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Jerome McGann - A New Republic of Letters: Memory and Scholarship in the Age of Digital Reproduction. Review by Brian Rejack.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015 - 05:00

Jerome McGann. A New Republic of Letters: Memory and Scholarship in the Age of Digital Reproduction (Harvard University Press, Cambridge: 2014). 256 pp. (Hdbk., $39.95; ISBN 9780674728691).

Brian Rejack
Illinois State University

Perhaps unsurprisingly, on display in Jerome McGann’s A New Republic of Letters are several of the scholarly preoccupations central to his work over the last three decades or so of his illustrious career (among them: literature and history of the nineteenth century, digital humanities, textual studies, scholarly editing). That said, this book by no means feels stale. Quite the opposite—there is a sense of urgency and novelty accompanying assertions that one may recognize from earlier works like The Textual Condition (1991) or Radiant Textuality (2001). The territory might be familiar, but the trail through it is freshly blazed and entirely necessary. McGann’s primary argument is that we need to rethink our scholarly methods in light of the large-scale digital reproduction occurring in the current century if we have any desire to maintain scholarship’s role in curating cultural memory. As McGann recognized through his early work on digital humanities projects like IVANHOE and The Rossetti Archive, when we reimagine our bibliographic heritage through the use of digital machines, we see the textual condition through new doors of perception. But those doors are not necessarily cleansed, particularly when the digital machines that attempt to store and reproduce bibliographic materials are designed by technicians with no expertise or interest in the theories of textuality, editing, and criticism that such work requires, and furthermore, when those projects are backed not by public institutions of learning, but instead commercial interests with only (at best) a secondary interest in effective stewardship of cultural memory. All of this is to say, when humanists have no say in how Google Books, for instance, approaches the task of digitization, and when the traditional institutional forms that support scholarly endeavor fail to adjust to new conditions of cultural reproduction, things look rather bleak for the future of scholarship’s relation to cultural transmission and memory.

McGann’s book, however, strikes a less dire tone than my opening paragraph. There is a sense of optimism in his answer to the particular brand of the “crisis in the humanities” to which he responds. Philology—what may seem a drowsy, frowzy solution to the problem (or as McGann himself acknowledges, via Edward Said, a decidedly unsexy one)—turns out to be pleasantly exciting as a possible future for humanities scholarship. The book opens by sketching the current situation of humanities work in light of “a truth now universally acknowledged: that the whole of our cultural inheritance has to be recurated and reedited in digital forms and institutional structures” (1). In arguing why textual scholarship matters, McGann traces the history of philology to its nineteenth-century roots. Because “to the philologian, all possible meanings are a function of their historical emergence as material artifacts,” in its original form, philology attends equally to the “Lower Criticism” of analyzing a text’s material forms and the “Higher Criticism” of analyzing a text’s sociohistorical meanings (19). In this history, only with the developments of twentieth-century literary studies does hermeneutics take precedence over the initial work of material, documentary analysis. From McGann’s perspective, then, the various “turns” of twentieth-century literary studies (the linguistic turn, the cultural turn, the turn to theory) tended to turn away from traditional philology. It’s with the onset of widespread digital reproduction of cultural memory that, according to McGann, we now need a return to texts in their material fields of production, reception, and retransmission.

The book’s three parts delineate what such a return would require. First is the historical context of how we arrived at scholarship’s current status. The introduction and the first three chapters attend to that history, with a focus on what is currently happening with the digital reproduction of cultural memory, what role scholarship has played as we’ve moved from traditional philology to a primary focus on hermeneutics, and how we’ll move forward. The second section goes into further detail on that “how.” McGann begins with a focus on documents and—with a refrain from D. F. McKenzie which McGann articulates throughout the book—how documents “bear within themselves the evidence of their own making” (84). He continues in this section by exploring how texts are marked in multiple dimensions (later, “dementians”), particularly as we translate texts into digital environments. And the section concludes with reflection on McGann’s own work with editing digital texts (primarily The Rossetti Archive) and a sustained analysis of the critical editing undertaken by J. C. C. Mays’ collected edition of Coleridge. The point here is not to pit digital editions against traditional bibliographic forms. Rather, McGann asserts that both examples demonstrate that “no text, no book, no social event is self-identical,” and furthermore that “the record of textual makings and remakings” is always a social process (123). In the book’s last section, McGann reflects further on the social structure in which our “textual makings and remakings” are currently occurring, and then offers us two case studies of what criticism in the new republic of letters might look like. The first task requires analysis of the institutional factors that have affected and continue to affect how scholarship functions in the era of digital reproduction. Unfortunately, universities and other crucial institutions supportive of scholarship have tended to respond (if at all) ineffectively to these new conditions. Digital work tends to exist outside of the traditional structures of academic work, which renders such labor even more precarious than the work of the ever-dwindling professorate by those traditional structures. McGann insists that the kind of work his book calls for will not happen solely through the heroic work of individuals—scholarly institutions must change in order to meet the needs of scholars. As McGann puts it, “what scholars want” is for “our cultural record to be comprehensive, stable, and accessible […] We want […] the knowledge of what we know and have been knowing for millennia” (131-2). Such desires can only be met through collective social action.

Finally, in the book’s last two chapters we are treated to two “Philological Investigations,” the first focused on Edgar Allan Poe and the second on James Fenimore Cooper’s The Pioneers (1823). McGann’s readings, as one might expect, are meticulous, provocative, and persuasive (the Cooper chapter is particularly impressive—McGann’s analysis of the social fields in and around that text emerges entirely from a sustained close reading of the first American edition’s title page). If read alone, these two chapters might not strike readers as all that revolutionary in their methods or their conclusions, but in the context of McGann’s larger argument throughout the book, they demonstrate how crucial will be attention to the material specificity of textual objects (their “minute particulars,” as McGann phrases it several times, via William Blake), particularly as such philological methods inform arguments about particular texts (always social texts, always multiply marked texts). This is a book that inhabits simultaneously two temporalities—the nineteenth and the twenty-first centuries—and as such, it should be of great interest to scholars working on and in both, and also to any scholar working in the latter (that’s all of us, let’s hope). Certainly this book will help us to understand precisely what it means to do scholarship now, and what we need to do so that scholarship will continue into the future.