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- 13 05 2003 - 21:36 - katatonik

Monological dialogues with scholarly literature, pt.1

“Another group of persons who take a nonhistorical approach to texts consists of some of the literary critics who follow those schools of critical thought that emphasize readers’ responses over authors’ intentions or that deny the past as a useful concept.”

The emphasis would have to be on “some”, I guess, since it is quite possible that someone who considers readers’ responses as more important (in what context? for what?) than an author’s intention may take a historical approach to a text. Editors of texts who insist on editing a text that was actually read by a certain audience, as opposed to one ideally conceived in an author’s mind, would arguably take a historical approach, no? And what’s with denying “the past as a useful concept”? Who does that? Where? When? How?

”...But whenever they [i.e. such nonhistorically minded persons] have felt obliged to accept the texts provided to them – whenever, that is, they have accepted texts unquestioningly, as they often have – they have been linked by their failure to deal satisfactorily with a difficult conceptual problem: how to justify taking some historical considerations as relevant and others as not relevant.New Critics, for example, were inclined to dismiss authors’ intended meanings but often accepted texts as products of particular period and authors – sometimes texts that were prepared by scholarly editors to reflect authorial intention.”

Here’s a thought, yes: that editions of texts are prepared with a particular purpose, that this purpose determines method, and that this method has consequences for how a text can be used. An edition of a classical Sanskrit text, for instance, which aims at the text read by a certain audience in the 8th century in India, cannot be used for determining that text’s interpretation in the 15th century. An edition of a poem which aims to get close to the earliest version considered finished by the poet will not be of use to someone interested in response to the fifth, revised version published by evil heirs twenty years later.Anyone who foolishly uses texts in this way neglects, as you say, “to recognize that the act of reading necessitates a critical approach to the text as well as to the meaning”.

But what does this tell us about nonhistoricity? Can the conceptual failure described here not better be described as a failure to understand historicity in its consequences for reading and interpreting texts? Not “nonhistorical”, but ignorant of historicity? And why is the problem here justifying which historical considerations are relevant and which aren’t?

And, now that I think of it: what do you mean with “nonhistorical” anyway? A few pages earlier you exemplified a nonhistorical approach to texts with the one taken by a modern editor of a modern text intending to improve the text according to certain standards (orthography, marketability), as opposed to a historical approach taken by, for lack of a better term, scholarly editors.What this has in common with New Critics except that it’s not scholarly editing is beyond me.

Silent dialogue partner: G. Thomas Tanselle, “The Varieties of Scholarly Editing”. In: D.C. Greetham, “Scholarly Editing. A Guide to Research”. New York 1995: The Modern Language Association of America, pp.9-32.

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