Theory of Texts

Jerome McGann

  • Bibliography and the Sociology of Texts: The Panizzi Lectures 1985 by D.F. McKenzie
    British Library, 80 pp, £10.00, December 1986, ISBN 0 7123 0085 6

A quiet yet profound change has been taking place in literary studies during the past ten years or so. Initially it was obscured by the successes and celebrities of Deconstruction, where idealist hermeneutics – this century’s dominant textual and interpretative program – led its own tradition into a theoretical impasse. The more recently touted ‘return to history’ has also obscured the nature of this change – obscured it because the so-called new historicism (I give the name un-capitalised) comprises a variety of historicisms, some new and some not, some idealist and some otherwise.

The return to history is one signal, or perhaps one aspect, of something more fundamental, something which D.F. McKenzie’s three lectures on bibliography and the sociology of texts call more clearly to our attention. In a series of initial, critical remarks on theory of bibliography, McKenzie suggests that ‘historical bibliography’ should now probably be placed at the centre of the study of texts. This idea, which lies at the core of his lectures, seems innocent enough. In fact, its implications are far-reaching.

The most immediate object of McKenzie’s critique is that line of positivism which has underwritten most work in bibliography and textual criticism (properly so-called) during this century. McKenzie has Fredson Bowers particularly in mind here, whose position – that ‘historical bibliography is not, properly speaking, bibliography at all’ – McKenzie stands opposed to. In the course of McKenzie’s critique, however, he glances at the larger issues involved in this apparently lil-liputian struggle of the professors: ‘I am not bold enough to speak of paradigm shifts, but I think I am safe in saying that the vital interests of most of those known to me as bibliographers are no longer fully served by description, or even by editing, but by the historical study of the making and the use of books and other documents.’ McKenzie spends a fair amount of time in his lectures on the problems which have arisen in our age as a result of the media explosion. Film, television, magnetic tape and computers are only the most prominent forms of the many new types of information storage and transferral that have been invented or developed in this century. One part of his argument is that the traditional tools and frames of reference developed in bibliography will play an important role in the definition as well as the management of the archives created through these media.

More philosophical considerations arise in such a context, however. Keenly aware of the interpretative power which is embodied in these media themselves (‘the medium is the message’), McKenzie is brought to reflect upon how blind traditional bibliography has been to the analogous character of the book. In a series of trenchant illustrations, he unfolds a profound truth about ‘the book’ itself – and thence about every kind of possible text: that it is meaning-constitutive not simply in its ‘contained’ or delivered message, but in every dimension of its material existence.

This point of view entails the collapse of the pragmatistic rapprochement which has traditionally governed the theory of texts. According to that theory, the study of texts is to be structured along those two separate (but not quite equal) lines we call ‘interpretation’, on the one hand (the upper house, as it were), and ‘bibliography’, on the other (the lower house). McKenzie correctly sees this split to have been epitomised in the mid-20th century by the division of the literary kingdom between the New Criticism and the New Bibliography, those first-generation Anglo-American versions of hermeneutical idealism and textual positivism. Each appears here in a representative figure: the bibliographer Fredson Bowers and the interpreter William K. Wimsatt. McKenzie singles them out for tactical purposes – that is to say, in order to place each of them at the centre of his double-focused critique of the traditional theory of texts.

‘There is nothing outside of the text.’ That well-known Derridean aphorism has licensed every type of text-centred hermeneutics from the New Criticism to Deconstruction. The statement might have been made by McKenzie as well, for he too observes a human world which is thoroughly textualised. But because Derrida’s thought comes out of the modern hermeneutical tradition, and particularly out of Heidegger, his use of these words does not correspond at all to what McKenzie would have meant. For McKenzie, all texts are objective and materialised.

So if we were to imagine McKenzie saying today that ‘there is nothing ouside of the text,’ the statement – coming, as it would be, in a Derridean context – would not merely involve a different ‘meaning’ as regards the status of texts: it would carry as well a critique of Derrida.

What is it that generates differences of meaning when two statements are linguistically identical? Borges played with that question most famously in his witty story ‘Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote.’ Common answers would be ‘context’, or ‘the use to which the words are being put’. Derrida says that these differences of meaning are built into the text’s inherent structure of deferrals.

The importance of McKenzie’s work is that it is operating out of a theory of texts which has supervened – which has synthesised – the traditional and the Derridean answers. This new theory of the text involves the deployment of a Derridean process of reading in a field which has exploded beyond the bounds of Derrida’s founding metaphoric frame: that is to say, beyond the bounds of the metaphor of language as that metaphor was delivered over to, and received by, later theorists from its Saussurean fons.

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[*] See Michael Warren and Gary Taylor’s collection of essays by various hands, The Divisions of the Kingdom (Oxford, 1983), for a convenient gathering of relevant essays on the seminal problem of the ‘two texts’ of King Lear.

[†] I have this example from a conversation with Professor Terence Hoagwood.