The essay is a study of how critical editions work, whether in paper-based forms or in electronic forms. The first section – more than half the essay – gives a close examination to J. C. C. Mays’s superb recent (Bollingen) edition of Coleridge’s poetry. This analysis establishes the terms for investigating the opportunities that digital technology supplies for scholars pursuing a close study of the socio-historical character of literary works. This investigation pivots around the seminal work of D. F. McKenzie, whose theory of the social-text edition argues for a more comprehensive kind of editorial method. This essay argues that the method can be best realized through digital resources. It concludes with a discussion of The Rossetti Archive as a “proof of concept” experiment to test the social-text approach to editorial method.
Corps de l’article
J. C. C. Mays’ much longed-for edition of Coleridge’s poems and plays, the Poetical Works, has finally, magnificently, appeared. Like another important edition of our time, Gabler’s Ulysses, these six books – three volumes, each in two parts – set an inspiring example of scholarly thoroughness and integrity. But their strength rests ultimately in something else – something quite rare in the scholarly editions of English speaking authors produced in the last 50 years. Mays is deeply sympathetic to Coleridge’s poetry – not unaware of or reticent to address its failings and limitations, but fronting all the work with what Desmond McCarthy, writing of Coleridge, called “the most delicate sympathy.” “When he writes of it. . .his words are singularly moving in their subtlety and simplicity” (xc). That is McCarthy’s description of Coleridge on the subject of “affection-love” – a shrewd judgment unearthed by Mays from a 1939 newspaper review. The words perfectly describe Mays’s editorial treatment of Coleridge.
The edition also has a most delicate sympathy with our own epoch and its remarkable scholarly adventures, of which Gabler’s Ulysses has been a famous instance. Mays’s edition is every bit as significant and challenging, and in this paper I want to investigate some of the issues raised by his work. They will help to clarify my principal subject, which I pose as a question: where is information technology driving literary and cultural studies and — not least of all — scholarly editing, the foundational discipline of those broad fields of work?
Let me briefly sketch the scholarly horizon, as I see it, of that question. We inherit two basic types of scholarly editorial method: facsimile and diplomatic editing, on one hand, and eclectic editing on the other. Both were deepened and renewed when the disciplines of modern philology emerged out of the historicism born in eighteenth-century Enlightenment. Two systematically presented variants on these basic methods emerged in 20th century editorial practice: the Anglo-American critical eclecticism culminating in the Greg-Bowers school, and the European genetic methods developed by a line of German and French scholars of the mid and late century. A third variant, social-text editing, was most vigorously proposed by the late D. F. McKenzie, who unfortunately died without completing his edition of Congreve, which was to demonstrate the praxis of his theory. I see my own work as a critical pursuit of McKenzie’s ideas.
Mays deliberately locates his edition in relation to this general scholarly context. He is editing both the poems and plays of Coleridge, including the translations from Schiller. While he is forced to take a slightly different practical approach with the plays, a single editorial vision controls the project. In the interests of clarity, I shall concentrate my attention on Mays’s treatment of the poetry.
The basic division of each “Part” of the edition into two volumes, one called the “Reading Text,” the other the “Variorum Text,” signals Mays’s editorial purposes. Corresponding to the numbered sequence of reading texts is an equivalently numbered series of variorum texts. The symmetry between the two texts extends to the graphical editorial presentation: the reading text is preceded by an introductory editorial note, more or less extensive, setting the poem in its biographical and socio-historical contexts, and (often) its later reception history. The variorum text begins with an editorial discussion of the textual witnesses that authorize its production. In many cases, of course, the variorum commentary discusses contextual matters that have far more than a narrowly technical (textual) import.
While Mays’s editorial point of departure is, as we would expect, Anglo-American, this work is most strongly marked by the influence of the European genetic editorial methods as they were developed in various German and French editions beginning with Beissner and Beck’s edition of Hölderlin (1943-1985). However, certain complexities in the material, which he explains in scrupulous detail in his editorial Introduction, lead him to develop what he calls a “severely modified” (cxxi) version of a genetic edition (see especially cxxii-cxl). Mays’s deviations follow from his double editorial commitment to an edition that supplies both a critical and a readerly text. “[R]eaders approach texts for different reasons,” Mays observes, so that “The distinction is not between scholarly and literary readers. . .but between different occasions for the same readers” (cxliv).
Let me briefly postpone further consideration of this presiding editorial idea. For now it is more important to complete our view of Mays’s general approach to the synoptic presentation he adopts in his Variorum text. His object, he writes, is to “enable a reader to hold in mind a sense of the way the poems move. . .simultaneously in several planes: that is, the way the poems move laterally, as a series of independent versions, and vertically, as one version overlays and succeeds another” (cxxiii). Mays goes on to “promise a reader” of his edition that the “mechanics” of his graphical apparatus will not present such “an algebraic nightmare” as to obscure one’s “sense of the fluid reality” of “the way [Coleridge’s] poems move.” These remarks are highly significant, signaling once again Mays’s desire to refuse a “distinction. . .between scholarly and literary readers.”
What is this “fluid reality” that Mays perceives in Coleridge’s work and that he wishes us to experience? Mays uses the phrase to characterize a textual condition that is anything but continuous, uniform, smooth. On the contrary, an unsettled restlessness and mutability is pervasive, so that Mays speaks acutely of “the bewildering, shifting detail which encumbers” the poems (cxi-cxii). Mays’s general Introduction rings the changes on the changing, veering, random, and accidental characteristics of the corpus as a whole and of its individual works. “Coleridge’s verse appears from the start to be unfocused and uncertain within shifting margins,” Mays points out. Consequently, the reader must expect to “move between shifting centers of gravity, must constantly refocus his or her attention, is required to interpret the text on the page with reference to several other kinds of text.” The original materials thus lead Mays to advise “Readers of the following pages” – readers of this edition – to “proceed like the readers of Finnegans Wake . . . ‘fixed in a permanent state of multiple vision.’” (clvi)
Coleridge’s poems are not fluid Wordsworthian rivers like the Duddon or Derwent or Dove. They are fluid like that more ominous “sacred river” Alph in “Kubla Khan,” moving with odd and unpredictable motions, as if hesitating and testing passages through a maze. The poetry therefore must be handled with care, always understanding that “There is no rule” (cxliv) or coherent set of rules that can guide a scholar to safe and certain editorial choices.
Mays’s sure sense of the “indeterminate” character of the work helps to make him the excellent editor that he is, keeping him close to his natural, native modesty. Because Coleridge, unlike Yeats or Stevens, “had no steady idea of the literary persona he was putting before the world,” very few of his poems, Mays observes, are “revised according to constant standards” (xcv). The relevant poetical materials therefore tend to be not merely unstable, but “haphazard” in their irregularities. They are fluid the way mercury is fluid. Mays’s description of “Kubla Khan”’s textual condition nicely illustrates “the pressures and considerations which a reader needs to bear in mind as he or she interprets the material in this edition”:
The lack of evidence bearing on the composition of the poem, the curious nature of its single manuscript, the context and occasions on which Coleridge is reported to have recited it, the uncertainty of its paragraphing, Coleridge’s disinclination to annotate it, the obliquity and inconsistencies of the Preface, its separate half-titles and its classification as an Ode of Miscellaneous Poem in the collected editions, its dimension of political allusion. These considerations combine to suggest that Kubla Khan should be read very differently from a poem of pure enchantmentxcv
This editorial representation of “Kubla Khan” returns us to the “pressures and considerations” that drove Mays to the edition we have. Here is Mays’s summary statement of his governing view: “Coleridge’s mind operated on several levels, in several ways, and moved easily between them. An edition should display – not obscure – the variety and vitality of his mind working” (lxxxviii, my italics). To say this is to adopt an essentially genetic editorial position.
What brought Mays to modify it? Partly, I think, he recoiled from what he saw as the “algebraic nightmare” (cxxiii) of a genetic apparatus criticus, which in fact Mays’s edition finds means to simplify. A far more salient issue is at stake for Mays, however, and it surfaces most clearly in his twice-posed Coleridgean question: “What is a Coleridge poem?” (cviii, cx) Mays clearly intends us to ride this question back to Biographia Literaria, where Coleridge argues that the “kind” and “essence” of “a POEM” and “of POETRY itself” are “nearly the same question with, what is a poet” (chapter 14). An edition that displays Coleridge’s working brain needs to show “how the poem existed in Coleridge’s mind” (cxx). A strictly synoptic procedure won’t do for Mays because many of the poems have multiple ways of existing in that mazy mind: often “deliberation alternates with chance, and different intentions exist side by side” (cxx), or they shift and mutate haphazardly. “There is no clear tendency which could provide the basis of a rule. . .” (cxxi): Mays keeps repeating versions of that formula in his Introduction. Coleridge’s materials are unruly. The editor must therefore be, like the poet, “fluid and opportunistic” (xv) and like the reader, “fixed in a permanent state of multiple vision.”
Mays’s editorial opportunism, however, always runs along genetic and intentionalist lines because the poems are always seen as Coleridge’s unique – if also uniquely various – creatures. This edition is a machine for a deep critical investigation of Coleridge’s “working mind.” Mays assiduously sets the Reading Text and the Variorum text in a mirroring relation in order to facilitate an intimate dialectic between the two. But the relation is uneasily maintained, as we see when he says that the Variorum Text is the “foundation” of the Reading Text, which makes the latter its completed, visible superstructure. But in fact Mays and his edition do not mean what that figure of speech implies. The figure is drawn from an editorial approach – that is to say, Greg-Bowers — which Mays himself, as he says, “do[es] not like” (cxliv) because it suggests that an “edition could be definitive.” More than that, it suggests that any text of any individual poem could be definitive.
Later in the paragraph containing those remarks Mays explains himself more clearly. The Reading Text, he says, “is both clarification and simplification” of the textual condition visible in Coleridge’s unruly materials. The Reading Text “is. . .necessary, given the complexity of some of the Variorum details.” The Reading Text, in other words, supplies a hypothetical platform from which one can survey and study both Coleridge’s materials and one’s own process of investigating those materials. In this view the Reading Text is a still point – though a relative still point – in the turning world of the unruly witnesses and their fellow-travelers. It is the editorial version of what Della Volpe called an interpretational quid.
It is very important to see Mays’s ambivalence on this crucial point. Consider this summary sentence: “The Reading Text is literally the edition, or one edition, for which the Variorum provides the materials” (cxliv). We want then to ask: well, which is it, “the” edition” or “one” possible edition? From everything he writes in his Introduction we can see that Mays wants us to regard the Reading Text as only “one” of the possible reading texts that could have been settled upon (see especially cxliv-cxlix). As he points out, in such a complex set of conflicting “pressures and considerations” generated by the materials themselves, “choices of text are debateable” because, ultimately, “The grounds of choice are subjective and provisional” (cxlvii, cxlviii). But while the provisional character of the choices is admitted, an editor must finally make choices that will come into print: “The alternative. . .is to refrain from editing. There is no other way” (cxlix).
Because Mays is a learned and sensitive scholar we are more than happy to take his “provisional” reading texts as our points of critical departure in these volumes. Mays does not want to hide any textual complexity from our consideration, so taken is he with the mazy motions of Coleridge’s mind, so committed to putting those motions on display. Nonetheless, he does not shrink from editing because, in his view, “The problem is more acute in theory than in practice. The text for each poem in all but a few cases selects itself” (cxlix). This self-selection follows from what Mays calls “The principle which has guided my choice” of Reading Text: “to give the version of the poem which reflects Coleridge’s concern, up to the time he lost interest (as he so often did)” (cxlvi). The principle is simply a version of the principle of “final intentions.” The reading texts select themselves because Mays’s methodology has been so carefully considered and executed. The “texts” are following their marching orders, as they should. Not that other local textual choices might not have been made for particular poems, or even that wholesale differences might not emerge if one were (for instance) to take “initial intentions” rather than “final intentions” as a basic guiding principle. In any case we would look for texts that seemed to select themselves.
Would computer technology be able to improve Mays’s editorial project in appreciable ways? For the project as such, I think the answer is no. Online accessibility is a publishing improvement and to that extent an educational improvement as well for any work of scholarship. But now imagine Mays’s six volumes transported into a browser environment. String searches would be possible, and with considerable effort one could prepare a digitally encoded version of the edition for different kinds of automated pattern analysis. All that would be clear gain. But then the downsides begin to declare themselves. We are not even close to developing browser interfaces to compare with the interfaces that have evolved in the past 500 years of print technology. A sophisticated, flexible, and stable system of graphical design and bibliographical codes stands ready to hand for a scholar wishing to build a critical machine for the complex analysis of textual works. If your object is to display “how the poems existed in Coleridge’s mind” – a mind you understand to be veering, unruly, and full of contradictions – these books blow away anything one might think to develop in our current and immediately foreseeable machine technology.
A good interface develops symbolic coding mechanisms that translate abstract relations into forms that a human being can optimally manipulate. In this respect, monitors – no matter how large or virtually dimensional – lack a key multitasking capacity possessed by books, which integrate visual and kinetic knowledge acquisition. When we escape the limits of the monitor that situation will change. But if Mays’s edition in electronic form seems an uninviting prospect, other digital projects have distinct attractions – for instance, a scholarly edition of Campion or Burns or Tom Moore. A bibliographical presentation of their work is crippled from the start, for obvious reasons. The greatness of Burns in particular has all but escaped academic attention because our critical interfaces have been wholly bibliographical.
To the degree that a computerized environment facilitates what digitists call “interactivity,” it necessarily brings a certain degree of tactile involvement. This will be far less complex and demanding than the kinetic environment summoned (and symbolically coded) in books. The difference explains itself when we recall a simple fact: that personal computers today function most powerfully as scholarly tools when we use them on our desks and in our libraries at home and elsewhere. In those places they get embraced by the more sophisticated, stable, and dispersed network of book technology. Remember how the explosion of the personal computer market took the business world by surprise? Had they a clearer grasp of their culture – the world engaged by Don McKenzie in Bibliography and the Sociology of Texts – this event would not have escaped their commercially-trained radar screens. Not without reason has the initial period of computerization focused on linking library resources and digitizing reference tools. These events register the depth and importance of our bibliographical inheritance. At some point books and their technology will cease to be our encompassing informational environment; they will get incorporated into the digital network of artifacts and information that is springing up around us like – what? Tares among the wheat? A New Instauration?
So far as humanists like ourselves are concerned, that is an event beyond good or evil. We have our hands full managing two imperative immediate tasks: deepening our understanding of book technology, and acquiring the skills needed to practice digital scholarship. The remarkably finished quality of Mays’s Coleridge edition makes it an especially rich resource for those related critical interests. To this point I’ve tried to describe as carefully as I can what the edition sets out to do and what it succeeds in doing. Now I want to ask what it doesn’t do. More specifically, what does not it edit?
One thing: it does not edit what McKenzie called “the social text”. I give two examples, a small one and a big one. First the small one.
In preparing the variorum text for poem no. 143, “To a Young Man of Fortune who Abandoned Himself to a Causeless and Indolent Melancholy,” Mays begins with a census of the documentary witnesses. These include three manuscripts (two holograph, one transcript copy in the hand of Mrs. Coleridge) plus eight printed texts (as well as a possible ninth, a variant of one of the eight). Of the transcript in Mrs. Coleridge’s hand Mays has little to say except this: “An untitled transcript in the hand of Mrs. C. . .has no textual significance (II (Part I). 430). For an edition aiming to expose “[Coleridge’s] mind working,” Mrs. Coleridge’s transcript needs no further comment, especially in the case of a relatively minor poem. And of course the transcript remains separated from the critical apparatus, which is geared to analyzing the linguistic “text” – its substantives and its most substantial accidentals. The example may stand for scores of others. It follows from the kind of edition Mays has undertaken.
Although in cases like “Christabel” the discursive treatment of the witnessing documents is much more robust, the apparatus remains textual, and it scarcely begins to capture the contextual and transmissional information supplied in the commentaries and associated notes. For “Christabel” we get 30 closely printed pages that elucidate the material witnesses simply as they are bibliographical objects. This is the data that alone, for McKenzie, gives significance to the linguistic text by shaping it in terms of its social textuality. “How the poems existed in Coleridge’s mind” is a dialectical not a positive function. It is in fact an idea that is in continual process of construction by Coleridge’s readers and those other persons who engage to pass along Coleridge’s texts. We study and reconstruct the documentary record not to know how the poems existed in Coleridge’s mind but to see how they were perceived to exist.
That Mays shares this view with McKenzie is proven by these splendid editorial commentaries and notes. In critical editions, this material is arranged to introduce and subserve the apparatus criticus, and so it does in Mays’s edition. But the commentary information is so replete and even excessive in relation to the needs of the apparatus that one registers a dysfunction between the two. The discrepancy is particularly urgent in Mays’s interesting discussion of untraced, recited, and memorized “Christabels” and the nexus of related persons and occasions, including the secondary witnesses by which these works are known
In the event, Mays’s apparatus comes to seem no more than his edition’s one publicly acknowledged analytic offspring. Other children, legitimate and bastard, wander all about. A curiously reversed dynamic thus pervades Mays’s edition: the Reading Texts become, as he himself observes, devices for illuminating and negotiating a heterogeneous body of poetic materials, and the apparatus emerges as no more than one cutaway view of the complexity of that field of discourse. A traditional apparatus is organized as a body of self-identical facts testifying to the truth of the Reading Text they generate. In Mays’s edition, however, as the commentaries and notes for works like “Christabel” demonstrate with special clarity, the apparatus seems but one helpful means of finding our way into a more mazy, amazing, semiotic world.
McKenzie wanted to develop more precise critical procedures for studying that kind of world. In his Panizzi lectures of 1985, Bibliography and the Sociology of Texts, he made his case for a “social text” editorial procedure. His critics – most notably Thomas Tanselle and T. Howard-Hill – remarked that while McKenzie’s ideas had a certain theoretical appeal, they could not be practically implemented. The ideas implicitly called for the critical editing of books and other material objects. But critical editing – as opposed to facsimile and diplomatic editing – was designed to investigate texts, which are linguistic forms, not books, which are social events.
This practical objection raised by Tanselle and Howard-Hill can no longer be sustained. It is premised in the understanding that facsimile editing and critical editing are distinct and incommensurable functions. The Rossetti Archive was undertaken to demonstrate that the incommensurability is paper-based and can be overcome in a properly designed digital network. The demonstration has been replicated at least twice at U. of Virginia’s Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities: in The William Blake Archive and, even more comprehensively, in the emerging Walt Whitman Archive. One can build editorial machines capable of generating on demand multiple textual formations – eclectic, facsimile, reading, genetic – that can all be subjected to multiple kinds of transformational analyses.
This means that the standard dialectical mechanism of a critical edition like Mays’s can be scaled up in a digital environment. One does not have to work from the pair of fixed platforms called (in Mays’s volumes) the Reading Text and the Variorum Text. “Given the complexity of the materials” some sort of hypothetical position, or platform, is needed for any analysis to be undertaken at all. The underlying logic of The Rossetti Archive was designed so that scholars using it could make choices about their platforms of critical attention, as well about the specific kinds of analyses they would choose to undertake.
A digital organization thus makes possible a significant departure from a paper-based apparatus. Mays’s edition follows the general model of lemmatized variants that all types of traditional editions use – including genetic editions, which do however develop some innovative graphical signing devices. Variant readings are culled for specific information from the apparatus’ analytic options. Because this information is formally structured in The Rossetti Archive (by inline markup), the analyses can be automated. But greater advantages follow from an automation process than analytic speed. The critical operations also acquire much greater flexibility. The scholar can define and specify the analyses, narrowing them to some particular question (e.g., which of the texts have uncorrected print material not in the chosen reference text as well as hand corrections to texts that are part of that reference text?); or expanding to questions that embrace documents outside the framework of, say, “The Blessed Damozel”’s specific documentary materials (questions about genre, provenance, the physical character of documents, and so forth). For some of these analyses a database model is preferable to inline markup, and standoff markup offers other useful options. However the analyses are formally structured, a digitized approach facilitates social text editing.
An even more interesting line of critical activity can be computationally accessed through user logs. This set of materials – the use records, or “hits,” automatically stored by the computer – has received little attention by scholars who develop digital tools in the humanities. Our neglect of this body of information reflects, I believe, an ingrained commitment to the idea of the positive “text” or material “document.” The depth of this commitment can be measured by reading McKenzie, whose social text editing proposals yet remain faithful to the idea of “the primacy of the physical object” as a self-identical thing.
Reflecting on digital technology in a late lecture, McKenzie saw that its simulation capacities were forcing him to rethink that “primary article of bibliographical faith.” He did not live to undertake an editorial project in digital form. Had he done so I believe he would have seen his social text approach strengthened by the new technical devices. All editors engage with a work in process. Even if only one textual witness were to survive – say that tomorrow a manuscript of a completely unrecorded play by Shakespeare were unearthed – that document would be a record of the process of its making and its transmission. Minimal as they might seem, its user logs have not been completely erased, and those logs are essential evidence for anyone interested in reading (or editing) the work. We are interested in documentary evidence precisely because it encodes, however cryptically at times, the evidence of the agents who were involved in making and transmitting the document. Scholars do not edit self-identical texts. They reconstruct a complex documentary record of textual makings and remakings, in which their own scholarly work directly participates.
A central purpose of The Rossetti Archive project was to prove the correctness of a social-text approach to editing – which is to say, to push traditional scholarly models of editing and textuality beyond the masoretic wall of the linguistic object we call “the text.” The proof of concept would be the making of the Archive. If our breach of the wall was minimal, as it was, its practical demonstration was significant. We were able to build a machine that organizes for complex study and analysis, for collation and critical comparison, the entire corpus of Rossetti’s documentary materials, textual as well as pictorial. Critical, which is to say computational, attention was kept simultaneously on the physical features and conditions of actual objects – specific documents and pictorial works – as well as on their formal and conceptual characteristics (genre, metrics, iconography). The Archive’s approach to Rossetti’s so-called double works is in this respect exemplary. Large and diverse bodies of material that comprise works like “The Blessed Damozel” get synthetically organized: 53 distinct printed texts, some with extensive manuscript additions; 2 manuscripts; 30 pictorial works. These physical objects orbit around the conceptual “thing” we name for convenience “The Blessed Damozel.” All the objects relate to that gravity field in different ways, and their differential relations metastasize when subsets of relations among themselves get exposed. At the same time, all of the objects function in an indefinite number of other kinds of relations: to other textual and pictorial works, to institutions of various kinds, to different persons, to varying occasions.
With the Archive one can draw these materials into computable synthetic relations at macro as well as micro levels. In the process the Archive discloses the hypothetical character of its materials and their component parts as well as the relationships one discerns among these things. Though completely physical and measurable (in different ways and scales), neither the objects nor their parts are self-identical, all can be reshaped and transformed in the environment of the Archive.
Don’t misunderstand me. Our successes, as I say, have been minimal and some of our greatest hopes for the Archive have not been realized. Nonetheless, the proof of concept was a crucial break with tradition, freeing us to imagine what as yet we don’t know: how to build much better and more sophisticated machines of this kind. Building the Archive, for instance, has brought me to realize a possibility for these kinds of instruments that stared us all in the face from the beginning, but that none of us thought to try to exploit. A critical edition can clearly be built in digital form that allows a dynamical tracking and analysis of that recent literary discovery, the “readerly text.” This clearly also means that the fundamentally dynamical character of the textual condition can be digitally realized: the dialectic of the field relations between the history of the text’s transmission and the history of its reception.
In a late lecture, “What’s Past is Prologue,” McKenzie speculated briefly on computerization and textual criticism. His remarks came in the context of two ways that scholars were using digital tools: on one hand for electronic storage of large corpora, on the other for the dynamic modeling of textual materials. McKenzie saw the latter as the more interesting prospect, even if it would “represent a radical departure” from his central “article of bibliographical faith”: “the primacy of the physical artifact (and the evidence it bears of its own making)” (259). (There is quintessential McKenzie: entertaining an idea that shook the ground beneath one of his cherished convictions.)
Had he become more involved with the making of electronic editions, I believe McKenzie would have realized that, far from departing radically from such primacies, digital tools return us to them in the ways he found most interesting. For “the physical artifact” and “the evidence it bears of its own making” are both social in the sense that such objects, in particular such bibliographical objects, have been made and remade many times in their socio-historical passages. No book is one thing, it is many things, fashioned and refashioned repeatedly under different circumstances. Its meaning, as Wittgenstein would say, is in its use. And because all its uses are always invested in real circumstances, the many meanings of any book are socially and physically coded in and by the books themselves. They bear the evidence of the meanings they have helped to make.
One advantage digitization has over paper-based instruments comes not only from the computer’s modeling powers, but from its greater capacity for simulating phenomena – in this case, bibliographical and socio-textual phenomena. Books are simulation machines as well, of course, with hardcoded machine languages (we call those typography and graphic design) and various softwares (modes of expression — expository, hortatory, imaginative — and genres). The hardware and software of book technology have evolved into a state of sophistication that dwarfs computerization as it currently stands. In time this discrepancy will change, we can be sure. McKenzie probably saw the computer as a modeling machine because of his attachment to “the primacy of the physical object.” Computers can be imagined to make models of such primary, self-identical, objects. But suppose, in our real-life engagements with those physical objects, we experience them as social objects, as functions of measurements that their users and makers have chosen for certain particular purposes. In such a case you will not want to build a model of one made thing, you will try to design a system that can simulate all the realized and realizable documentary possibilities – the possibilities that are known and recorded as well as those that have yet to be (re)constructed.
McKenzie’s central idea, that bibliographical objects are social objects, begs to be realized in digital terms and tools. The Rossetti Archive proves that it can be done.
But The Rossetti Archive as presently constituted at the level of interface has scarcely moved beyond the proof-of-concept stage. Despite the flexibility of its logical design, The Rossetti Archive largely appears as a website of accessible resources. Indeed, to this very moment most people – even scholars who use digital technology – think that building websites is the paradigm for digital scholarship in the humanities. Making hard–to-access documentary materials available and searchable is clearly a useful thing, but it is only the opening move in the comprehensive transformation of humanities research resources that we already see taking place. Scholars using The Rossetti Archive ought to be given not a website of resources but an apparatus of tools that facilitate critical reorganizations and reconceptions of the underlying data.
Right now the tools provided by the Archive have been largely built out of models drawn from the technologies of the book. Given what we know about the people who designed and built the Archive, that is hardly surprising. But having done what we have done, we now can see what we didn’t do and what we might and should do with our digital resources. In the coming years, then, as the Archive completes its final two installments, we will also be designing a set of interface tools that should be as critically flexible as the Archive’s underlying hypermedia and markup tools.
More important, the coming years will also see the growing development of projects like NINES (Networked Infrastructure for Nineteenth-century Electronic Scholarship: http://www.nines.org), where peer-reviewed online scholarly communication is regularly carried out. And as projects of these kinds develop, we will see as well the emergence of born-digital software that does far more than store and make accessible large corpora of primary and secondary materials. We will see the emergence of software like IVANHOE (http://www.patacriticism.org/ivanhoe/), Juxta (http://www.patacriticism.org/juxta/), and Collex (http://www.nines.org/tools/collex.html), digital machines that support and enhance the traditional critical, interpretive, and pedagogical work that are central to the mission of the humanities and literary educator.
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