On the Materiality of Text

NB: This blogpost was originally posted on a temporary blog while the Lexicon was still under construction. In moving the post here, the date of the original post has been preserved, and only minor adjustments have been made to conform to the Lexicon’s reference style and correct a few typos.

Last Thursday, Elena Pierazzo showed the readers of her blog an interesting look behind the scenes of The Book she is currently writing. As her post shows, she is working on concepts like text, work, document, and on the emphasis different types of scholars put on materiality and physical documents in their research. These topics are close to my own research, as I’m finishing up the introduction to my thesis, and know that I’ll have to be very clear in indicating which definitions of these highly contested concepts I’ll be using. And the comments at the bottom of Pierazzo’s post prove that they are still topical indeed.

To visualize the weight different types of textual scholars give to the materiality of the documents they are examining, Pierazzo put a series of editorial theories on a continuum that projected ‘Text – Immateriality’ on the one side, and ‘Document – Materiality’ on the other.  The poles of this continuum lead to an interesting debate, as the materiality of ‘text’ and ‘work’ are still in dispute (document not so much).

As for the concept of ‘work’, I follow Peter Shillingsburg‘s assertion that it is a conceptual term, without material existence. While the ‘work’ comprises different ‘documents’ (physical objects) that contain its different ‘texts’ (character sequences), it isn’t a physical object in itself. For me, the (material, fixed) documents contain the texts that each represent the (conceptual, mutable) work more or less successfully. As I said, this definition is based mostly on Shillingsburg’s classic of textual scholarship: Scholarly Editing in the Computer Age (SECA), and on a recent reworking of some of the key concepts in that book in ‘Orientations to Text, Revisited’, a paper he wrote with Dirk Van Hulle that is close to publication.

But Barbara Bordalejo’s comment on Pierazzo’s graphs posed another interesting question, namely: how material is text? Bordalejo explains that she believes text is material (like the document it is written on), when she says that she “cannot see the text as immaterial, as text is a physical entity”. Shillingsburg would argue that the text is more conceptual (like the work it represents): “the text has no substantial or material existence, since it is not restricted by time and space” (Shillingsburg 1996, 46).

I think they are both right in a way. The work:conceptual vs document:material dichotomy could suggest that the text is positioned right in the middle of the two. The text is at the same time the (physical or virtual) sequence of characters found on a document, and the (conceptual) sequence of words and punctuation that those characters represent (more or less well). You could of course argue that this dual nature of ‘text’ indicates that we should use two different concepts to describe it. Like ‘markings’ for the physical aspect, and ‘text for the conceptual aspect. Or the other way around: ‘text’ for the physical aspect, and ‘version’ for the conceptual aspect, for instance. But I think we would lose something in the process. Because the act of writing is intrinsically both a physical and a conceptual process, it follows that the text that it produces would be both physical and conceptual as well. The text is what links a document to a work, and it does so by combining features of both, by combining sign with meaning. Besides, I’d rather save the word ‘version’ to describe something else: the work as it was conceived of by the author at one particular moment or period in time. In this definition, a version can be regarded a conceptual ideal that is represented more or less well by a single or series of texts-as-a-sequence-of-words that are in turn represented more or less well by a text-as-a-sequence-of-characters on one or more documents.

While I was preparing this post – and my new blog in the process – Pierazzo posted an interesting follow-up post, that explained her definitions of document and text further. There, she explains that she considers text to be immaterial, much like Shillingsburg did in the quote above. The difference between our definitions is, I think, that while she regards the markings on a document as part of the document, my definition regards those markings as part of the text. I would suggest that because sign and meaning are two sides of the same coin (what I call the ‘text’), they are inseparable.  It is much easier, I think, to separate sign from document, especially when you consider that sign to be just one of a series of layers characteristic to that document. And that if you erase some of the markings on a document, it would still be the same document, but it would no longer carry the same text. In my definition, the document carries the sign, the sign carries the meaning, and the meaning can be read as as a more or less successful attempt to write a particular version of the work. And I would call everything from sign to meaning ‘text’.

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