Executive Committee:

Megan Peiser, Jan. 2023
Laura E. Helton, Jan. 2024 (Chair)
Emily Kader, Jan. 2025 (Secretary)
Marissa Nicosia, Jan 2026
Nora Benedict, Jan. 2027

MLA 2017 Panel: What Is Critical Bibliography?

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    Ryan Cordell

    We are excited to announce our first panel for MLA 2017 in Philadephia and provide the abstracts. Be sure to add this session to your convention schedule!

    Chair: Ryan Cordell
    Respondent: Michael F. Suarez, S.J. (University of Virginia and Director, Rare Book School)

    Barbara Heritage (University of Virginia), “Literature as Artifact: Critical Bibliographical Models for Close Reading”

    Reading—how we read, what we read, and where we read—has attracted a great deal of attention during the last decade, especially in connection to advances in digital technology and the legitimation crisis in the humanities. Amidst these conversations, the dual practices of reading and literary critique have been called into question within departments of English and comparative literature as academics (re)assess their engagement with critical hermeneutics. Looking to identify alternative interpretative methods for understanding the history of reading, theorists seem to be engaging with the field of book history in greater numbers. Yet, bibliography, the sibling discipline of book history, continues to be misunderstood—if not overlooked—by literary critics working in these areas.In the following position paper, I will briefly review some of the major arguments for postcritical approaches to reading made by current theorists, including Rita Felski and Heather Love. I will focus on the question of “the text,” and will make a case for how our understandings and uses of the term “text” continue to characterize divisions in the work of bibliographers, literary critics, and theorists. I will put forward some new models for the close reading of literature as text and artifact based on the synthesis of traditional bibliographical analysis and formalist literary criticism. In doing so, I will treat critical bibliography as an intellectual method that is essentially interdisciplinary in its consideration of what constitutes a “text”—and will describe how critical bibliography, in particular, affords interpretative advantages distinct from those of more traditional book historical approaches.

    Rachael Scarborough King (University of California, Santa Barbara), “Old New/New Old Media: Placing Manuscript in the Eighteenth-Century Media Environment”

    The eighteenth century’s status as a “print culture” has long been a critical commonplace; as Alvin Kernan argues, in the age of Addison and Pope oral and manuscript culture were “swept away” and “replaced by a new print-based, market-centered, democratic literary system.” Even those studies that have established the early modern prominence of manuscript publication often see an eighteenth-century end to the practice, or at least draw sharper lines between manuscript and print and, correspondingly, private and public spheres in the later period. Critical bibliography asks us to use the tools of archival research and close attention to the material text to question such teleologies and propose more precise models for the literary marketplace or media environment. In the eighteenth century, this means rethinking the status of writings that are physically as well as critically marginal, from the multitudes of handwritten notes in books’ margins—many of which are now captured in digital databases such as ECCO and British Periodicals—to the receipts, visiting cards, and certificates that required manuscript completion of printed forms, and to the publicly circulated manuscript texts, including poetry and novels, that constituted an ongoing and central element of literary culture. Using the language of traditional bibliography allows us to document and describe the prevalence of such interactive handwritten works; at the same time, practicing critical bibliography means constantly shifting focus from the textual object to the larger literary sphere and developing the theoretical insights afforded by apparently minor distinctions in format, paper, ink, and printing techniques. In this paper, I will draw on the research of an essay collection I am editing titled After Print: Manuscript Studies and Eighteenth-Century Literature—which grew out of an RBS-Mellon symposium at UCSB in April 2015—to argue that both professional authorship and personal writing remained enmeshed with manuscript cultures throughout the eighteenth century, and thus to question the solidity of the print-manuscript binary in the period. This reorientation both offers a clearer picture of the multimedia nature of eighteenth-century literature and has insights for our own moment of protracted media shift, as it highlights aggregate, iterative steps rather than a single technological “revolution.”

    Caroline Wigginton (University of Mississippi), “Critical Bibliography, New Materialism, and Early Native America”

    In their introduction to New Materialisms: Ontology, Agency, and Politics (Duke 2010), Diana Coole and Samantha Frost conclude their opening paragraph with a question: “How could we ignore the power of matter and the ways it materializes in our ordinary experiences or fail to acknowledge the primacy of matter in our theories?” Their rhetorical question speaks to the sense of urgency that underpins the new materialist turn and locates its interdisciplinary adherents in a revolutionary theoretical realm where matter is the new agent of posthumanist studies.In contrast, when it comes to critical bibliography, such an insistent attentiveness to the matter of books has long suggested the antiquarian nature of the field rather than its theoretical innovation. Indeed, the digital revolution has presented something of a crisis, suggesting that the book isn’t the abiding repository for human knowledge but is rather merely a faddish technology. In response, some have rechristened their work media studies while still others have doubled-down on “bibliographical technology” (McGann, A New Republic of Letters 1).The practices of indigenous craftspeople during the era of the hand-pressed book—a subject often overlooked in both fields—presents a useful site for considering the simultaneous radical and conservative potential of bibliographical and new materialist approaches to books as matter and the matter of books. In early America, these craftspeople were abidingly material. Gathering and cultivating the natural resources around them, they incorporated that material into cultural and artistic products that generated both a gestural repertoire as well as an idiom of performance and sensation. In turn, those gestures and idioms shaped the texts of cross-cultural encounter. They apprenticed others’ to their modes of residing within and interacting with a local ecology.

    This paper foregrounds indigenous craftspeople as agents who altered the technological and imaginative landscape of early America. It proposes combining new materialism and critical bibliography in order to understand the early American hand-pressed book not only as a European technology that abets textual criticism but also as an archive of New World practices that retains and circulates its indigeneity.

    Nigel Lepianka (Texas A&M University), “Bibliography and Non-Consumptive Data”

    “Non-consumptive data” describes one of the recent forms of data pushed by groups like Google Books, JStor, and HathiTrust to refer to forms of texts that are accessible for researchers while still under copyright or whose physical monographs are owned by libraries. In cases such as HathiTrust’s dataset for English literature from 1700 to 1922, the data given to researchers as “non-consumptive” are a list of word counts for individual texts or volumes, with most other bibliographic or textual details seemingly obliterated (formal divisions, word order, grammar, etc.). These bags of words are useful for scholars interested in engaging with large-scale questions that may not rely upon the structural integrity of texts, but some texts (such as epistolary novels) also prove resilient to their reformulation into acontextual word lists. By examining these words lists, this article engages with the ways in which the, as Jerome McGann calls them, “bibliographic codes” of texts still hold particularly salient features of a text together even after the deformance necessary for legal dissemination. Because of the possible effects of current copyright laws and rulings (e.g. 2015’s Google v. Author’s Guild), non-consumptive forms of texts may become more prominent textual forms that scholars will encounter, especially to access less distinguished, well-known works or less popular editions of canonical works; for this reason, it is important to begin thinking about how the new forms of literary data will be encountered and how they can be read. This paper seeks to begin that process by considering some of the more familiar bibliographical aspects readers can observe in these less familiar forms of works.

    Matthew Kirschenbaum (University of Maryland), “Books in the Age of Files”

    What is a book nowadays? A book is a file. More precisely, it is a series or set of files, migrated through a publisher’s systems and platforms as the book is edited, designed, packaged, and exported in various publication formats. Files are what book designers work with (using Adobe InDesign, the current industry standard), and files are what get sent to printers (increasingly located in Asia). Files are used to derive everything from ebooks to audio books to the actual physical object that we still plaintively call a “book.” Files are the basis for reprints. Files are where typos or other errors get corrected. John B. Thompson, in Merchants of Culture, quotes one industry insider: “There is no production without files, there is no mechanism by which you can go to press anymore without it being digital.” This short forum talk will summarize my current series of interviews with persons in some of the major New York City-based publishing houses describing their internal procedures for creating, managing, and archiving the digital files that are the material basis for nearly all books today. I will pay particular attention to the implications for various forms of critical bibliography, ranging from questions of access—how could someone replicate, say, D. F. McKenzie’s pioneering study of the Cambridge University Press archives in the age of files?—to the boundaries between textual studies and software studies—how much does the bibliographer have to know about Adobe InDesign? Above all I will seek to address what forms of critical, technical, and bibliographical knowledge a scholar now needs to study the material makings of the contemporary book.

    • This topic was modified 7 years, 5 months ago by Ryan Cordell.
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