Culture Magazine

The Text, Intention from Textual to Interpretive Criticism

By Bbenzon @bbenzon
As some of you may know, there is such a thing as textual criticism, which is about the production of a definitive text, however that is understood, for literary works. The discipline exists because many to most literary works exist in multiple versions, different published editions as well as author manuscripts. Quite often those different versions are not the same. Some differences may be relatively inconsequential, such as minor matters of usage or small errors of one sort of another, while others may be so substantial as to affect who did what to whom and when, etc. How then, does one select which version to include in the final text?
Textual criticism is about, not simply how one decides among variants, but about just what the final text is to be. Often enough that text is understood to reflect the author’s intentions, whether conceived of as “final” or “best” or perhaps in some other way. Just how that intention is characterized is not my present concern. I’m simply interested in the fact that authorial intention is invoked.
But it is invoked in a somewhat different way from the use of authorial intention in interpretive criticism. The textual critic is invoking authorial intention to decide among two, three, or more existing variants for a section of text. The interpretive critic starts with an existing text and is attempted to decide on a meaning to ascribe to that text where the meaning is derived from a relatively open field of possibilities. The textual critic’s decision thus seems to me rather more tightly circumscribed than the interpretive critic’s.
In the decades after World War II interpretive criticism became more important in literary criticism in America to the point where the discipline had become centered on it and then textual criticism was driven to the periphery. but not, of course, eliminated, because there is always a need for new editions. Moreover as digital became widely and cheaply available to humanists, the preparation of digital editions gave new life to textual criticism, but that’s not what most interests.
What interests me is the role that authorial intention plays in these two forms of criticism. What if anything did interpretive critics pick up from textual critics, and vice versa? I’m wondering if anyone has studied that.
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Meanwhile, I’ve just become aware of the following book:
Amy E. Earhart, Traces of the Old, Uses of the New: The Emergence of Digital Literary Studies. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 2015. DOI:
I’ve just blitzed through it over the weekend and I recommend it to anyone who is interested in the history of digital studies–which, as we know, is only one facet of digital humanities–or who is simply interested in what it is.
The first chapter is about textual criticism and I’d like to cite two passages from it: Chapter 1. The Rationale of Holism: Textual Studies, the Edition, and the Legacy of the Text Entire. The first passage simply tells us what (a certain school of) textual criticism is:
1951 marked the beginnings of the rationale papers, the essays that textual scholars wrote to advocate varying practices in the field. The 1951 “Rationale of Copy—Text” by W. W. Greg launched what came to be known as the Greg—Bowers model, “the dominant mode of Anglo—American textual criticism, institutionally and academically” and which dominated the field until challenged in the 1980s. Greetham describes this school as “the copy—text school of eclectic editing designed to produce a reading clear—text whose features were a fulfillment of authorial intentions by the selection of authorially sanctioned substantive variants from different states of texts, and whose copy—text was selected on the basis of its accidentals being as close as possible to authorial usage.” The emphasis on the idealized and preexisting authorially sanctioned texts, the “Work,” to use Tanselle’s term, was premised on the belief that “[t]hose texts, being reports of works, must always be suspect; and, no matter how many of them we have, we never have enough information to know with certainty what the works consist of.” This approach situates textual studies as separate, “anterior to literary criticism,” and “the scholar’s first job” according to the first edition of An Introduction to Bibliographical and Textual Studies.
It’s not clear to me just how “work” is being used. But I’m not going to try to puzzle it out. At the moment it doesn’t matter as I have no immediate intention to develop this line of thinking.
Just a bit later Earhart tells us how interpretive critics extended the concept of the text:
While textual studies work was considered a central aspect of literary studies during the early to mid—century, by the 1990s deconstruction and high literary criticism had driven textual studies to the borders of the field. Post—structuralists rejected the materiality of the text that those invested in editorial work relished, broadening the concept of text to a definition far more amorphous than that embraced by those in the Greg—Bowers camp. Theorists such as Derrida refused the physical constraints attached to text, arguing for “a ‘text’ that is henceforth no longer a finished corpus of writing, some content enclosed in a book or its margins, but a differential network, a fabric of traces referring endlessly to something other than itself, to other differential traces.” In response to Harold Bloom’s similarly stated comment that “there are no texts . . . but only interpretations,” Thomas Tanselle responded, “he is obviously equating ‘texts’ with ‘works’ and asserting that works have no meanings independent of the interpretations of those who encounter them.”
It’s not obvious to me just what Tanselle is saying in response to Bloom, and the issue is his use of “work.”
I’m simply interested in the fact that the concept of the text has been shifted from the physical text, the marks on the page, to a vaguer and broader conception. What about the “text” that was the focus of the New Critics? Is that the physical text or is it a pre-cursor to this more extended deconstructivist and poststructuralist text? This is the text one can read “closely”, that is autonomous so that meaning is said to reside entirely “inside” the text rather than depending on this and that “outside” the text. It seems to me that it’s not quite the extended text of poststructuralism, but it’s not really the physical text of the textual critics. It seems to be a transitional conceptual formation.
This bears of the issues I raised previously in “The Paradox of the Text and Computational Criticism” and “Commensurability, Meaning, and Digital Criticism.”

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