Author’s Roundtable: Thomas A. Bredehoft, “The Visible Text: Textual Production and Reproduction from Beowulf to Maus”
Response by Bonnie Mak

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

posted under , , by Unit for Criticism
[On October 28, 2013 Unit for Criticism and Interpretative Theory held an Author's Roundtable hosting Thomas A. Bredehoft to discuss his new book, The Visible Text: Textual Production and Reproduction from Beowulf to Maus. The response from Bonnie Mak (Library & Information Science and Medieval Studies) is below.]

"The Posture of the Copy"

Written by Bonnie Mak (Library & Information Science and Medieval Studies)

I am pleased to have been invited to respond to Thomas Bredehoft’s presentation, because it offers an opportunity to think about the nature of textual transmission across a range of time periods, platforms, and genres, and to consider the question of reproduction, which has re-emerged in the last decade, owing in part to our new-found ability to make, share, and use digital representations of historical objects and texts with relative ease.

As Dr. Bredehoft points out, the Middle Ages offers us an alternative understanding of the transmission of text, one that operates outside the stemmatic ideologies of the last century. In this alternative model, the active excerpting and re-mixing of authoritative works is encouraged, and is more significantly the way in which one could demonstrate virtuosity. This creative mode of textual transmission – in which commonly-held knowledge is re-crafted and re-purposed – suggests that text itself is not necessarily a thing to be reproduced, but is instead a call to action; a site of production; a place of aesthetic experience.

And a re-made text, in turn, might be valued for its ability to inspire, stimulate, expose, remind, and immortalize. Thus, each iteration of a text functions in its own way, and engenders its own performance. Although a text might recall or refer to pre-existing work, it communicates uniquely through its own particular configuration.

And when I say its own configuration, I do not simply mean a specific order of words and phrases; I also mean their material manifestation on the page. Indeed, written text, in its transmission of words, has a visual, visible expression that can also be read and interpreted, as Dr. Bredehoft observes. Medievalists, of course, are attuned to the graphic disposition of text from palaeographical study, in which the specific style of handwriting or layout of the page can help to isolate the provenance of a manuscript, or make claims about writing and reading communities.* Similarly, book artist Johanna Drucker draws our attention to the aesthetic expression of the printed word.** Experimental typography and artists’ books – and indeed comics – celebrate letterform-as-image, and play with the communicative abilities of visual composition.

If such overtly designed spaces are sites in which writing is image, we might consider how their more mundane counterparts are also sites in which writing is image, these latter examples choosing instead to avoid drawing attention to the shapes of their letterforms. The apparent lack of designerliness could then be re-read as a particular aesthetic that exploits the visual expression of the page in a different way. Namely, this aesthetic seeks to erase its own mediating presence, and might be analyzed as a careful rhetorical move that positions text as copy. Such texts are presented with an interface that seduces the reader into imagining that there is an exemplar, close by, but always just out of reach.

The online textual transcription in Courier typeface screams, “Don’t look at me! Look through me!” and pretends not to be an iteration to be examined on its own terms. So, too, does the printed or digital facsimile that conceals itself in the self-conscious embodiment of something else. Such examples, I think, also participate in the deliberate re-crafting of text, which may include a strategic deployment of paratext. They are products that don the visual expression of the copy to generate an effect. Their rhetoric is one of reproduction, cajoling readers into abdicating the responsibility to think critically about sources.

From the fair copy made with an author’s idiosyncratic hand, to the true copy that transmits a clerk’s purposeful and efficient pen-stroke; from the printed diplomatic transcription to the digital facsimile, across different genres, platforms, and technologies, we might consider how “the copy” could be a pose, a posture of a text that is always, in each manifestation, original.

For instance, M.B. Parkes, “The Influence of the Concepts of Ordinatio and Compilatio on the Development of the Book,” in Scribes, Scripts and Readers: Studies in the Communication, Presentation and Dissemination of Medieval Texts; and Christopher de Hamel, Glossed Books of the Bible and the Origins of the Paris Booktrade.

** Among others, Johanna Drucker, “Entity to Event: From Literal, Mechanistic Materiality to Probabilistic Materiality,”, and Figuring the Word: Essays on Books, Writing, and Visual Poetics.


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