeavor for truth.

  3. lmaruca says:

    Marcus, I’ll be curious to hear what you think when your reading is finished, because where you end up–can we be additive instead of obsessd with the negativity of the error–is where McGann does as well. That is, each new text (maybe he wouldn’t say each) is in its own way a new edition which joins the constellation of texts which has no Platonic sun at its center. And that Platonic ideal, by the way, exists in one place according to those critics of the 1950s: the author’s mind. The ideal text would be for them no text at all. In some ways in their view the physical is always already post-Edenic.

    • Marcus says:

      You’re right–I think the McGann’s ideas seem more productive to me. I wonder how much of McGann’s thinking actually has to do with the new possibilities of digital editions more than anything. That is, digital editions open up so many possibilities about how a text could be presented–especially by making it so much easier to potentially put together an edition that presents the reader with the ability to see many different versions without the burden of adding so many more extra physical pages for each version–and once that becomes possible, it’s a lot easier to do away with the idea of ever resolving around the one final unified text.

      I was also thinking in class–McGann uses the fact that Dickens’s novels were usually published serially (as were a lot of novels at the time), which opens up a whole temporal dimension to the way a text is presented to readers that can’t really ever be recaptured. I wonder if anyone would ever try to something like a digital serial edition of a text, like a reader purchases an app that is “Les Miserables” and then the app delivers a portion of the text every week for the reader. Obviously it would require the reader to play along (since she could always find the rest of text easily enough) but it would be an interesting way of presenting an edition of a work like that.

      • lmaruca says:

        I want a “like” button for this last idea. It’s quite brilliant, really. Do you know any app designers?

  4. Kemael Johnson says:

    There is something about a writer’s creative process, the moment(s) of trying to capture on the page what you imagine in your head, that shakes me a little when it comes to looking at the different versions of a work, collectively, as a good(?) representation of the intention. And that thing also makes me uneasy about sifting through errors to find the pure text. Last month, I tried to write a poem for a journal and ended up with about four or five versions–none of which really expressed what I was thinking. Pooling them together in various combinations didn’t quite get the job done and the original writing was less than appealing, so I chose not to submit it at all. I say that as I wonder if there ever is any such thing as a pure text, in written from. More and more I am starting to think that the only pure text is the one that exists in the artist’s mind before he/she tries to translate it in print (or manuscript–it’s funny how I am now hyper-conscious about the difference between print and manuscript. I never was before).

    • shandilynne says:

      I find this idea to be interesting (and helpful), Kamael. As much as I try to get away from it, author’s intentions do still play a role in how I view a text. But as you point out, any version of a text, no matter how original or authentic or unmediated, is liable to not fully live up to the author’s intentions. This is not something I’d previously considered . . .

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