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Identifying Text and Postmodernist Editorial Projects.

Summing up the state of 'current textual criticism', D. C. Greetham has recently suggested that although 'in the past, textual critics have felt that they somehow needed to "keep up" with their critical colleagues', 'in these poststructuralist and postmodernist days it is the critics who need to keep up with us'.[1] The context of Greetham's comment is, of course, the perception, widely held by certain literary theorists, that text-editing is a largely pragmatic, unsophisticated activity. In attempting to rebut this prejudice, Greetham reminds us that literary criticism and textual criticism have always been closely interrelated. So the editorial practices of the founding fathers of text-editing (of figures such as W. W. Greg and Fredson Bowers) were explicitly based on a then current theory of literature: as Greetham puts it, the conjunction of the 'cultural semiotics of clear-text editing and New Critical synthetic analysis were not accidental' (pp. 12-13). At the same time, however, developments in literary and textual theory have not always kept pace with each other, in that the demise of a particular theory of literature has not always brought about the passing away of the particular editorial practices associated with it. So, Greetham notes, the hegemony of clear-text editing continued long after the decline of 'New Critical' notions of literariness which accompanied it. Indeed, the effect on text-editing of most of the new ways of theorizing literariness produced during the past thirty years or so (by Marxism, structuralism, feminism, and so on) has been relatively insignificant. These theories have, of course, had some rather varied consequences for annotation; but annotation, like those theories themselves, is concerned principally with the interpretation of text and not with the condition of textuality itself. For example, feminism might have changed decisions about which works are worth editing and which aspects of works are worth annotating, but it has done little to change attitudes towards the basic practices of editing: the choice and justification of copy-text, the identification of variants, and so forth. This situation was certainly caused in part by the habits of theorists themselves, by the fact that most were happy to do their radical critical work on the texts already established in received editions.[2] In such circumstances it is hardly surprising that text-editors working on several of the big editions which were produced during the 1980s, for example, the Cambridge Shakespeare and the Oxford Shakespeare, were able to insulate themselves from the most controversial claims of literary theorists.[3]

To the extent, then, that the theoretical foundations of textual studies have sometimes appeared rather dated, there is some justification for the perception that editorial work is relatively 'untheorized'. Greetham's argument, though, is that this tendency to be 'behindhand' has finally been overcome. Indeed, it is alleged that textual criticism has caught up so much that it is now textual critics, rather than literary critics, who are at the forefront of the discipline, in the theoretical 'vanguard', as it were.[4] As Ralph G. Williams has enthusiastically put it, 'textual studies are at present one of the most self-conscious and experimental branches of the humanities'. [5] What lies behind this new self-confidence is, of course, postmodernism, or, more precisely, a sense among textual critics (such as Greetham and Williams) that, in embracing what advertises itself as the very newest development in literary theory, they have finally rebutted the accusation that they were always the last guests to arrive at theory's feast. Jerome J. McGann has made a similar (if characteristically more modest) claim about the pre-eminence of textual studies when he talks about the 'poverty of criticism'.[6] More precisely, McGann has been critical of the influence in the discipline of what he terms 'romantic hermeneutics': the habit, that is, promulgated by theorists (such as Paul de Man) of viewing texts as purely linguistic artefacts. McGann argues that this narrow perspective should be replaced by the more 'comprehensive', material understanding of textuality being developed by text-theorists such as himself. This desire among textual critics to be at the cutting edge of the discipline is certainly one with which I (as an editor myself) have considerable sympathy. Nevertheless, I would like to argue that recent claims for textual criticism's disciplinary centrality, its position in that theoretical 'vanguard', are somewhat premature. Although it might indeed be the case that textual studies are now engaged with exactly the same 'problematic' as literary criticism (with theorizing about authority, determinacy, and stability), the current impulse among certain text-editors to 'postmodernize' these issues is, I will suggest, profoundly misjudged.

Implicit in my scepticism towards the claims for the avant-garde status of what may be called 'postmodernist editing' is of course a dissatisfaction with postmodernism itself, or rather a perception that the theoretical tenets postmodernism are by no means as influential nor persuasive (nor, indeed, well-founded) as some of its advocates in literary studies appear to assume. In order, then, to justify my disenchantment with the 'postmodernist turn' of recent textual criticism, it will be necessary to summarize my misgivings about the whole postmodernist project itself. In what follows, however, I do not propose to set out a comprehensive critique of the complex body of theory that goes under the name of postmodernism: space forbids such an enquiry, and here at least scholarly discretion is the better part of valour.[7] Instead, I would like to approach the topic in a more oblique way, by examining why it is that certain literary critics (and the textual critics who follow them) have been so attracted to the postmodernist concepts of textual indeterminacy and textual instability when theorists in other disciplines (such as philosophy and history) have roundly rejected them.

One of the difficulties in describing the reaction of recent textual critics to postmodernism is that the term 'postmodernism' possesses a veritably protean capacity to mean different things to different people: so it can refer a style, an epistemology, a means of representation, or to what (in times less self-conscious than now) would have been called a zeitgeist. To use a favourite postmodernist metaphor, the term itself has become a 'site' of conflicting opinion. Furthermore, different disciplines respond to the phenomena which postmodernism allegedly encompasses in radically different ways. So, for philosophers, postmodernism describes a particular way of thinking about knowledge and the conditions for knowledge: in this view, it represents an attempt to re-theorize (and undermine) traditional notions of subjectivity, intentionality, determinacy, and therefore the relationship between the world and how it is (or could be) known and represented. In philosophy, then, postmodernism is less novel (and therefore perhaps less threatening) than in other disciplines in the sense that it can be seen simply as a further step or development in a line of questioning which is certainly as old as philosophic enquiry itself. By contrast, cultural critics and sociologists have tended to treat postmodernism (or, as it is often and more expansively termed, 'the postmodern condition') as a completely new phenomenon, a development in contemporary life that marks a significant moment of transition: the end of modernism or, in the eyes of some of postmodernism's most vociferous advocates, the end of the hegemony of Enlightenment reason. In this view, postmodernism or postmodernity represents what has variously been termed a 'transformation', a 'shift in sensibility', or a 'sea-change', one that has affected a whole range of social and cultural practices from banking to law to ecology, from architecture to dance to film.[8] Here, then, the concern of cultural critics and sociologists has generally been with a diagnosis of the condition they identify: that is, with mapping the perceived causes, effects, and influence of postmodernity, rather than with examining (as some philosophers have tried to do) the validity of its epistemological and ontological claims. Finally, literary critics, like some cultural critics, also tend to take the givenness of the postmodern condition for granted (or, at least, to refuse to question it) and to concentrate on identifying its specific literary forms: that is, they attempt to describe a typology of textual features (and attitudes towards representation) that can be called postmodern. It is worth noting in passing, however, that there is considerable disagreement among individual theorists about what those features actually are, and how they are to be distinguished from features identified by other literary typologies, such as those associated with modernism.[9]

One of the most recent and most lucid guides through this conceptual maze is Steven Connor. Commenting on the connections between post-modernist theory and literary studies, Connor has observed the operation of what appears to be a mutually defining relationship between, on the one hand, the tenets of postmodernism (as they are understood by literary theorists) and, on the other hand, the postmodernist literary text that serves as evidence for those tenets:

Self-conscious, decentred, sceptical and playfully polymorphous, the postmodernist literary text from Borges to Beckett to Rushdie is an ideal object of analysis for a theory of reading which has grown suspicious of every form of identity or fixity, but still requires some object upon which to practise. Postmodernist literature obediently falls into step with the motifs and preoccupations of institutionalized post-structuralist theory [. . . ] resonating in sympathy with all its hermeneutic requirements.[10]

Connor goes on to hint at the possibly tautologous nature of this relationship, and explains it in terms of institutional exigencies: that postmodernism, in the form in which it is understood in literature departments, 'serves to concentrate radical or sceptical theory into an institutionally usable form, allowing the business of the literary academy -- the interpretation of texts, the production and accreditation of readings and methodologies -- to go on as usual'. Connor's (perhaps generous) comment on such a practice is to suggest that it might be interpreted as a form of 'extreme adaptability', evidence that 'the discipline of English [has] been able to survive and even to thrive on such apparently lethal doses of radical theory' (p. 133). The idea that 'radical theory' (that is, postmodernism) ought to be 'lethal' is instructive; so too is the observation that English has somehow managed to survive. Postmodernism, which logically should have spelt the end of the formal study of literature (and, if ruthlessly prosecuted, of the academy itself), appears to have had the opposite effect: it has revitalized literary studies for another generation. The logic of all this points to a rather partial use of postmodernist theory in the discipline, a situation that in turn suggests an anxiety among postmodernist critics themselves about some of the more radical implications of their theorizing. To see why this is so, why the logic of postmodernism is to undermine its own claim to theoretical centrality, we can return to D. C. Greetham and his comment that 'postmodernist editing operates under the assumptions of poststructuralist differance, the continual deferral of absolute meaning, and [that] the texts it produces are scriptible not lisible, open not closed' (pp. 16-17).

This comment is typical of a kind of broadly based, 'all or nothing' account of the postmodernist rationale found in any number of works on literary postmodernism. Thus, for example, the more elaborate (and often quoted) schema outlined by Ihab Hassan in the 'Postface' to The Dismemberment of Orpheus is underwritten by the use of precisely the same kind of binary oppositions. In it postmodernism is identified by a series of alternatives: so it is characterized by 'chance' (in the absence of 'design'), by 'anarchy' (in the absence of 'hierarchy'), by 'dispersal' (in the absence of 'centring'), by 'indeterminacy' (in the absence of 'determinacy'), and so on.[11] What is immediately obvious from Hassan's list is the absolute nature of the oppositions (or, to use the postmodernist term, the absolute nature of the condition of 'differance') that he describes. The list admits of no gradations or intermediate positions between the polarities it identifies, even though it is not logically the case that, for example, the absence of hierarchy must inevitably lead to anarchy, or the absence of determinacy results only in indeterminacy. Another way of putting this is to say that postmodernism (certainly as it is understood in literary studies) tends to rely on rhetoric rather than logic. As David Harvey has observed, 'the most startling fact about postmodernism [is] its total acceptance of [. . . ] ephemerality, fragmentation, discontinuity, and the chaotic'. 'Postmodernism', Harvey continues, 'swims, even wallows, in the fragmentary and the chaotic currents of change as if that is all there is.' 12 Employed by textual critics, this kind of rhetoric produces the claims made by Greetham: it suggests that if texts can no longer be held to be 'closed' or 'definitive', then they must be wholly open, wholly unstable, wholly indeterminate. Or rather, any attempt to restrict openness, to fix or stabilize the text, to place constraints on indeterminacy (which are, of course, the aims embodied in traditional 'clear-text' editing) are arbitrary, and represent an imposition on the part of the editor that cannot be justified by reference to any criteria outside his or her own ideological or institutional prejudices. Such a practice would be seen as an example of the imposition of a metanarrative or metatheory: that is, it would represent an example of the kind of totalizing power-discourse regretted by Michel Foucault and vigorously condemned by Jean-Francois Lyotard. The inescapable consequence of this absolutist rhetoric is that the only honourable (or politically correct) duty left for the postmodernist editor is to adopt a textual apparatus and means of display which will permit the allegedly 'polytextual' textual condition identified by postmodernism to be most fully revealed.

In recent years that apparatus and means of display have been electronic; as Greetham observes, it is only the electronic 'reader-driven' edition, one produced by modern hypertext programmes, that will 'achieve the flexibility and lack of closure that differance observes' (p. 17). Hypertext is claimed to offer apparently limitless data storage and virtually instantaneous (and multiple) ways to manipulate that data. As such, it circumvents the problems of hierarchy and closure made inevitable by the material limitations of the codex form. It is worth noting in passing that this turn towards technology (supposedly on the grounds that it enfranchises 'readerly wants', or that it empowers readers to be consumers) might itself be seen as an exemplary instance of postmodernity. What interests me for the moment, however, is the consequence of this move for the role of the editor as it has been traditionally conceived. Most obviously, he or she must cease to edit, in the sense of exercising any form of control or judgement. The postmodernist hypertext editor apparently needs only to supply data; he or she need not order it. The (allegedly) 'totalizing' traditional clear-text editor has thus become transformed into a more neutral archivist. In the process, though, that editor appears also to have been stripped of any effective agency, authority, or responsibility. Such a position may appear a rather perverse ground upon which to base the claim that text-criticism is in the vanguard of literary studies. For the logic of such a move would be to de-skill and demote the very individuals, text-editors and text-theorists, whose interests it is supposed to promote. Self-effacement is not a characteristic generally associated with vanguards, and we ought perhaps to treat it with some caution. It will be recalled that Steven Connor noted that literary critics have managed to embrace or interpret postmodernism in such a way as to elevate (rather than undermine) their own institutional authority. We might ask whether a similar sleight of hand occurs in the use of hypertext programmes in text-editing: whether, in practice, hypertext is as 'liberating' or as 'editorially-neutral' as its polemicists claim. I will examine this possibility below. First, however, I want to approach the paradox of the 'passively avant-garde' quality of postmodernism by a different route, by asking whether the contradiction can be avoided, which is another way of asking whether there are alternatives to the absolutist binary reasoning that underlies postmodernist views of knowledge.

The philosopher Frank B. Farrell would describe Hassan's or Greetham's kind of reasoning as a 'move across the board, in all areas without qualification'.[13] It assumes that because we cannot be certain of complete objectivity then we are doomed to total subjectivity, to complete epistemological relativism. Or in terms which matter to text-theorists, because there can be no lasting consensus about a definitive or 'best' text, then all textual boundaries, and all decisions about text, must be equally arbitrary. As Richard Rorty and others have put it, what we are offered here is a presumption that the only epistemological alternatives are relativism and absolutism or totalitarianism and anarchy.[14] Farrell summarizes the logic behind this line of argument as follows:

A claim is made that a set of beliefs is responsive to some independent givenness, to some independent determinacy [that might be located in the world or in the subject]; but then the postmodern thinker replies that what is thus being measured up to is itself an artifact produced by that which is supposedly being sensitive to it. [. . . ] Did the canon of great works of literature arise because of a sensitivity to genuine quality in those works? No, those in power simply created and projected standards of quality that would enforce their own self-esteem. Does the careful study of a literary text help us to have a better sense of what it says? No, one learns to follow the construction of codes of one's profession and so to generate a text out of fairly neutral raw material. [. . . ] One is not just trying to show, as the parochial realist wants to show, that what one brings to the world in lighting it up will shape what is there to be found. Nor is one arguing that bias and power interests will distort the picture we arrive at of how things really are. One is instead inflating the role of cultural practices so radically that world and self virtually disappear as constraints on those practices or as measures of their success. And one tends to make that move across the board, in all areas, without qualification. [. . . ] Codes of discourse [. . . ] find only reflections of themselves as they relate to the world, and selves are created by the discourses that purport to be about them. The distinction between thought and reality is itself set forth [. . . ] within a self-positing activity of discursive machineries. (pp. 249-50)

Farrell's concern in Subjectivity, Realism and Postmodernism is to ask why this 'move across the board' happens in the first instance, given that it is neither logical nor inevitable. Hence he asks rather bluntly, 'What could motivate one toward that very radical stance when there are many appealing compromise positions that fall well short of it?' (p. 249). These compromise positions form all the many stages of argument that exist between those postmodernist absolutes identified by Hassan and echoed by Greetham in his celebration of post-structuralist differance and the scriptible nature of text. Some of those positions, as Farrell argues, might include the fact that the world 'answers back' to us: that, for example, some theories are more adequate than others. So our allegedly arbitrary 'laws' of dynamics seem to be more than just relatively or just temporarily adequate in helping us to avoid moving objects such as buses or to put men on the moon. A second pressure comes from the fact that our various theories of the world have in some sense to be compatible with each other, or at least there is a generally held view that we need to attempt to make them so.[15] To these we might add a third pressure, one mentioned by Rorty, which comes from the simple observation that most of the time we do indeed manage to communicate effectively, to learn each other's languages and to reject old beliefs in favour of new ones: in other words, the absolutist oppositions identified by postmodernists do not seem to exist either in the way we experience the world nor in the ways in which we characteristically represent it. I do not mean to suggest that the existence of these 'many appealing compromise positions' are not without problems of their own; what is striking, though, is how consistently they (and the debate about them) have been ignored by postmodernist literary theorists and postmodernist textual editors. In other words, given the profound logical difficulties with postmodernist accounts of knowledge, we might rephrase Farrell's question to ask: Why have textual critics chosen to fight in the vanguard of literary studies with such obviously untrustworthy weapons?

Farrell suggests that the popularity of postmodernist theorizing might be to do with power. He equates the apparently liberating rhetoric of the postmodernist emphasis on discourse with a form of medieval theology: in his view, discourse (or cultural practices) can become reified to a level where they are as inscrutable and self-sufficient as a divinity that recognizes no power beyond itself. Farrell summarizes the logic of his argument thus:

On the one hand, the self acknowledges that it is the artifact of cultural processes that it cannot hope to understand or control, and that are responsible for producing the self virtually out of nothing. But then the field of intentionality itself has been thinned out by the divinized cultural practices, and that very emptying out opens up a space upon which readers and critics, depending on the group they represent, can project whatever meanings and values they wish [. . . ]. The postmodern self acknowledges its humility as against cultural practices of production and then takes up a demiurgic role toward the minds and texts of others. (p. 251)

The paradox of the humble yet demiurgic postmodern self is powerfully reminiscent of that other paradox, the postmodernist editor's self-effacing avant-gardism. It suggests that postmodernists (that is, literary critics and textual critics), despite their rhetoric of pluralism, do not renounce power tout court; rather they merely exchange an old form of authority for a new form, one that is less visible, and also much less accountable because there are no grounds upon which it could possibly be questioned. We could do worse than look for evidence of this disguised (or disavowed) power in that tool and exemplar of postmodernist editing, hypertext. Put more archly, we might profitably ask, What exactly do postmodernist editors do when operating under the principle of textual differance?

It has been noted in other disciplines, particularly psychology, that the metaphors used to describe hypertext are very revealing. So the notion of the user's freedom is inscribed in the very language of hypertext. Thus terms such as 'browsing', 'scanning', 'searching', and 'exploring', for example, all suggest that users are making their own undirected and unrestricted way through information stored in the system. However, in practice these metaphors serve to disguise the existence of constraints within the system. These constraints are not only a practical consequence of writing programmes, but they are in fact necessary in order for hypertext to be useful. Ray McAleese has made exactly this point in a discussion of the hypertext metaphor of browsing.[16] Quoting the work of C. Hildreth (who has worked with on-line library catalogues), McAleese notes that in practice, browsing is never free. Rather, it is always facilitated by a structure, as indeed it is in a library. If a library were completely randomly ordered, finding information would be as difficult for us as it is for characters in a Borges short story. Without such a structure, browsing would not be (in McAleese's words) 'purposeful'. By definition, hypertext must be purposeful: it must, McAleese argues, 'facilitate effective browsing'. That effectiveness is ensured by the existence of menus, indices, windows, cue cards, and so forth. Moreover, all these devices (like the Dewey or Library of Congress catalogue systems) represent decisions on the part of the author or programmer about the ways in which the information stored in the database can be retrieved.

Along with the metaphor of browsing goes another equally potent one, that of the net or network. McAleese suggests that this metaphor too can be misleading. He claims that:

The net metaphor used to understand the linkages between elements in hypertext is very often misunderstood. Taken literally a net implies that no one node is 'more important' or 'central' than any other node. In a true network system any node should be accessible at one link distance from any other node. Often, there are constraints placed on this ideal solution in order to minimise the number of links held. A constrained net with a limited set of links is most frequently found in hypertext. (p. 14)

McAleese goes on to claim that a fishing net is a better metaphor because it permits hierarchies to be imagined. He explains the image in the following manner:

Imagine a fishing net with knots for nodes. Every node has links to several other nodes; usually three or four. Browsing using such a network is constrained. Access is not to any of the N-1 other nodes (where N is the total number of nodes) but to any 3 or 4 other nodes. Further, and most importantly, imagine one can pick up any node. Other nodes fall about this central or 'top' node in a cascade. One node (the one selected) is at the apex of a hierarchy of nodes. Such structuring is important in providing the browser with scaffolding to support purposeful browsing. [. . . ] Often the implicit structure of the hypertext system gives the user support. (pp. 14-15)

I have quoted McAleese at some length because he makes clear the necessarily structured nature of hypertext: that users browse via a system, which in its turn puts limits on the ways in which information can be retrieved and therefore linked. In other words, hypertext programmes allow the construction of some kinds of narratives, but they preclude the construction of others. Exactly this point has been argued by the psychologists Cliff McKnight, John Richardson, and Andrew Dillon. They have drawn attention to the role of what they term the 'ignored author' of hypertext systems. The premise of their argument is as follows: 'Hypertext systems certainly facilitate the linking of ideas, but to focus on the ease of performing the action is to obscure the importance of the decision-making leading to the action.'[17] This issue of 'decision-making' (that is, the process which facilitates purposeful browsing) is the province of the author of hypertext documents (or, in our case, the postmodernist editor). We should bear in mind that it is the author or editor who decides how to link nodes together. It is therefore the author or editor who also determines the limits of a hypertext system. 'We are,' McKnight, Richardson, and Dillon say, 'at the mercy of the author since we will only be able to activate the links which the author has provided' (p. 141). In a way similar to McAleese, McKnight, Richardson, and Dillon suggest that presenting complete freedom of choice, a truly random and free nodal system, is not only technologically extremely difficult, but also fundamentally undesirable. They term such an arrangement 'visual spaghetti'; and, they say, because such spaghetti would 'not be representative of any underlying semantic structure', to all intents and purposes it would be useless. As a consequence, authors of hypertext documents always have in mind the kind of links or narratives (what they term the 'optimum links') that they suppose the user will want to make. And they write their programmes accordingly. In their terms, the author 'needs to anticipate the uses to which the reader will put the text'. And that process of anticipation necessarily involves finding means of 'reducing the data available'. That is, it involves providing 'templates', or what are sometimes termed 'information filtering techniques': in other words, those menus, indices, windows, and cue-cards that I referred to earlier. McKnight, Richardson, and Dillon conclude:

The authoring of read-only hypertext documents requires considerable effort on the part of the author if the reader's task is to be adequately supported. [ . . . ] The author will need to anticipate the needs of the reader if the document is to be used successfully. [. . . ] While it is commonplace to argue for a user-centred approach to design, we should remember that the initial user of a hypertext system is the author, not the reader. (p. 146)

In other words, authors (or editors), with their values, prejudices, and attempted 'control' of the reader, are no less present in hypertext documents than in printed or codex ones. They are, however, much less visible.

Of course, apologists will claim that hypertext offers more narrative possibilities than the book. Or, in terms of text-editing, it will be claimed that hypertext offers more text, and more possible textual combinations, than could ever be represented in a codex form (no matter what typographical or 'display' arrangements the editor conceives). This is certainly true. But such a claim needs to be balanced against two further circumstances: first, those narrative possibilities are not limitless; and secondly, the principles that restrict them, unlike the traditional codex form, are disguised or hidden. In other words, it can be argued that hypertext, far from 'freeing' readers is in one sense even more limiting than books, precisely because (God-like) it does not offer up its values for scrutiny. McKnight, Richardson, and Dillon make this point more generally when they describe the contrast between the way a reader engages with a book, and how he or she engages with hypertext:

It's one thing to struggle with a tortuous prose style in the knowledge that at least all the information is available; it's a different matter if a linking style forces us around a path we would rather not follow. As many writers have pointed out, hypertext is non-linear -- like ideas. The problem is that not all people use the same thought 'paths'. Hence, far from being a 'release from paper', the badly authored hypertext document may be more restrictive than its paper equivalent. (p. 141)

As producers of hypertext, McKnight, Richardson, and Dillon are chiefly interested in defining the well-authored programme. The point I want to emphasize, though, is that a well-authored programme is not a free-choice programme. Rather, it is one whose nodal links or 'thought-paths' correctly anticipate or coincide with those of the user or reader. Good hypertext reinforces the values of the reader; it allows them to find what they want to find.

This issue of the hidden or covert values in hypertext is an important one for it raises some fundamental questions about the political rhetoric underlying postmodernist propagandizing. As I have suggested earlier, implicit in programmes for postmodernist editing are a set of political judgements about the role and responsibility of editors vis-a-vis their readers.

In simple terms, should editors aim to make value judgements on behalf of the reader? Or, should they rather aim to free readers to make their own judgements? Greetham unequivocally argues that a postmodernist epistemology entails the latter option: it means that the editors must restrict themselves to displaying the 'structure' of the work: that is, they must aim to reveal to the reader the full multiplicity and complexity of the texts from which a work is constructed. Moreover, in presenting the plurality of the work's 'textual condition', the editor must (as Peter L. Shillingsburg has argued) take care to 'keep value laden terms like established, definitive, and total and complete out of their descriptions'.[18] It is important to notice here that Shillingsburg's and Greetham's postmodernist claim to editorial neutrality rests upon an assumption that the presentation or display of a work's polytextual 'textual condition' (its textual plurality) is theoretically (and with the use of the computer, practically) unproblematic and value-neutral. In this view, value only enters into the editorial process when editors (or readers) give some texts priority over others in order to construct a preferred (or authorized) 'version' of the work: when, that is, they consciously constrain or fix the work's textual condition. Another way of putting this would be to say that it is assumed that a distinction can be made between text itself (which is entered into the computer as 'raw' data), and the identification (or labelling) of text (when it is said to constitute the work, or the best 'version' of the work). However, is such a distinction logical?

In the first place, if the distinction does hold, then it follows that 'raw', unidentified, or unlabelled text will be all text. To restrict what text is to be entered into a database necessarily implies a prior act of identification, labelling and valuing, and this is precisely what the postmodernist editor wishes to avoid. The logical, but hopelessly absurd consequence of this conundrum is that all texts must constitute the textual condition of all possible works: this is the consequence of representing the condition of textual 'differance'. It means that the hypertext edition of any 'work' must reproduce everything written, literally every mark on every page. Such a situation is clearly both undesirable and, of course, completely impractical: 'visual spaghetti' has congealed into an impenetrable mass. Of course, in practice, all editors (whether using electronic or codex forms) are highly selective about the numbers and kinds of texts which make up the textual condition of any particular work. The textual pluralism presented to the reader is severely limited. Here the central question becomes: What exactly defines those limits? What is the origin of the values which select the material that makes up the hypertext database? What determines the identity of the texts that constitute the textual condition of one work rather than another?

I have suggested that postmodernist editing seems to assume that the values which define works or versions (as opposed to text) are derived, not from the editor, but rather from the reader who is acting as editor. It might be worthwhile noting in passing that in traditional clear-text editing there is no such disjunction. Traditional editing assumes a logical and formative relationship between versions and works. In this view, there are no texts which are not versions, because the identification of text as relevant obviously labels it as a version. Moreover the editor's handling and prioritizing of 'versions' is solely in order to present the work. Of course, if this were not the case, if there were no necessary relationship between relevant texts (or versions) and works, then it is difficult to see why we would be interested in textual matters at all. In other words, text has to be identified. There are not (as postmodernist editors seems to assume) texts on the one hand, and texts which are identified as versions (good or bad) of works on the other; rather, in practice there are only 'relevant' texts which are so identified by virtue of being versions of works. Moreover, that process of identification, like any other process of identification, willy-nilly involves values and prejudices. In other words, the question I posed earlier: What determines the identity of the texts that constitute the textual condition of one work rather than another? needs to be rephrased: Where do the values that allow the identification of texts as versions come from?

In the first place, identifying a version depends upon a value judgement about a work; or about the kinds of information which are relevant to defining a work. Versions are always versions of something. In this sense it is probably more useful to think about the term 'versions' as simply that name we give to a group of texts that are distinguished from other texts by virtue of the fact that we identify a relationship between them, and between them and a work. In this view, the concept of the work is logically coterminous with the identification of versions. It is not possible to argue that versions and works can be separated, for they are part of the same valuing activity. I know that an article in a nineteenth-century periodical is not a version of a particular play by Oscar Wilde because I carry in my head a concept of the work (that is, in this case, the play) that allows me to generate a closed set of the features which define it. Of course it is possible that my concept of the work will change over time because there is a dynamic relationship between a work and its versions. But the important point to bear in mind is that there always are (and there always must be) boundaries to that relationship.

The dynamic nature of this relationship can be illustrated by an example, again from the texts of Wilde's work. In 1991 I was in the company of Peter Raby in the William Andrews Clark Memorial Library when he discovered a document that he identified as the earliest known scenario of The Importance of Being Earnest. Most of the details of character, plot, and so forth contained in the scenario were quite different from the work which we recognize as The Importance of Being Earnest. So how did Raby know that this document was indeed a version of Wilde's most famous play? In practice, the judgement was immediate and intuitive, and one that all present concurred in. But if we tried to unravel that agreement we would find a very complex process of evaluation at work in which the scenario was compared not simply to a printed text of Earnest, but to the whole panoply of versions that had already been identified. Some of those versions resemble the scenario as much as they do either the performed or printed work.

The main point I would wish to emphasize is that editing is inescapably value-laden, simply because editing deals not with text but with relevant or identified text, that is, with works and versions. Moreover, no amount of technology can avoid this conundrum: postmodernist editors simply cannot avoid employing the very evaluative concepts that they claim to disown. In this sense, then, it turns out that what postmodernist editors do is not all that different from what editors have always done. Yet there is one aspect of their practice that does stand out: the way in which they employ the rhetoric (and technology) of postmodernism to withhold their values from public scrutiny, to deny that those values exist. Such a strategy, apart from being fundamentally dishonest, is also self-defeating. If editing is to retain its social utility, to survive into the future, then it must be perceived to be valuable. And a fruitful debate about what the value of editing might be will only take place when all editors (traditional and postmodernist) are prepared to own up to all their values and prejudices.

A version of part of this paper was given at a conference entitled 'Tekst/texte/text: Over de Editie van Teksen' at the University of Ghent, 1995.

[1] 'Editorial and Critical Theory: From Modernism to Postmodernism', in Palimpsest, ed. by George Bornstein and Ralph G. Williams (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1993), pp. 9-28 (p. 24).

[2] Any number of famous instances spring to mind: Catherine Belsey, for example, used established texts upon which to practise her radical readings of Milton. In Politics and Value in English Studies: A Discipline in Crisis? (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), Josephine M. Guy and I noted that in S/Z Roland Barthes seemed completely unaware of the complexities of the textual history of Balzac's 'Sarrasine'.

[3] The clearest exception to this generalization is the Cambridge Lawrence which explicitly tried to take account of changing authorial intentions.

[4] The term is Greetham's; see 'Editorial and Critical Theory', p. 24.

[5] 'I Shall Be Spoken: Textual Boundaries, Authors, and Intent', in Palimpsest, pp. 45-66 (p. 45).

[6] The Textual Condition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), p. 12. Similar kinds of claims to McGann's have been made by textual critics such as Don McKenzie in Bibliography and the Sociology of Texts (London: British Library, 1986).

[7] In recent years there have been many critiques or re-evaluations of postmodernism which I have found particularly suggestive. These include Richard Bernstein, Beyond Objectivism and Relativism (Oxford: Blackwell, 1985) and Frank B. Farrell, Subjectivity, Realism and Postmodernism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996).

[8] See David Harvey, The Condition of Postmodernity (Oxford: Blackwell, 1989), pp. vii and 39.

[9] So, for example, Brian McHale in Postmodernist Fiction (London: Methuen, 1987) has argued that postmodernist fiction is distinguished from modernist fiction on the grounds of what he terms 'ontological' as opposed to 'epistemological' concerns. By contrast, Linda Hutcheon in A Poetics of Postmodernism: History, Theory, Fiction (London: Routledge, 1988) claims that postmodernist fiction is characterized by its preoccupation with 'historiographic metafication', that is, with destabilizing the distinction between history and fiction. For a discussion of these and other differences in theories of literary postmodernism, see Steven Connor, Postmodernist Culture, 2nd edn (Oxford: Blackwell, 1997), pp. 129-34.

[10] Postmodernist Culture, p. 133.

[11] The Dismemberment of Orpheus (New York: Oxford University Press, 1982), pp. 267-68.

[12] The Condition of Postmodernity, pp. 44-45 (my italics).

[13] Subjectivity, Realism and Postmodernism, p. 249.

[14] See, for example, Richard Rorty, 'Le cosmopolitanisme sans emancipation: en reponse a` Jean-Francois Lyotard', Critique, 41 (1985), 570-83; see also Richard Bernstein, Beyond Objectivism and Relativism and Steven Connor, Theory and Cultural Value (Oxford: Blackwell, 1992).

[15] Farrell, pp. 253-54.

[16] 'Navigation and Browsing in Hypertext', in Hypertext: Theory into Practice, ed. by Ray McAleese (Oxford: Intellect, 1989), pp. 6-44.

[17] 'The Authoring of Hypertext Documents', in Hypertext: Theory into Practice, pp. 138-47 (p. 139).

[18] 'Polymorphic, Polysemic, Protean, Reliable, Electronic Texts', in Palimpsest, pp. 29-43 (p. 40).
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Publication:Yearbook of English Studies
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Date:Jan 1, 1999
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