Thursday, February 9, 2012

The Origin of Texts

The OED, s.v. 'origin', describes this as

the act or fact of beginning, or of springing from something; beginning of existence with reference to source or cause; rise or first manifestation

Under this same entry, 1b., the citations include the following from 1867: J. McCosh Method Divine Govt. (ed. 9) iii. ii. 377, 'The origin of evil, like every other beginning, shrouds itself in darkness'. Perhaps this 'darkness' about the origin of everything is most apt to discussions of textual genesis.

Seemingly conversely, though, the OED's meaning 2a, reveals 'origin' as

a. That from which anything originates, or is derived; source of being or existence; starting point. Now freq. in pl.

Trying to untangle these two proximate definitions of 'origin' is headache-inducing, and yet, in textual studies, the 'origin' can take on an, arguably, extraordinary and disproportionate significance. For textual critics, especially those trained in the classics or early literatures, determining the 'origin', the Ur-text, the fons is the goal of the editor. Interesting debates in the 1990s emerged among the traditional philologists (see, for example, the essays in D. G. Scragg and P. E. Szarmach, eds., Editing Old English [Brewer, 1994]) and the new philologists (P. Zumthor [Towards a Medieval Poetics], B. Cerquiglini [In Praise of the Variant] Stephen Nicholls [The New Philology]). The issue at stake was how to present the text. At the risk of oversimplifying complex arguments, it is the debate about whether to present a reconstructed, hypothetical proto-text that best illustrates the author's intended text (see the rationale of the Piers Plowman Project here: or whether to privilege the variant, or at least given the variant its long overdue sustained consideration (also part of the remit of the Piers Plowman venture). For many editors, treading a via media between these seemed preferable; for others, the argument for presenting simulacra, perhaps with en-face transcription, was a key desideratum. 

Turn-the-Page Display in the foyer of the British Library

At this point, and with very little real effect visible in the pbook or ebook presentation of scholarly critical editions, the debate has tailed off and has transformed into a debate about the nature of digital editing: how best to present a word-based or word- and image-based text on screen, utilising all the dynamic interface potential of the digital realm. Now, it is possible to have a manuscript version of a text, complete with a myriad of tools for interpreting and accessing not only that text, but all the co-texts almost simultaneously. None of this helps solve the issue of 'origin', though; how to access or present the 'original'. This is particularly the case when, as is most common in fact, the 'original' does not exist. Chaucer's original Wife of Bath's Tale does not survive, any more than an original version of Hamlet does. If 'origin' is the 'beginning of existence' or 'that from which anything originates', then authorial intentionality is surely the only origin for Text. Anything other than this is a remake, a version. Or is everything subsequent to the mental act an 'original' of its own? This might certainly permit us to account for the uniqueness of all text, particularly by virtue of its peculiar materiality. 

Perhaps more provocatively and fruitfully, though, we should go along with Cerquiglini and state with certainty that 'There is no such thing as originality'. We can say, then, that all texts are rendered equal and as such deserve individual study, sustained examination and a recognition of their own intrinsic value.

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