Postmodernity and critical editions of literary texts: towards the virtual presence of the past

TitlePostmodernity and critical editions of literary texts: towards the virtual presence of the past
Publication TypeBook Chapter
Year of Publication2007
AuthorsJuvan, Marko
EditorSanz, Amelia, and Dolores Romero
Book TitleLiteratures in the digital era: theory and praxis
PublisherCambridge Scholars
Keywordscritical editions, genetic criticism, hypertext, postmodernity, textual criticism
Far from being a mere subsidiary discipline, textology is vitally intertwined with the theory, interpretation, and history of literature. It transfers literary texts from the domain of art to the discourses of scholarship and education, strengthens their social relevance, and influences their canonisation. Thanks to the text critic, the authorial text, restored and purged of all subsequent interference and error, should speak beyond the confines of its historical frame.
The historicism of the 19th and 20th centuries addressed the old manuscript heritage by attempting to reconstruct an image of the text closest to the original archetype; for modern literary works, on the other hand, it emphasised a normative version supposedly reflecting the author's intention. But these editorial procedures merely served to create one more version, marked with the stamp of normative finality. Even the editions prepared in the framework of modern, text-centred trends in literary science foregrounded text images which had never been proper to the literary works in question. Striving to ensure an artistic pleasure unmarred by aesthetic distance from the past, the editors would filter and retouch the historicity of the literary work.
The postmodern humanities display a paradoxical attitude to the presence of the past. On the one hand, they have deconstructed history, presenting it as an interplay of interpretation and narration; on the other, they have striven for a return of the historical presence, but within a structure comparable to our perception of the present: the past should reveal itself in its contingent nature, polyphony of detail, openness, continuous generation. Within these horizons of thought, poststructuralism and history-oriented branches (literary science being chiefly represented by new historicism) have formed a different understanding of texts, perceiving them as an open process of writing and reading in which the subject becomes articulated through dialogue, through differing from the Other.
In the last quarter of the 20th century, the postmodern twist in the conception of the literary work touches the theory and practice of textology, for example in French genetic criticism, the Anglo-American New Philology, or bibliographical research. The role of the two subjects, the author and editor, becomes looser, as does the notion of the literary work as a finished product. The textologist's gaze moves away from the work of art and behind the scenes, to the genesis of the foretext (the rough drafts, sketches, revisions, corrections, variant versions). The foretext is the trace of the author's articulation of meaning, of his pursuit and redefinition of his artistic goals. The preserved versions of the foretext are the matrices of virtual literary works. The literary text is thus presented as a so-called "fuzzy" group. Its reduction to the linguistic structure is resisted by the interest of postmodern textology in the circumstances of its publication, as well as in the status and expressive means of the medium through which it is launched; these factors help to form the meaning of the work, placing it within the frame of social constellations.
The postmodern tendencies to restore the historical presence are – paradoxically – answered by the virtual cyberspace, which is "in the service of postmodern detailism and microcontexts of knowledge", opposing the great stories and "attaining the illusion of proximity" (cf. J. Hillis Miller). Moreover, the electronic medium and the hypertext have led to a conscious realisation of the semantic role played by the older media, the book in particular.
The presentation of successive text versions from the genesis to the author’s final edition is ideally compatible with the possibilities offered by electronic hypertexts: the latter reveal the identity of the text as mobile, integrated into the psychodynamics of writing and the sociodynamics of publishing; the hypertext displays the documented process of the subject’s positioning in the literary discourse. Electronic critical editions/literary archives combine the advantages of the facsimile with those of the critical edition. The encoding of texts, which is involved in their translation from the codex book (c-book) into the electronic form (e-book), facilitates an analysis of the semantic and visual features of the book. Each user can accordingly assess the extent and manner in which the bibliographical code of the presented text contributes to the meaning established through the language codes (J. McGann). Through cyberspace, even the "materiality" of writing surfaces and text carriers – that is, the "expressive function of non-verbal elements" – becomes virtually present; the readers are thus brought into contact with "the wider world of the objects and practices of the writing culture" (R. Chartier), from which literary science used to abstract literary works until quite recently.