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A New Republic of Letters

A New Republic of Letters

Jerome McGann
Copyright Date: 2014
Published by: Harvard University Press
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  • Book Info
    A New Republic of Letters
    Book Description:

    Jerome McGann's manifesto argues that the history of texts and how they are preserved and accessed for interpretation are the overriding subjects of humanist study in the digital age. Theory and philosophy no longer suffice as an intellectual framework. But philology--out of fashion for decades--models these concerns with surprising fidelity.

    eISBN: 978-0-674-36924-5
    Subjects: Philosophy, Language & Literature, Education

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Abbreviations
    (pp. xi-xiv)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. 1-16)

    Here is surely a truth now universally acknowledged: that the whole of our cultural inheritance has to be recurated and reedited in digital forms and institutional structures. But as the technology of cultural memory shifts from bibliographical to digital machines, a difficult question arises: what do we do with the books? This is a problem for society at large and many people are working at it, none more assiduously than certain expert persons, often technicians. Highly skilled and motivated as they are, book history and the complex machineries of books fall outside their professional expertise. Humanist scholars, the long-recognized monitors...


    • 1 Why Textual Scholarship Matters
      (pp. 19-31)

      Why does textual scholarship matter? Most students of literature and culture who worked in the twentieth century would have thought that a highly specialized question, and many still do. But a hundred years ago the question would hardly have been posed at all. Until the early decades of the twentieth century what we now call literary and cultural studies was called philology, and all its interpretive procedures were clearly understood to be grounded in textual scholarship. But twentieth-century textual studies shifted their center from philology to hermeneutics, that subset of philological inquiry focused on the specifically literary interpretation of culture....

    • 2 “The Inorganic Organization of Memory”
      (pp. 32-48)

      Let’s try to imagine philology as the ground of literary and cultural studies. Philology, not philosophy, because philology’s horizon is not a history of ideas but an institutional and programmatic history. And not philology as Wilamowitz presented it to Nietz sche, or as post-Nietzscheans expelled it from humane studies, but Philology in a New Key—a new arrangement of that canonical discipline so neglected after the nineteenth century.¹ Those huddled, dryasdust positivists are yearning to be free.

      An imaginative recovery of philological method means revisiting some salient moments in our recent institutional history. I begin by telling two stories. One...

    • 3 Memory: History, Philosophy, Philology
      (pp. 49-74)

      Just about a hundred years before Lyotard and the Paris VIII philosophy department tried to reform both the theory and practice of humanities education and knowledge research, a famous controversy broke out in Germany around the same issues. The publication of Nietzsche’sThe Birth of Tragedy(1872) provoked Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff to a sharp attack—at once witty, trenchant, and ad hominem. Nearly everyone agrees that Wilamowitz largely swept the field. In a confident if nasty peroration, he called for Nietzsche’s resignation as professor of philology at the University of Basel. Six years later Nietzsche did just that, shaking dryasdust...


    • 4 The Documented World
      (pp. 77-89)

      Inthe need for roots, Simone Weil criticizes historical thinking and its search for documentary foundations. “There are holes in documents,” Weil points out, so that when we read them we want to ensure that “unfounded hypotheses be present to the mind.” Reading documents requires “reading between the lines, to transport oneself fully, with complete self-forgetfulness, into the events evoked there…. The so-called historical mind does not pass through the paper to flesh and blood; it consists of a subordination of thought to the document.”¹

      Weil always saw reading as a spiritual emergency. Readings which “pass through the paper to...

    • 5 Marking Texts in Many Dimensions
      (pp. 90-112)

      Although “text” has been a “Keyword” in clerical and even popular discourse for well over fifty years, it did not find a place in Raymond Williams’s important bookKeywords(1976). This strange omission may perhaps be explained by the word’s cultural ubiquity and power. In that lexicon of modernity Williams called the “Vocabulary of Culture and Society,” “text” has been the “one word to rule them all.” Indeed, the word “text” became so shape-shifting and meaning-malleable that we should probably label it with Tolkien’s full rubrication: “text” has been, and still is, the “one word to rule them all and...

    • 6 Digital Tools and the Emergence of the Social Text
      (pp. 113-124)

      Like another important edition of our time, Hans Gabler’sUlysses, J. C. C. Mays’s edition on Coleridge—three volumes, each in two parts—set an inspiring example of scholarly thoroughness and integrity.¹ But the real strength of the work rests ultimately in something else—something quite rare in the scholarly editions of English-speaking authors produced in the last fifty 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...


    • 7 What Do Scholars Want?
      (pp. 127-146)

      “Sustainability” is a dark but potent word in the field of digital humanities. It signals a broad set of concerns—both technical and institutional—about how to maintain and augment the increasingly large body of digital information that humanists are both creating and using. It is a word with far more than a contemporary pertinence, however. It could (it should) remind us that the traditional problems of philology have scarcely changed at all, and certainly have not gone away.

      But the problems of the philologue and the digeratus dolookdifferent, so let’s consider the problem of sustainability in its...

    • 8 Philological Investigations I: The Example of Poe
      (pp. 147-167)

      An acute sense of what Marjorie Perloff called “the poetics of indeterminacy” has marked criticism and scholarship for at least thirty years.¹ Synthetic narratives—historicist, dialectical, psychoanalytic—have seen their truth values turn imaginary, becoming what William Blake inThe Marriage of Heaven and Hellcalled “poetic tales”: arbitrary constructions, “fictions of lineage,” and order.² With the space of knowledge grown so radically volatile and complex, even “contested,” the teacher’s watchword became “teach the conflicts,” the scholar’s, “explore the contradictions.” So David Reynolds dives “beneath the American Renaissance” to expose the fault lines of F. O. Matthiessen’s famous normative narrative,...

    • 9 Philological Investigations II: A Page from Cooper
      (pp. 168-198)

      When Armitage, the Wanderer in Wordsworth’sExcursion, tells “The Story of Margaret,” he takes the scene of a ruined rural cottage for his text.

      I see around me here

      Things which you cannot see: we die, my Friend,

      Nor we alone, but that which each man loved

      And prized in his peculiar nook of earth

      Dies with him, or is changed; and very soon

      Even of the good is no memorial left.

      (The Excursion, Book I, 469–474)

      The tale recalls a dark passage from the inscrutable Book of God. Because Armitage has read the passage before, he is well...

  9. Conclusion: Pseudodoxia Academica; or, Literary Studies in a Global Age
    (pp. 199-208)

    Since all the cultural materials discussed in this book are resolutely Occidental, I should perhaps say something about how I’ve tried to engage with the global issues facing anyone interested in these things. For my argument holds that digital technology has realized the idea of a new Library of Alexandria. That institution’s dark reciprocal, however, is the global character of the threat to memory, epitomized in the crisis of our languages. Linguists expect that by the end of this century some half of the 7,000 currently recognized languages will be extinct. In a narrow Western view, those losses occur at...

  10. Notes
    (pp. 209-230)
  11. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 231-232)
  12. Index
    (pp. 233-238)