Corps de l’article

The stimulus for this special issue was a panel held at the 1996 MLA called "The Canon and the Web: Reconfiguring Romanticism in an Electronic Age", organised by Alan Liu and Laura Mandell. The panel was devoted to exploring changes to the field of Romanticism that will come about because of the Internet. Alan Liu and Laura Mandell asked people in the audience and those who could not attend to submit articles that take up some of the questions addressed at that panel, and they have done so. The articles here continue to pursue a Utopian strain in exploring the possibilities for disciplinary restructuring. Like some of the panelists at MLA, Douglass Thomson and Catherine Decker explore the Web's radically levelling potential. In 'Crossing Old Barriers', Decker maintains that the use of web sites undermines the distinction between research and teaching, while overturning hierarchies (not only the canon, but systems for accruing power and prestige in academia). And in 'The Work of Art in the Age of Electronic (Re)Production', Thomson extends to computers Benjamin's notion that "mechanical reproduction" undermines the artwork's "aura," but sees in the web the potential to bring about "the democratization of art" rather than the "proletarianization" and devolution prophesied by Benjamin.

Thomson sees the web as undermining aura, and many critics who believe that recent web work deconstructs the canon would agree. Because we often attribute the invention of the aura surrounding canonical works to Romantic writers themselves [1], we might then conclude that Romanticism is innately antagonistic to the web. However, a number of essays collected here argue that web forms are modeled on Romantic theories about writing and Romantic forms of life. In 'The Bluestocking Archive', Elizabeth Fay argues that her web site and pedagogical technique resemble "salon conversation," a social form that itself mimics the associative thinking described by Romantic theories of mind. Chris Koenig-Woodyard's wonderful edition of 'Christabel' proposes that hypertext form resembles in its effects both the palimpsest, on which Coleridge relied for a model for writing, and the textual transmission of 'Christabel' as it was gradually produced by writer, readers, and critics. Similarly, in 'The Canon, The Web, and the Digitization of Romanticism', the editors of Romantic Circles (Neil Fraistat, Steven Jones, and Carl Stahmer) connect the conflicting processes of meaning-making brought into play by the Romantic Circles site to Romantic theories of poetics.

While exhilarating, connecting web work to traditional, Romantic forms and practices might make us question the extent to which the web facilitates revolutionary ways of organizing literary texts and criticism. Fraistat, Jones, and Stahmer, for example, note the extent to which readers often actually explore the web in very traditional, linear, and even anthological ways; they therefore question whether "Hypertextuality may, in and of itself, be decentralizing." What Roger Chartier says about reading the codex form, then, applies to reading hypertext forms on the Internet: "reading is never totally constraint and [therefore] cannot be deduced from the texts it makes use of". [2] Form and medium, in other words, do not dictate the reading practices used to apprehend them. While the internet offers revolutionary ways of organizing texts, readers may actually use new forms as if they were old, thereby reducing the revolutionary potential of hypertext and its power to decenter the writer's authority and the work's aura. One can take canonicity out of the medium, yet still find oneself asking whether the canon's aura will prevail in the minds of those who surf the net and produce texts for it.

When we look among the wealth of materials either on or from the Romantic period available on the web, our answer to this question continues to include at least a fairly audible and cautionary "yes." As several participants from the original "Canon and the Web" panel noted, the web—at least in its first stages—did reproduce canonical biases long inscribed in Romantic poetry. This was particularly true of "early" electronic text collections, like those compiled at Oxford, Toronto, Berkeley, and Carnegie Mellon, to name a few. Yet even when we examine the range of electronic texts currently available on Alan Liu's Voice of the Shuttle or Jack Lynch's "Literary Resources on the Net", we still find a list remarkably similar—both in composition and in space allotted—to the Romantics' section of the most recent edition of the Norton Anthology of British Literature: heavily masculine, heavily tilted toward poetry, heavily tilted toward the lyric.

While anyone who has scanned, proofed, and formatted electronic text understands the web's predilection for short and therefore poetic texts, the overwhelming canonicity of the authors in early Romantic text archives stems at least in part from the same forces that have produced and maintained the Romantic canon since the 1830s. What is perhaps most jarring about the selection of authors who constitute these early text archives—not to mention the quantity of verse available by someone like Wordsworth compared to someone like Hemans [3] —is that it reveals the power of these cultural forces. It's as if we first had to put on the complete works of Wordsworth and Keats before we were even able to see the web as a way of making Romantic texts that were out-of-print available. We raise the canonicity of early Romantic text collections here, therefore, not to curb the inventiveness and energy of the essays that follow, but rather to reiterate and affirm the source of their energy: the web's potential to make public texts and materials not available through other venues. As several of the scholars contributing to this collection suggest in various ways, the web provides us with more than just new ways of thinking about the codex and about how we deliver information to students and to colleagues; it offers us a means of bypassing the economic constraints that have kept authors like Joanna Baillie, Samuel Rogers, and Mary Tighe out of print. [4] We therefore introduce these essays not by sounding a negative note, but with a healthy dose of criticism. Criticism of the web is as important as celebrating it if we are to evaluate honestly the cultural forces that might prevent us from activating its potential. And it is a potential that we hope will eventually transform not only the editions we use, but also the literary critical work we produce.