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Introduction: popular textualities.


This special focus section considers the intriguing interconnections that exist between popular culture and the allied disciplines of textual criticism and bibliographical studies. In particular, it addresses the many ways in which we are only just beginning to formulate a critical vocabulary for describing--much less comprehending--the increasingly fluid nature of textuality. How, indeed, do textual theory and bibliographical scholarship inform our understanding of cultural artifacts, their popularization, and their reception into the cultural and critical main--especially in a rapidly shifting marketplace in which text, more often than not, does not find its materiality in the pages of a book? As cultural studies continues to challenge our conceptions of the borders of literary and textual studies, issues regarding the nature of what constitutes a text have become increasingly significant in our post-print culture. In addition to involving such controversial subjects as the interrelationships between high and low culture and the component differences between material and nonmaterial texts, the essays in this special focus section explore the manner in which we receive and interpret a wide variety of texts--from works of popular serial fiction and the transhistorical literary imagination through film adaptation and popular music. (1)

How do textual theory and bibliographical analysis account for the textuality of such a wide array of authorial (and, in some cases, nonauthorial) forms, particularly in terms of the Byzantine nature of their construction, production, and dissemination? Perhaps even more significantly, how do we approach the act of teaching this important aspect of textual theory to new generations of students for whom textuality has become an increasingly diffuse and convoluted concept--a generation for whom textual stability is becoming progressively more irrelevant? For many contemporary "readers," the concept of narrative-driven works of art, whether they be artifacts of high or low culture, concerns the nature and rapidity of its systems of distribution, its value determined almost entirely by the end-user's capacity for negotiating its acquisition, its storage, and the ease of its consumption. A century ago, the textuality of narrative was delivered to users almost universally via the physical properties of the traditional book, magazine, and newspaper forms. Within a scant few decades, books were joined by the radio airwaves as principal means of textual distribution, to be followed, in short order, by cinema and television. The advent of computer technology transformed, in rapid and radical fashion, existing forms of distribution while acting as the catalyst for new eras of textuality as witnessed by the evolution of digital storage media that have irrevocably altered the ways in which we consume not only books, but all manner of music and video in the process.

This incredible shift in the production, distribution, and consumption of our cultural artifacts--our popular textualities, if you will--necessitates an ongoing interrogation of text and its multiplicities of variation. The ideology of text, in and of itself, is deceptively simple. Mikhail M. Bakhtin's working definition of text includes "any coherent complex of signs" (1986, 103). For Roland Barthes, the text exists as a locus of meaning, as a form of discourse rather than as a concrete object. "The text is experienced only as an activity, a production," he writes (1977, 157). Texts ask readers to participate in the act of meaning-making, while books take up physical space on a shelf. In this way, readers actively participate in the processes associated with textual production. Yet our post-print theories of textuality must be increasingly enabled to account for the nonphysicality and nonmateriality of digitally-inscribed texts. In Scholarly Editing in the Computer Age: Theory and Practice, Peter L. Shillingsburg defines text as "the actual order of words and punctuation as contained in any one physical form, such as a manuscript, proof or book." Shillingsburg astutely recognizes that "text (the order of words and punctuation) has no substantial or material existence, since it is not restricted by time and space." Indeed, even in terms of the traditional book format--with its spine, its pages, and its inky print--"the text is contained and stabilized by the physical form but is not the physical form itself" (1996, 46). Hence, textuality enjoys an intrinsically fluid quality, the nature of which can be manipulated by authors, editors, publishers, distributors, and the like with veritable ease, given the relative pliability of electronic storage devices and digital redistribution.

These new ways of thinking about textuality--about the representation of text in our post-print age--mandate a revisioning of our understanding of materiality. (2) Once defined almost exclusively by the brute physicality of the book, text has emerged an as increasingly imaginative and unstable construct. As N. Katherine Hayles shrewdly asks, "What are the consequences of admitting an idea of textuality as instantiated rather than dematerialized, dispersed rather than unitary, processual rather than object-like, flickering rather than durably instantiated?" The answer, Hayles points out, involves a revaluation of text, particularly in terms of what we consider to be its material aspects. "The specter haunting textual criticism," Hayles writes, "is the nightmare that one cannot then define a 'text' at all, for every manifestation will qualify as a different text. Pervasive with electronic texts, the problem troubles notions of print texts as well, for as physical objects they would also differ from one another. But this need not be a catastrophe if we refine and revise our notion of materiality" (2003, 276).

The result of so much variation, as evinced throughout our postwar, post-print culture, is an ongoing and increasingly complex sense of textual instability, particularly as new forms of electronic storage and digital distribution replace earlier storage and delivery methods with a vexing and dislocating rapidity. Philip Cohen describes this concatenation of circumstances as a form of "textual instability" in which "the essence of texts may be their ability to be re-ontologized and re-interpreted endlessly as different textual versions and contexts are employed." Textual instability entails the manner in which "texts are not immune from the flow of history," Cohen writes, as well as the ways in which "they are composed, revised, expurgated, improved, defaced, restored, emended, and circulated as a matter of course" (1997, xxii). As the essays in this special focus section demonstrate, the analysis of material and nonmaterial texts under these strictures offers prescient reminders about the ways in which we need to approach popular textuality in the digital age. From copy-text and textual instability to documentary evidence and intentionality, textual theory has already provided us with a vocabulary for understanding the life of the text. It is nearly impossible to imagine a world in which the formerly conventional strictures of authorship and textual hegemony will be restored. But what we can do is afford our students with the analytical tools to become experts at getting to the heart of the textual matter, at learning how to sift among the competing texts that they encounter and begin establishing senses of textual authenticity for themselves.


The essayists in "Popular Textualities" consider an intriguing array of material and nonmaterial texts from a variety of different genres and historical eras. While Susan Jones and Paul Eggert work with fairly traditional textual formats, James M. Decker and Kenneth Womack address the textual properties inherent in film adaptation and musical composition. Yet Jones and Eggert pointedly question the underpinnings of our traditional understanding of text by examining works that have been impinged upon, if not compromised, by serialization and by the transhistorical imagination, respectively. In so doing, they urge us to ponder the notion of textual stability--or, indeed, the lack thereof--during the golden age of the print era. Meanwhile, Decker and Womack demonstrate the ways in which adaptation and composition practices force our very conceptions of textual unity and stability into nearly irreconcilable states of flux and uncertainty. Rather than rendering the text more concrete, writerly processes of creation and production--and, in particular, the post-compositional practices of reconsideration and reiteration--cause them to become ever more fluid, tentative, and impermanent.

In "Modernism and the Marketplace: The Case of Conrad's Chance," Jones evaluates the role of serialization as a catalyst for the gestation of Conrad's protomodernist tendencies. In her analysis of the popular press of the era, Jones underscores the complex interrelationship between prevailing marketplace issues and modernism's experimental and aesthetic imperatives. How, indeed, can a radical artistic movement such as modernism survive, much less flourish, in a popular marketplace prone to censorship, editing, and bowdlerization? Using Joseph Conrad's Chance (1913) as her exemplar, Jones traces the novelist's revisionary practices as he transforms his manuscript from its serialized form into the eventual novel of the same name. Jones contends that Conrad's final version of the novel acts as a critique of the literary marketplace, especially the market-driven concerns that understandably governed the world of popular literary publication at the time. Appearing in the New York Herald in serial form from January through June 1912, Chance was published in book form by London's Methuen in 1913 and by Doubleday in the United States during the following year. In addition to challenging the notion that Conrad dabbled with the romance genre in an express effort to court more robust sales figures, Jones's study suggests that the novelist intuitively recognized the "interdependence" that existed between the needs of the marketplace and the desires of writers such as himself to compose works with serious literary aspirations. While the novel maintains the melodramatic elements of its original, Jones deftly teases out the moments in the final manuscript in which Conrad interrogates the sentimental qualities of serial fiction, as well as the narrow and highly conventional popular representation of women in such venues. By demonstrating the manner in which Conrad undermined the nature and agenda of the very genre in which he was writing, Jones reveals the evolution of Conrad's modernism, which achieved its full flower in the novelization of Chance. In so doing, Jones posits powerful questions about the fluid nature of textuality even during the salad days of literary modernism.

In "The Bushranger's Voice: Peter Carey's True History of the Kelly Gang (2000) and Ned Kelly's Jerilderie Letter (1879)," Eggert examines Carey's imaginative postmodern reading of the exploits of notorious Australian bushranger Ned Kelly. Carey's Booker Prize-winning novel offers a transhistorical rendering of the outlaw life and times of Kelly, who was hanged in 1880 after a two-year reign of terror consisting of the killing of several policemen and a slew of bank robberies. Kelly emerged as a bona fide folk hero, especially after his gang's 1879 raid of Jerilderie in which they imprisoned a pair of policemen, stole some [pounds sterling]2,000 from a local bank, and famously burned the local townspeople's mortgages in an act of bitter defiance. The incident was rendered even more remarkable by the letter that Kelly authored in advance of the raid. Known as the Jerilderie letter, the 8,300-word text protested the inhumane treatment of Kelly's family during his outlaw years, as well as the maltreatment of Irish Catholic immigrants by the state. As Kelly's dramatic voicing of his own historical experiences and viewpoints, the Jerilderie letter makes for an unusual document, to say the least. In Carey's postmodernist ventriloquy, Kelly's letter--not to mention his life and exploits--is brought vividly to life in the True History of the Kelly Gang. As a living material text in its own right, the Jerilderie letter is shrewdly parroted by Carey's novel, which calls into question the textuality of its Ur-text. While the original letter obviously enjoys considerable textual authority, the vibrancy and verisimilitude evinced by Carey's novel--with its "postmodern dispensation of textuality," in Eggert's words--reveals the manner in which the re-imagination of an historical figure (not to mention an historical text) serves to confound the textual stability and authority of the Ur-text. As Eggert astutely recognizes, Carey's readers are also implicated in the author's imaginative intertextua transaction with Kelly in specific and the past in general. With Carey providing textual agency via his re-imagination of the Jerilderie letter, his readership ends up revivifying the historical Kelly in the life of their own minds. In so doing, they trump the already hazy authority of a distant historical past in favor of the artifice inherent in Carey's postmodern re-reading of the Jerilderie letter.

In "Literary Text, 'Cinematic Edition': Adaptation, Textual Authority, and the Filming of Tropic of Cancer," Decker asks pointed questions about the nature of filmic adaptation as an iterative process of textual representation. Decker shrewdly contends that filmic adaptation might more profitably be understood as a form of "artistic awakening" in its own right, as opposed to an effort to echo, with painstaking results, the fundamental tones and elements inherent in the originary text. In this way, Decker challenges the hegemony of the print text over its filmic counterpart. In his reading of Joseph Strick's 1970 adaptation of Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer, Decker argues in favor of film adaptations eschewing faithfulness to the source narrative in an effort to break new artistic ground in their own stead. With its innately formless quality and its candid sexuality, Tropic of Cancer confronted Strick with a host of textual challenges as he prepared the novel for its big-screen adaptation. Given both the prevailing social conditions of the era and the novel's notorious obscenity, Strick opted not to offer a filmic snapshot of the Ur-text, but rather, to proffer a new textual experience with its own highly individualized resonances. Decker argues that Strick's textual maneuvers with Tropic of Cancer function in much the same way as an editor who effects substantive (and, hence, subjective) changes during the act of compiling a textual edition. Can the editor's representation of the original text ever produce an accurate, utterly faithful rendering of the original--a so-called definitive edition--if the editor engages in any of the requisite analytical processes of emendation and re-interpretation? What happens to textual authority, not to mention textual stability, under such conditions?

In "Authorship and the Beatles," Womack wrestles with issues of textual authority--in particular, ideas of authorship in relation to the collaborative songwriting practices inherent in the production, distribution, and proliferation of popular music. Womack addresses the problematic issue of ascertaining authorship in the fluid world of the recording studio, where collaborative (if not corporate) compositional practices often prevail. In the case of the Beatles, Womack devotes particular attention to the idiosyncrasies and mythologies associated with the Lennon-McCartney songwriting partnership. Sifting through extant interviews and other documentary evidence, Womack discusses the composition and production activities associated with "In My Life" and "Eleanor Rigby," the two most heated instances of textual disagreement among the former songwriting partners. The peculiar manner in which Lennon and McCartney posthumously delimit each other's contributions to "In My Life" and "Eleanor Rigby" underscores the extra-textual dimensions of their artistic achievement--namely, the remarkable status and compensation concomitant with their singular place in the annals of Western culture. In addition to delineating the textuality of works of popular music, Womack identifies the Beatles' songwriterly practices as the result of an "intensely collaborative and corporatized process of multiple authorship" in contrast with the myth of the solitary genius often associated with artistic creation. As with other works of popular culture in which notions of a purely material and stable text remain intrinsically uncertain, the Beatles' recordings remind us of the meaningful ways in which textual criticism can assist us in clarifying the strictures of authorship and authority.

Like the other textual phenomena under review in this special focus section, the shifting text of the Beatles underscores the manner in which textual criticism and bibliographical studies afford us with a progressive terminology for discussing textual authority and stability in terms of works of popular and literary culture. As our conceptions of textuality and materiality become increasingly diffuse in the post-print era, the textual problems identified in this special focus section are merely the beginning of a much larger, far-reaching, and ongoing issue regarding the nature of authorship, authority, and textual stability.


(1) The simple bipolarity of high and low culture hardly accounts for the array of textual forms and cultural norms inherent in the post-print era. Although he all too frequently resorts to needless diatribe about the pejorative, unrefined nature of a "middle culture," Curtis White's notion of a "middle mind" offers a useful methodology for understanding the vast expanse of textual choices at work and available in the postmodern world: "The Middle Mind is pragmatic, plainspoken, populist, contemptuous of the right's narrowness, and incredulous before the left's convolutions. It is adventuresome, eclectic, spiritual, and in general agreement with liberal political assumptions about race, gender, and class" (2003, 26). Further, the Middle Mind is ground zero for the Western world's mass culture of consumption. It is the vast conduit between high and low art, a weigh station consisting of all manner of literature, music, television, film, computer games, and a host of other competing media representations.

(2) Hayles's issue with the materiality of text necessitates the delineation between material and nonmaterial textuality. In W. B. Worthen's words, a material text is "the printed text, the text on the page." It is the text as object made real (2004, 14). By contrast, a nonmaterial text is "enacted in the reader's mind," according to Diana Sorensen Goodrich, "and not on the physical realm of the page" (2003, 76). More simply put, we can understand the discrepancies between materiality and nonmateriality in terms of the physical and imaginative manifestations of a particular text and its generic antecedents.

Works Cited

Bakhtin, Mikhail M. 1986. "The Problem of the Text in Linguistics, Philology, and the Human Sciences: An Experiment in Philosophical Analysis." In Speech Genres and Other Late Essays, ed. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist, trans. Vern W. McGee. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Barthes, Roland. 1977. Image-Music Text. Trans. Stephen Heath. New York: Hill and Wang.

Cohen, Philip. 1997. "Textual Instability, Literary Studies, and Recent Developments in Textual Scholarship." In Texts and Textuality: Textual Instability, Theory, and Interpretation, ed. Philip Cohen. New York: Garland.

Goodrich, Diana Sorensen. 1986. The Reader and the Text: Interpretive Strategies for Latin American Literatures. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Hayles, N. Katherine. 2003. "Translating Media: Why We Should Rethink Textuality." Yale Journal of Criticism 16.2: 263-90.

Shillingsburg, Peter L. 1996. Scholarly Editing in the Computer Age: Theory and Practice. 3rd ed. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

White, Curtis. 2003. The Middle Mind: Why Americans Don't Think for Themselves. New York: HarperCollins.

Worthen, W. B. 2004. "Disciplines of the Text: Sites of Performance." In The Performance Studies Reader, ed. Henry Bial. London: Routledge.

Kenneth Womack is professor of English at Peen State Altoona.
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Title Annotation:popular culture and literary criticism
Author:Womack, Kenneth
Publication:College Literature
Article Type:Essay
Date:Jun 22, 2007
Previous Article:Texts, revisions, history: reading historically in the undergraduate survey.
Next Article:Modernism and the marketplace: the case of Conrad's Chance.

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