Ben Card on The Philosophy of Material Texts - Part Two

The Philosophy of Material Texts - Part Two

Ben Card (Graduate student in English, Yale)

This blog series tackles philosophical questions about the status of books, works, and texts asked by contemporary critics, taking as its central case study the early modern Hamlet. Bringing in as well late medieval scholastics such as John Duns Scotus, Walter Burley, and William of Ockham, this series uses 14th-century metaphysical controversies to illuminate debates about the nature of the text that have persisted throughout literary history.


Reformulating a distinction made by F. W. Bateson in 1972, James McLaverty twelve years later asked a stimulating question about works of art: “if the Mona Lisa is in the Louvre, where are Hamlet and Lycidas?” (1) In this blog post, I will consider the commonsensical answer, suggested by textual pragmatists such as Jerome McGann, that Hamlet, wherever it is, is ‘in’ the physical Hamlets that we have on hand—and in the evidence of the social networks that produced them.

We have defined textual pragmatism as the position that the particular artifact is all there is. What the work is for the pragmatist is identical with its specific instances, and all of these are material. Thus for David Scott Kastan “literature exists, in any useful sense, only and always in its materializations”; it is “[o]nly as texts are realized materially that they are accessible” (2). So while the singular Mona Lisa lies reliably locked up in Paris, we have a few places to find Hamlet: as a start, the many libraries that contain copies of the three competing original witnesses of the play, Q1 (1603), Q2 (1604-5), and F (1623). Of the least common of these variants, the 1603 Q1, in fact only two copies survive, one at the Huntington Library and the other in the British Library, and both of them imperfect (3).
But textual pragmatism would not restrict scholarship to the close study of old books. Its emphasis on materiality in fact broadens the field of critical inquiry beyond books by bringing into the fold the processes of textual production. For early modern works, these are the economies, practices, and social networks of spaces such as the printing house, the bookshop, and the theater, and the result is a theory of literature at once material and social. So McGann holds that “[l]iterary works do not know themselves, and cannot be known, apart from their specific material modes of existence/resistance” (4). At the same time, “every text… is a social text” (5).
This bibliographic focus on particular texts—the philosophy behind Arden 3’s three-version, two-volume Hamlet editions in 2006—sits neatly with the nominalism of William of Ockham (c. 1287-1347), for whom the best way to resolve the problem of the universal and the particular was to dispense with any thick notion of the universal. Forcefully articulating his preference for the particular, Ockham declares, “No universal… is anything existing in any way outside the soul. Rather everything that is a universal… is in the mind, either subjectively or objectively. No universal belongs to the essence or quiddity of any substance” (6). Ockham is thinking about common natures such as humanity, not artifacts such as plays, but his nominalism—according to which universals exist only conceptually and in everyday language, not out there in the world—can nonetheless be brought to bear on McLaverty’s question.
An Ockhamist view of bibliography would look a lot like the view of a textual pragmatist. For both, Hamlet exists only in its particular versions. No universal or abstract Hamlet energizes existing Hamlets with its features, and it is not in light of a real universal Hamlet that we recognize particular Hamlets for what they are. Insofar as we think we have an impression of an ideal Hamlet in our heads, then that ideal Hamlet is only in our heads, and derived in the first place from our encounters with particular Hamlets.
Textual pragmatists are especially skeptical of any theory of an ideal text that would place that abstract original work in the mind of the author. Reflecting on his New Critical training, Stephen Greenblatt recalls “textual analyses” that “had as their goal the identification and celebration of a numinous literary authority” located either “in the mysterious genius of the artist or in the mysterious perfection of a text” (7).
One of the most striking features of textual pragmatism is its rejection of “the mysterious genius of the artist” alongside “the mysterious perfection of the text.” Textual pragmatism replaces the singular author with a network of agents who produce the work at hand together in a collision of competing incentives and intentions, at the same time as textual pragmatism replaces what it considers a fantasy of the perfect text with something altogether messier. (And here the two Q1 Hamlets come back to mind, the one without its title page, and the other missing its final page of play-text.)
This blog series will continue to think about Hamlet. But having sketched the contours of the philosophy of textual pragmatism, this series will next take up a set of challenges to the pragmatist view, before turning to the position of textual idealism that the pragmatists, along with Ockham, energetically dispute.
(1) James McLaverty, “The Mode of Existence of Literary Works of Art: The Case of the ‘Dunciad Variorum,’” in Studies in Bibliography, vol. 37 (1984), p. 82; McLaverty adapts Bateson’s distinction from his essay “The Philistinism of ‘Research’ ” in Essays in Critical Dissent (London: Longmam, 1972). 
(2) David Scott Kastan, Shakespeare and the Book (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), p. 4.
(3) See Zachary Lesser, “Hamlet” After Q1: An Uncanny History of the Shakespearean Text (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016), especially pp. 1-23.
(4) Jerome McGann, The Textual Condition (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1991), p. 11.
(5) Ibid., p. 21.
(6) William of Ockham, Ordinatio, d. 2, q. 8, §93 in Five Texts on the Mediaeval Problem of Universals, trans. and ed. Paul Vincent Spade (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1994), pp. 230-31; emphasis mine.
(7) Stephen Greenblatt, Shakespearean Negotiations: The Circulation of Social Energy in Renaissance England (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988), p. 3.