the myth of print culture

Dane, Joseph A. The Myth of Print Culture: Essays on Evidence, Textuality, and Bibliographical Method. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2003.

Thanks to Ian for the recommendation. A lengthy blockquote is below the fold.

This study deals with the opposition between evidence and discourse in literary and bibliographical studies. The most basic variant of this opposition, one that I will deal with repeatedly in the chapters below, is that between physical materials and those abstractions that we refer to under the name ëtext.í The first of these levels, the material, is generally regarded as the proper focus of bibliography (the book, the materials of a book, the particular historical acts of readings of particular books). What we must in desperation call the ëthingsí on this level are singularities, and at every moment these singularities challenge the notions of identity, sameness, or fixity. The book I hold is not the book you hold, and when I hold that book tomorrow, the historical conditions under which I hold it will have changed. To speak of identity here may be necessary, but on this level, there can be no absolute manifestation of such identity and no strictly proper use of such a term.

The second level is textual (the text, the edition, the reading common to many books). And the things on this level are marked by what I call their reproducibility. The book I read today is the same one I will ask you to read tomorrow. The author is the same. The culture in which we read them is the same. Much as I will dispute statements on this level throughout this study, I should state here that without such statements, no scholarly discussion or communication of any kind is possible

This opposition is central to all literary discussion that claims to have a basis in the material facts of book production and distribution. Such claims have become increasingly frequent in literary studies, and their frequency is due to a number of factors:

  • the anecdotal style of New Historicism,
  • the ease of travel to Rare Book libraries,
  • the distribution of materials through electronic media,
  • or even the growing ease with which scholarly studies can be illustrated in journals.

However, as those claims become frequent, they also become more problematic, and the desire to found literary criticism and historical research on materials has, I believe, also worked to expose and question the assumptions of that criticism.

How do we move from the level of the singular book (or even the book fragment) to discussions of that ominously capitalized Book in general? I will be arguing below that the gap between material and textual levels in bibliographical discussion is one that can never be closed, and it is one that scholarship, in its own advance, discovers new and more mystifying ways to obscure.î (3-4)

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2 thoughts on “the myth of print culture

  1. Recently I helped prepare an edition of an Austen novel; we found thirty-eight differences between two different copies of the last volume of the ‘same’ first edition.

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